Experts have said that new rules laid down by the Pope for religious orders have an important anti-abuse dimension.

– Francis changes canon law to require Vatican approval of new Church institutes and societies, acknowledges question marks over “reliability” of founders

In an apostolic letter issued motu proprio November 4, and entitled Authenticum charismatis, Pope Francis modified canon 579 of the Code of Canon Law to say that bishops now need the formal written approval of the Holy See to validly erect institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life.

Previously, the law had been that bishops could make the decision on giving approval to those types of new religious orders after prior consultation with the Vatican.

In his motu proprio, the pontiff wrote that the Vatican “has the responsibility” to accompany bishops “in the process of discernment” leading to the recognition of new ecclesial movements.

Quoting from Pope John Paul II’s 1996 apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata, Francis added that the Church’s legislative authority has the duty of examining new movements in order to ascertain their “authenticity” of purpose “and to prevent the proliferation of institutions similar to one another, with the consequent risk of a harmful fragmentation into excessively small groups”.

But Francis also acknowledged that today there are often doubts about “the reliability of those who present themselves as founders” of new groups in the Church, particularly after the scandals in recent years surrounding new Catholic communities and movements, from the Monastery of Bose to the Memores Domini to the Schoenstatt Movement, among others.

– “The Vatican does not fully trust all bishops to judge and regulate things appropriately”: canon lawyer

Responding to those scandals is an important part of what the Pope’s new motu proprio is about, according to Father Hans Zollner SJ, one of the Church’s top experts on abuse as a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and the president of the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Zollner acknowledged to Domradio November 6 that “many” communities founded in recent years – not only orders or congregations of religious, but also lay movements – have fallen prey to founders – “men, but also women” – who have “abused their power, in various areas”.

“Often financial and sexual aspects are intertwined”, the expert recognised, pointing however to the root cause of the problem: “the claim to power” in which founders believe they are entitled to everything they desire.

“And that’s where control, supervision and, if necessary, intervention is needed” on the part of the Vatican and which the Pope’s new rules are designed to provide, Zollner said.

For his part, Benedictine priest and canon lawyer Stephan Haering – a professor of canon law and ecclesiastical legal history at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich – coincided with a judgment also expressed by Zollner, that the Pope’s new rules reflect the fact “that the Vatican does not fully trust all bishops to judge and regulate things appropriately” with regard to the foundation of new Church movements.

“There is sometimes the danger with particularly pious people that they get caught up in certain ideas and then think they have to start something new. But not every idea comes from the Holy Spirit”, Haering explained.

Warning against the proliferation in the Church of a “colourful multitude of quite small, individual communities”, the religious nonetheless acknowledged that “a certain plurality is certainly legitimate, for example in the forms of piety. After all, charisms should have their place and flourish in the Church”.

“But it may well be that someone wants to create his own niche and cultivate his own ‘garden’, and does not pay any attention to the needs of the Church”, Haering alerted.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.