— Catholic Herald, Rome — Pope Francis has restricted the right of diocesan bishops to establish new religious congregations. In a motu proprio published Wednesday, the pope modifies canon law so that it is no longer necessary for local bishops merely to consult with Rome before officially recognizing religious communities, but also to receive the express written approval of the pope.
The change to canon 579 further reinforces a little-noticed but highly significant 2016 clarification issued at the request of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts regarding the need for consultation with the Holy See before local bishops give their approval to new religious congregations within their jurisdictions and under the local bishop’s direct authority and supervision.
The text of the law was ambiguous, and until the clarification in 2016, many bishops and canon lawyers read it as merely advising consultation. “Prior consultation with the Holy See,” wrote the Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, in the 2016 rescript clarifying the point of law, “is to be understood as necessary ad validitatem before establishing of [sic] a diocesan Institute of consecrated life, otherwise risking nullity of the decree of establishment of this said Institute.”
Until the change in the law announced Wednesday, a bishop even kept the paper right to recognize a community in the face of an unfavourable opinion from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life – sometimes styled the “Congregation for Religious” – the curial dicastery responsible for religious orders and other communities dedicated to vowed religious life according to a specific charism.
Now, not only must any local bishop wishing to give official recognition and approval to a religious community within his diocese consult with the competent Vatican office before his decision, but receive express prior approval from Rome.
“The act of canonical erection by the bishop,” wrote Pope Francis in the motu proprio’s preamble using the technical language for official recognition, “transcends the diocesan context alone and makes it relevant in the wider horizon of the universal Church.” He further explained: “[B]y its nature, every institute of consecrated life or society of apostolic life, even if it arose in the context of a particular Church, ‘as a gift to the Church, it is not an isolated or marginal reality, but belongs intimately to her, is at the heart itself of the Church as a decisive element of its mission’.”
That has always been the case, universally recognised and acknowledged throughout the Church, but the legal requirement on local Ordinaries to seek prior written approval from Rome before exercising their power in these regards is something new.