Rorate Caeli

“Authority cannot change the essential patrimony and purpose” of religious institutes: Fr de Blignières’ incisive canonical demonstration

Visit of Cardinal Sarah to the Fraternity of Saint Vincent Ferrer (the founder is second from the left)

Father Louis-Marie de Blignières, founder and Prior of the Fraternity of Saint Vincent Ferrer in Chémeré-le-Roi, France, offers here a reflection on the “Proper Law of Religious,” in the context of the publication of
Traditionis Custodes and of the CDW’s Responsa, which render almost impossible the celebration of all the sacraments according to the preconciliar liturgical books (except Mass, with certain limits).

The Pope and the Proper Law of Religious
Father Louis-Marie de Blignières [1]

Pursuant to the Responsa of the Congregation for Divine Worship, I argued,[2] as have other superiors, that the norms laid out by these Responsa do not apply to us, since our proper law guarantees us the use of the four traditional liturgical books. Indeed, “a universal law does not in any way derogate from a particular or from a special law, unless the law expressly provides otherwise” (CIC, can. 20).

Proper law is a notion in perfect continuity with the principle of subsidiarity, with the social doctrine of the Church and with canonical practice, and yet it is seriously misunderstood today, both by progressive theologians and by some traditionalists. This has several causes: the almost Jacobin centralism of modern societies, an overly positivistic philosophy of law, and an ultra-Roman ecclesiology which sees the Church as an “absolute monarchy,” and the Pope as a potentate holding unlimited powers.

This failure to understand the notion of proper law has led to the following objection being put to us: “The Pope is perfectly able to modify the Constitutions of communities or associations, and may even suppress them, if he deems it prudentially right: these communities emanate from him, since it is either he or one of his predecessors who erected them when they deemed it right.”

However, it is not in fact correct to affirm, without further qualification, that the Pope may “change the Constitutions approved by him.” Fundamentally, the practice of the evangelical counsels is a gift which comes from Christ, and is a right of the faithful. The Church guards this right faithfully (cf. can. 575). The Magisterium has consistently taught this since the 4th century (cf. Leo I, Denzinger-Schönmetzer, n. 321) up to Vatican II (Lumen Gentium n. 43, which includes references to the magisterium of Pius XI and Pius XII) and the Apostolic Exhortation Vita consecrata (1996): “The profession of the evangelical counsels is an integral part of the Church's life and a much needed incentive towards ever greater fidelity to the Gospel” (n. 3).

A canonical organisation of the practice of these counsels is necessary, so that they may constitute a public state of perfection in the Church (cf. can. 576). But it should be noted that the hierarchy does not create the various forms of religious life, which express different charisms (to use the modern phrase). It is contrary to ecclesial and historical reality (and, in fact, rather grotesque) to claim that these forms and charisms “emanate” from the hierarchy. What the hierarchy does is to authenticate and improve them, as well as to purify them of any errors (such as the absolute poverty of the Spiritual Franciscans) and of practices that are imprudent or dangerous for the perfection of the moral life.

In this regard, Vatican II offered a welcome reminder of a traditional doctrine, which had previously been less emphasised, perhaps out of excessive ‘papalism’. Religious institutes are not, in their essence, an emanation from the Church’s power of jurisdiction or from the Magisterium. Rather, they derive from the very life of the Church.

The hierarchy, following with docility the prompting of the Holy Spirit, accepts the rules presented by outstanding men and women and authentically approves these rules after further adjustments. (Lumen Gentium n. 45, cf. Perfectae Caritatis n. 1)

The hierarchy discerns and receives (or not) what comes from the founders, and gives an approval which grants the institute a canonical status; it does not create them ex nihilo. The Bishop (or the Supreme Pontiff) certainly carries out an office of “perfecter (perfector)” in relation to the “perfected (perfecti)” religious, as St. Thomas says (Summa theologiae, IIa IIae, q. 184, a. 5), but he does this by watching over matters of faith and morals. He does not create the charism, nor may he take away the “just autonomy” of the institute. On the contrary, he must protect this (cf. can. 586).

After this, the hierarchy intervenes, if required, to ensure that the means employed by the institute remain in line with its end (cf. Pastor Bonus n. 107). In the event of deviations or abuses, a Commissioner may be appointed, but he must always govern according to the proper law of the institute (Rule, Constitutions, Directory…). If circumstances are such that some of the means previously employed are no longer feasible, or are no longer effective for obtaining the proper purpose of the institute, the hierarchy may, for those reasons, make changes to the Constitutions. Thus, the Constitutions of the Fraternity of St. Vincent Ferrer provide as follows (n. 3):

The means to attain our end are, in addition to the public vow of the evangelical counsels of obedience, chastity, and poverty, the common life and regular observance according to the customs traditional among the sons of Saint Dominic, the solemn celebration of the sacred Liturgy, and the assiduous study of sacred science. In our institute these means may not be suppressed or substantially modified; however, with the exception of the vows, they may be, to a certain extent, appropriately adapted to the requirements of time and circumstances, in order to make them more effective and more apt to attain the end.

There are, in other words, certain core principles[3] which must always be upheld. As Canon Law states: “All must observe faithfully the mind and designs of the founders regarding the nature, purpose, spirit, and character of an institute, which have been sanctioned by competent ecclesiastical authority, and its sound traditions, all of which constitute the patrimony of the same institute” (can. 578). According to current discipline, it is the General Chapters of institutes that carry out modifications, which the Holy See then approves or not (except in the case of some older Orders who have a legislative privilege, such as the Order of Preachers).

In very serious cases, an institute may be suppressed by due authority (this is rare, but was the case for the Jesuits, under the pressure of the Enlightenment monarchies). This can happen if the purpose of a given institute no longer exists (as with the Military Orders founded for the defence of the Holy Land); or again, if an institute has completely deviated from its purpose, or has committed grave abuses or crimes…  But authority cannot change the essential patrimony and purpose of an institute.

It should also be borne in mind that a religious profession is a contract between the institute and the professed religious. As with any contract, it is defined by its object, and would cease to exist were this to be substantially changed. The subjects would no longer be bound by their vows if a change were made to their Constitutions on some substantial point. As regards our Fraternity, the traditional ways of life[4] (especially in the Liturgy) are clearly a part of the patrimony referred to in the Decree of erection of 1988 and the Constitutions definitively approved in 1995.

The specificity of religious obedience has to do with the very nature of religious life and religious profession; it is not a mere positive determination that the hierarchy may change. The Church is not some kind of “pious Communist party,” even if history shows us some tyrannical Pontiffs who abused their power. That each religious institute has its specific nature is recognised by law (can. 601). And it applies also in regard to the commands of the Supreme Pontiff, whom “members [of religious institutes] are bound to obey as their highest superior by reason of the sacred bond of obedience” (can. 590 §2). This point is universally acknowledged by theologians. To illustrate the point, we may quote from two members of the Society of Jesus, an institute where obedience plays a particularly strong role. Lucien Choupin, S.J., in his Nature et obligations de l’Etat religieux (Beauchesne, Paris, 1923, pp. 481-482), quotes the illustrious Jesuit Doctor, Suárez (De religione, tr. VII, L. X, c. VIII, nn. 1 and 11), as follows:

What are the limits within which the commands of superiors should be contained? The power of superiors extends more or less far, depending on the extent of their jurisdiction and authority over religious. However, this power is always limited by the Rules and Constitutions. Accordingly, however absolute may be the power of the Supreme Pontiff over all religious institutes, he may not, by virtue of the vow of obedience, command anything that is beyond the Rule or against the institute. From this point of view, he holds only the authority of the superiors themselves of the Order or Congregation. Orders given by superiors are legitimate and mandatory only insofar as they conform to the Rule. Superiors are interpreters of the Rule, but may not, in what they require, go beyond the limits laid down by the nature and Constitutions of the institute.

It is good to see this truth underlined so clearly by two theologians of the Society of Jesus, an institute in which the will and the virtue of obedience play such a universal role.

[1] This is a translation of an article originally published on the website of L’Homme Nouveau.

[2] Christmas message of 23rd December, interview in Présent of 28 December.

[3] “un noyau dur” in the original French (translator’s note).

[4] “pédagogies traditionnelles” in the original French (translator’s note).