Pope Francis has ruled that new religious orders must receive Vatican approval before being established. It is a significant move that is likely to prevent the hasty establishment of small groups of religious and seeks to put an end to the sexual abuse scandals that have bedevilled such institutes in recent decades.
Francis has amended Canon Law meaning that local bishops will now need written permission from the Holy See before approving the setting up of communities of religious in their diocese. It also signals that bishops will be required to undertake a more credible and rigorous discernment than they have in the past before establishing congregations.
A proliferation of new “institutes of consecrated life or societies of apostolic life” have been established during the latter part of the 20th century, although many of them similar to one another. In an alarming number of cases, the founders of new orders have sexually and spiritually abused their members.
The Vatican has investigated a range of problems inside newly established congregations. These include cults of personality developing around the purportedly orthodox or charismatic founders; how members are formed; an excessive focus on traditionalist liturgies out of sync with the local church; authoritarian leadership styles; psychological manipulation oft those inside the groups and financial mismanagement.
“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,” the Pope explained in the ruling. “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.”
In a sign the Vatican is taking the issue very seriously, Archbishop José Rodríguez Caraballo, the secretary of the Holy See’s congregation for religious, recently wrote the foreword for a new book published this year Risques et dérives de la vie religieu-se (Risks and deviations of Religious Life), which examines sexual and spiritual abuses and how to combat them. The book is written by Dysmas de Lassus, the minister general of the Carthusian Order who is based at the historic Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps. Carthusians, who follow a strict rule of silence, do not normally give their names publicly to what they write but in this case, de Lassus has made an exception.