A correct interpretation of the actual scope of the recent motu proprio on Opus Dei "Ad charisma tuendum" requires the use of two hermeneutical keys provided by Pope Francis himself in the document.
The first key point is the express reference made in the motu proprio 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 provides in a general way for the competence, henceforth, of the Dicastery for the Clergy, and no longer of the Dicastery for Bishops, for all that pertains to the Apostolic See in matters of personal prelatures.
For the rest, the structure and content of the Apostolic Constitution "Ut sit", summarized incisively by St. John Paul II himself in the Speech delivered on March 17, 2001 before the participants in a meeting promoted by the Prelature of Opus Dei. In that address, the Holy Pontiff, in unequivocal expressions, not only described 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 reaffirmed the "hierarchical nature of Opus Dei, established in the Apostolic Constitution by which I erected the Prelature."
From this hierarchical character, St. John Paul II drew "pastoral considerations rich in practical applications," emphasizing "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, just as the Second Vatican Council foresaw when it established the figure of personal prelatures.
This reference to the Second Vatican Council is highly 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.
As is well known, the last Council, in foreseeing the possibility of establishing "special dioceses or personal prelatures and other such provisions" in order to facilitate "not only the convenient distribution of priests, but also pastoral works peculiar to the various social groups to be carried out in any region or nation, or in any part of the earth" (Decree "Presbyterorum Ordinis".The Bishop omitted to outline its precise contours, preferring to leave room for a future ecclesial dynamism and an articulated discipline, "according to modules to be determined for each case, with the rights of the local ordinaries always being preserved".
The application of the council
The successive interventions of the Roman Pontiffs, in implementing the perspective indicated by the Council, left these spaces open: this is the case of the motu proprio "Ecclesiae Sanctae" The Code of Canon Law of St. Paul VI (August 6, 1966) and, above all, 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.
It should be noted, however, that the Code of Canon Law of 1983 (unlike the previous Code, which admitted the existence of the simple honorary title of prelate), uses the term "prelate" exclusively to indicate subjects other than diocesan bishops, but who have, like them, the power of proper ordinaries with respect to areas of exercise of the power of government called "prelatures," further specified with the qualifier 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 configurations which, concretely, the individual prelatures could receive in the statutes given to each one by the Supreme Authority of the Church.
The prelate's episcopate
In this broad area of freedom, the Code of Canon Law does not foresee the necessity, but neither does it exclude the possibility, of the prelate being invested with the episcopal dignity, this choice depending 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, on whom, among other things, he himself personally conferred episcopal ordination.
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 (think of the apostolic prefectures in mission territories).
To this must be added that - as is well known - in the perspective of an exercise of the functions of government not limited to bishops alone, 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, Apostolic Administrators permanently constituted, Apostolic Vicars and Apostolic Prefects, and Abbots of monastic congregations.
The motu proprio Ad charisma tuendum
Therefore, if it is accepted without difficulty that the functions of a prelate can be entrusted to a priest, this does not prevent personal prelatures from always involving the exercise of the power of ecclesiastical government, if only because, as foreseen in canon 295, paragraph 1, the personal prelate "has the right to establish 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 intends, appropriately, 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 that the Roman Pontiff usually uses to institute the 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", the Magisterium of the Council, far from imposing a clear separation between the charismatic dimension and the institutional-hierarchical dimension of the Opus Deishould be read as an invitation to live with "a new dynamism" (cf. St. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter "The New Dynamism of the Church").Novo millennio ineunte"15) 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 it 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 of "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 engaged in apostolic works".
A task which, precisely because it is pastoral, cannot but be shared with the Pastors of the Church and which, in terms of its content, does not refer to specific categories of subjects, but involves all the faithful, called to holiness by virtue of Baptism and not by reason of a particular choice of life.
Professor of Canon Law and Ecclesiastical Law
University of Verona