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Considerations on the motu proprio Ad charisma tuendum about Opus Dei

We asked Professor Giuseppe Comotti, an expert jurist, to comment on the document of the Holy See (the motu proprio Ad charisma tuendum) which, on July 14, modified some aspects of the canonical regulation of Opus Dei. His considerations are based on two key interpretations.

Giuseppe Comotti·8 de septiembre de 2022·Tiempo de lectura: 5 minutos
opus dei

Original Text of the article in Spanish here

Text of the article in italian here

Translation:  Peter Damian-Grint

A correct interpretation of the real scope of the recent motu proprio Ad charisma tuendum requires the use of two hermeneutical keys provided by Pope Francis himself in the document.

The first key is the motu proprio’s express reference to the Apostolic Constitution Ut sit, with which St. John Paul II erected the personal prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei on November 28, 1982.

It seems important to me to point out that the new motu proprio does not repeal the Apostolic Constitution, but merely adapts it to the new organization of the Roman Curia, which foresees in a general way that henceforth it will be the Dicastery for the Clergy, and no longer the Dicastery for Bishops, that will have competence for everything pertaining to the Apostolic See in matters concerning personal prelatures. 

For the rest, the structure and content of the Apostolic Constitution Ut Sit, incisively summarized by St. John Paul II himself in the discourse he gave on March 17, 2001, to the participants in a meeting promoted by the prelature of Opus Dei, remains intact. In that address, the Holy Pontiff used unequivocal expressions not only to describe the prelature as ‘organically structured’, that is, composed of ‘priests and lay faithful—men and women—at the head of which is its own Prelate’, but also to reaffirm the ‘hierarchical nature of Opus Dei, established in the Apostolic Constitution by which I erected the prelature.’

From its hierarchical nature, St. John Paul II drew ‘pastoral considerations rich in practical applications’, stressing ‘that the belonging of the lay faithful both to their particular Church and to the Prelature, to which they are incorporated, makes the particular mission of the Prelature converge in the evangelizing commitment of every particular Church, as the Second Vatican Council foresaw in proposing the figure of personal prelatures.’

This reference to the Second Vatican Council is extremely significant, and constitutes the second hermeneutical key to the motu proprio Ad charisma tuendum, where the need to refer to ‘the teachings of conciliar ecclesiology on personal prelatures’ is expressly emphasized. 

It is well known that the last Council, in providing for the possibility of establishing ‘special dioceses or personal prelatures and other such providences’ in order to facilitate ‘not only the convenient distribution of priests, but also the pastoral works peculiar to the various social groups to be carried out in some region or nation, or in any part of the world’ (Decree Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 10), did not sketch out its precise contours, preferring to leave room for future ecclesial dynamism and articulated discipline, ‘according to modules to be determined for each case, the rights of the local ordinaries always being safeguarded.’

The successive interventions of the Roman Pontiffs, in putting into practice the perspective indicated by the Council, also left these spaces open. This is the case of the motu proprio Ecclesiae Sanctæ of St. Paul VI (August 6, 1966) and, above all, of the 1983 Code of Canon Law of St. John Paul II, where some provisions are dedicated to personal prelatures (canons 294–297), which can be concretized in different ways, according to the needs identified by the Holy See, which is responsible for the erection of personal prelatures.

However, it should be noted that the 1983 Code of Canon Law (unlike the previous Code, which allowed the existence of ‘prelate’ as a simple honorific title) uses the term ‘prelate’ exclusively to indicate subjects other than diocesan bishops, but who have, like them, the power of ordinaries proper to them, the power of proper ordinaries with respect to areas of exercise of the power of government called ‘prelatures’, further specified with the qualification of territorial or personal, according to the criterion adopted in each case to identify the faithful to whom the exercise of the power is addressed. Having said this, the Code of Canon Law leaves room for a wide variety of specific configurations which the individual prelatures could receive in the statutes given to each one by the supreme authority of the Church.

Within this wide space of freedom, the Code of Canon Law does not foresee the necessity—but nor does it exclude the possibility—that the prelate should be invested with the episcopal dignity: this choice depends exclusively on an evaluation by the Roman Pontiff, who alone in the Latin Church is responsible for the appointment of bishops.

The abstract compatibility of the nature of a personal prelature with the episcopal dignity of the subject at its head is confirmed, in fact, by the decision of St. John Paul II to appoint as bishops the two previous prelates of Opus Dei—indeed, he himself personally conferred episcopal ordination on them.

On the other hand, there are ecclesiastical circumscriptions of a territorial nature at the head of which there are prelates who are certainly holders of power of government of a hierarchical nature, but who, nevertheless, are not usually invested with the episcopal dignity (we could think of apostolic prefectures in mission territories).

To this must be added that—as is indicated in the motu proprio—in the perspective of an exercise of the functions of government not limited only to bishops, the pontifical insignia are not reserved by canon law exclusively to the latter, but their use is foreseen for a much wider category of subjects, even if they are not elevated to the episcopate: such as, for example, cardinals and legates of the Roman Pontiff; abbots and prelates who have jurisdiction over a territory separate from a diocese; permanently constituted apostolic administrators; apostolic vicars and apostolic prefects; and abbots of monastic congregations.

Therefore, if we can easily accept that the functions of a prelate can be entrusted to a presbyter, nevertheless personal prelatures always involve the exercise of the power of ecclesiastical government: if only because, as foreseen in canon 295, § 1, the personal prelate ‘has the right to erect a national or international seminary, as well as to incardinate students and promote them to orders with the title of service to the prelature.’

The fact that Pope Francis appropriately intends to protect the ‘charismatic’ origin of Opus Dei, ‘according to the gift of the Spirit received by St. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer’ in no way impedes the fact that the prelature, as such, has been erected by means of an Apostolic Constitution, which is the instrument usually used by the Roman Pontiff to institute ecclesiastical circumscriptions, through which the exercise of the power of government that corresponds to the hierarchy is distributed and regulated.

Consequently, the motu proprio Ad charisma tuendum, in keeping with the Magisterium of the Council, far from imposing a clear separation between the charismatic dimension and the institutional–hierarchical dimension of Opus Dei, should be read as an invitation to live with ‘a new dynamism’ (see St. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Novo millennio ineunte, no. 15) the fidelity to the charism of St. Josemaría, which the supreme authority of the Church, through the Apostolic Constitution Ut Sit, has translated into the institution of a personal prelature—that is, an instrument of a hierarchical nature.

To the prelature is entrusted what Pope Francis defines in the motu proprio as a ‘pastoral task’, to be carried out ‘under the guidance of the prelate’, and which consists in ‘spreading the call to holiness in the world, through the sanctification of work and of family and social commitments, by means of the clerics incardinated in it and with the organic cooperation of the laity who dedicate themselves to apostolic works.’

A task which, precisely because it is pastoral, cannot but be shared with the pastors of the Church and which, as regards its content, does not refer to specific categories of subjects, but involves all the faithful, who are called to holiness by virtue of Baptism and not by reason of a particular choice of life.

El autorGiuseppe Comotti

Profesor ordinario de Derecho Canónico y de Derecho eclesiástico

Università di Verona

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