The 90,000 lay members and roughly 2,000 priests of Opus Dei, a worldwide Catholic organization which is currently the Church’s lone personal prelature, learned Tuesday that Pope Francis has changed canon law in a way that may somehow affect them, though it is unclear exactly how the changes to canons 295 and 296 of the Church’s universal law will affect either Opus Dei or any other similar future outfit.

The motu proprio containing the amendments appeared in the daily bulletin from the Press Office of the Holy See on Tuesday, with no prior announcement and little in the way of explanation. The text of the motu proprio states that the changes are intended, in part, to apply the broad reforms of Praedicate evangelium, Pope Francis’s 2022 reorganization of the Vatican, to the institution of personal prelatures.

One element of that reorganization was to transfer oversight of personal prelatures from the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops to the Dicastery for Clergy, which suggested an emphasis on the idea that a prelature is primarily a grouping of clerics.

In very broad strokes, experts believe one thrust of the new changes is to confirm that while the clergy who belong to a personal prelature are under the jurisdiction of its prelate, laity who collaborate with the group remain fully subject to the authority of their local bishop. While that was already the case, experts say, recent changes to Church law, including Tuesday’s motu proprio, seem designed to underline the point.

Personal prelatures are a relatively new type of organization in the Church, first countenanced in the decree Presbyterorum ordinis on priestly formation and in a footnote of the decree Ad gentes of the II Vatican Council. To date, the only personal prelature ever juridically erected is Opus Dei, founded by St. José Maria Escriva in Spain in the late 1920s originally as a secular institute. Pope St. John Paul II created the personal prelature of Opus Dei in 1982, several years after Escriva’s death.

From the outset, the creation of Opus Dei as a personal prelature led to some legal difficulties and tensions, especially regarding just who, exactly, is a member of Opus Dei. The conciliar decrees and real-life precursor missionary organizations that either refer to personal prelatures or somehow embodied the idea were always intended to be primarily clerical outfits, with lay persons “collaborating” or “cooperating” with clergy who were to be the full-fledged members.

The 1982 Opus Dei statutes, however, spoke of “lay members” and of lay men and women joining the organization.

One potentially major change involves the incardination of priests. Opus Dei has an association of priests who are specially formed for the Opus Dei mission and at the disposal of the Opus Dei leader, or prelate – the head of the personal prelature – which is now to be the core of the prelature.

In the preamble to the motu proprio, Pope Francis explained that his decision to place the Opus Dei prelature under the Dicastery for Clergy in his recent reorganization of Vatican curial departments was taken in part with the original Conciliar vision of public clerical associations with the faculty to incardinate clerics, i.e. to establish a legal “home” and ecclesiastical superior for clerics specially trained and dedicated to particular missionary work.

The “public association of clerics under pontifical right, with the faculty of incardinating clerics,” as the law now reads, suggests a return to the original idea for special missionary outfits of basically secular clergy envisioned by the bishops of Vatican II in light of experiments in the decades immediately preceding the Council.

The changes – especially the change to canon 296 – suggest that the new statutes of Opus Dei, which are currently in the drafting and review stages in Rome, will attempt to settle the question once and for all.

On its official web site, Opus Dei released a statement Tuesday in response to the motu proprio.

“We will study what consequences these modifications may have for the legal configuration of Opus Dei, also within the framework of the work that is being carried out with the Department of Clergy on the adaptation of the Statutes required in the Motu proprio Ad charisma tuendum,” the statement said, referring to another 2022 motu proprio from Pope Francis regarding Opus Dei.

The reflection, the satement said, will unfold “in a climate of communion with the Holy Father.”