Religious, Canon Law of
RELIGIOUS, CANON LAW OF
Religious Institutes are one of the two forms of consecrated life delineated in the Code of Canon Law (cc. 573–731). The code first treats both religious institutes and secular institutes (cc. 573–606), then each separately (religious institutes in cc. 607–709 and secular institutes in cc. 710–730). Canon 573 describes life consecrated through the profession of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience as a stable form of life by which the Christian faithful strive to follow Christ more closely through the Holy Spirit and are entirely dedicated to God for building up the Church and the salvation of the world; those so consecrated seek perfection of charity in furtherance of the kingdom of God and are an outstanding sign in the Church of heavenly glory to come.
Canon 607 describes the nature of religious life as a manifestation to the whole Church of a marriage brought about by God and a sign of the future age through the consecration of the whole person. By this consecration, religious bring to perfection a complete gift of themselves to God through which their entire life becomes a continuous worship of God. This canon describes a religious institute as an organization in which its members, according to its proper law, pronounce public religious vows, either perpetual or temporary; if the latter, the temporary vows are to be renewed before their expiration. The members of the religious institute are to lead the life of brothers or sisters in common.
Historically, the fundamental concept of religious life can be traced to the response of the early Christians to the urging of Christ to strive after evangelical perfection. In the desert, in hermitages, in individual homes and in monasteries, they sought to put his teachings into practice in their lives, and ultimately this led to acknowledgment of their religious way of life by the law of the Church. The first official recognition of the general law came in the Council of Chalcedon (451) when it was decreed that no religious institute could be established without the permission of the local bishop. Consecrated life gradually developed, was adapted throughout history and received a new impetus for renewal from the Second Vatican Council which in the document Perfectae caritatis urged the various institutes to return to their roots and their original charism. In doing this, they were to revise their particular law according to their true charism and the teachings of the council.
Religious institutes are either pontifical or diocesan, depending on the ecclesiastical authority that erected them and has authority over them. Some institutes are clerical, having entirely or primarily clerics as members and consequently certain rights and restrictions concerning their leadership. Other institutes are lay, having solely lay members. Institutes in which the members are both cleric and lay but are not subject to the certain of the rights and restrictions that apply to clerical institutes are recognized as "mixed." Monastic institutes are the subject of certain unique provisions. Institutes are also described as contemplative or apostolic depending on the type of apostolate or purpose that they have.
Consistent with the principle of subsidiarity, great importance is paid to the proper law of the institute in the form of constitutions and statutes for the entire institute and individual provinces if the institute organizes itself this way. The code leaves many matters for proper law to delineate. This means that the law applicable to an individual religious institute can better reflect its charism, mission and unique situation.
Governance (cc. 617–640). The code describes the authority that all superiors are to exercise in terms of service, providing that they should treat those under their authority as children rather than subjects, promoting voluntary obedience and displaying a willingness to listen. Nonetheless, the superiors have the authority to act for the common good of the institute if a superior and subject cannot agree on an issue.
Monastery, convent, priory and friary are among the various names used to indicate a religious house which must be erected in accordance with canon law and consequently is the subject of certain rights. Individual religious are ordinarily assigned to a specific religious house under the authority of a local superior. This local superior is in turn subject to the authority of a major superior called a provincial, if the institute is divided into provinces, or a major superior called a general superior or supreme moderator, if the institute is not so divided; if the institute is divided into a province, all the provincials are subject to the authority of a general superior or supreme moderator. Major superiors and supreme moderators or general superiors are each to be advised by a council. The general chapter of an institute holds supreme authority in the institute according to the proper law of the institute; the general chapter meets every few years to elect leadership, determine policies, propose amendments in proper law and decide matters of greater importance.
All religious are subject to the supreme authority of the Church and are bound to obey the pope as their highest superior in virtue of the vow of obedience. Ordinarily, the pope leaves the government of an institute to its own superiors. If the Holy See is involved in a decision affecting religious, this is ordinarily done through the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life which is the administrative office of the Holy See that handles issues related to religious life.
While institutes, provinces and houses can acquire and administer temporal goods, they must do so according to the requirements of canon law; they are to avoid any appearance of wealth. There are specific rules governing the alienation of temporal goods and depending on the value of the goods involved, permission of various superiors and even of the Holy See may be required. There are similar laws governing mortgages and the encumbering of property.
Membership and formation (cc. 641–661). The code sets forth several qualifications for membership which include that a candidate must have completed seventeen years of age, not be bound by vows of matrimony, not already be a member of another institute of consecrated life or society of apostolic life and not be under the influence of force, grave fear, or malice. The proper law of the institute may set other qualifications, many of which may deal such matters as physical and mental health.
The code provides for a period of formation before a candidate may eventually make perpetual profession of vows. Proper law covers the preparation for entering novitiate, often called postulancy. novitiate is a period of at least a year during which the novices begin their life in the institute by means of a program so they can understand the vocation proper to the institute, experience life within the institute, and form their minds in its charism; it is a period during which the novices and those entrusted with their formation discern their intentions and suitability for life in the institute. A novice can freely leave novitiate or be dismissed. At the end of novitiate, if a novice is judged fit for religious life, then the novice may make temporary profession. A major superior can also extend the duration of novitiate of a novice but not beyond six months.
By religious profession, members are committed to follow the evangelical counsels by public vow and are incorporated into the institute. Temporary profession lasts a limited period of time defined in the law of the institute: not less than three years nor more than six. Competent authority can extend this period in individual cases but not beyond nine years. During this time the member in temporary vows lives the life of the institute but is still undergoing formation during which the member and those in charge of formation determine the religious's suitability for the institute. Temporary profession is renewed from time to time. With the approval of the competent authority according to the law of the institute, a member may make perpetual profession providing, among other requirements, that the religious is at least twenty-one years old and has been in temporary vows for at least three years. The code makes it clear that formation does not end when one takes perpetual vows, but continues throughout the life of the religious.
Obligations and rights (cc. 662–671). The supreme rule of life for religious is comprised of following Christ as found in the Gospels and as delineated in their proper law. It follows that their primary duty is prayer by such means as the Mass, Eucharistic devotions, reading of scripture, liturgy of the hours, the marian rosary, an annual retreat, private prayer, an examination of conscience and frequent confession. Religious must use discretion regarding communications media and they are to avoid what may be harmful to their vocation.
Religious are to live in their own religious house, but they may be absent with permission for periods exceeding a year for reasons of health, studies or apostolate. All houses are to have an area of enclosure or cloister—always reserved to members alone—which must be adapted to the character of the institute. Monasteries of nuns entirely devoted to contemplative life must observe papal cloister according to the norms of the Holy See.
Before first profession religious are to cede administration of what goods they may own to another. Before perpetual profession religious must renounce their goods fully and they must make a will. There are two traditions with regard to the vow of poverty, the solemn vow tradition and the simple vow tradition. In institutes which follow a solemn vow tradition, the religious must renounce ownership and use of all property. In institutes which follow a simple vow tradition, the religious may retain the ownership of their goods, but they must renounce the use of goods and cede the administration of the goods to another; the goods that such a religious continues to own but not use are sometimes called patrimony. Whatever religious acquire by means of their own effort or by reason of their work on behalf of the institute is acquired for the institute.
Religious are to wear the habit of the institute, which is specifically designated garb, as a public witness to their consecration and poverty. Clerics of an institute which does not have a proper habit are to wear clerical dress according to the norm of canon law. Religious are not to accept offices or duties outside the institute without the permission of the appropriate superior. All religious are also bound by specified obligations of clerics.
The institute has an obligation to supply its members with all those things necessary to fulfill their vocation according to the proper law of the institute.
Apostolate (cc. 673–683). The primary apostolate of all religious consists of their witness of consecrated life. The code emphasizes that contemplative institutes hold a distinguished place in the Church and their members are not to be summoned to serve in more active apostolates. Institutes dedicated to the works of the apostolate are to be imbued with an apostolic spirit, and a religious spirit must influence their apostolic action; apostolic action must always be carried out in communion with the Church. The code also stresses the value of lay institutes.
Religious ordinarily work within a diocese and must obey the bishop in those matters that concern care of souls, public exercise of divine worship and other works of the apostolate. Religious who serve in an apostolate outside the institute must also obey their own religious superiors and remain faithful to the discipline of the institute. Given the potential for some conflict in this area, bishops and religious superiors are to cooperate and organize apostolic works through mutual consultation. If a religious is to serve in a diocesan apostolate, the diocesan bishop is to appoint the religious after the religious superior has proposed or presented the religious for appointment. The diocesan bishop may conduct visitation in apostolates of the religious institutes in which the Christian faithful are ordinarily served, but they do not have this right with regard to schools that serve exclusively the institute's own students.
Separation (cc. 684–704). If religious desire to transfer from one institute to another, they must have the consent of the supreme moderator and council of each institute and they must undergo a period of formation before joining the new institute. If a religious wishes to transfer from a religious institute to a secular institute or a society of apostolic life, or vice versa, then the consent of the Holy See is also required. A religious in temporary vows can freely depart when the period of the vows expires. Otherwise, the consent of the competent authority is required.
If a religious for a serious reason wishes to leave the institute for a temporary period, then the supreme moderator can grant a decree of exclaustration for not more than three years with the consent of the council. If exclaustration is sought for more than three years, then the Holy See for institutes of pontifical right and the diocesan bishop for institutes of diocesan right must grant it. Only the Holy See can grant exclaustration for nuns. For grave reasons the Holy See (for institutes of pontifical right) or the diocesan bishop (for institutes of diocesan right) can impose exclaustration on a member of the institute upon the petition of the supreme moderator and council. A religious on exclaustration remains a member of the institute and remains dependent upon the religious superiors and also the local ordinary, especially if the religious is a cleric, but the religious is freed from obligations that are inconsistent with the situation of being on outside the community on exclaustration.
For serious reasons, a religious can petition for an indult of departure from the supreme moderator and the council; departure must be approved by the Holy See for institutes of pontifical right and by the diocesan bishop of the house to which the religious is assigned. If the religious seeking departure is a cleric, then he must first find a bishop who will incardinate him or receive him experimentally.
An institute may dismiss a member for a serious reason; the institute must either show a violation of certain canons or a continuing incorrigibility in violating other obligations of religious life. A religious may only be dismissed after the institute has followed a prescribed process of dismissal, which includes a right of defense of the religious. The supreme moderator must issue the decree of dismissal after obtaining the consent of the council and it must be confirmed by the Holy See or diocesan bishop of the house to which the religious is assigned, depending on whether the institute is pontifical or diocesan.
Eastern law code (cc. 410–572). In the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, monastic life provides the pattern for religious orders and congregations. The Eastern code appears to approach religious institutes more from a historical paradigm, recognizing the historic influence of monasticism, while the Latin code seems to have a more abstract organization for religious institutes. The Eastern code tends to legislate in more detail, whereas the Latin code seems to allow more topics to be handled under proper law. The Eastern code necessarily differs because of the different hierarchical structure, so that, for example, there are institutes of pontifical, patriarchal or eparchial right. The Eastern code also seems to give more authority over the internal life within monasteries to the Apostolic See, patriarchs and eparchs than the Latin code gives to the Holy See and bishops.
Bibliography: vatican ii, "Decree on the Up-To-Date Renewal of Religious Life" (Perfectae caritatis ), Oct. 28, 1965 [in Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 58 (1966) 702–712]. New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, eds., j. beal et al., (New York 2000). Selected Issues in Religious Law—Bulletin on Issues of Religious Law 1985–1995, ed., p. cogan, (Washington 1997). A Handbook on Canons 573–746, eds., j. hite et al., (Collegeville, Minn. 1985). r. mcdermott, "Two Approaches to Consecrated Life: The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches and the Code of Canon Law," Studia Canonica, 29 (1995) 193–239.
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