Kiwi Jesuit now trained in canon law

9 Justin Glyn

New Zealander and Jesuit Fr Justin Glyn recently completed a JCL (Licence in Canon Law) at St Paul University in Ottawa, Canada.
Normally a three-year course, Fr Glyn completed his studies in an intensive two-year programme, which included coursework, a thesis and an hour-long exam before two panels of examiners.

Before he joined the Jesuits, Justin was a civil lawyer in South Africa and New Zealand. Now that he is trained in canon law as well, he was posed a few questions about what he’s learned about the two fields.

What was something unexpected you learned about canon law during your studies?

I suppose, paradoxically, the fact that it is not really “law” at all in the way we might usually think about it. Yes, it draws on a Roman law tradition and uses legal terms, procedures and ways of thinking and, as result, someone like me who is legally trained took to it very quickly.

In the broader sweep of things, though, it must be remembered that the Church itself (not to be confused with the Vatican City, which has its own law) is not a state, with a police force, land titles office or other things which go with a state legal system.

Instead, canon law is much more like “administrative theology”. It is about trying to find practical ways in the life of the Church to give effect to all those things which we believe about God’s love, the sacraments and the Church. In that sense it is the place where the theological rubber hits the road.

What are the similarities/differences between canon law and civil law?

As I say, canon law isn’t really law at all. That said, it does draw on legal ideas and systems, something which is almost inevitable since it is asking some of the same questions: How do we find truth in a given situation? Who is married? Who can exercise certain functions?

All legal systems have to ask these questions but different families of law do so slightly differently. The canon law approach draws heavily on the European tradition, i.e. that of Roman law. I am reasonably familiar with this tradition, since South Africa, where I practised law first, works on a mixture of Roman (Civil) law and Common (English) law. Roman/Civil law systems tend to emphasise the substance of the law (who has what rights, duties etc) whereas English/Common law systems like New Zealand and Australia tend to focus on procedure — how do you do justice in a given case and how does the result influence subsequent cases.

Common law procedures also tend to be very adversarial  (parties and lawyers duke it out before a neutral judge) while Civil law systems have the judge actively seeking out the truth, assisted by the parties.

As a result, canon law tends to be much more substance focused than common law and, when it comes to trials, the judge plays a much more active, investigative role.

What does a canon law degree qualify you for? Also,what are you going to be doing next? 

While canon law can let you work in Church courts (tribunals), I will be much more likely working within the Jesuits, providing legal advice and will also be teaching at the Catholic Theological College in Melbourne. In addition, I may well also be combining canon law and civil law experience to give advice on both. We are currently looking at ways in which I can do this best.

This article was provided by the Australian Jesuits.

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Reader Interactions


  1. Maria johns says

    Change Canon law. End the papal ‘secret’. Make sure civil law is placed above canon law when investigating abuse cases.

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