When Can a Bishop Intervene in a Lay Association of the Faithful?

Q:  Greetings!  We have a certain Lay Association of Catholic Faithful in our diocese.  The association has a spiritual director appointed by the bishop.  That spiritual director suspended a member from the association, on the grounds of erroneous doctrinal teachings, and refuse to explain his position.  But there are concerns that this was done by the hierarchy to merge this lay association with another different lay association.

Do bishops (and their appointed legates/spiritual directors) have the authority to remove a member from a lay Catholic association on grounds such as heresy or other scandal?

Do bishops have the authority to merge two different lay associations, even if this is against the will of members of the lay association?

If a lay association in a diocese has multiple “chapters” and has a “national body” of moderators, whose decision should be followed?  The National body which the Catholic association belongs to, or the Local Ordinary? —Ednard

A:  You might think that “lay associations of the faithful” and the laws pertaining to their existence in the Catholic Church would be uncontroversial and dull.  But as Ednard’s question indicates, often that is far from the case.  Legal battles are surprisingly frequent between Catholic associations and the bishops in whose dioceses they exist—and there are sad reasons for that, which we’ll get to shortly.  Let’s first take a look at what a “lay association of the faithful” actually is, and what canon law has to say about it; and then we can look at Ednard’s case, which unfortunately seems fairly representative in terms of the problems that have arisen around it.

For starters, an association of the faithful is not to be confused with a religious institute, like the Dominicans or the Carmelites.  As we saw in “The Priesthood and the Vow of Poverty,” members of religious institutes profess the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience, often—though not always!—by taking vows and living together in common (cf. cc. 573 ff.).  In contrast, as canon 298.1 defines it, a Catholic association is exactly what its name suggests: Catholics joining together in a common endeavor to foster a more perfect life, to promote public worship or Christian doctrine, or to engage in other works of the apostolate.  Note that any Catholic can conceivably join an association of the faithful, and that’s why there are clerical associations (c. 302), lay associations, and associations to which both clergy and laypersons belong.

Some associations of the faithful are enormous in both size and scope, and their names are familiar to Catholics around the world.  The Legion of Mary, established a century ago in Ireland, and the Community of Sant’ Egidio, which was founded in Italy in 1968, are good examples: the former is an association with millions of members, that is open to both clergy and laity, while the latter is a lay association with an estimated membership of about 50,000.  There are international associations of Catholic nurses, journalists, and pharmacists.  Not all associations of the faithful are so widespread, of course; many exist in a single country, often in just one diocese.  But regardless of size, there are several types of these associations in canon law—and as is too often the case, the distinctions between them might seem clear enough on paper but things can quickly get confusing in practice.  For our purposes here, we can divide associations of the faithful into three basic categories:
(1) Private associations which have no ecclesiastical recognition;
(2) Private associations which have been recognized as such by competent authority; and
(3) Public associations.

The organization of the canons relevant to these types of associations can be rather confusing, since some canons pertain to only one category (cc. 312-326), while other canons are applicable to more than one (cc. 298-311 and cc. 327-329).  Let’s invent a realistic scenario to illustrate how this works, and we’ll soon see how Ednard’s question ties into it all.

Associations of the faithful normally start out small, even if they end up growing tremendously over the years.  Imagine that in your diocese, a handful of elderly people start meeting every Thursday at someone’s home for lunch, and then they pray the rosary together for an increase in vocations in their diocese.  Over time, the group gets fairly well organized, taking turns each week meeting at a different person’s home; and they consider themselves “members” of the group, even establishing “rules” among themselves on allowing new people to join them.

This can certainly be said to amount to a sort of de facto “lay association of the faithful,” but there is nothing official about it, and so it is not subject to any laws or outside authority (type #1 mentioned above).  After all, the Church recognizes that everyone is free to associate with other people: as Vatican II’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity observed, “man is naturally social” (Apostolicam Actuositatem 18).  Thus if you want to get together on Thursdays for lunch and then pray the rosary, that’s entirely up to you!  If this is as far as the group ever gets, there’s absolutely no need for any ecclesiastical authority to get involved.  In fact, it’s entirely possible that the clergy don’t even know that the group exists—nor do they need to know.  What you do in your own homes on Thursdays is your business.

But now let’s imagine that this Thursday-rosary-for-vocations group is really gaining momentum, and the members want to take it to the next level.  Perhaps they would like to begin some kind of publicity campaign, urging other Catholics to pray for vocations in the diocese.  Let’s say they want to put ads on the radio and on billboards, and encourage other Catholic of the diocese to form additional groups like their own; or they might even desire to expand to other dioceses.  And now the group also wants to encourage young men to consider the priesthood.  Suddenly the situation has changed: this group was originally altogether private, but the members now want to take their message—which is a Catholic message, by definition—out into the world.  The Code of Canon Law now has something to say about this.

Canon 301.1 states that it is for the competent ecclesiastical authority alone (which in our imaginary scenario would be the diocesan bishop) to erect associations of the Christian faithful which propose to hand on Christian doctrine in the name of the Church, to promote public worship, or which intend other purposes whose pursuit is, of its nature, reserved to that same ecclesiastical authority.  In short, if Catholics want to publicly send a spiritual message to other Catholics for the purposes just mentioned, your bishop needs to know about it (at least in a general way) and be fundamentally okay with what you’re doing—because the spiritual wellbeing of the Catholics of the diocese is his responsibility.  Just think of the trouble that could conceivably be caused by a group of Catholics who began (say) publicly urging other Catholics of the diocese to pray for an intention which was not theologically solid, like promotion of a brand-new medical procedure or a political policy on which the Catholic Church had no position one way or the other.  Well meaning lay Catholics have no authority on their own initiative to publicly exhort other Catholics to pray for this or that, and to urge young men whom they do not know to discern whether they have a vocation to the priesthood; the bishop does.

For this reason, if our imaginary Thursday prayer-group wants to begin doing these things, they now need to get themselves erected in a more official way as a public lay association of the faithful.  Note that if for some reason, the bishop doesn’t think that this is a good idea, the group cannot insist!  It could be, for example, that the group’s members can’t articulate the purpose of their association clearly to the bishop, who concludes that there isn’t much to it.  Alternately, there may already be an awful lot of associations of the faithful in the diocese, and the bishop doesn’t think it’s wise to create one more; or maybe there’s an existing association whose purpose overlaps with that of our Thursday prayer-group, so the bishop doesn’t see any point in reduplication.  In the latter case, the bishop might encourage the Thursday group members to join the already existing association instead.

But let’s say that the bishop agrees, and erects the group as a public association of the faithful (type #3 mentioned above).  Now a lot of canons must immediately be observed: e.g., the members are required by canon 304 to give their association a name, and to have their own statutes defining (among many other things) the purpose or objective of the association.  The statutes should state who is eligible for membership, who is in charge and how these leaders are selected, etc.  If money is going to be involved–and it usually is!–the statutes should state explicitly where it’s going to come from, and who in the association is authorized to spend it, and for what.  And the group is now subject to the vigilance of competent ecclesiastical authority, which in this case would still be the diocesan bishop: he is required to ensure that the integrity of faith and morals is preserved in the group (c. 305.1).  Depending on the circumstances, this might mean that the bishop occasionally comes to visit the group (or vice versa), that he be shown the advertising that they intend to use to promote prayer for vocations, etc.  That said, it’s important for both the bishop and the group members to keep in mind that even though the association was erected by the bishop, it is still a lay association of the faithful.  The lay members are the ones running the association; the bishop’s role is to make sure that the association’s actions and message are in accord with Catholic teaching, as per canon 315Canon 309 notes that all lawfully constituted associations have the right to make norms, have meetings, appoint moderators and administrators of goods—the bishop doesn’t make all these decisions for them.  All of these things should be spelled out clearly in the new association’s statutes.

Now let’s say that over time, our Thursday group expands to other dioceses, and even to other countries.  Who is the “competent ecclesiastical authority” over the association now?  After all, a diocesan bishop has authority only within his own diocese/over his own subjects (cf. c. 383.1).  If our imaginary group spread to (let’s say) two neighboring dioceses, they would likely wish to retain their “headquarters” in the original diocese, and have a presence in the other two.  But note that our fictitious association couldn’t enter other dioceses without the permission of their bishops: canon 312.2 tells us that a diocesan bishop must approve in writing a branch of an association that wants to operate in his diocese.  Thus if our group is operational in three dioceses, all three diocesan bishops have spiritual responsibility regarding what the group is doing in each of their dioceses.  By the way, it goes without saying that the association’s statutes will need to be rewritten to reflect this major change in its organization and scope—and once again, the responsibilities of the various parties should be clearly delineated there.  Ednard raises this issue in his question, and the answer ought to be found in his association’s statutes.

Those statutes, of course, have to be consistent with canon law, and there are some requirements laid out right in the Code of Canon Law which must be followed by all public associations of the faithful.  Canon 317.1 tells us that it is the competent ecclesiastical authority (still the diocesan bishop in our fictitious scenario) who confirms the moderator chosen by the group, or even chooses the moderator himself.  In other words, the actual election/selection process may vary from association to association, but our imaginary public association is not permitted to choose its own leader without at least the approval of the bishop.  The same canon also notes that the bishop appoints a chaplain for the association—it cannot choose its own chaplain without the bishop’s okay.

And canon 316 directly addresses a point raised by Ednard in his real-life situation: it states that a person cannot be a member of a public association if he has publicly rejected the Catholic faith or defected from it, or if he has been excommunicated from it (c. 316.1).  Furthermore, if a Catholic member of a public association of the faithful later falls into any of these categories, he is first to be warned (giving him the chance to amend), and if this fails he is to be dismissed from it (c. 316.2).  This is only common sense: if a Catholic association of the faithful has officially been erected by competent ecclesiastical authority, why should that ecclesiastical authority allow someone who has openly walked away from the Catholic Church to be a member?

The diocesan bishop in our imaginary scenario has the power to suppress the association altogether “for grave reasons,” as per canon 320.2.  This phrase tells us that the reasons for such a decision certainly cannot be frivolous; but at the same time, “grave reasons” is a broad term which leaves much to the bishop’s discretion.  Perhaps an association has strayed from its original purpose, and/or has lost its Catholic identity, or has devolved into little more than a political organization; or maybe the association’s public message has become theologically questionable.

But more concretely, it could be that the association is seen to be mismanaging money, maybe even causing public scandal as it fails to pay its bills or is discovered to have been spending wastefully.  Perhaps the bishop is rightly concerned that the association’s creditors may come to the diocese itself demanding payment—and he understandably doesn’t want to have to clean up the association’s financial mess.  There are any number of reasons why a bishop could conclude that “grave reasons” warrant suppression of a public association of the faithful, but a lot of them boil down to one thing: money.

As can be seen, “competent ecclesiastical authority” has a lot of say in the workings of a public association—and it sometimes happens that members don’t take kindly to so much intervention, which they can (rightly or wrongly) perceive as interference.  But if the group’s purpose is, as stated in canon 301.1 (and already noted above), intended “to impart Christian teaching in the name of the Church, or to promote public worship, or it is directed to other ends whose pursuit is by its nature reserved to ecclesiastical authority,” then there’s really no way to avoid the involvement of  the diocesan bishop or other competent authority.  If, in the initial stages of the establishment of the association, the members can formulate the purpose of their group in such a way that it doesn’t fall under canon 301.1, then they ought logically to be able to avoid having to ask the bishop to erect them as a public association.  In that case, they should in theory be able either to remain a de facto private association with no ecclesiastical recognition of any kind (type #1 as noted above), or, if they really want to grow and expand openly in the Church, they might be able to have themselves recognized by the bishop as a private association (type #2 noted above).  Private associations of the faithful retain far more autonomy than public ones, but their purpose and scope must fall outside the description found in canon 301.1.

Let’s change the narrative, and say that our imaginary Thursday prayer-group wants to expand and go public, but they intend firmly to stick to prayer and nothing more.  They don’t intend to get didactic, and to explain to their fellow Catholics why the priesthood is so vital to the life of the Church and of their diocese; and they don’t intend openly to be advising young men about choosing their state of life—they’ll leave that job to the bishop and other diocesan clergy.  If they can articulate their purpose correctly, there should be no need for their association to have all the oversight of a public association, since they’re not trying to teach the faithful, to promote any particular type of public worship to further their goal of praying for more vocations, or to be counseling young men about their vocations.

As a private association of the faithful (c. 321), our Thursday group is still subject to the “supervision” of the diocesan bishop in accord with canon 305.1, discussed above.  The bishop would still be responsible for overseeing their operations, but only in a very general way, ensuring that they are always directed to the common good (c. 323).  If they are a private association, they select their own moderator without any need for episcopal approval (c. 324.1), and they can even choose their own chaplain/spiritual director for themselves—the bishop only needs to “confirm” their selection, as per canon 324.2.  And the law specifically banning ex-Catholics and excommunicated persons from membership—which, as we saw above, applies to public associations (c. 316)—does not apply to private associations.

Private associations of the faithful can still be suppressed by competent ecclesiastical authority; but as canon 326.1 tells us, that authority can only do this if the association’s activity “gives rise to grave harm to ecclesiastical teaching or discipline, or causes scandal to the faithful.”  In practice, this is more limited than the unspecific “grave reasons” warranting suppression of a public association, discussed above.

If we now leave our fictitious Thursday-group scenario and focus on Ednard’s real-life situation, we can see that he certainly seems to indicate that his association is public (one clue is that the bishop directly appointed the group’s chaplain).  Based on what we’re told, we can’t safely form an opinion as to what’s really going on with Ednard’s association, and whether the bishop and his chaplain are fully justified in their actions or not—although it does sound like the bishop is acting within the law.  It would be necessary to read the statutes of the association, and to hear both sides of the story, in order to reach even a tentative conclusion as to which side is right and which is wrong.

Ednard says that there’s a perception that there were ulterior motives for removing one member of his association for heresy, and that in reality it was “done by the hierarchy to merge this lay association with another different lay association.”  Can a bishop do this, even over the objections of the two associations’ members?  Well, technically, if both associations are public, this means they were erected by the bishop himself, and as we’ve just seen he has considerable authority over them.  If the bishop has evidence that there exist grave problems in one or both of the associations, he could—at least in theory—suppress one or both of them, and then erect a new association encompassing the purposes of the original two.  But this presumes that at least some members agree to join the new association, since it makes no sense for the bishop to create one if nobody’s going to belong to it!  It also would presuppose that significant problems can be shown to exist that warrant such a move.  If such evidence is lacking, the members of the association can make recourse to Rome, on the grounds that their bishop is violating the law by suppressing them without adequate cause.

Without knowing the full story and the arguments of both sides, it’s impossible to know which side should prevail in this case.  But one thing is certain: if one or both associations have a lot of money in their treasuries, which was collected/earned by the members’ own hard work, those members will naturally view any such action by their bishop as a possible attempt to seize those funds for himself and use them for his own ends, which aren’t necessarily the ends of the association(s).  It should be easy for readers to imagine that this kind of situation can get very ugly, very fast!  This is one big reason why it is so critical for an association’s statutes to be written clearly and correctly at the outset—particularly the sections discussing the association’s physical assets.  Many an experienced canonist has been asked, after the fact, to help fix a disastrous situation resulting from an association of the faithful’s poorly written and/or incomplete statutes; and cleaning up the mess after it has already blown up can be a humanly impossible task.  If an association’s statutes state unambiguously what is to be done with its money, who has (and who doesn’t have) control over it, and what happens to it if the association disbands, this can potentially prevent a lot of headache-inducing battles between associations and their competent ecclesiastical authorities—battles which shouldn’t be happening in the first place.

Associations of the faithful exist in the Church for the same fundamental purpose as other institutions: ultimately they promote in some way the spiritual welfare of their members and of other people in the world.  As such they should never be—and should never seem to be—on a different “side” from the Church’s hierarchy, as all are supposed to be working on the same team.  Human beings will sincerely have differing opinions sometimes; but if everyone involved remembers that they’re doing this for the glory of God, it should be less difficult to resolve those differences peacefully.

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