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Lawyer finds his true calling

|Written By Helen Burnett

There are only about 320 lawyers practising canon law, the law governing the Catholic Church, in Canada at the moment, according to the Canadian Canon Law Society.

‘I absolutely enjoy relating stories about my religious life and the whole idea of law becomes a lot more freeing,’ says Friar Jobe Abbass. Photo: Jake Wright

However, partly because of certain topics now being discussed, such as the law of church and state, more and more civil lawyers are starting to show interest in learning about this field, says Friar Jobe Abbass.

 “I think the numbers are going to rise in the future, because more and more interest is obviously out there.”

Abbass, a professor of law for the last 15 years, is the only full-time faculty at Saint Paul University, a bilingual Catholic university in Ottawa, teaching the canon law of eastern Catholic churches and of the Latin Church.

However, in Abbass’ own life, legal academia was not his first career, as before becoming an expert in canon law, Abbass practiced as a civil lawyer. After receiving his LLB from Dalhousie University in 1975, he was called to the bar of Nova Scotia and went on to open his own practice before realizing his true calling.

Abbass, who belongs to the Conventual Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate Conception Province, left private practice at the end of the 1970s to study theology and was ordained a priest in 1985 in Albany, N.Y.

Before being ordained, Abbass says he was asked by his superiors if he might be able to use his civil law degree and thought that the two could go together, through legal aid work. As a result, he wrote the New York State bar exam and was admitted to that bar in 1984.

However, he decided instead to pursue a career in legal academia, after completing a doctorate in the law of the eastern churches at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.

He then became a professor, teaching at the Pontifical Oriental Institute for 12 years before joining the faculty at Saint Paul in 2004. Abbass also teaches a summer course on religious law at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and teaches at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in the spring.

Canon law, he says, covers everything that a society normally would cover in law, such as criminal or penal law, marriage, religious, or general norms. Many of the students who come to complete the masters or doctoral program in canon law are priests or lay people, he says, who are often sent by or subsidized by their religious congregations or their bishops to learn canon law to train for work in their own chanceries.

“Sometimes, unfor-tunately, the bishop has to make investigations into the lives of his own clerics or the religious or even Catholic faithful, so he needs canon lawyers for these things,” says Abbass.

“Every area of the life of the church is regulated. There are laws for pretty well everything, and even the bishop needs counsel sometimes because he doesn’t have all of the laws at his fingertips.”

This year, 75 are enrolled in the program at Saint Paul, including doctoral candidates. While numbers were dwindling in the French section of the program until recently - raising concerns over whether the program would be viable in the future - he notes that enrolment has picked up this year.

Following the program, many graduates will go on to apply their knowledge of canon law in the community, such as with Catholic associations, in how the bishop governs his diocese, or especially to the area of annulments, he says.

More than 90 per cent of students who graduate from the program practise canon law professionally, with 90 per cent of these lawyers going on to work in the church’s marriage tribunals, to decide if marriages should have taken place in the beginning or if they existed, he says.

“They go back to adjudicate marriages in the tribunals of their dioceses. These aren’t civil divorces, it’s another system altogether.”

Being involved in his own order, Abbass says he does provide canonical advice, but that is the extent of his practice of canon law.

Most rewarding about his role as a professor, says Abbass, is teaching courses in the area of religious law where he gets to share the stories of his own calling and can be most genuine. “It’s very enjoyable to be able to tell the stories of my life, tell the story of my calling, tell the story of how I was formed as a religious [person].

“I absolutely enjoy relating stories about my religious life and the whole idea of law becomes a lot more freeing,” he says.

Apart from the law of the eastern Catholic churches, Abbass’ other area of interest, which he adds is a very delicate matter in Canada, is the law of church and state.

“I try to explain to the students what relationship the law has to the church and what the canon law means for Canadian society, whether it’s in respecting the church by way of s. 2(a) of the Charter [freedom of conscience or religion] or by looking at sometimes the laws of the church that might be in conflict with the laws of the society or the state and having to review them in the courts.”

Conversely, he adds, this is one of the most challenging aspects of his work, as it is an area of the law that sometimes he feels he would like to change but is frustrated in doing much about.

“In those areas, I’d love so much to be able to say that the church and the state think alike, but it becomes very frustrating at times to think that we’re drawing ever further apart,” says Abbass.

As a result, he says that canon lawyers try to build bridges toward a more open and mutual understanding.

He says this area of the law is becoming very interesting both for the university and for non-religious lawyers.

The university has started a certificate program for those lawyers interested in gaining some knowledge about canon law before they go in to argue a case. While only a few lawyers entering the Saint Paul program have LLB degrees and have been called to the bar, Abbass says he anticipates this number will rise, as there seems to be more interest out there among the bar.

In the course in Washington this summer, for example, Abbass notes three out of 16 students were lawyers.

“It seems to me a good thing that both civil lawyers and canon lawyers get to know each other, so we can converse on some of these matters and maybe have more of an input on the way decisions are made.”


To learn more about the Conventual Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate Conception Province, go to www.franciscaneast.org. To learn more about the Faculty of Canon Law at Saint Paul University, visit www.ustpaul.ca/CanonLaw/index_e.asp

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