Bishops must consult with Rome before backing new orders

In a new papal ruling, bishops who don’t consult the Vatican before approving would-be religious orders in their dioceses risk having that approval stopped.

Before the latest ruling, bishops were required to consult with the Vatican about such matters, but there were no consequences if they didn’t.

The new ruling, issued in the form of a papal rescript, came after Pope Francis was asked to clarify canon 579.

Usually, religious orders begin as small “institutes of consecrated life” that are approved by a local bishop to operate in his diocese.

The secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, told Vatican Radio that the local bishop does not now have to obtain permission from Rome, per se.

But the bishop must at least consult with and hear from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life before proceeding.

“The bishop is always responsible in his diocese – but he has to evaluate the answer, the opinion, of the congregation,” Bishop Arrieta told Vatican Radio.

“After (hearing) the opinion of the congregation, he remains free to act in one sense or in the other; but he has to balance, to think about, the opinion . . . of the congregation, and that is important – very important – even in diocesan governance.”

Kurt Martens, canon law professor at The Catholic University of America, said the new ruling aims to prevent “disasters from happening” when a bishop approves a new religious institute without doing the proper checks.

While Francis has been keen to decentralise Church decision-making to bishops, Martens noted that the Holy See has a lot of experience to offer them.

He said the new law seems to seek a “healthy balance”.

While the new law concerns the early phases of Church approval for new orders, it comes as the Vatican is grappling with a new scandal at the Peru-based Sodalitium Christianae Vitae community, which received diocesan approval in 1994 and pontifical recognition in 1997.

The Vatican recently named its former No. 2 official in charge of religious orders, Archbishop Joseph Tobin, to oversee reforms at Sodalitium after an internal ethics commission found that young recruits were victims of physical, psychological and sexual abuse.


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