Fr. Varghese Azhaketh


This is a summary of the doctoral dissertation in Juris Utriusque that I presented at the Lateran University in 1978, a few years before the promulgation of the New Code of Canon Law. At that time the topic was of great relevance and actuality because Vatican II was considered to be eminently a pastoral one. It has mobilized the whole people of God and invited all the faithful, and in particular the religious to assume their proper responsibility in the apostolate of the Church, and invited them to update their legislation in order to suit the present needs of the Local Church in which they live and work.

In the past the apostolate of religious was considered to be a field of conflict and the relationship between the diocesan bishop and the religious was not very ideal. Though the religious were found within the territory of a diocese, they were often considered as outsider, having nothing to do with the life and activity of the diocese. In the diocesan programmes the specific role of the religious was neglected. Very often recourse was made to them in time of necessity and wherever the religious served it seemed to be based on personal sympathy rather than on institutional level. The religious too have contributed greatly in creating this type of attitude and mentality. The criterion in the past seemed to be one of separation rather than that of collaboration. The privilege of exemption led the religious to close themselves in without sharing the problems of the diocesan community in which they were living. The diocese and the religious institute seemed to compete with each other for power and prestige.

Vatican II has tried to change this kind of mentality. It furnished us with principles of doctrine to define in a new way the position of religious in the Church and in the individual diocese. Hence the scope of this study is to bring out these elements in order to establish an effective collaboration of religious in the apostolate of the diocese based no more on personal sympathy, but on permanent institutions and that there be a true balance between the legally recognized role of the bishop as pastor of the diocese ad the autonomy granted by law to the religious institutes.

In the new code Canons 673-683 deal on this topic. Thee canons rely substantially on Christus Dominus and Perfectae Caritatis of Vatican II and the two post-conciliar documents Ecclesiae Sanctae and Mutuae Relationes. These canons can be completely understood only when read against the background of the above mentioned documents.


a. In the Universal Church: Pre-Vatican Theology and Canon Law speaking about the constitution of the Church gave importance to the hierarchical structure, i.e. the Church was made up of Clerics and Latin (cfr. Can. 107), and the religious were included either in the one or the other category according as they were priests or laity. Vatican II speaking about the structure of the church considers not only the hierarchical structure, but also the spiritual and charismatic structure, and places the religious in the charismatic structure. Although the religious state constituted by the profession of evangelical counsels does not belong to the hierarchical structure of the church, nevertheless it belongs inseparably to her life and holiness” (LG, n.44). Holiness, like Oneness, Apostolicity and Catholicity, is one of the essential properties of the church, and when the council says that religious life belongs to the Holiness of the church, it means it is a constitutive part of the spiritual structure of the church. The hierarchic and charismatic structure are not opposed to each other, nor are they two competitive powers, but are constitutive parts of the same church which has the same mission i.e. the building up and increasing the Mystical Body of Christ.

b. In the local church (diocese): The religious form also a constitutive part of the diocese, which is clear from the very definition of the diocese in Christus Dominus n. 11 and Can.369. “A diocese is a portion of the people of God entrusted to a bishop to be guided by him… it constitutes one particular church in which the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and active”. ‘Everything which has been said about the people of God applies equally to the laity, religious and clergy’ (LG. no. 30). The Decree Christus Dominus places the religious priests among the various collaborators of the diocesan bishop, especially in the exercise of his pastoral office in the diocese. ‘All priests, both diocesan and religious, participate in and exercise with the bishop the one priesthood of Christ and are thereby meant to be prudent collaborators of the Episcopal order’ (LG,n. 28). ‘Other members of religious communities both men and women also belong in a special way to the diocesan family’ (LG,n.34).


The obligation and right of religious to undertake works of apostolate is a consequence of their belonging to the Church and her mission. Christus Dominus no.33 says, ‘All religious have the duty each according to his proper vocation of cooperating zealously and diligently in building up and increasing the whole church. It constitutes an obligation and a right for religious to undertake works of apostolate in the diocese. This obligation and right derive from various reasons.

a. Obligation and right deriving from baptismal consecration:

The obligation and right of religious to undertake works of apostolate derive, first of all, from their belonging to the people of God by means of their baptismal consecration. The apostolate is the essential mission of the church and is the very reason of the existence. The duty of all the people of God for the apostolate is declared in the decree Apostolicam Actuositatem, ‘For by its very nature the christian vocation is a vocation to the apostolate’ (No.2). Other conciliar documents declare that it rests upon the entire people of God, by divine mandate, the duty of going into the whole world and preaching the gospel to every creature, and that the whole church is missionary and the work of evangelization is a basic duty of the church and the apostolate is the essential task and raison d’etre of every christian. (cfr. Ag,n.1; DR, n.13; AG,n.35 and Evangelii Nuntiandi n.59). ‘Incorporated into Christ’s Mystical Body through baptism and strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit, they are assigned to the apostolate by the Lord Himself’ (AA, n.3).

b. Obligation and right deriving from the religious consecration:

The religious have a greater obligation and right to participate in the apostolate of the church by virtue of their special vocation and consecration by means of the profession of the evangelical counsels. The religious consecration is deeply rooted in the baptismal consecration and is an ampler manifestation of it (PC,n.5). Therefore the obligation and right of religious to undertake works of apostolate is greater than that of the ordinary faithful. The religious consecration is a commitment to the apostolate and the profession of the evangelical counsels is the basis for this obligation (cfr. PC,n.2,5; LG,n.44).

c. Obligation and right deriving from the Charism:

Religious life is a vital expression of the charismatic and prophetic character of the church and they must involve in the renewal of the church. The purpose of the charism in the church is not so much the personal good of the person who possesses it, but the common good, i.e. the welfare of the church. The charism of the founders of religious institutes was to meet the pressing need of the church in their times. Therefore the decree CD says, ‘The present needs of the church are many especially the urgent needs of souls and the scarcity of diocesan clergy’ (CD,n.35,1), and the decree PC adds, ‘They should make adjustments in them according to the need of time and place and in favour of what will benefit the universal church and individual dioceses’ (PC,n.20).

d. Obligation and right deriving from the approval of the church:

From the very fact that the authority in the church has accepted and approved the charisms of religious institutes, there arises a greater obligation and a corresponding right to engage themselves in the apostolate of the church. Through the ecclesiastical approval of these institutes, the church accepts the presence and activity of such a particular or general charism and recognizes the proper contribution of these religious institutes in the ministry of the church. By the approval, the church confides the religious with a sacred ministry and a special work of charity which must be discharged in her name (cfr. PC,n.8). Some authors compare this approval of the church to a kind of ‘missio canonica’. When a bishop gives consent to open a religious house in his diocese, it implies the right to exercise the works proper to the institute (Can.611).


The apostolate of religious appears to be a contradiction to their state of life because the religious life seems to turn the members away from the world and unto themselves, whereas the apostolate turns them toward the world and its needs. This apparent contradiction can be solved if we try to understand the meaning of religious vocation which is a call from God not only to the perfection of religious themselves, but also to fill a need in the church and the world.

a. Notion of the apostolate of religious: Vatican II uses the term ‘apostolate’ and other similar expressions such as ‘the care of souls’ ‘apostolic activity’ etc. in a very wide sense that it includes the whole activity of the church. Despite the differences in the kinds and forms there is essentially only one apostolate in which all members of the people of God share in their own way. The decree Apostolicam Actuositatem says, ‘The very goal of the church is to spread the kingdom of Christ everywhere that she might bring all men to share Christ’s saving redemption. All activity of the Mystical Body directed to the attainment of this goal is called apostolate’ (AA,n.2). The apostolate intended in this sense is the very mission of the church and the very purpose of her existence. The decree CD identifies the apostolate with the building up and increasing the Mystical Body of Christ and the good of the particular churches (CD,n.33). The share of the religious in the one apostolate and mission of the church is the apostolate of religious.

b. Internal and external works of apostolate: All the conciliar documents and the code of canon law make a clear distinction between the two types of apostolate undertaken by the two forms of religious lives, i.e. those undertaken by the members of institutes of contemplative life and those undertaken by the members of active life. The Council avoids to identify the apostolate of the church exclusively with the external works. The Decree CD, n.33 says that the religious should first of all fulfill it by their adherence to the Lord and by witness of their life, i.e. by means of prayer, works of penance and the example of their life.

b. 1. Apostolate of contemplatives: Vatican II retains the value of contemplative life in the church. Perfectae Caritatis says that the religious of contemplative life give themselves to God alone in solitude and silence and through constant prayer and ready penance (PC, n.7). The council excludes them from the obligation to undertake external works of apostolate (CD, n.35, 1) because they are contrary to their way of life. “No matter how urgent may be the needs of the active apostolate; such communities will have a distinguished part to play in Christ’s Mystical Body, where all members have not the same function” (PC, n.7). Thus Can. 674 basing on PC, n.7 retains the role of contemplative institutes in the church. They are not encouraged to take up pastoral ministry. They bear witness to the holiness of the church and to the fulfillment of their vocation as Christians (cfr. CD,n.35,1).

b. 2. External works of apostolate: In religious institutes of active life, the very nature of religious life requires apostolic action and service since a sacred ministry and a special work of charity has been consigned to them by the church and must be discharged in her name (PC,n,8). These communities attain their perfection through these ministries and works of apostolate (CD,n.35,4). In view of the urgent needs of souls and the scarcity of diocesan clergy the Council urges that the religious of active life undertake more external works of apostolate. These external works of apostolate can take various forms according to the particular charism of each institute. Generally they refer to those things which pertain to the public exercise to divine worship, the care of souls, and sacred preaching intended for the people, the religious and moral education, catechetical and liturgical formation (cfr. CD,n.35,4; can.675).

b.2.1. Particular works of the institute: Speaking about the external works of apostolate the conciliar and post-conciliar documents gave a special attention to those works which are proper or particular to the institute and are carried out generally in their own houses. The motu proprio Ecclesiae Sanctae says what these proper works are: ‘Those undertaken with the approval of the apostolic see from the very foundation, or in accord with venerable traditions and then defined and systematized in the constitution and other proper rules of the society; (ES I, 28). These works are closely related to the particular charism of the institute. The proper works are the external expression of the charism in the concrete situation. The decree Perfectae Caritatis no.20 and can.677,1 encourage the religious to retain their proper works, and at the same time ask them to make adjustments and adaptations according to the needs of times and places, including the use of new and appropriate means, and in favour of what will benefit the universal church and individual dioceses.

b.2.2. Entrusted works of apostolate: The motu proprio Ecclesiae Sanctae speaks of certain activities which are entrusted by the bishop to the religious. An entrusted work does not mean a work that is not proper to the religious institute, nor in contradiction to it. A bishop can entrust to the religious works even proper to them (ES I, 29, 22; Can.681). An entrusted work is in contraposition to those works which the religious undertake on their own initiative. Theoretically speaking the proper works of the institute are not generally entrusted to them and the works that are not proper to them are generally not undertaken of their own initiative. Thus the works entrusted by the bishop are generally not proper to the institute and when the decree CD says that the religious can be called upon by bishops to assist in various pastoral ministries, it means to exercise works that are not particular to the institute. The Council while asking the religious to remain faithful to the particular charism and apostolate of the institute speaks of the need to adapt the special apostolate to the conditions existing at different times and places (PC, n.2; CD, n.35.1). In the concrete situation of the diocese there is need for coordination between the particular apostolate and the needs of the diocese.


When the religious are engaged in the works of apostolate especially when they take up external works of apostolate in the diocese they come in close relationship with the diocesan bishop. This relationship is not merely theological, but also juridical because of the central role of the bishop in his diocese with regard to the works of apostolate and matters of public order.

a. Role of the bishop in his diocese: The unique role and responsibility of a bishop as pastor of the diocese is described in Lumen Gentium, Chapter III, Christus Dominus, chapter II and cc.381-402. “The bishops have by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the church. The bishops received the charge of the community, presiding in God’s stead over the flock of which they are shepherds in that they are teachers of doctrine, ministers of sacred worship and holders of office in government” (LG.n.20). Individual bishops are the visible source and foundation of unity in their own particular churches… each bishop represents his own church” (LG,n.23). “The bishops, as vicars and legates of Christ, govern the particular churches assigned to them… In virtue of this power bishops have a sacred right and duty before the Lord of legislating for and of passing judgement on their subjects as well as regulating everything that concerns the good order of divine worship and of the apostolate” (LG,n.27). “Individual bishops to whom the care of particular diocese is committed, care for their flocks under the authority of the Supreme Pontiff, in the name of God, as their proper, ordinary and immediate pastors, sanctifying and governing them” (CD,n.11). Therefore the diocesan bishop bears the weighty responsibility of a teacher, His Priest and Pastor toward the portion of the Lord’s flock entrusted to him and he needs the collaboration of whole community (cfr. Directory on the pastoral ministry of bishops, n. 18). The religious by the very fact of their presence in a diocese and that they constitute an essential part of the local church, are called to collaborate with the diocesan bishop in the fulfillment of his pastoral office in a special way (LG,n.45; CD,n.35,1).

b. Subjection of religious to the authority of the bishop: When we speak about the subjection of religious to the bishop, there raises the question of exemption. Christus Dominus says, “The privilege of exemption whereby the religious are reserved to the control of the Supreme Pontiff, or of some other ecclesiastical authority, and are exempted from the jurisdiction of Bishop, relates primarily to the internal organization of their institutes. This exemption does not prevent religious from being subject to the jurisdiction of the bishops in the individual dioceses in accordance with the general law, in so far as is required for the performance of their pastoral duties and the proper care of souls” (CD, n. 35,3). The decree CD,n.35.4). Motu Proprio ES I, 25-26; MR 53 and Can. 678,1 confirm the authority of the bishop over the works of apostolate and the religious are under his authority in those matters which involve the care of souls, public worship and the exercise of the apostolate. These include all activities directly concerned with the ministry of the Word or of the Sacrament which involve the faithful who are under the authority of the bishop. When the religious are engaged in the works of apostolate, they enter into the field of the bishop and thus they are obliged to follow the directions of the bishop in this regard. It is not left to the exclusive discretion of the bishop, but as the decree says ‘in accordance with the norm of law’.

b. 1 Subjection as to the proper works: ES I,29,1 says, “Proper or particular activities carried out in the premises of a society even if hired premises, depend on its superiors who direct them according to their constitutions. Even such activities are subject to the jurisdiction of the local ordinary in accordance with the law. This means they are subject to the bishop in all matters under the care of the bishop, i.e. the care of souls, divine worship and the works of apostolate.

b.2 Subjection as to the entrusted works: “The activities even proper or particular to the society which are entrusted to it by the local ordinary are under his authority and direction; however the religious superiors’ right of supervising their members’ lives remain unaffected, also together with the local ordinary, their fulfillment of the tasks entrusted to them” (ES I, 29,2; can. 681,1).

b.3 Subjection as to the matters of public order: The bishop’s role in the diocese for the welfare of his people is not merely limited to the works of apostolate, but also to the matters of public order. The bishop as the head of the diocese has the responsibility for the right ordering and the public life of the diocese. The matters of public order include:

b.3.1. Clerical decorum: The decree CD, n.35,4 says, “All religious exempt and non-exempt, are obliged to the authority of the local ordinary in matters of clerical decorum”. Ecclesiae Sanctae specified what these matters of clerical decorum are: 1. Attendance at public show, 2. Membership or cooperation with societies or associations which the local ordinary or the bishops’ conference has declared should be avoided, and 3. Ecclesiastical dress. (ES I, 25,2).

b.3.2. Public use of the means of social communication: The decree Inter Mirifica specifies what these means of social communications are: ‘Chief among them are those which by their very nature can reach and influence not only individual men but the masses themselves, even the whole society, such would be the press, the cinema, radio, television and similar media which can be properly classified as instruments of social communication’ (IM,n.1). The same decree places the use of these means under the control of the local ordinary. ‘Bishops in their own dioceses have the duty to oversee activities and enterprises of this kind, to promote them and to regulate them in so far as they affect the apostolate in a public manner. This duty extends to affairs under the control of members of exempt religious communities’ (IM,n.20). These means are also used in the work s of apostolate and they affect the public order and the life of the diocese too. Therefore the bishop has control over them (ES I, 25,1&2) and can. 831 confirms the obligation of religious to obey the law, decrees and regulations laid down by the local ordinary or the Episcopal conference.

b.3.3. Fund raising and seeking alms by religious: This can also affect the public order of the diocese and the bishop or the Episcopal conference may make laws in this regard and the religious have the obligation to abide by them (ES I, 27).


The documents referred above exhort the religious and the local ordinaries to work together for the good of the local church. The local ordinaries are entreated to respect the charism and rights of religious and the religious are called upon to treat the bishops as the successors of the apostles with loyal respect and reverence. The council Fathers seem to acknowledge that it is not possible to legislate virtue and so they seek through persuasion and inspiration to ensure good relationship between the local ordinaries and the religious. In order that the works of apostolate be carried out harmoniously in individual dioceses and that the unity of the diocesan discipline by preserved the following suggestions are made:

a. Mutual consultation or dialogue: Can. 678, 3 confirms the decree CD, n.35,5-6 “With respect to those works of apostolate which religious are to undertake, bishops or Episcopal conferences, and religious superiors or conferences of religious superiors’ should take action only after mutual consultations’ (CD,n.35,5). In the consultations any matter as to the works of apostolate can be discussed at any time and amicable solutions can be found. ‘In order to foster harmonious and fruitful relations between bishops and religious, at stated ties and as often as is deemed opportune bishops and religious superiors should be willing to meet for discussion of those matters which pertain generally to their ministry’ (CD,n.36,6; ES I,39,1). The removal of a religious from an entrusted work (ES I, 32; can. 682,2). Prohibiting a religious from living in the diocesan territory (Can.679) can all be subject of mutual consultations, which will help to avoid misunderstandings and guarantee a fruitful collaboration. To facilitate the dialogue religious should be also given membership in the diocesan structures such as the Council of Priests, Pastoral council and other Commissions in the diocese.

b. Written agreements: Another suggestion for assuring collaboration of religious for a fruitful apostolate in the diocese is the written agreement to be made between the competent religious superior and the cocal ordinary, hen a local ordinary entrusts a work of apostolate to a religious institute or to an individual member (ES I, 30, 1; can. 681,2). This agreement should contain all the terms and conditions, the details of the work, the persons to carry it out, rights and duties of both parties and the financial arrangements etc. Like good fences, good agreements make good neighbours.

c. Choice of persons for an ecclesiastical office: ES, I, 30,2 and can. 682,1 say that when an ecclesiastical office is conferred on a religious, the choice of the candidate is made by the superior and the appointment is made by the bishop. The superior knows the qualities and abilities, also the weakness, of his subjects, and therefore he must present a candidate who is best suited to fulfill the office in question.


At the beginning of our study we had mentioned briefly about the situations prevailing before Vatican II as to the relationship of bishops and religious. Even a quarter of a century after the completion of the Council, one cannot say that the situation in all the dioceses is as ideal as visualized by the Council. Successful collaboration between bishops and religious in the apostolic works will not be possible whatever legal prescriptions are made, if the persons involved do not share the spirit of the church and true christian charity. Too much legislation and too detailed limitations or extensions of power often tend to create a state of mind in which everyone starts calculating how far he can go. In such circumstances the general interest of the church could easily be forgotten. Collaboration is a matter of personalities, and having the wide vision of the church by the persons involved. The decree Christus Dominus says that a well-ordered cooperation in the apostolate depends upon a supernatural attitude of hearts and minds, an attitude rooted in and founded upon charity (CD,n.35,5). This charity must permeate all the activities of both religious and bishops, because the prescriptions of charity go far beyond the sphere of justice which gives everyone his due, while charity does not seek its own and renders possible that collaboration which cannot be realized through legal prescriptions. When bishop and religious stand together in mutual love, respect and service, the whole church is effectively enriched and the growth and development of the local church is promoted. In such an atmosphere of collaboration the structure of the local church would surely tend to make the charisms of religious effective, and the charisms in turn would function in such a way as to avoid any hostility or isolation on the part of either religious or bishop. The special apostolate of the religious carried out in full consideration of the needs of the local church and the horizons of the local church would be greatly broadened by the apostolate of religious.