ROME – Once described by a top Vatican official as “the unplanned pregnancies” of the Catholic Church, lay movements and associations for decades have been a thorn in the Vatican’s side due to ongoing revelations of various forms of abuse from a swath of lay founders.

For years, much of the blame for failing to recognize the double-lives of founders such as Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari of the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae or Italian layman Piero Alfio Capuna, also known as “the Archangel,” of the lay-led Catholic Culture and Environment Association (ACCA) , is the lack of a clear oversight mechanism, given that the associations are lay-led, rather than clerical, and therefore are not directly subject to the authority of the local bishops where they operate.

In a decree signed on June 3 by American Cardinal Kevin Farrell, head of the Vatican’s department for Laity, Family, and Life – which oversees lay associations and movements –and published June 11, the Vatican attempted to close this gap.

While recognizing “that the faithful have, because of their baptism, the right of association” and the freedom to found and govern these associations, the decree also clarified that “The internal government of associations…should, however, be exercised within the limits established by the general norms of the Church, the statutory norms of each association, and in conformity with the dispositions of the ecclesiastical authority competent for their recognition and for the supervision of their life and activities.”

Since the Second Vatican Council, lay movements and associations “have flourished considerably, producing an abundance of graces and apostolic fruits for the Church and the world of today,” it said.

Yet in order to “prudently” govern these associations, the Vatican said it was necessary to take steps such as setting term limits for leaders and others in leadership “in order to promote a healthy renewal and to prevent misappropriations that have indeed led to violations and abuses.”

Among other things, the decree imposes a 5-year term limit for those holding positions in the central governing body of these movements at the international level, which can be renewed once for a total of 10 consecutive years.

After 10 years have already been served, a person is able to be elected again, but only after a stepping down for one full term.

Movements and associations with leaders who have already been in power for 10 years are more under the new decree are required to organize elections for a new leader “no later than” two years from when the decree goes into effect, meaning it must be done by 2023.

Founders themselves, who traditionally have led their communities for decades with no interim or break from leadership responsibilities, can be dispensed from these rules, but only by the Vatican department for Laity, Family and Life.

All pleno iure, or “full right” members of these associations and movements are required “to have active voice, direct or indirect,” in electing leaders for the community’s international governing body.

The new norms, which abrogate any previous contradictory rules, go into effect in September.

In an article on the new norms published June 11 in Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Jesuit Father Ulrich Rhode, a professor of Canon Law at the Pontifical Gregorian University, noted that until now, the governing bodies of lay associations “have not been the subject of many canonical norms.”

“In particular, associations enjoyed a high level of freedom – perhaps too high – as regards the way of conferring offices and the maximum duration of mandates,” he said, noting that in the past, “a notable difference could be observed between associations of the faithful and institutes of consecrated life.”

Rhode said the law targets “negative experiences that have occurred in the case of associations which have retained the same people in government positions for a long time,” the tendency in certain associations to “not effectively involve all members in the choice of who governs.”

“The decree shows that the dicastery intends to counter the risks of an exaggerated freedom of associations,” he said, adding that by putting out general norms applicable to all associations and movements rather than targeting specific communities, the Vatican “avoids the risk of an arbitrary – or indeed abusive – use of the supervisory power of the ecclesiastical authority.”

These new norms follow the recent publication of a revised version of the Vatican’s penal code, which includes new provisions for non-ordained religious and laypeople, such as a catechist or the head of a lay movement, instead of just priests.

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