Pope Francis has changed canon law to require a bishop to have permission from the Holy See prior to establishing a new religious institute in his diocese, further strengthening Vatican oversight over the process.

With a Nov. 4 motu proprio, Pope Francis modified canon 579 of the Code of Canon Law, which concerns the erection of religious orders and congregations, referred to in Church law as institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life.

The Vatican clarified in 2016 that by law the diocesan bishop was required to consult with the Apostolic See before giving canonical recognition to a new institute. The new canon provides further Vatican oversight by requiring the bishop to have the prior written permission of the Apostolic See.

According to Pope Francis' apostolic letter "Authenticum charismatis," the change ensures that the Vatican will accompany bishops more closely in their discernment about the erection of a new religious order or congregation, and gives "final judgment" over the decision to the Holy See.

The new text of the canon will go into effect Nov. 10.

The modification to canon 579 makes "the preventive control of the Holy See more evident," Fr. Fernando Puig, vice dean of canon law at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce, told CNA.

"In my opinion, the base [of the law] has not changed," he said, adding that "certainly the autonomy of the bishops decreases and there is a centralization of this competence in favor of Rome."

The motivations for the change, Puig explained, go back to a clarification of the interpretation of the law, requested by the Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Religious Life and Societies of Apostolic Life in 2016.

Pope Francis clarified in May 2016 that, for validity, canon 579 required bishops to consult closely with the Vatican on their decision, even if it did not require them to obtain permission per se.

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Writing in L'Osservatore Romano in June 2016, Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, the congregation's secretary, explained that the congregation asked for the clarification out of a desire to prevent the "careless" establishment of religious institutes and societies.

According to Rodríguez, crises in religious institutes had included internal division and power struggles, abusive disciplinary measures, or problems with authoritarian founders who feel they are the "true fathers and masters of the charism."

Inadequate discernment on the part of bishops, Rodríguez said, had led to the Vatican needing to intervene in problems which could have been prevented if they had been detected before giving canonical recognition to the institute or society.

In his Nov. 4 motu proprio, Pope Francis said that "the faithful have the right to be informed by their Shepherds about the authenticity of the charisms and about the integrity of those who present themselves as founders" of a new congregation or order.

"The Apostolic See," he continued, "is responsible for accompanying Shepherds in the discernment process that leads to the ecclesial recognition of a new Institute or a new Society of diocesan right."

He quoted Pope John Paul II's 1996 post-synodal apostolic exhortation "Vita consecrata," which said that new religious institutes and societies "must be evaluated by the authority of the Church, which is responsible for the appropriate examination both to test the authenticity of the inspiring purpose and to avoid the excessive multiplication of institutions similar to each other."

Pope Francis said: "The new institutes of consecrated life and the new societies of apostolic life, therefore, must be officially recognized by the Apostolic See, which alone has the last judgment." 

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