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The use of women canon lawyers

In March 2015 the Executive Board of the International Union of Superiors’ General (uisg) launched an important new initiative to support leaders of congregations of female religious worldwide. This was made possible by a generous grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation which wanted to support the uisg in its efforts to serve the leaders of women’s religious life globally. The new initiative was called the Canon Law Council (clc) and its members were women religious canonists from different geographical regions: Sr Mary Wright, ibvm, Australia; Sr Marjory Gallagher, sc, Canada – sadly recently deceased; Sr Mary Gerard Nwagwu dmmm, Nigeria, Sr Licia Puthuparambil, smi, India, and Sr Tiziana Merletti sfp, Italy. Together they had extensive canonical experience. Between them they have served the Universal Church, numerous dioceses, ecclesiastical works, seminaries and congregations of women as lecturers, consultants, advisors, workshop leaders and conference presenters.

Mario Sironi, “Justice” (detail, 1935-1936)

Why then was the Canon Law Council established by the uisg? There were a number of reasons for this development. Firstly the two international unions of male and female religious (usg and uisg) have a number of joint commissions – Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation, Interreligious Dialogue, Education and Health. However it was noted that the Canon Law Commission had no female presence as the members of these Commissions are generally members of congregations serving on General Councils in Rome. At that time there was no sister canonist serving as a member of a General Council. Therefore it was felt that another approach was needed to bring women religious canonists together. This would have the benefit of identifying women religious canonists who could advise Superiors General and other Major Superiors on matters which arise in the context of religious life as experienced in women’s congregations.

The Executive Board of uisg reflected on the following questions: “Where are the sisters who are already qualified in canon law?”; “What ministries are they currently engaged in?” and “How many are serving female congregations?” It seemed opportune to identify these sisters so that their expertise could be made more widely known and they could begin to serve religious life in their various countries. In many parts of the world, sisters who have acquired degrees at Masters and Doctoral levels in theology, Scripture and Canon Law, become largely invisible on their return to their congregation unless they become members of staff at Catholic universities or seminaries, or take up positions in diocesan offices. These sisters make a wonderful contribution within their respective congregations but are often largely unknown to others.

Antonio Canova, “Allegory of Justice” (1792)

In addition in many contexts when Superiors General of female congregations seek canonical advice, the local canon lawyer is a diocesan priest who has little or no experience of women’s religious life. Therefore it was felt that well-trained women religious could best serve female religious life as canonical advisors. This has already happened in some parts of the world and the uisg Executive Board wanted to build on this successful experience. Finally in several parts of the world there are still no sisters qualified in canon law and therefore the Board of uisg identified this as an area to be promoted through scholarships and bursaries. Especially in areas where religious life is growing rapidly, the support of timely and appropriate canonical advice is essential if congregations are to build strong foundations for their future religious life and mission. The ghr Foundation was prepared to work with the uisg and local Conferences of Religious to make Canon Law scholarships available to sisters in Africa.

Since March 2015 there has been much progress to report. Firstly, a workshop was held at Nemi in December 2015. This meeting was unique in so far as it brought together for the first time 40 women religious canonists from five continents to exchange ideas on the challenges encountered by women religious and to offer responses from a canonical perspective. This meeting launched the worldwide network of canonists which aims to strengthen bonds of communion and solidarity. Additional work shops have been held in Kerala, India (March 2016); for Superiors General in Rome (May 2016) and for Major Superiors (November 2016). Superiors General in Rome have availed themselves of opportunities for consulting sister canonists several times each year. Future workshops and seminars are planned for Nairobi, Kenya, Yaoundé, Cameroon and in Kerala, India. Currently there are 12 sisters from Eastern Africa studying canon law at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (cuea) – five of whom are financed through the uisg/ghr sponsorship programme.

Patricia Murray




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 20, 2019