ROME, Italy — The Vatican took steps Friday to better regulate 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 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.
The Vatican's laity office oversees some 109 international lay associations, including the Neocatechumenal Way, Communion and Liberation, the Focolare 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, to 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 that Francis, a Jesuit, knows well that members of small religious communities can be manipulated and said the decree “is a warning to all of them.”
“This is very big," Faggioli said of the new regulations While the decree only applies to the groups that fall under the Vatican's laity office, “it sends a message to everyone else," he said.
Faggioli noted that under the papacy of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, lay religious movements were often seen as the future of the Catholic Church and were largely left to govern themselves as long as they remained orthodox and faithful to the Holy See.
But he said that recent years had shown the communities can foster an unhealthy culture and “dynamics of power," especially surrounding their charismatic founders.
There have been several cases recently of lay movement founders who sexually abused their members and situations when founders refused to relinquish control of their communities, even after the Vatican stepped in.