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Pope Francis allows lay members to govern clerical religious orders

Pope Francis changed canon law Wednesday to allow for lay members to lead clerical religious orders. The change allows for non-ordained religious brothers to assume the office of major superior — a governing rank equivalent to a bishop in canon law.

Following the change, Lay members of some clerical religious orders are now eligible to serve as superiors in their orders at the global level, with Vatican approval. 

Pope Francis greets members of a religious order during his traditional Wednesday General Audience, May 4, 2022. Credit: SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo


The canonical reform means that lay religious can exercise the canonical power of governance, including over the order’s ordained members. That includes the power of superiors to grant and remove sacramental faculties for clerical members - priests and deacons - under their jurisdiction.

“A non-clerical member of an Institute of Consecrated Life or of a Clerical Society of Apostolic Life of pontifical right is appointed major superior, after having obtained a written license from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life at the request of the Supreme Moderator with the consent of the Council,” according to the rescript published by the Vatican May 18.

Lay members of clerical instititutes can now be elected as major superiors through the canonical process known as postulation, in which a candidate with some otherwise impeding condition is elected and proposed to the Vatican for confirmation despite the impediment. 

In this case, according to the rescript issued by the pope, lay candidates who are elected will be considered by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) who will “evaluate the individual case and the reasons given by the Supreme Moderator or by the General Chapter” for the election of the lay member before issuing a written permission for the candidate to be confirmed.

The wording of the rescript suggests the election of lay major superiors would be approved as exceptions on a case-by-case basis, but the text effectively changes the norms of the Code of Canon Law which defines clerical orders as those which “by reason of the purpose or design intended by the founder or by virtue of legitimate tradition, [are] under the direction of clerics” in canon 588 §2, though the rescript does not alter the text of the canon itself.

As legal instruments in canon law, rescripts are a mechanism for granting a special privilege, dispensation, or other favor at someone’s request. The change is likely an accommodation for those religious orders, like some Francisican orders, with a historical tradition of lay leadership.

The rescript also allows for lay religious of the same orders to be appointed as local superiors by the major superior without approval from the congregation.

The change has potentially significant implications for the exercise of governance in the Church. 

Canon 134 defines major superiors as “ordinaries”, which are those “who at least possess ordinary executive power” of governance. 

The general canonical principle in canon law is that only “those who have received sacred orders are qualified, according to the norm of the prescripts of the law, for the power of governance, which exists in the Church by divine institution and is also called the power of jurisdiction.” 

The Code of Canon law provides that “lay members of the Christian faithful can cooperate in the exercise of this same power according to the norm of law,” but the definition and scope of “cooperation” in the exercise of governance is often debated in Church legal circles.

Its significance will likely be fiercely debated among canonists. In the legal tradition of the Church, the exercise of the power of governance has been theologically linked to ordination, uniting the pastoral and governing functions of Church and holding that sacred orders makes one capable of exercising governing power in one’s own right.

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Wednesday’s rescript is significant because it allows a lay religious to serve as major superior, exercising at least executive power of governance over clerical institutes and societies — meaning a lay person will have governing authority over clerics. In addition to the power to grant and remove some sacramental faculties to priest members of religious orders, major superiors also have the authority to discipline members in many matters of penal law.

Lay religious, both men and woman, already serve as superiors of lay institutes which “by virtue of [their] nature, character, and purpose [have] a proper function defined by the founder or by legitimate tradition, which does not include the exercise of sacred orders,” and thus do not have ordained members.

The legal change comes into force with immediate effect.

Although the rescript was published on Wednesday, it was issued by Pope Francis on Feb. 11, just over a month before the pope promulgated Evangelium praedicate, the new governing constitution for the Roman curia. 

That constitution created the possibility for laymen and women to lead curial departments and assume other offices and functions which had been legally restricted to clerics under the previous law.

The rescript is the latest in a series of ongoing reforms Pope Francis has made to canon law during his nine-year pontificate. In addition to the apostolic constitution on the Roman curia, last year the pope issued a revised edition of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, which is the Church’s universal penal code.

Francis has also issued a series of motu proprios, individual pieces of papal legislation, on issues ranging from episcopal accountability to the faculties of clerics to lift certain canonical penalties in the sacrament of reconciliation.

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