A forthcoming Vatican instruction soon to be published is to insist on “mutual respect” between religious and bishops, according to a media report.

– Overhaul of 40-year-old document designed to avoid twin risks of presence without connection and service without presence

Spanish Catholic news website Vida Nueva broke the news of the new instruction earlier this month, which it said will replace the document Mutuae relationes, the “Directives for the Mutual Relations between Bishops and Religious” published by the Congregation for Religious and for Secular Institutes and the Congregation for Bishops in 1978.

The new instruction has been prepared by a Vatican commission headed by the Capuchin and auxiliary bishop of Milan Paolo Martinelli and consisting of officials of the Congregation for Bishops and the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, along with input from the worldwide superiors of male and female religious orders and from the Vatican Secretary of State, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Vida Nueva obtained access to the new instruction – provisionally entitled “Directory on the Relationship between the Bishops and Consecrated Life in the Communion and the Mission of the Church” – which the publication said rests on three pillars:

  1. The ecclesiology of communion, a concept from the Second Vatican Council
  2. The coessentiality between the hierarchical gifts of the pastor and the charismatic gifts of the consecrated
  3. The autonomy of religious life: its place in the local Church is recognised, with the emphasis, however, that it must be in communion with the local bishop

“Mutual respect for each other’s diversity must prevail”, told Vida Nueva one of the curial officials involved in the drafting of the instruction, who preferred to remain anonymous.

“The aim is to avoid two risks”, the official explained: “that of the community of consecrated persons being present in the diocese without a link to its life and pastoral work, and that of its presence being reduced only to the functional aspect of the services it provides”.

– What to do with a house when a community closes its doors, and other problems

That official’s words aside, there are often other obstacles to the peaceful coexistence and cooperation between communities of men and women religious and the bishops of the dioceses in which they are located that the new Vatican instruction seeks to tackle.

Those hurdles include, for example, the vexed issue of what to do when a community of religious closes its doors and another use must be found for the house it occupied.

On that point, the forthcoming Vatican instruction is expected to emphasise that religious communities are not obliged to donate their newly-emptied houses to the diocese, even if it is considered best practice to consult with the bishop about the closure.

“The properties of religious are ecclesiastical and therefore as far as possible should remain with the Church”, a Vatican source added to Vida Nueva.

“This does not mean that, when a congregation wants to leave a building, it has to give it to the bishop, but it must dialogue with him. Many say that they are not interested”, the official explained.

– Praise for “feminine genius” of women religious

Other novelties in the new Vatican instruction on the relationship between religious and bishops include a broadening of the notion of consecrated life to include other Church realities such as orders of consecrated virgins, of hermits and of widowers and widows, in contrast to the 1978 Mutuae relationes.

Vida Nueva also reported that the new document contains a strong appreciation of the roles women religious especially play in the global Church, in parishes, schools, hospitals, nursing homes and many other ministries besides.

That praise of the work nuns do leads the drafters of the instruction to plead with the world’s bishops that women religious be heard and taken into greater account in the life of the local Church, and that their “feminine genius” be allowed to develop, especially, in the planning for and carrying out of diocesan pastoral plans.

More news on Novena on religious life:

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Camillians cry on feast of founder: “The pandemic is not a divine scourge”

Vatican event honours selfless humanitarian efforts of women religious around the world

Former Benedictine Abbot Primate questions Church hierarchies: “I find none of it in the Gospels”


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