By Hannah Brockhaus
Pope Francis amended canon law Tuesday to create a new mechanism for dismissing a religious man or woman who has deserted their community.
Under the new law, promulgated by the pope in an apostolic letter issued “motu proprio,” superiors can declare a member dismissed ipso facto if they have been illicitly absent from the community for more than a year and cannot be located.
“Community life is an essential element of religious life,” Francis stated in the letter, titled Communis vita (“Common life”) and issued March 26. He cited canon 665 of the Code of Canon Law, which provides that “religious must live in their own religious house observing common life and cannot be absent without permission of their superior.”
Under the current provisions of canon 694, which the motu proprio reforms, the ipso facto dismissal of a member of a religious community can be declared for two reasons: that he or she has “defected notoriously from the Catholic faith,” or “has contracted marriage or attempted it, even only civilly.”
With Tuesday’s change, Pope Francis added the ground of desertion of the community.
Now, if a member of a religious community is “absent from the religious house illegitimately, in accordance with can. 665 § 2, for twelve months without interruption” they too can be declared dismissed from the community, provided that their superiors are otherwise unable to locate or contact them.
Depending on the constitution of the religious order, decrees of dismissal must be confirmed by the Holy See or by the local bishop.
Francis noted that canon law already provides a procedure for dealing with the illegitimate absence of a religious member, whereby a religious superior may begin the process of dismissal after at least six months’ absence, but that this process is difficult to conclude with legal certainty when the religious member’s whereabouts are unknown.
The new norms go into effect April 10, 2019. Diocesan bishops already have the ability in law to petition the Congregation for Clergy to laicize priests who have deserted their ministry and cannot be located, though in the case of a priest he must be absent for five years before any action can be taken.
The pope explained that he made the change for religious “to help the institutions observe the necessary discipline and be able to proceed to the dismissal of the illegitimately absent religious,” especially in cases where they cannot be found.
The existing norms require the superior to contact any absent religious member and to encourage him or her to return to the religious community and to “persevere in his or her vocation,” before taking action to dismiss.
Canon 729 was also expanded to make clear that while members of secular institutes may be dismissed ipso facto for having contracted or attempted to contract marriage, or for having left the Catholic faith, they are not bound to community life in the same way.
Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, the secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, stated that religious superiors had the obligation to protect “the common good that is expressed in common life,” which was a fundamental part of the religious life.
But, he said, love for the absent member remained an obligation.
Rodríguez recalled the 1994 document Fraternal Life in Community, which described the shared responsibility of common life which “pushes us to love our brothers and sisters to the point of assuming their weaknesses, their problems, their difficulties.”
At the same time, he said, the document “recalls the commitment to preserve the sense of a common life ‘built by persons whom Christ has liberated and made capable of loving as he did, by the gift of his liberating love and the heartfelt acceptance of those he gives us as guides.’”
Rodríguez explained that the pope’s reform, making it easier to declare a dismissal, does not excuse superiors from the duty of looking for the absent religious member “with the possible means available.”
The cause for dismissal, he said, is established by “the fact” that the person cannot be found, and “cannot be invoked to discourage the responsibility of investigations and even less to hastily close the ‘case.’”