Religious, Constitutions of

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Constitutions (or constitution) are the fundamental code of the proper law of a religious institute, drawn up by the members and sanctioned by competent ecclesiastical authority (Codex iuris canonici c. 587 §2). The constitutions of religious institutes provide constitutive or essential norms that reflect the sacred patrimony of the institute (c. 578). Some constitutions draw upon the inspiration of the holy founder contained in the institute's rule (Augustinian, Basilian, Benedictine, Franciscan) that guides the spirituality of the members. The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICL) approves the constitutions for religious institutes of pontifical right (c. 587 §2; 593), and the diocesan bishop of the principal seat approves those of diocesan right after he has consulted any other bishops to whose diocese the institute has spread (c. 587 §2; 594; 595 §1). In some clerical exempt religious institutes, it is required and sufficient that the changes be approved by the general chapter of the institute which has ecclesiastical power of governance (c. 596 §2). Constitutions supplement the universal law for a particular religious institute, inasmuch as they protect its vocation and identity (c. 587 §1). The constitutions of a religious institute should not be contrary to the universal law, unless the variance is authorized by the Apostolic See.

The constitutions contain the designs of the founder or foundress regarding the nature, purpose, spirit, and character of the institute, as well as its sound traditions approved by competent ecclesiastical authority (c. 578). Besides norms that explicate the spiritual patrimony of the institute, this fundamental code includes principal norms of governance, discipline of the members, formation, incorporation, and the object of the sacred vows (c. 587 §1). Both spiritual and juridic elements can be joined in the constitutions, but there should not be a multiplication of unnecessary norms (c. 587 §3). Norms established by the competent authority of an institute and collected in other codes (directories, statutes) are also part of the proper law of the religious institute. These lesser or complementary norms should be reviewed periodically and adapted by the competent authority of the institute in accord with the needs of places and times (c. 587 §4).

Changes or amendments in constitutions are approved by ecclesiastical authorities only after they have been recommended by a two-third vote of the general chapter of the particular religious institute. While the diocesan bishop of the principal seat approves the constitutions, confirms changes, and dispenses from the disciplinary norms of the constitutions in particular cases for an institute of diocesan right, he cannot approve nor confirm changes reserved to the Apostolic See (c. 595).

At religious profession, members assume the observance of the three evangelical counsels by public vow and are incorporated into the institute with rights and obligations defined by law (c. 654). All religious have as their supreme rule of life the following of Christ (sequela Christi ) as proposed in the gospel and expressed in their constitutions (c. 662). Superiors fulfill their function and exercise their power in accord with the norm of universal and proper law (c. 617). Constitutions often incorporate divine or ecclesiastical laws; likewise, they contain fundamental norms pertaining to the religious life. A religious who would transgress the constitutions in a grave, external, imputable, and juridically proven matter could, after formal canonical warnings and the administrative process set forth in the universal law, be dismissed from the religious institute (c. 694701). Ordinarily, the disciplinary norms of the constitutions which are not precepts of God or the Church or the essential obligations of the evangelical counsels do not of themselves bind under pain of sin. However, the habitual transgressions of disciplinary norms out of contempt or laxity would certainly be blameworthy.

Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. In the CCEO the fundamental code of a monastery is the typicon (c. 414 §1, 1°), while that of a religious order or congregation is referred to as statutes (c. 414 §1, 1°; 511 §1). The competent ecclesiastical authority who approves these laws and changes, or dispenses from the norms in a particular case and for a single occasion, is the eparchial bishop with respect to monasteries and congregations of eparchial right (c. 414 §1 1°). If a congregation of eparchial right has extended to other eparchies, the eparchial bishop of the principal house is bound to consult with the eparchial bishops in whose eparchies the houses are located (c. 414 §3). A patriarch has this authority with respect to orders and congregations of patriarchal right which have their headquarters within the territorial boundaries of the Church over which he presides (c. 414 §2). The Congregation for the Eastern Churches has authority over all other orders, monasteries, and congregations that are not of eparchial right (c. 414 §2). However, approval of changes or amendments to norms approved by a higher authority cannot be approved by a lesser ecclesiastical authority (c. 414 §1, 1°). Superiors of monasteries, orders, and congregations are bound by a grave obligation to see that the members committed to their care direct their lives in accord with the proper typicon or statutes (c. 421). Likewise, each religious is obliged to tend to perfection in arranging his or her life in accord with the typicon or statutes in fidelity to the intention and determinations of the founder (c. 426).

[r. mcdermott]