IN a recent Workshop of the Executive Committee of the Canon Law Society of the Philippines, a nagging question was again raised: What is the canonical status of Basic Ecclesial Communities (BEC)? The matter was raised by the canon lawyers from Mindanao (priests and a bishop), because of the growing frictions between the ecclesiastical organization and the so-called basic ecclesial communities. In the past, this question had always been sidelined by the lack of any clear theological notion of such communities; hence—the argument went—it was futile to attempt a canonical analysis of the problem.
This time, however, it was pointed out that even if it might be premature to attempt a definition of the canonical status of Basic Ecclesial Communities, some working guidelines might be in order, by way of delimiting the scope of pastoral action of such communities, in accordance with Church Law. In short, even if it might not be possible to categorically state what Canon Law states these communities are, it might be possible to draw from existing legislation what these communities are not. In more practical terms, perhaps we can glean from Canon Law what these communities may and may not do.
In fact, this is the task that the Canon Law Society of the Philippines proposed to tackle in its National Convention in May 2011. As a starting point for the canonical investigation, the CLSP Execom identified a little-known document of the Holy See, which was issued in 1997. To arouse interest in this topic, we shall revisit that document in this and the following issue of the CBCP Monitor.
The Instruction Ecclesia de Mysterio
On 13 November 1997, the Pro Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, presented to the Press the Instruction Ecclesia de Mysterio, On Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests. The document reaffirmed the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (especially of Lumen Gentium, n.33 and Apostolicam Actuositatem, n.24). Its main purpose was to acknowledge and promote what is specific to the vocations of the lay faithful and of ordained ministers, with the goal of encouraging real communion in the Church.
In the decade prior to the document’s publication, Bishops, priests and lay people had been requesting authoritative directives on the identity of priests and lay people with regard to particular cases of pastoral activity improperly exercised by non ordained faithful. Thus, an Inter-dicasterial Commission was established for that purpose, coordinated by the Congregation for the Clergy and involving seven other dicasteries: the Pontifical Council for the Laity, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Congregation for Bishops, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts.
In a series of meetings, this Commission worked out a text which was sent to the Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences and to the individual Bishops of the dioceses where this issue was considered most urgent. About 92 percent of those questioned were in favor, but asked that ambiguous wording be avoided in the text, that the most authoritative legal form possible be used and, given the urgent need for clarification, that the document be published without delay. The Commission scrupulously followed these instructions.
On 15.V.1997 the text was discussed by the heads of the dicasteries of the Roman Curia in the presence of the Holy Father. Special attention was paid in this last stage to critical observations until a clear convergence of views among the bishops concerned was reached. The result of this lengthy and thorough process is the Instruction we are now considering.
Preliminary hermeneutic clarifications
For a correct understanding of the document, we must first consider some of its formal aspects.
1. An Instruction is an administrative provision. As c.34, §1 states, instructions “clarify the prescriptions of laws and elaborate on and determine an approach to be followed in implementing them”. Thus, it does not create new law, but merely insists that the law currently in force be observed. The same c.34, §1 states that they “are given for the use of those persons whose concern it is to see that the laws are implemented and oblige such persons in the execution of the laws.” Thus, an instruction has also been characterized as an internal general disposition of the ecclesiastical organization, which is directed to the authority or titleholder of an office who is charged with the execution of the law.
2. An Instruction has immediate effectivity. The document was dated 15.VIII.1997 but was not published until 13.XI.1997. Somebody could object that it gave no indication of when it would go into force. That is basically unnecessary, since an Instruction merely reminds the recipients of an obligation already in force for some time. The months elapsed between the date of approval and the day of publication were probably needed for translating the text into the various languages.
3. Involvement of 8 Dicasteries. The fact that eight dicasteries were involved in drafting the Instruction is in itself very significant. On the one hand, it can be said that this procedure conformed with the legislative provisions of the Roman Curia, according to which, what falls within the competence of different offices should be treated by all, under the coordination of the office primarily concerned with the question. Nevertheless, it would have sufficed if the document had only been signed by the Congregation for the Clergy, while noting the preceding inter-dicasterial consultation. The fact that all the dicasteries involved signed with their respective heads and secretaries clearly expressed their co responsibility as well as the importance that the Curia attaches to this subject.
4. Very limited scope of the Instruction. The Instruction has a very limited purpose and its title should be carefully read with that in mind. The subject is not collaboration between priests and lay people, but the priestly ministry in so far as lay people can collaborate in it. The document is thus concerned with only a limited area of the laity's field of activity in the Church. It is important not to forget this fact, since the vast, ordinary field of activity for lay people in the Church and the world is intentionally not considered by the Instruction. It is only concerned with giving appropriate direction to the exercise of particular functions by particular lay people.
5. Binding force of the document. The importance of the document is also underscored by the fact that the Pope approved the Instruction in forma specifica. This mode of approbation chosen by the Pope must be considered in the light of the fact that as stated in the Conclusion—by this administrative act “all particular laws, customs and faculties which are contrary to the foregoing norms, and were conceded ad experiment by the Holy See or other ecclesiastical authorities, are hereby revoked.” Thus we are spared the possible objection that an administrative act cannot derogate from the norms (laws or customs) currently in force; the intention to ensure coherent legislation in this entire matter is also apparent. Consequently any form of appeal against it is impossible.
On the other hand, we must not forget that a preponderant majority of the Bishops whose opinions were consulted for the draft had asked precisely that the most authoritative legal form possible be used.
Objectives of the Instruction
To conclude Part I of this article, let us summarize the basic objectives of the Instruction.
1. Encourage the ordained ministers and foster the ordained ministry. It seeks to encourage ordained ministers by forcefully reintroducing the subject of vocations to the priesthood, stressing that the Church's life depends on the sacrament of Holy Orders as a free, absolutely irreplaceable gift, because the ordained ministry (Bishops, priests, deacons) is part of the Church's very structure. Thus, the Instruction concludes by stating that “the solutions addressing the shortage of ordained ministers cannot be other than transitory and must be linked to a series of pastoral programs which give priority to the promotion of vocations to the Sacrament of Holy Orders.”
2. Remind the laity of their specific role. The Instruction also reminds us how the fundamental equality of Christians—based on Baptism—is compatible with an essential difference—based on Sacred Orders—and that lay Christians, precisely because of Baptism, are called to the consecratio mundi, which differs from the task of anyone who belongs, through the sacrament, to the ministerial ranks. Thus, by avoiding every form of clericalism, lay Christians are encouraged to be more aware of their identity and to give their witness in the world and in the Church without considering the exercise of ministerial duties which they may perform from time to time as a form of advancement but only as one of substitution.
3. Authentic promotion of the lay apostolate. The Instruction does not limit lay participation in the evangelical and ecclesial apostolate. On the contrary, this is encouraged in the right direction consistent with Catholic ecclesiology. “However—as Card. Ratzinger emphasized at the time—it intends to rebut and prevent the tendency towards a clericalization of the lay faithful, and the risk of creating, in reality, an ecclesial structure of parallel service to that founded on the sacrament of Orders.”
This affirmation of the future Pope Benedict XVI is of paramount importance in our proposed study of BECs.
4. Encourage terminological precision. In Article 1 of the practical provisions—¬entitled: “Need for an Appropriate Terminology”—the Instruction insists on the need for a suitable terminology, clarifying the confused use of the word ministry, which describes both the officia and the munera exercised by Pastors in virtue of the sacrament of Orders, and those exercised by the non ordained faithful.
5. Eliminate abuses. As Card. Ratzinger also affirmed at the time: “The timeliness and urgent need of this Instruction is explained in the light of the situation occurring in specific and widespread ecclesial circles, which demands, special insistence on the faithful application of the principles and norms contained in the teachings of the Magisterium and the Church's universal legislation in the concrete life of the particular Churches.”
(To be continued)