Vatican regulates lay movements to prevent governance abuses

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Pope Francis is greeted by faithful during his weekly general audience in the San Damaso courtyard, at the Vatican, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

ROME – The Vatican took steps Friday to better regulate Catholic lay religious movements by imposing term limits on their leaders and requiring internal elections to be representative of their memberships.

The Vatican’s laity office cracked down on the largely unregulated world of international associations of the faithful after some cases of abuses of authority and bad governance had been reported.

Canon lawyers and theologians said the crackdown was perhaps a sign that other lay movements, which have flourished over the last half-century but were largely left to govern themselves, might be similarly targeted. It follows the Vatican's recent decision to rewrite its sex abuse laws to also provide punishments for lay Catholics in positions of authority in the church who commit abuse, rather than to focus exclusively on clerics.

The Vatican's laity office oversees some 109 international lay associations, including the Neocatechumenal Way, Communion and Liberation, the Focolari Movement and the Sant'Egidio Community.

In the decree published Friday and an explanatory note approved by Pope Francis, the office said the governance regulations were necessary to discourage cults of personality from growing around the founders of these groups. The aim is to also reduce conflicts among members and encourage generational renewal within the communities.

The decree imposes a once-renewable five-year term on governing positions and requires that all members have a direct or indirect vote in community elections.

The laity office said the norms were needed because the absence of term limits had favored “personalization, centralization and expressions of self-referentiality which can easily cause serious violations of personal dignity and freedom, and even real abuses.”

Massimo Faggioli, a theologian and author of “The Rising Laity” and “A Brief History of the New Catholic Movements," said the Jesuit pope knows well that members of small religious communities can be manipulated by charismatic leaders.