Pope Francis allows lay members to govern clerical religious orders


Pope Francis on Wednesday amended canon law to allow lay members to lead clerical religious orders. The change allows non-ordained religious brothers to assume the office of major superior – a rank of government equivalent to that of bishop in canon law.

Following this change, lay members of certain clerical religious orders are now eligible to serve as superiors in their orders globally, with the approval of the Vatican.

Pope Francis greets members of a religious order during his traditional general audience on Wednesday May 4, 2022. Credit: SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo


Canonical reform means that lay religious can exercise canonical power of governance, including over ordained members of the order. This includes the power of superiors to grant and withdraw sacramental faculties from members of the clergy – priests and deacons – under their jurisdiction.

“A non-clerical member of an Institute of Consecrated Life or of a Clerical Society of Apostolic Life of Pontifical Right is appointed Major Superior, after having obtained written authorization from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. at the request of the Supreme Moderator with the consent of the Council,” according to the rescript published by the Vatican on May 18.

Lay members of clerical institutes can now be elected major superiors through the canonical process known as postulation, in which a candidate with an otherwise inconvenient condition is elected and proposed to the Vatican for confirmation despite the impediment.

In this case, according to the rescript issued by the Pope, the elected lay candidates will be examined by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) which “will evaluate the individual case and the reasons given by the Supreme Moderator or by the General Chapter” for the election of the lay member before issuing written authorization for the candidate to be confirmed.

The wording of the rescript suggests that the election of lay major superiors would be approved as exceptions on a case-by-case basis, but the text effectively modifies the norms of the Code of Canon Law which defines clerical orders as those which “due to destination or the design desired by the founder or by virtue of a legitimate tradition, [are] under the guidance of clerics” in canon 588 §2, although the rescript does not alter the text of the canon itself.

As legal instruments of canon law, rescripts are a mechanism for granting a special privilege, dispensation, or other favor at someone’s request. The change is likely an accommodation for those religious orders, like some Franciscan orders, with a historical tradition of lay leadership.

The rescript also allows lay religious of the same orders to be appointed local superiors by the major superior without the approval of the congregation.

The change has potentially significant implications for the exercise of governance in the Church.

Canon 134 defines major superiors as “ordinaries”, that is, those “who possess at least the ordinary executive power” of governance.

The general canonical principle of canon law is that only “those who have received holy orders are qualified, according to the norm of the prescriptions of the law, for the power of government, which exists in the Church by divine institution and is also called the power of jurisdiction”.

The Code of Canon Law provides that “lay members of the Christian faithful may cooperate in the exercise of this same power according to the norm of law”, but the definition and scope of “cooperation” in the exercise of governance are often debated in the Church. legal circles.

Its meaning will probably be hotly debated among canonists. In the legal tradition of the Church, the exercise of the power of governance has been theologically linked to ordination, uniting the pastoral and governing functions of the Church and holding that holy orders enable the exercise of the power to govern. on his own command.

Wednesday’s rescript is significant because it allows a lay cleric to serve as a major superior, exercising at least the executive power of governance over clerical institutes and societies — meaning a lay person will have authority over clerics. In addition to the power to grant and withdraw certain sacramental faculties to priests who are members of religious orders, major superiors also have the power to discipline members in many matters of criminal law.

Lay religious, men and women, are already superiors of lay institutes which “by virtue of [their] nature, character and purpose [have] a proper function defined by the founder or by legitimate tradition, which does not include the exercise of holy orders”, and therefore have no ordained members.

The legal amendment comes into force with immediate effect.

Although the rescript was released on Wednesday, it was issued by Pope Francis on February 11, just over a month before the pope was to promulgate Evangelium Predicatethe new constitution governing the Roman curia.

This constitution created the ability for lay people and women to head curial departments and take on other duties and functions that had been legally reserved for clerics under previous law.

The rescript is the latest in a series of ongoing reforms that Pope Francis has made to canon law during his nine years as pontificate. In addition to the apostolic constitution on the Roman curia, the pope last year published a revised edition of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, which is the Church’s universal penal code.

Francis also issued a series of motu proprios, individual papal legislative texts, on matters ranging from episcopal responsibility to the faculties of clerics to lift certain canonical sanctions in the sacrament of reconciliation.

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