Vatican closes museums, tightens rules for new religious orders

Vatican closes museums, tightens rules for new religious orders

Pope Francis delivers his blessing from his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Credit: Vatican News via AP.)

On Wednesday the Vatican ordered the closure of its own museums as part of a new, broader national lockdown in Italy, and also required local bishops to seek Rome’s approval before creating new religious orders.

ROME – In two significant moves announced Wednesday, the Vatican ordered the closure of its own museums as part of a new, broader national lockdown in Italy, and also required local bishops to seek Rome’s approval before creating new religious orders.

Italy signed a new decreto del president del consiglio dei ministri (dcpm), which is essentially a decree from the Prime Minister, announcing, among other things, a national curfew of 10p.m., strict distancing learning for high-schoolers, the closure on weekends and holidays of large shops, and the closure of museums.

In keeping with Italian state norms, the Vatican issued a Nov. 4 statement stipulating that its museums and villas will be closed from Thursday, Nov. 5 until Dec. 3 to curb the spread of the coronavirus amid Italy’s mounting numbers.

While the country, which recorded 28,244 new cases and 353 deaths Tuesday, has not gone back into a full lockdown like other European countries such as France and the UK, it will be divided into three different categories based on infection rates.

So-called “green” regions with a low number of COVID-19 cases will have no added rules apart from the national restrictions, whereas “orange” regions with growing numbers will face a ban on travel to other regions, as well as the closure of bars and restaurants, including ice cream and sweet shops. “Red” regions will enter a full lockdown, with everything apart from grocery stores, retail shops, newsstands and hairdressers will be closed. In these areas, all activities related to school or sports will be barred for high schoolers.

The Vatican closed its museums – its main money-making branch – in March amid Italy’s large-scale coronavirus outbreak. They reopened to visitors in June with strict sanitary and distancing requirements, including a temperature check upon entrance.

Pope Francis also recently suspended his weekly public general audiences after an attendee tested positive for the coronavirus. He is now livestreaming them from the library of the Vatican’s apostolic palace, as he did during the spring outbreak.

In a separate, yet largely significant move, the Vatican Wednesday also issued new legislation modifying Canon 579 of the Code of Canon Law, requiring diocesan bishops to seek Rome’s approval before establishing a new religious order.

According to the original text, canon 579 states – with added emphasis – that “Diocesan bishops, each in his own territory, can erect institutes of consecrated life by formal decree, provided that the Apostolic See has been consulted,” whereas the new version published Wednesday stipulates that bishops “can validly establish institutes of consecrated life by formal decree, with the prior written permission of the Apostolic See.”

The decree, which goes into effect Nov. 10, insists that while discernment of the “ecclesiality and reliability of charisms” is the responsibility of local bishops, “it is the duty of the Apostolic See to accompany pastors in the discernment process” and therefore, the creation of new orders “must be officially recognized by the Apostolic See, which alone has the final judgement.”

This move is important not only because it centralizes control over the creation of new orders, but it also allows closer monitoring of new communities and orders at a time when the Church is reeling from abuse scandals.

For years, victims and critics have argued that one of the underlying causes of abuse within communities has been a lack of oversight and loose requirements for the creation of a new order to begin with.

Skeptics might argue that the new rule won’t change much if stricter norms and more careful attention aren’t observed at the Vatican-level, however, the change in legislation could be an initial effort to get on top of systemic gaps which for years have allowed internal problems to fly under the radar unnoticed until scandal breaks.

Pope Francis’s decision to tighten his grip on creating new orders also strengthens the authority of Brazilian Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, who since 2011 has overseen the Vatican’s Congregation for Religious and is widely seen as a close Francis ally inside the Roman Curia.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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