Francis noted that canon law already provides a procedure for dealing with the illegitimate absence of a religious member, whereby a religious superior may begin the process of dismissal after at least six months' absence, but that this process is difficult to conclude with legal certainty when the religious member's whereabouts are unknown.
The new norms go into effect April 10, 2019. Diocesan bishops already have the ability in law to petition the Congregation for Clergy to laicize priests who have deserted their ministry and cannot be located, though in the case of a priest he must be absent for five years before any action can be taken.
The pope explained that he made the change for religious "to help the institutions observe the necessary discipline and be able to proceed to the dismissal of the illegitimately absent religious," especially in cases where they cannot be found.
The existing norms require the superior to contact any absent religious member and to encourage him or her to return to the religious community and to "persevere in his or her vocation," before taking action to dismiss.
Canon 729 was also expanded to make clear that while members of secular institutes may be dismissed ipso facto for having contracted or attempted to contract marriage, or for having left the Catholic faith, they are not bound to community life in the same way.
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Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, the secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, stated that religious superiors had the obligation to protect "the common good that is expressed in common life," which was a fundamental part of the religious life.
But, he said, love for the absent member remained an obligation.
Rodríguez recalled the 1994 document Fraternal Life in Community, which described the shared responsibility of common life which "pushes us to love our brothers and sisters to the point of assuming their weaknesses, their problems, their difficulties."