Pope Francis this week ordered the implementation of stricter oversight on the creation of new religious orders.
In an Apostolic Letter issued “motu proprio,” literally “on his own impulse,” the pontiff changed canon law to require a bishop to have permission from the Holy See prior to establishing a new religious institute in his diocese. In Catholic canon law, a “motu proprio” refers to a document issued by the pope on his own initiative and personally signed by him.
Pope Francis modified Canon 579 of the Code of Canon Law, which concerns the erection of religious orders and congregations, referred to in church law as institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life.
In 2016, the Vatican clarified that by law a diocesan bishop is required to consult with the Apostolic See before giving canonical recognition to a new institute.
The new canon provides further Vatican oversight by requiring the bishop to have a prior written permission of the Apostolic See.
In recent years the Vatican has cracked down on founders of some religious orders and lay institutes after they were found to have been frauds who sexually or spiritually abused their members.
In his letter released on Nov. 4, the pontiff said 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 under diocesan law.
Pope Francis cited the Apostolic Exhortation “Vita consecrata” that states the vitality of new institutes and societies “must be judged by the authority of the Church, which has the responsibility of examining them in order to discern the authenticity of the purpose for their foundation and to prevent the proliferation of institutions similar to one another, with the consequent risk of a harmful fragmentation into excessively small groups.”
Religious orders usually begin as small “institutes of consecrated life” that are approved by a local bishop to operate in his diocese.
Over time, if they attract more members, they can apply to the Vatican to get pontifical recognition, like the Jesuits or Missionaries of Charity.
The new law, which takes effect Nov. 10, says greater Vatican oversight was necessary to ensure the new orders meet the criteria of having a unique charism, or founding spirit, and to prevent unsustainably small communities from sprouting up in diocese after diocese.
“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,” read the pope’s letter.
Aside from granting control over the creation of new religious orders, the new law allows the Vatican to closely monitor abuses and scandals in religious communities.
The Catholic Church in recent years has faced scandals and abuse in religious communities that are believed to be a result of lack of oversight and leniency on the creation of new orders.