Apostolic visitor, assistant, commissioner, delegate … when Rome intervenes with a religious institute, what are the procedures and who are the people involved? Carine Dequenne, canonist of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, explained the process to Aleteia.
Whether they are of diocesan or pontifical right, religious institutes have an autonomy of life and government. They have their own structures and their own internal governance. But sometimes, “serious reasons” require an external intervention, said Dequenne.
An investigation begins when the dicastery (Vatican department) which has jurisdiction over the 1,500 institutes of pontifical right around the world, receives warnings or concerns. These can come from members who complain to the competent authority, or from outsiders who denounce breaches of community life, or of the management of patrimony, or of the norms of canon law.
The Vatican Congregation begins an investigation by conducting interviews with the local bishop or superior. If more information is needed, an “apostolic visitation” is carried out. This is an “extraordinary” measure, to be distinguished from a “canonical” visitation, which are foreseen by Canon Law as events in the normal life of a congregation.
The “visitors” sent by the Holy See are mostly religious or priests “known for their experience, their good sense, their benevolence,” explains Dequenne. They are often two people, typically a man and a woman, “for the complementarity of their views.” These visitors go on site, interview members of the institute as well as outsiders (former members, parents, etc.). They then write a confidential report for the dicastery, describing the situation, giving their analysis and making suggestions.
If the institute’s acting government is willing to collaborate, the dicastery appoints an “apostolic assistant.” The latter assists in decisions, but has no decision-making power. He is required to report back to Rome. For example, this has been the case since September 2021 for the Dominican Sisters of the Holy Spirit.
In the second case, the exercise of the government of the institute is temporarily suspended and the Congregation for Consecrated Life appoints a “commissioner” who assumes all the powers normally attributed to superiors. This happened, for example, with the Community of the Beatitudes. The goal of this measure is to clean up the situation until the order can resume its autonomy.
In an institute of diocesan law, it is the local bishop who can take these measures, or turn to the dicastery. If the pope himself takes up the matter, as he sometimes does, he appoints a “pontifical delegate,” who will refer to the head of the Catholic Church without going through the dicastery. Benedict XVI briefly took over the case of the Community of Saint John.
These measures sometimes require collaboration between various entities of the Roman Curia, whose competencies are involved in this or that case. In any case, all these decisions made at the highest level are recorded in decrees — succinct ones — which are not published, but are not under a seal of secrecy either.