Pope Francis has made another change to canon law.
As of June 15th, diocesan bishops are required to receive written permission from Rome before approving or erecting new religious communities.
Religious communities go through several growth stages, each representing approval by the church. The first stage is a public association of the faithful, followed by a community of diocesan right, and finally a community of pontifical right. Practically speaking, there is little difference between the stages. Even a public association of the faithful can wear habits, live in a convent, and take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Many communities spend years in the initial stage, recruiting new vocations.
Previously, diocesan bishops alone managed alone the first steps of discerning and approving a legitimate charism. They could establish a public association of the faithful completely on their own. For the jump to canonical status as a diocesan religious community, the bishops needed merely to consult with Rome. In 2020, Francis changed canon law to require bishops to receive written permission from Rome to erect a religious community. Now even in the initial stage—establishing a public association of the faithful—bishops must first get Rome’s approval.
In the last several decades, lots of new communities emerged, many only to prove to be harbours of various abuses. In some cases, genuine horror stories came out of these supposedly holy inspirations. Some were suppressed and others, such as the Legionaries of Christ and the Community of St. John, had to disavow their founders, a situation that is fundamentally problematic for religious life.
In 2021, Spanish Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, said that his office was investigating the founders of twelve new communities for allegations involving abuse of power or conscience, financial corruption, or problems associated with “affectivity,” a euphemism for personal boundary violations. “In most cases, these are associations whose canonical recognition is underway,” Carballo said in an interview with the Spanish newspaper Vida Nueva.
Carballo’s dicastery, he noted, was investigating the founders of some institutes that had already been canonically recognized, “so the number increases significantly.”
Carballo clarified that these did not include communities or institutes of consecrated life that had already been investigated and responded to, such as by appointing an outside delegate or, in some cases, suppressing the institute altogether.
“All of this does a lot of damage to consecrated life and to the Church itself,” he said. “Therefore, much more attention should be paid when discerning the need, benefit, and usefulness for the church when approving associations whose canonical recognition is underway.”
Pope Francis made it clear that the purpose of greater Vatican oversight in discerning new communities is to stem the tide of problems associated with them.
“The faithful have the right to be advised by their pastors about the authenticity of the charisms and about the trustworthiness of those who present themselves as founders,” the pope explained in the 2020 ruling. “It is the responsibility of the Apostolic See to accompany the Pastors in the process of discernment leading to the ecclesial recognition of a new institute or a new society.”
Some religious communities themselves and the Vatican are taking seriously the reality of psycho-spiritual abuses in religious life, seemingly more prevalent now than in the past. Carballo wrote the preface to Risques et dérives de la vie religieuse (Risks and deviations of Religious Life). Authored by Dom Dysmus de Lassus, head of the Carthusian Order and prior of the historic Grande Chartreuse, it is an in-depth examination of spiritual abuses and how to combat them.
De Lassus explained in the introduction that he wrote it to strengthen religious life. Pope Francis and the Vatican want to join in the effort.
Bridget Ryder is Spain-based writer. She has written on politics, environment, and culture for American and international publications. She holds degrees in Spanish and Catholic Studies.