Opus Dei and Personal Prelatures

Q:  My mom is a supernumerary [i.e., a lay member] in Opus Dei.  She is freaking out because Pope Francis recently forced changes on Opus Dei’s leadership and now they have to change their statutes.  She says that the Pope is trying to destroy Opus Dei….

I read the Pope’s decree and honestly, I can’t see any reason to freak out.  It sounds like a big bureaucratic nothing.  At the same time I don’t completely understand everything the Pope said, so maybe I am missing something huge?

You can probably understand the significance of the Pope’s decree better than my mom and I can … could you decipher what Pope Francis said and tell us whether you think worrying is justified? –Preston

A: Pope Francis did indeed issue a rather brief motu proprio Apostolic Letter pertaining to Opus Dei, back in July of this year.  Called Ad charisma tuendum, it makes some changes in the role of the Prelate—the worldwide superior—of  Opus Dei, some of which are connected to the recent reorganization of the Vatican Curia (discussed in “Can Laypeople Hold Top Vatican Positions?”).  Much of the Apostolic Letter involves the structure of Opus Dei and its relationship to Rome, and is procedural in nature; but Preston has a lot of company when he admits that he doesn’t grasp the implications, because many Catholics, including a lot of canonists, are still struggling to understand what these changes will mean for Opus Dei.  Is this “a big bureaucratic nothing,” as Preston puts it, or does his mother have good reason to “freak out”?  Let’s first look at the basic structural organization of Opus Dei and the way that it functions in the Church, and then at what Pope Francis has recently changed.  Then we’ll be better equipped to draw conclusions and make assessments about the new elements of the structure of Opus Dei.

Opus Dei was founded in 1928 by Spanish Father (and now Saint) Josemaría Escrivá.  Their official websiteopus dei succinctly describes the mission of Opus Dei:

The aim of Opus Dei is to contribute to that evangelizing mission of the Church, by fostering among Christians of all social classes a life fully consistent with their faith, in the middle of the ordinary circumstances of their lives and especially through the sanctification of their work.

For Catholics, this goal is hardly strange or controversial!  It naturally fits well into the Church’s overall mission of evangelizing the world.  But unless you’re a canonist, used to peering behind the scenes at the procedural niceties and structural nuts-and-bolts of ecclesiastical institutions, it’s likely that you will miss the undeniable fact that as a Catholic entity, Opus Dei is unique—and thus extremely difficult to quantify in canonical terms.

The vast majority of Opus Dei’s nearly 100,000 members worldwide are laypeople, called supernumeraries.  They are men and women, married and single, and they live in the world and support themselves financially.  They are subject to their own diocesan bishops, just like other members of the laity are.  In other words, supernumeraries are not members of a religious institute (like the Franciscans or Carmelites), who profess the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience (c. 573, and see “Leaving a Novice in Limbo” for more on this) and who work in whatever area of ministry their institute has embraced, like teaching, medical care, or contemplative life, being supported monetarily by their institute.  On the contrary, if a doctor or a secretary becomes a member of Opus Dei, he/she continues working as a doctor or secretary and lives in the world as before.  And the doctor/secretary is not being financially supported by Opus Dei; instead, the doctor/secretary is ordinarily contributing money to Opus Dei.

So right away, we can see that Opus Dei is not a religious institute.  At this point it kind of sounds like a lay association in the Church, as described in canon 298.1: its members “strive in a common endeavor to foster a more perfect life, to promote public worship or Christian doctrine, or to exercise other works of the apostolate such as initiatives of evangelization, works of piety or charity, and those which animate the temporal order with a Christian spirit.”  In “When Can a Bishop Intervene in a Lay Association of the Faithful?” we took a look at these associations and how they are structured.

But if you look further at Opus Dei, there’s no way it can be categorized as a lay association of the faithful—because in its ranks there’s also another, very large minority of lay members who are called numeraries, and their role in Opus Dei looks a lot more like traditional members of religious institutes.  Numeraries are celibate and devote themselves to the work of Opus Dei, living together in special centers “in order to take care of those apostolic initiatives and to dedicate themselves to the formation of” other Opus Dei members (Statutes Chapter 2, 8).

So now it looks like Opus Dei has one foot in the world of lay associations, and another in the realm of religious institutes.  But it’s much more complicated than that, because there are also priests who are members of Opus Dei—in fact, many of them are incardinated directly into it.  The concept of incardination was discussed at length in “Clerical Incardination: Priests for Life, Part I” and “How Can a Priest Transfer to Another Diocese?” but in a nutshell, when a man is ordained, he must be ordained for a specific place or a specific institute (c. 265).  If he’s being ordained a Dominican priest, for example, he is incardinated into the Dominicans.  If he’s being ordained for diocesan ministry, he must be incardinated into a particular diocese.  All Catholic clergy are attached—i.e., incardinated—somewhere!  They all have a superior, and their superior not only can tell them what to do, but he is also responsible for their welfare.

Yet Opus Dei’s membership gets even more complex!  There are some diocesan clergy—who are incardinated not into Opus Dei itself, but into their own dioceses—who are also members of Opus Dei.  These priests are still answerable directly to their own diocesan bishops, but at the same time they belong to the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, a kind of sub-grouping, if you will, within Opus Dei.  They receive specific spiritual formation from Opus Dei, but hierarchically, they are not under its jurisdiction.

The fact that Opus Dei has members who are clergy, many (though not all) of whom are incardinated into it, tells us that this is much, much more than just an association of the faithful.  Typically, priests are incardinated into dioceses (and Opus Dei, which operates worldwide within many different dioceses, is clearly not one of those), or into religious institutes (and as we’ve seen above, that can’t be what Opus Dei is either).  Opus Dei has a bit of everything—which is why, when it comes to the traditional categories of Catholic structures, it doesn’t neatly fit into anything.

All that being said, it must be emphasized that there is nothing necessarily wrong with this situation!  Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Opus Dei was/is approved by Rome, and thus operates as a bona fide entity within the Catholic Church.  Opus Dei is fully Catholic and completely legit; it’s just that structurally, it’s in its own little canonical world, straddling various categories simultaneously and not really belonging to any of them.

The difficulty in categorizing Opus Dei started at its inception, long before the promulgation of the current Code of Canon Law in 1983.  Pope Pius XII officially approved Opus Dei in 1950; it was slotted rather imprecisely into the then-existing category of Catholic institutions known as secular institutes.  Pius XII had only recently established this type of institute in the Church, with his 1947 Apostolic Constitution Provida Mater Ecclesia.  The Pope explained the evolution of this new sort of entity—which was not simply a religious institute, but not just a loose grouping of Catholic laity, either:

God … has sent out His invitation, time and time again, to all the faithful, that all should seek and practice perfection, wherever they may be.  So it has come about in the working of Divine Providence that many chosen souls even in the midst of the world, so vicious and corrupt, especially in our times, have opened out to Him like flowers to the sun, souls not only full of burning zeal for that perfection to which each single soul is called, but capable in the midst of the world with a vocation that is from God of finding new and excellent ways of seeking perfection together in associations suitable to the needs of our times and yet well adapted to the search for perfection. (13)

(Readers who are familiar with texts from the Second Vatican Council may recognize here some seeds of the concept of the “universal call to holiness,” famously referenced only a few years later in Chapter V of Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.)

So in 1950, the newly established Opus Dei was considered a secular institute, with some individual modifications—despite the fact that many of its members were priests.  Its founder was understandably unsatisfied with Opus Dei’s categorization as such.  The problem, as already noted above, was not with Opus Dei itself; the problem was the limited canonical categories at that time.

An innovation suggested by the Council Fathers at Vatican II gave Opus Dei a more fitting structure.  Presbyterorum Ordinis, The Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, declared that

Where a real apostolic spirit requires it, not only should a better distribution of priests be brought about but there should also be favored such particular pastoral works as are necessary in any region or nation anywhere on earth. To accomplish this purpose there should be set up international seminaries, special personal dioceses or prelatures (vicariates), and so forth… (PO 10).

Subsequently, both Rome and Opus Dei leaders began examining the possibility of establishing Opus Dei as a prelature, rather than a secular institute.  And this was basically the state of the question when Monsignor Escrivá died in 1975.  As we all know, Pope John Paul II was elected just a couple of years later, and in 1983 he promulgated a new Code of Canon Law, which is still in force.  The 1983 code contains canons (cc. 294-297) governing a new structure in the Church: the personal prelature.  With this creation, John Paul II officially gave the Church the appropriate canonical framework for an entity like Opus Dei.  At roughly the same time Opus Dei became, and still is, a personal prelature, with the Apostolic Constitution Ut Sit (available on the Vatican website only in Latin, although an English translation is on Opus Dei’s website.  If you’re interested in all the technical details behind Opus Dei’s re-creation as a personal prelature back then, here’s an excellent account by an absolutely first-rate canonist, who’s also a member of Opus Dei).

By the way, Opus Dei happens to be the Church’s only personal prelature, at least so far.  It’s intriguing to note that when the Society of St. Pius X and the Vatican were quietly negotiating behind the scenes about the SSPX’s potential return to full communion with Rome, the possibility that the SSPX might become a personal prelature was under consideration.  (See “Canon Law and the SSPX” for a summary overview of the problematic canonical status of the SSPX.)

The canons on personal prelatures provide a structure into which Opus Dei fits very well: a personal prelature can have its own clergy, who are incardinated into it (c. 295), but it can also have members who are diocesan priests (c. 294).  And canon 296 provides that laypeople can likewise be part of a personal prelature, in accord with its own statutes.

Who’s in charge of it?  A personal prelature, as per canon 295, is governed by a prelate, a cleric “who presides over it as the proper ordinary.”  The technical term ordinary, defined in canon 134, was discussed in detail in “Our Priest Cancelled Our Wedding, So Who Else Can Validly Marry Us?” and “Canon Law and Making Private Vows,” but in a nutshell, the term ordinarily includes (1) diocesan bishops, their vicars general and episcopal vicars, and (2) superiors of religious institutes.  (Incidentally, it is curious to note that the content of canon 295 is not reflected in canon 134.)  What canon 295 is basically telling us is that a prelate who heads a personal prelature holds a lot of personal power—hierarchically, he is not subordinate to the diocesan bishops in whose dioceses his prelature operates.  This may sound like a boring technical point, but it has a direct bearing on the changes which Pope Francis recently made, so let’s focus on it now.

When John Paul II promulgated the abovementioned Ut sit, establishing Opus Dei as a personal prelature in accord with the soon-to-be promulgated new Code of Canon Law, the head of Opus Dei was Álvaro del Portillo, a priest-canonist who had succeeded Msgr. Escrivá in 1975.  His title was promptly changed to “Prelate,” and some years later he was consecrated a bishop by Pope John Paul II himself.  When Bishop (and now Blessed) del Portillo died in 1994, he was succeeded by another canonist, Father Javier Echevarría Rodríguez, whom John Paul II quickly consecrated a bishop as well.

This is all very relevant, because it became quite clear that Pope John Paul intended the Prelate of Opus Dei to be a bishop.  In his dealings with diocesan bishops around the world, regarding the work of Opus Dei in their dioceses, the Prelate was thus a hierarchical equal, speaking bishop to bishop.  Yes, every diocesan bishop always has authority within his own diocese; Opus Dei cannot forcibly enter a diocese and start running schools, giving retreats, etc., without the bishop’s okay!  But at the same time, the Bishop-Prelate of Opus Dei was not reliant on diocesan bishops when it came to internal matters like ordaining new Opus Dei priests, which obviously he could do himself if he wished; and in terms of the Church’s worldwide hierarchical structure, he was a bishop answerable directly to the Pope, like other bishops.  This is why within the Vatican Curia, matters pertaining to Opus Dei were handled by the Congregation for Bishops.

But when Bishop Echevarría died in 2016, and Opus Dei elected as his successor Father Fernando Ocáriz Braña, he was not consecrated a bishop.  Since Francis was Pope by that time, he presumably had something to do with this—although there was no public discussion about it.  To date, the current Prelate is addressed as Monsignor Ocáriz, as he is still “just” a priest.

This may sound like a minor issue, but hierarchically, it changes things quite a lot!  The internal operations of Opus Dei, and the relations of Opus Dei and the dioceses within which it operates, didn’t come to a screeching halt, but they are in fact different.  In some ways Opus Dei is now dependent on other bishops, whereas previously its leader was their equal.

This has been the situation for some years now.  Pope Francis’ new motu proprio makes it formal and official, and offers a sort of explanation for the change:

While fully respecting the nature of the specific charism described in the above-mentioned Apostolic Constitution, it is 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. Therefore, the Prelate shall not be honored with the episcopal order. (Ad charisma tuendum, Article 4)

One of the issues getting attention here from many canonists is a puzzling dichotomy which Pope Francis seems to be assuming here.  When the Pope references “a form of governance based on charism more than on hierarchical authority,” he suggests that in practice these two concepts (“charism” and “hierarchical authority”) have an either-or, rather than a both-and relationship; and that the governance of an institution in the Church is necessarily based on one or the other—not both.  True, typical religious institutes like the Franciscans or the Salesians were founded with a particular charism motivating their members, and they do not have superiors who are bishops.  But it is not logically sound to conclude automatically that therefore an institute with a charism cannot be led by a bishop!  All that one can reasonably conclude is that Opus Dei’s structure has been and is uncommon in the Church—something which everyone knew already.

Another confusing change—seemingly “just” a technical matter, but having larger practical implications—is that Pope Francis has now declared that matters regarding personal prelatures will now be handled in Rome not by the Congregation for Bishops as before, but by the Dicastery for the Clergy (see the fourth paragraph of the new motu proprio).  The Pope asserts that this is justified “considering the pre-eminent task carried out in [Opus Dei], according to the norm of law, by clerics.”  But statistically, over 95% of Opus Dei’s members are laypeople—which leads one to wonder how and why the Dicastery for the Clergy would be competent to make decisions involving and/or affecting the lay majority.

This leads us to yet another point which canonists are likewise pondering.  As a general rule, when something—anything!—is changed, this is a sign that either (a) there was a problem with it which needs to be fixed, or at least (b) it’s possible to make it better than it was before.  Thus the question which everyone is now asking is, what prompted the Pope to make this change to the structure of Opus Dei?  There don’t appear to be any publicly known issues with the overall operations of Opus Dei which would naturally have provoked the Holy See to move to alter its organizational set-up.  If, say, there had been complaints that Opus Dei’s mission was being hindered or distorted by its own hierarchical structure, it would have made perfect sense to change that structure.  But there seem to be no obvious issues.  Sure, there are some bishops, and many laypeople, who don’t care for Opus Dei for one reason or another—but the same can be said of many religious institutes and other institutions in the Church.  Huge numbers of devout Catholics (including many diocesan and religious clergy) around the globe heartily despise the Jesuit Order, for example; but one hears nothing about Rome therefore moving to change its structure!

Meanwhile, the current Prelate of Opus Dei publicly made a graceful, diplomatic statement indicating the obedience of Opus Dei to the Holy Father.  And Opus Dei’s leadership will be holding a General Congress in Rome in the coming months, in order to revise Opus Dei’s statutes to bring them into line with Ad charisma tuendum.

What will this mean for Opus Dei in practice?  Without getting into specifics—because it’s almost impossible to predict them at this point—Opus Dei’s own website now contains a Q&A discussing the effects of Ad charisma tuendum, correctly noting, “The change is in the Prelature’s relations with the Holy See.”  What happens in future, therefore, will largely be up to the Holy See—not just the Vatican’s Dicastery for Clergy, but also Pope Francis himself.  It’s understandable that some members of Opus Dei, like Preston’s mother, are “freaking out,” but since we know that God will never abandon His Church, it seems best to entrust this whole puzzling matter to Him.

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