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A Motu Proprio Designed to Weaken Opus Dei by Hélène de Lauzun

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A Motu Proprio Designed to Weaken Opus Dei

On Friday, July 22th, Pope Francis unexpectedly published Ad charisma tuendum (For the protection of the charism), a motu proprio to modify the apostolic constitution of Opus Dei. The constitution, Ut Sit, was granted in 1982 by John Paul II to the institution founded in 1928 by St. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer.

Opus Dei is an institution with the special status of a personal prelature. Its particularity is that it brings together both lay people and priests of the secular clergy, with the aim of sanctification in the world, in all the acts of daily life, through work, leisure, and family life. 

The text that will apply to Opus Dei—beginning August 4th—is a continuation of Praedicate Evangelium (Preach the Gospel), the apostolic constitution from 19 March 2022, intended to reform the structure of the Roman curia “in order to better promote its service in favour of evangelization.” 

Such a noble purpose, however, is at odds with how this edict will play out in the pastoral role of Opus Dei.

Opus Dei is under the jurisdiction of the Conference of Bishops. Once this new motu proprio takes effect, the society will answer to the Conference of Clergy. This is no insignificant shift; such reorganisation grants the Vatican more control while weakening the authority of Opus Dei. 

The motu proprio first sets to work replacing the bishop with a priest, to serve as “prelate,” or head of the institution. Prelates of Opus Dei are not always bishops: the current prelate for example, Fernando Ocáriz, is not. But the fact that it is explicitly stated that the prelate can never again be a bishop is evidence of a particular design, specified in Article 4 of the motu proprio, which considers that “a form of governance based on charism more than on hierarchical authority is needed” for the institution. The change will be reflected in the prelate’s title. Once called “Supernumerary Apostolic Protonotary,” the prelate will now go by the title of “Reverend Monsignor.”

The change in title comes at a cost, for the prelate. It represents an objective loss of prestige and authority, a stripping away of special privileges. Then, the absence of a bishop means less efficiency for achieving pastoral goals: without their own bishop, members of Opus Dei will have to seek permission from bishops outside the organisation when the need arises. They will be, for example, forced to ask for a bishop’s authorization to perform ordinations—a bureaucratic obstacle that will inhibit the exercise of the group’s charism. 

Pope Francis has often complained of ‘clericalism’ and, for better or for worse, has used his authority to repress the hierarchical structure of the Church. In June, for example, a change in canon law stipulated that diocesan bishops were required to receive written permission from Rome before approving or erecting new religious communities: a strategy designed to control abuses, but which also centralised the Vatican’s power. When viewed within the context of the other reforms initiated by Pope Francis, the reform implemented by Ad charisma tuendum will de facto channel more control to Rome, symbolically and effectively weakening the prelature. 

Why this should concern us is because this edict widens the divide between the upper tier of Church authority from the particular and regional execution of its pastoral care. An intact prelature was intended to help certain charisms within the Catholic community maintain their integrity and their distinction as parallel dioceses, their work carried out through their own bishops. Indeed, on some occasions, personal prelature was suggested as a structure capable of reintegrating into the fold of Rome traditionalist groups in rupture, such as the Society of St. Pius X. Today, Opus Dei is the only personal prelature existing in the Church. Pope Francis’ distrust of this status does not augur well for the traditionalist groups which could have benefited from it. 

There emerges a pattern of behaviour that is disconcerting to the observer. Ad charisma tuendum—the 49th motu proprio since the beginning of Francis’ pontificate, a record—comes just one year after the publication of another motu proprio which caused a great stir in the Church, Traditionis Custodes, which drastically restricted the use of the traditional mass known as the Mass of St. Pius V. These edicts also reflect the reforms imposed earlier this year by Pope Francis on the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Malta. In January 2022, the Vatican proposed the abolition of the independence of that order. Fierce backlash ensued, whereupon Pope Francis changed course and allowed them to retain their sovereignty, so long as as he appoints the man to occupy the highest position, presumably someone who will carry out the reforms Pope Francis intends.

The irony of these interventions is that Pope Francis has called for more synodality in the Church—i.e., dialogue and collective decisions—but on the contrary, his reforms have reinforced centralization against the autonomy of dioceses or institutions. ‘Synodality’ turns out to be a stratagem for centralization. 

These different reforms are bound by a common thread: Pope Francis’ distrust of institutions and practices that could be classified as conservative, or rooted in tradition, even if, like Opus Dei, they’ve always expressed the utmost fidelity toward the Holy See. 

In contrast, the drifts of the German synod—with its support for the blessing of same-sex unions, women deacons, and married priests—have only been the object of theoretical calls to order and statements, without any practical application. 

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).