Canon law on entering a religious community

Canon law on entering a religious community

By Fr. Frank Morrisey O.M.I.

Canon law spells out that a close connection to Christ is the foundation of religious life. Sister Anji Fan, S.P. prays with her community, the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary of the Woods, during a send off liturgy to minister in China. Photo: Sisters of Providence of St. Mary of the Woods.

I HOPE TO ADDRESS HERE a number of issues related to the acceptance of new candidates in religious institutes. As a professor of canon law, I base my remarks on the Code of Canon Law and other church documents. This article is divided into two principal parts: what new candidates would have a right to expect from a religious institute, and what an institute would need to find in a prospective candidate—in other words, the canonical requirements for admission to the institute.


What candidates have a right to expect from a religious institute

Recent studies seem to indicate that candidates for religious life are looking for five perspectives when considering joining a religious institute. There is no particular order to the way I’ve listed these points.

1. Close connection to person of Jesus

Canon 577: In the Church there are very many institutes of consecrated life, with gifts that differ according to the grace which has been given them: they more closely follow Christ praying, or Christ proclaiming the Kingdom of God, or Christ doing good for people, or Christ in dialogue with the people of this world, but always Christ doing the will of the Father.

Jesus called those whom he wished to have follow him (see Mark 3:13). Much of the task of vocation directors, then, consists in verifying whether the candidate has, indeed, received such a call from the Lord. It is not a matter of self-determination. God chose us to go out into the world and to bear fruit (see John 15:16).

Although God calls, he does not program us in advance. We are continually invited to find new ways to respond to this call. Although God accompanies us, he does not do everything on his own. Our free and informed consent and response must accompany this call. Our union with God is in the order of love, not of fusion!

Church teaching shows us that the three evangelical counsels, which are fundamental to any type of consecrated life, are founded on the teachings and example of Jesus (see Vita Consecrata, The Consecrated Life, No. 1a). Therefore in any form of consecrated life there will be a desire to have a special relationship with Jesus, an authentic experience of God in one’s life (Vita Consecrata, 14a). But, we should keep in mind that Jesus did not establish, as such, any specific form of consecrated life. These forms grew up through the course of history, and we still find new expressions today.

Today we use the Latin expression, Sequela Christi to indicate the special relationship with Christ. Each form of following will vary according to the charism and nature of the community a person wishes to join. Not surprisingly, then, canon 577 spells out the important and even essential dimension to be found in any institute: the following of Christ.

This following of Christ can take on various forms:

  • Christ praying (contemplative life)
  • Christ doing good to people (health care, social services)
  • Christ proclaiming the Kingdom of God (teaching, missionary, and apostolic institutes)
  • Christ in dialogue with people of the world (secular institutes)

But always it involves following Christ doing the will of the Father.

Although each institute has a contemplative and an apostolic dimension, the difference lies in the specific manner of adopting one or another aspect of consecrated life. This leads us to the next characteristic that candidates can expect from a religious institute.

2. A particular charism truly lived in the community

Canon 574, §1. The state of those who profess the evangelical counsels in institutes of this kind pertains to the life and sanctity of the Church and for this reason is to be fostered and promoted by all in the Church. §2. Certain Christian faithful are specially called to this state by God so that they may enjoy a special gift in the life of the Church and contribute to its salvific mission according to the purpose and spirit of the institute.

One element of a religious institute’s identity is its spirituality, such as a devotion to Mary, expressed in the rosary. Photo: Father Lawrence Lew, OP.

Canon 574 tells us that this state of life pertains to the life and holiness of the church. For this reason it is to be fostered and promoted by everyone in the church. This state of life leads to a special mission but in accordance with the purpose and spirit of each institute. Charisms are gifts of the Holy Spirit to build up the church. To be recognized they must, in some way, be confirmed by the authority of the church. Initially most religious charisms had some relationship to the particular church. Indeed they could not be understood without this relationship.

Canon 574 sets the basis for the identification of various institutes. Although there are similarities, there are also significant differences in the way in which the mission is carried out. It is important, therefore, for each institute to be able to identify itself clearly, and to be able to show what it has to offer to the church and to those who wish to join it. Other canons (especially canons 578 and 587), based on Vatican II teachings, mention seven elements of the identification of each institute (its charism). I note the following about the seven elements.

  1. The intention of the founder(s)—Keep in mind that it is often rather difficult to determine clearly who was the founder or foundress, given the fact that many institutes were either divisions of existing ones or were the result of unions along the way.
  2. The dispositions of the founder—At times, founders and foundresses had very particular views—sometimes characterized by a vow—that marked the way the institute was to carry out its mission. These intentions should be clearly specified.
  3. The nature of the institute—as approved by church authority. Some institutes are contemplative, others apostolic. Some are mixed (priests and brothers); some are clerical, others lay, etc. Likewise a community cannot change at will from being a religious institute to become a secular institute and vice versa.
  4. The purpose of the institute—Purposes can change as new needs present themselves. Nevertheless there is often a general thrust (for instance, teaching the faith) consistent throughout a community’s history.
  5. The spirit (spirituality) of the institute—Some institutes are penitential; other are focused on particular Marian devotions (such as the rosary); others have a spirit centered fully in diocesan service, no matter what type of need arises. For most institutes this spirit is also expressed in their form of prayer, whether in common or in private. Prospective members are looking for various forms of community commitment to prayer.
  6. The character of the institute (conventual or integrally apostolic)—This has very significant consequences for the description of the common life, prayer obligations, the manner of living the vows, and so forth. Many constitutions were written for a “conventual” community, although the members are living an “integrally apostolic” lifestyle, and this leads to numerous internal tensions. The form of community life expresses the institute’s character. New members today seem to want and need the support of community life, not being seen as “lone rangers.”
  7. The sound traditions of the institute (such as certain traditions of the Franciscans, Dominicans, etc.)—Not every “tradition” is sound; some customs were not good for the health of the members. When a person wishes to join a religious institute, the formation programs must correspond to the style of life to be lived in the community. We cannot form new members in one form of spirituality and community life, and then, after profession or ordination, have them live a completely different lifestyle.

3. A specified apostolic mission

In addition to a close connection to Jesus and an identity with a particular charism, prospective members also have a right to expect a specific mission. Two canons in particular have bearing on the mission of an institute.

Canon 673: The apostolate of all religious consists primarily in the witness of their consecrated life, which they are bound to foster through prayer and penance.

Canon 673 could be considered a “mirror” canon (that is, one in which we are supposed to see ourselves reflected). It sums up, in a few short words, a basic principle: actions speak louder than words.

The primary apostolate of all religious, therefore, is the witness they give to their consecration. They are bound to foster this witness through prayer and penance. The forms of prayer and penance will vary from institute to institute, depending on its character. The principle given in canon 673 is doctrinal in nature. In one sense, we could say that it is not a “legal” canon, because we cannot legislate for the “witness” we give. Much depends on the receiver.

Since witness is the primary apostolate for many institutes today, it might be worthwhile to see what some of the popes have been saying about this. Particularly relevant is the exhortation by Paul VI, Evangelica Testificatio, June 29, 1971, paragraph 53:

Today more than ever, the world needs to see in you persons who have believed in the Word of the Lord, in His resurrection and in eternal life, even to the point of dedicating their lives to witnessing to the reality of that love, which is offered to all. In the course of its history, the Church has ever been quickened and gladdened by many holy religious who, in the diversity of their vocations, have been living witnesses to love without limit and to the Lord Jesus. Is not this grace, for the person of today, a refreshing breeze coming from infinity itself, and foreshadowing our liberation in eternal and absolute joy? Open to this divine joy, live generously the demands of your vocation, renewing the affirmation of the realities of faith and in its light interpreting in a Christian way the needs of the world. The moment has come, in all seriousness, to bring about a rectification, if need be, of your consciences, and also a transformation of your whole lives, in order to attain greater fidelity.

On the topic of being living witnesses to love, I cannot help but note some excerpts of Pope Francis’ address to contemplative nuns in Assisi, Oct. 4, 2013. While his words were addressed specifically to contemplatives, hopefully, they resonate with all of us who live religious life.

When a cloistered nun consecrates her entire life to the Lord, a transformation happens beyond our understanding. It would be natural to think that this nun becomes isolated, alone with the Absolute, alone with God: it is an ascetic and penitent life. But this is not the path neither of a Catholic nor a Christian cloistered nun. The path always leads to Jesus Christ, always! Jesus Christ is at the center of your life, your penitence, your community life, your prayer and also of the universality of prayer. And on this path the opposite of what one might think happens to an ascetic cloistered nun. When she takes this path of contemplating Jesus Christ, of prayer and penitence with Jesus Christ, she becomes extremely human....

[You] are called to have a great humanity, a humanity like that of the Mother Church; human, to understand everything about life, to be people who know how to understand human problems, how to forgive, how to supplicate the Lord on behalf of others. Your humanity. Your humanity takes this road, the Incarnation of the Word, the path of Jesus Christ. And what is the mark of such a human nun? Joy, joy, when there is joy! I am sad when I find nuns who are not joyful. Perhaps they smile, but with the smile of a flight attendant, and not with a smile of joy, like the one that comes from within. Always with Jesus Christ ... .

And the second thing I wanted to tell you quickly is about community life. Forgive and sustain each other because community life is not easy. The devil takes advantage of everything in order to divide us! He says: “I do not want to speak ill but...” and then the division begins. No, this is not good because it does not do anything but bring division. Build friendship between yourselves, family life, love among you. May the monastery not be a purgatory but a family. There are and there will be problems, but like in a family, with love, search for a solution with love; do not destroy this to resolve that; do not enter competitions. Build community life, because in the life of a community it is this way, like a family, and it is the very Holy Spirit who is in the middle of the community.

Public witness involves separation from the world proper to the character and purpose of each institute. The cloister for contemplative communities is one example of separation. Canon 573 tells us also that religious are to be a sign in the church of the world beyond. We should, however, keep in mind that what could be a positive sign in one part of the world, might be a counter-indication in another. All in all it seems clear today that prospective candidates are seeking some form of public witness and external identity. In addition to public witness, service is key to the apostolic mission of many institutes, as noted in canon 676:

Canon 676: Lay institutes of men and women participate in the pastoral mission of the Church through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, performing very many different services for people. They are therefore to remain faithful to the grace of their vocation.

The canon states that institutes that are not clerical participate in the pastoral mission of the church through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and by being identified with service. The canon also includes a call to remain faithful to the grace of the vocation of the institute. The corporal works of mercy have traditionally been identified as taken from Matthew 25:34-40 and Isaiah 58:6-10. They are, and I note some examples:

  • feeding the hungry (improving social and economic structures),
  • giving drink to the thirsty (providing unpolluted water where lacking),
  • clothing the naked (those stripped of human dignity and power),
  • harboring strangers and sheltering the homeless,
  • visiting the sick (companionship for the elderly),
  • ministering to prisoners (to victims of racism, class distinctions),
  • burying the dead (providing companionship, helping survivors).

The emphasis is on attitudes, rather than specific actions. There is a close relationship between social justice and the works of mercy; mercy is loving gratuity. The church’s health care and social service ministries are the best illustration of its concern for these works of mercy. In the same perspective, the spiritual works of mercy have been identified as:

  • admonishing the sinner (even by example),
  • instructing the ignorant (removing misunderstandings based on prejudice),
  • counseling the doubtful (spiritual advice, patient presence),
  • comforting the sorrowful (attentiveness to the emotional needs of others),
  • bearing wrongs patiently (humility and a sense of reality),
  • forgiving injuries,
  • praying for the living and the dead (an expression of the communion of the church).

(See P.M. Vinje, “Mercy, corporal works of,” and “Mercy, spiritual works of,” in R.P. McBrien, ed., Encyclopedia of Catholicism, San Francisco, Harper, 1995, pp. 854-855.)

4. Identification with the mission of the greater church

I turn now to one more characteristic that those considering religious life can rightfully expect. One thing seems certain today: new candidates do not want to enter communities where they are then told to find something to do and the superiors will bless it. In tandem with their search for a sense of identity, they seem to wish to be involved in corporate ministries, rather than in individual ones of their choice, because they can choose individual ones without entering a community.

Canon 576: It is the prerogative of the competent authority in the Church to interpret the evangelical counsels, to legislate for their practice and, by canonical approval, to constitute the stable forms of living which arise from them ... .

The authority to which canon 576 refers will be either the Holy See, or, in some cases, the diocesan bishop. In other words a group of the faithful cannot on their own constitute a new institute of consecrated life; the intervention of the hierarchy is required in each case. And, once constituted, an institute’s apostolic mission is to be carried out in communion with the diocesan bishop. Canon 394 tells us that it is the diocesan bishop who is to coordinate all apostolic works under his direction, but with due regard for the character of each apostolate.

5. Profession of the evangelical counsels

Naturally those seeking out religious life also expect to follow the evangelical counsels. Since the vows are constitutive of religious life, it is important to spend more time on them and on certain contemporary issues relating to the way they are lived.

Consecrated chastity

Canon 599: The evangelical counsel of chastity embraced for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven, is a sign of the world to come, and a source of greater fruitfulness in an undivided heart. It involves the obligation of perfect continence observed in celibacy.

Canon 599 could be read in parallel to canon 277 on clerical celibacy. Both canons speak of a twofold obligation: abstention from marriage and abstention from any external or internal act which violates chastity. The vow, by those who take it, adds a new moral bond, that of the virtue of religion, so that in their case, an act against chastity is not only a sin against the virtue of chastity, but also a sin against the virtue of religion. I will return to this subject in the next section of this article.

Consecrated poverty

To understand the implications of the canonical legislation on poverty and personal patrimony (canon 668), we must first take a quick look at canon 600 which spells out the underlying principles relating to the vow. We will then be in a better position to understand the norms of canon 668 on patrimony.

We could limit ourselves to a “legalistic” approach to the issue, but this would be deadening. Instead, we are dealing here much more with an attitude than with a legal system. This is why a counterpart spiritual component is so important, and to overlook it would risk falsifying the entire understanding of the church’s laws on the matter.

Canon 600: The evangelical counsel of poverty in imitation of Christ, who for our sake was made poor when he was rich, entails a life which is poor in reality and in spirit, sober and industrious, and a stranger to earthly riches. It also involves dependence and limitation in the use and the disposition of goods, in accordance with each institute’s proper law.

Canon 600, which is based on the Vatican II document Perfectae Caritatis, no. 13, spells out five general constituent elements of consecrated poverty:

  • a life which is poor in reality and in spirit,
  • a life lived in moderation and a stranger to earthly riches,
  • a life of labor (earning one’s daily bread),
  • dependence on superiors in the use of temporal goods,
  • limitation in the use of and disposition of goods.

It is the last two of these five elements which will call for particular canonical explanations—dependence and limitation. Canon 668 will spell out what is meant by these terms in the context of a religious institute. One purpose of the rules on dependence and limitation is to make certain that religious who come from families that have greater wealth will not be leading a lifestyle different from those whose families have little or nothing. We note that canon 600 speaks of the “proper law” of the institute. If there is one area of canon law that relies on the spirit of each particular institute, it is this one. In other words, the general principles must be complemented by the norms of each institute’s own constitutions and rule.

We cannot overlook the fact that today, although the canon speaks of dependence and limitation, the emphasis seems to be placed much more on sharing with the poor and needy (see canon 640), and on responsible, creative stewardship of goods. This can lead to internal tensions because of differing understandings of the implications of the vow.

Furthermore, in North America and in Europe, as institutes are declining, it is becoming more and more important to make long range plans in regard to the support of the members themselves, which is a primary obligation on the part of institutes (see canon 670). Meanwhile, in poorer countries, there is great pressure on religious to provide for their families who are in need. Indeed a number of religious consider their family their first obligation, not their institute. However this is not what canon law teaches. Institutes are now making provision to assist parents who are truly in need. It must be remembered, though, that institutes do not make a vow of poverty, only the individual members do so.




Another area of the vow of poverty that deserves close attention is personal patrimony and cession of administration. Let’s begin with what canon law says.

Canon 668: §1 Before their first profession, members are to cede the administration of their goods to whomsoever they wish and, unless the constitutions provide otherwise, they are freely to make dispositions concerning the use and enjoyment of their goods. At least before perpetual profession they are to make a will which is valid also in civil law.

Although canon 668 does not use the expression “personal patrimony,” this term is generally used by institutes to refer to personal goods or property. A member’s goods (depending on the proper law) can include:

  • all that a member owned upon making profession (movable and immovable goods, copyrights, etc.),
  • all that to which a member had a title upon making profession, even though not yet acquired (for instance, accumulated years of pension for teaching; paid-up annuities purchased in early childhood),
  • goods received by a personal title of inheritance, either by will, or in lieu of a will, as when parents who are still alive divide their goods among their children so as to avoid disputes later on,
  • substantial gifts destined to be added to the patrimony (an institute will usually determine a minimum amount before a gift is considered to be patrimonial),
  • interest and revenues accruing to the above. In institutes with a stricter form of poverty, the members are not allowed to “capitalize,” or add their interest to the capital. Some do not recognize the possibility of receiving patrimonial gifts. So the proper law must be consulted to see what is considered as patrimony in a given institute.

It should be noted that according to civil law in a number of countries, revenues added to the patrimony are taxable since they are not given to the institute. For instance in Canada a religious’ patrimony must be taken into account when determining eligibility for the old-age pension supplement. In other countries the applicable civil law would have to be consulted and followed.


When making profession, religious usually sign three documents relating to temporal matters: 1) the agreement not to demand compensation for services rendered, or for future considerations, 2) the cession of administration of goods presently owned or to be acquired in the future, and 3) the last will and testament determining how any personal goods are to be disposed of after death.

Today there is usually a fourth document, often called “durable power of attorney” for health care, but this is not directly related to the vow of poverty.

Each document is separate and has a distinct purpose. The document on cession of administration applies while the religious is alive; the agreement applies when a member leaves the institute; the last will and testament applies after death.


It often happens today that people enter an institute late in life, sometimes after having been married for a number of years and with children of their own. It is not rare for religious entering today to have $500,000 in patrimony, either in funds, real estate, or similar holdings. In such instances, particular care must be given to family feelings.

On the other hand, a person who enters at a later age will not have as many productive years in the institute and will not be contributing as much to the common fund as others did. These persons who have resources sometimes want to pay room and board. However it is preferable that they not be asked to do so immediately, especially if there are no charges for the other candidates entering the community. However many times the administrator will put aside a sum each month in a special account in compensation. If the religious makes perpetual profession, this sum is given to the institute at that moment. If the person leaves before final profession, the money is returned to him or her.

If a member enters with goods that are used by the community, such as an automobile, a stereo and CDs, books, a computer, etc., it is important to have some type of agreement in case the member leaves before first or final profession. For instance a monthly sum is credited to his or her account in return for the use of the goods. If the religious wishes to have them used freely, then there should be a written agreement to this effect.

Any patrimony belonging to a person in formation should not be in a bank account in the name of the religious. Sometimes a personal bank account is necessary for other reasons, but the money in this account is congregational money, not personal.


Consecrated obedience

It is usually understood that while members of male institutes seem to have more difficulties with the vow of chastity, in women’s institutes, it is the vow of obedience that frequently becomes a blocking factor. Let’s examine this vow closely, starting with canon 590.

Canon 590: §1. In as much as institutes of consecrated life are dedicated in a special way to the service of God and of the whole Church, they are subject to the supreme authority of the Church in a special way. §2. Individual members are also bound to obey the supreme pontiff as their highest superior by reason of the sacred bond of obedience.

The supreme authority in the church is the Holy Father, or the Ecumenical Council, with the Holy Father (see canons 331 and 336). All institutes, even of diocesan right, are subject in a special way to the supreme authority, not only as are the faithful but, more particularly, precisely because they are institutes of consecrated life. Individual members are obliged to obey the supreme pontiff (not the “Holy See”, unless specifically delegated) in virtue of their vow of obedience. However, the pope may demand obedience only in accordance with the proper law of the institute. Thus, for instance, he could not order a member of an apostolic institute to become exclusively contemplative, but he could order a religious to observe the norms on prayer in the proper law of his or her institute. See Vita Consecrata, No. 46, on this point.

Canon 601 also has bearing on this vow.

Canon 601: The evangelical counsel of obedience, undertaken in a spirit of faith and love in the following of Christ obedient unto death, requires the submission of the will to legitimate superiors, who stand in the place of God, when they command according to the proper constitutions.

Seeking the will of God must be the preoccupation of both superiors and subjects. Members must obey the Roman Pontiff as their first superior (c. 590, §2); the other superiors are those determined in the constitutions. Not every wish or desire of the superior comes under the vow. It should be clear from the constitutions whether the specific obligation of the vow is entailed in every clearly manifested order of a superior, or whether certain formalities have to be fulfilled in order to command under the vow (for instance, in writing, before witnesses, using appropriate words, which superiors may invoke the vow, etc.). The matter to be commanded has to do directly or indirectly with the life of the institute, that is to say, the observance of the constitutions and other norms of the institute.

A formal order given under obedience should also include the words: “Failure to observe this order would constitute cause for dismissal from the congregation” (or something similar).

Canon law protects the interests of both candidate and community during the long process that leads to final vows. Pictured here is Sister Kim Mandelkow, O.S.B. (center) at her final vows ceremony with the Benedictine Sisters of Ferdinand, Indiana.

A superior cannot command what is against the law of God or against the constitutions (see decision of the Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, October 10, 1986). Some religious try to use “conscience” to refuse to accept legitimate orders of superiors. If the matter is not immoral, etc., and not against the constitutions, the obligation can hold. However, in certain delicate situations, some arrangements could possibly be made. For instance, in the case where a religious refuses an obedience to a certain place because a former sexual partner lives in that town or city, but the religious does not wish to share that information with the superior, a member of the council agreeable to both parties could hear the sister’s reasons and make a recommendation to the superior, without going into details.

Having reviewed the five expectations a candidate can rightly expect from a religious institute, let us tun to the institute’s side of the equation.


What the institute needs from a candidate

The canonical requirements for admission to a religious institute are addressed in several different canons, beginning with the general conditions for entry to the novitiate listed in canon 642. They are:

  • having the required age,
  • having the required health,
  • having a suitable disposition,
  • having sufficient maturity.

Affective maturity and sexual integration

Given today’s cultural context, I thought it would be helpful to address a some contemporary issues related to the selection of candidates and their capacity to live the obligations of celibacy and chastity. Much of what follows is based on the Oblate norms of formation. Given the importance of a healthy and integrated sexuality in the life of a religious, it is important to know a candidate’s psycho-sexual history as well as his or her ability and desire to embrace the celibate life. A period of celibate living, usually several years, must precede entrance into the initial stage of formation.

Related to this are issues of disclosure of sexual history and orientation. While disclosure to one’s spiritual director or formator is important to ensure that healthy integration is taking place in that area of the candidate’s life, disclosure to the community requires discernment. The candidate must also come to a clear understanding of the issues of appropriate boundaries in ministry and of the issues of sexual misconduct and abuse of power in relationships. These issues have grave consequences both in canon and civil law. I suggest in the case of any candidate who is discovered to have been sexually involved, as an adult, with a person under age 18, that there be a policy that he or she not be advanced to vows.

The call to chastity is the same for all, regardless of sexual orientation. Candidates who commit themselves to a life of consecrated celibacy, as well as those who guide them in this direction, must have the moral certitude that, with the help of God’s grace and the prudence proper in this domain, they can be faithful and can grow and mature in peace.

To live the vow of chastity in a healthy way requires affective maturity. To assess this maturity in a candidate, the following should be considered:

  • family history and related issues;
  • relationships with persons in authority, with peers, with persons of both sexes;
  • the naturalness and ease of these relationships;
  • ongoing development, both in relationships with others and in personal self-acceptance, attention to what is blocking or stunting growth, attention to feelings of bitterness or frustration;
  • capacity for generosity, openness, and faithfulness in daily behavior.

A candidate who is expected to undergo an HIV test prior to admission should be aware of what is involved and declare in writing his or her willingness to undergo this medical examination. A lawyer should be consulted about the advisability and legality of signing such a waiver. Candidates who prefer not to undergo an HIV test requested by an institute are thereby withdrawing from the program and cannot apply for admission.

The candidate must be counseled before the examination, be the first to receive the results, and be counseled after the test. The results would also be given to the vocation director who can counsel the candidate in view of the medical results and help to discern the future (cf. canons 220 and 642).

Free of impediments

A number of canonical impediments or restrictions can prevent a person from entering an institute. These include the following:

Age—Not having completed the 17th year of age.

A spouse—while the marriage lasts. If a candidate had been married, and the spouse has died, or if the marriage was declared null, then there is no impediment. If he or she is divorced, but the former spouse is still alive, and no declaration of nullity has been received, then an indult is required from the Holy See. This is a most difficult indult to obtain; it is granted only on certain very specific conditions: a) the divorce is final and absolute; b) there are no alimony or child support payments to make; c) there are no minor children under 18; d) the candidate was not the guilty cause of the break up of the marriage; e) there would be no scandal; f) the former spouse is aware of the project and has no objection.

If, on the other hand, a candidate has received a declaration of nullity for a former marriage, then it is important to examine the court’s decision to determine whether or not there was a restrictive clause imposed. If the candidate requires psychological counseling before entering into marriage, this requirement is even more important if he or she wishes to enter religious life or the clerical state. A restrictive clause (vetitum or monitum) should be taken most seriously before accepting a candidate.

In assessing a previously married candidate’s suitability for entering a formation program, the vocation director should be especially attentive to the following:

  • motivation,
  • relationship to the former marriage partner and the latter’s attitude to the potential candidate’s request to enter religious life,
  • possible obligations to dependents (educational, social, financial, and legal),
  • psychological balance and maturity,
  • ability to live the religious vows,
  • ability to live an authentic community life,
  • freedom in regard to previous obligations (especially in regard to debts that the candidate cannot extinguish; cf. canon 644).
  • Christian faith and life during the marriage experience and following the separation and annulment.

Membership elsewhere—A person who is already a member of another institute is ineligible for entry into the novitiate. Of course for perpetually professed members the transfer process between institutes, as spelled out in canon 684, can be applied, but such persons are not required to do a novitiate. A person who concealed the fact that he or she was previously in an institute cannot enter; any admission formation program needs to disclose this. In cases where a candidate has a history with a seminary or religious institute, references must be sought from the seminary director or the person in charge at the time of the candidate’s departure or dismissal. The reference should include:

  • how long the person was in the program,
  • reasons he or she left or was dismissed,
  • recommendation concerning entry into the formation program,
  • other relevant information, oral or written. The above information should also be sought from the candidate personally.

Force, fear, deceit—There is an impediment if a person enters the institute through force, grave fear, or deceit. However, it must be noted that if the community does not ask certain questions of the candidate, then it cannot blame him or her for hiding information. For instance, the institute will want to gather details about things like family background (mental illness, criminal activities, etc.) and health (AIDS/HIV, other physical or psychological illnesses).

Sexuality concerns—The Holy See has determined that candidates who have “deep-seated” homosexual tendencies are not to be admitted. This decision does not apply to those with the “transitory” problems of adolescence. Of course, each situation has to be evaluated personally. The Congregation for Catholic Education deals with this topic in an official instruction (cf. “Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies,” 2005) This instruction applies also to all candidates to religious life.

Vocation ministers need to assess candidates for emotional and spiritual maturity and to be sure they are free of impediments. Pictured here is Father Guerric DeBona, O.S.B., former vocation minister at St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana. Photo: Saint Meinrad Archabbey.

Free of impediments for clerics

A number of permanent impediments, known as irregularities, affect the admissibility of candidates for holy orders. While these may, in certain circumstances, be dispensed, in general church authorities are rather reluctant to dispense from them. It follows that candidates who are subject to one or more of these permanent impediments should not be accepted as candidates for orders without first making certain that a dispensation will eventually be available.

If any of these situations arises, it is essential to consult a canonist or specialist before proceeding further, in order to determine whether or not a dispensation is possible, and, if so, by whom it must be granted. or profession would be invalid (cf. canon 643 §1 and §5 and canon 656 §2). Today we usually add that one who had previously been in a major seminary or

  1. Serious psychological illness—While insanity obviously would prevent a person from being accepted, other forms of psychological illness could render a person incapable of properly fulfilling the ministry. For instance, intense scrupulosity would be an impediment.
  2. Apostasy, heresy, schism—A person who once was Catholic and left the church to join another church or ecclesial community, and then returns to the Catholic Church, cannot generally be admitted to holy orders except after a prolonged period of probation.
  3. Forms of attempted marriage—Someone who commits bigamy (in the canonical sense: while a former spouse is still alive and the first marriage has not been dissolved or declared null), or who marries while under vows, or who marries a person who is under vows, cannot be accepted for holy orders.
  4. Willful homicide, abortion, and positive cooperators—This impediment is unfortunately rather common, especially in regard to abortion. Encouraging and supporting someone to have an abortion makes that person a “positive cooperator” and is an impediment to holy orders. Given the church’s public stand on abortion, a dispensation is most difficult to obtain, and it is usually refused once or twice before it is eventually granted, if ever.
  5. Serious mutilation, attempted suicide—It is often held today by some canonists that a person who underwent a voluntary vasectomy is subject to the impediment (but the bishop may dispense more readily from it). The question of attempted suicide relates to psychological illness as mentioned above.
  6. Abuse of holy orders—A person who carries out an act of holy orders reserved to others (i.e., attempting to celebrate Mass publicly or hear confessions, while pretending to be a priest), is also subject to an impediment.


A final word about candidate protocols

A fairly recent case in the African nation of Lesotho illustrates the importance of my final recommendation (“High Court of Lesotho”, L. Chaka-Makhooana, J., file no. CIV/APN/05/2013, Jan. 23, 2013). A seminarian was refused admission to perpetual vows, and thus to orders. He sued his community in civil court, and the tribunal ordered that he be admitted to vows and orders; otherwise, his human rights would be endangered.

In appeal (Court of Appeal (CIV), 2/2013, April 19, 2013), the Court unanimously upheld the High Court’s judgment. The two decisions were based on faulty reasoning, but it is reasoning that is out there: seminarians are to be treated as employees, and, therefore, under human rights legislation, are entitled to written warnings, to notices, and to all the other protections in place to protect workers.

Because of its potential importance, this matter has since been brought to the attention of the Holy See. Since Lesotho is a Common Law country, we should not be surprised one day to see other countries following a similar approach. Therefore, my strong recommendation would be to make sure that when dealing with seminarians and other candidates, we follow carefully the procedures used for termination of employees, even though the situation is quite different.

I hope the issues I’ve raised here will assist vocation directors in their difficult task of selecting candidates for religious life and for holy orders. Since each case is different, it would be essential to keep the canonical provisions in mind when accompanying potential candidates. The canons are based on experience, and there is strong wisdom in following their norms to avoid potential problems and to build healthy religious communities. Ultimately our goal is to help our communities, as canon 574 puts it: “enjoy a special gift in the life of the Church and contribute to its salvific mission.”


Father Frank Morrisey, O.M.I. belongs to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He is professor emeritus of canon law at St. Paul University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He spent some 20 years on the formation staff of St. Paul University Seminary, many of them also serving as vice-rector of the seminary.



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