Pope Francis issued a new motu proprio Tuesday amending canon law on the leader and members of Opus Dei, the Church’s only personal prelature.
The changes, which cover two canons in the Code of Canon Law, technically apply to all personal prelatures, although there is actually only one such prelature existing in the Church.
But what do Francis’ latest legal amendments mean for Opus Dei in practice? And what is a personal prelature, anyway?
The Pillar explains.
What is a personal prelature?
In the early 1940s, the bishops of France decided to found a mission of priests: a seminary where priests would be formed to evangelize in French dioceses which were both poor, and increasingly secular. The idea was that the priest would not be members of religious orders, but would be secular priests, without vows of the evangelical counsels, who were organized for the purpose of a mission, rather than a territory.
To accomplish that a seminary was set up. But the priests needed a structure — a way to be secular priests — like diocesan priests —- without being bound to a particular territory. Eventually the seminary became a territorial prelature — with the grounds of the seminary, and not much more, constituting their own ecclesiastical entity, equivalent in law to a diocese, but very small — allowing a kind of legal fiction, in which priests could be ordained and incardinated in the prelature, accountable to a prelate, but sent on mission beyond its borders.
That idea picked up some steam in the ensuing decades, with the notion emerging in some ecclesial circles that sometimes, secular priests might be best directed to a mission which was not tied to a territory, but organized for some particular apostolic work, or for ministry with some particular group of people.
The Second Vatican Council documented this idea, noting in Presbyterorum ordinis that “present norms of incardination … should be so revised that … they will better correspond to today’s pastoral needs.”
Among the council’s practical suggestions was that “prelatures” should be set up so that “according to their particular statutes and always saving the right of bishops, priests may be trained and incardinated for the good of the whole Church.”
The Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1983 to codify the decrees of Vatican II, established that if bishops’ conferences were consulted, “the Apostolic See can erect personal prelatures, which consist of presbyters and deacons of the secular clergy, to promote a suitable distribution of presbyters or to accomplish particular pastoral or missionary works for various regions or for different social groups.”
But while the idea had support from the Fathers of Vatican II, it did not gain traction after, and only one prelature was actually established: Opus Dei.
Ok, so then, what’s Opus Dei?
Opus Dei — “Work of God” — is an international Catholic organization founded in Spain, in 1928, by St. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, who was canonized in 2002.
The organization began as a program of Catholic spiritual and intellectual formation for laymen, and began admitting women to its programs of formation two years after its foundation.
For the nearly 100,000 Catholics (lay and clerical) affiliated with the group, Opus Dei “aims at holiness in their ordinary lives, especially through their everyday work.”
Opus Dei was founded well before the notion of personal prelatures existed, and initially was approved by the Vatican as a “secular institute,” a particular canonical form of consecrated life.
But Opus Dei leaders did not believe the structure of a secular institute actually fit Opus Dei — and eventually the institute was approved as the first and — to date — only personal prelature in the life of the Church.
Pope St. John Paul II established Opus Dei as a personal prelature in 1982, seven years after Escrivá’s death, with the apostolic constitution Ut sit.
Escriva was the founder and long-time leader of Opus Dei. His successor was Álvaro del Portillo, who was the first prelate of Opus Dei, and was ordained a bishop in 1991, three years before his death. He was succeeded in 1994 by Javier Echevarría Rodríguez, who became a bishop a year later.
Following Echevarría’s death in 2016, Msgr. Fernando Ocáriz became prelate and the expectation was he too would be consecrated a bishop.
But in another motu proprio issued last year, Pope Francis announced that the head of Opus Dei would no longer be a bishop.
That change, the pope said, was “intended to strengthen the conviction that, for the protection of the particular gift of the Spirit, a form of governance based on charism more than on hierarchical authority is needed.”
In addition to incardinated clerics, Opus Dei also involves Catholics closely affiliated with and participating in their work, called “numeraries.”
Numeraries devote themselves fully to the personal prelature, observing celibacy and often living in communal houses, while working either secular jobs or working directly in Opus Dei apostolates or projects.
The prelature also has “supernumeraries,” who are often married and who follow the spirituality of Opus Dei, and “cooperators” who supporting the organization and its work at a less committed level. There are also diocesan priests and bishops associated with Opus Dei, through an organization called the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross.
Catholics affiliated with the prelature are expected to follow a daily prayer rule that includes a morning offering, mental prayer, spiritual reading, and the recitation of the common prayers of Opus Dei.
While they are formally connected to the prelature, numeraries, supernumeraries, and cooperators remain subject of their own diocesan bishops and pastors, except in regard to specifically delineated issues related to the prelature’s mission.
Who’s a member of Opus Dei?
That is a good question, and canon lawyers have been arguing about it for a long time — largely because of a tension between the Church’s law on personal prelatures and the statutes of Opus Dei, its only existing prelature.
Even before Pope Francis’ announced changes, canon law said that prelatures “consist of presbyters and deacons of the secular clergy” — indicated that those priests and deacons incardinated in the structure are its members.
Canon law even provided — before Francis’ motu proprio — for lay people to “dedicate themselves to the apostolic works of a personal prelature by agreements entered into with the prelature.”
Nevertheless the statutes of Opus Dei —approved by Pope St. John Paul II — talk about the “admission” of lay Catholics to the prelature, and talk about “lay members” of the prelature, and Pope St. John Paul II spoke several times about the “lay members” of Opus Dei.
While canon law allows that the organization’s statutes can determine the nature of lay cooperation with a prelature, the Opus Dei statutes extend from cooperation to incorporation, which has prompted canonical debate in some circles — especially about the protections of rights for laity connected to Opus Dei, and about ecclesiastical oversight and governance over the laity connected to Opus Dei.
Ok, so what’s changed?
In the motu proprio issued this week, Pope Francis made additions to canons 296 and 297 of the Code of Canon Law.
Noting that the code brackets personal prelatures next to associations of the Christian faithful — as opposed to either dioceses or religious societies — Pope Francis explained in his letter that personal prelatures were first envisaged to assist with “special pastoral or missionary initiatives in favor of certain regions or social groups.”
Francis also made clear that the intention expressed in canon law has always been for prelatures to be “composed of priests of the secular clergy, in possession of a particular formation, endowed with their own statutes and under the direction of their own prelate” — but with no expectation or provision for lay members, properly speaking.
Instead, Francis wrote Tuesday, personal prelatures should be legally considered as, effectively, “public clerical associations of pontifical right with the faculty of incardinating clerics” erected by the Holy See, and ordered a change to the text of canon 296 to include this language.
It was because personal prelatures were always intended to be clerical in membership, the pope suggested, that the apostolic constitution Praedicate evangelium (promulgated last year) placed oversight of Opus Dei under the Dicastery for Clergy.
Perhaps the most important change Francis made to canon law with his new motu proprio is his inclusion of a reference to another canon in the text of c. 296.
The text formerly read “Lay persons can dedicate themselves to the apostolic works of a personal prelature by agreements entered into with the prelature. The statutes, however, are to determine suitably the manner of this organic cooperation and the principal duties and rights connected to it.”
Now, following Francis’ most recent reform, the canon is amended to say: “Respecting the provisions of can. 107 and according to the provisions and agreements entered into with the prelature, the laity can dedicate themselves to the apostolic works of the personal prelature; but the manner of this organic cooperation and the main duties and rights connected with it shall be determined appropriately in the statutes.”
The insertion of a reference to c. 107 is significant, since that canon defines the pastor and ordinary (bishop) to whom a Catholic is subject by their place of residence.
The change appears aimed at clarifying ongoing debate about whether numerary and supernumeraries of Opus Dei are under the ecclesiastical authority of the prelate as if he were their pastor or diocesan bishop — or whether cooperation with Opus Dei in some other way changes the ordinary relationship between a bishop and his subjects.
What happens next?
The pope’s changes to the canons on personal prelatures make frequent reference to the statutes of personal prelatures, noting that the statutes can clarify or define with greater specificity than a universal law.
Opus Dei — still the only existing personal prelature in the life of the Church — recently convened an extraordinary general congress — its first since 1969.
The congress was held to revise the statutes of Opus Dei in line with a 2022 papal motu proprio, which clarified the prelature’s relationship with the Holy See, and that the prelate would no longer be a bishop.
In that letter, Francis wrote that, to better protect Opus Dei’s defining mission, it needed “a form of governance based on charism more than on hierarchical authority.”
Following the conclusion of that congress, proposed revisions to the prelature’s statutes were submitted for Vatican approval.
In light of the pope’s most recent changes, the final version is likely to clarify even further the exact status and nature of lay “membership” of Opus Dei — with an emphasis on the idea of laity as collaborators with the prelature, rather than as “members.”
If other personal prelatures are erected in the Church’s life, the motu proprio will also impact their founding documents. It has long been considered, for example, that if a traditionalist group like the Society of St. Pius X were to be reconciled with the Church — a prospect that would not be easily accomplished — it could be established as a personal prelature, emphasizing that laity who worship at the prelature’s chapels remain subject to their ordinary bishop.
There has also been speculation that prelatures could be established for the pastoral care of migrants living far from their home countries — if such a thing were to happen in the future, the pope’s new motu proprio would emphasize that while clerics were ordained for pastoral ministry, those who received that pastoral care would remain under the ordinary jurisdiction of their bishops.
For its part, Opus Dei has said it will study the pope’s new motu proprio, and that its revision of statutes will reflect the direction of the pope.