Canonical Obligations and Rights of Religious

The 1983 Code of Canon Law contains several sections on the obligations and rights of various different groups in the Church, those for the Christian Faithful, the Lay Christian Faithful, Clerics and Religious. This newsletter will focus on those which apply to non-clerical religious. 

Human and Civil Rights are protected by civil society at the local, national and international level. Members of religious orders retain these rights, however, they choose not to exercise some of the rights, for example, the right to independent ownership and use of property, and the right to marry and raise a family. Other rights, they choose to exercise in interdependence with their religious community, for example, the right to education and the right to work and choose a place to live. These rights nevertheless are not forfeited completely. However, when any citizen enters into free association, such as a religious community, they may accept some limits on their choices as a condition of membership in that association. The same is true for married couples who choose to accept limits on their independence in order to form a family.

Obligations and Rights of the Christian Faithful are found in Book Two of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. The code presents rights and duties in the same section, underlining the importance of seeing them as interrelated. Each right implies an obligation on others to allow persons to carry out that right. At the same time each obligation implies a right to those means necessary to carry out that obligation. These obligations and rights are retained by members of religious institutes, even though, as with human and civil rights mentioned above, members may be required to limit the exercise of these rights, or to exercise them in interdependence with their institute.

Two important rights that merit special mention here are the right to privacy and reputation, and the right to due process.

Right to Reputation & Privacy are protected in Canon 220. While members of religious institutes agree to moderate their exercise of the right to privacy, they do not forfeit it. Their life in community requires that certain information be shared with those in positions of authority, for example in the candidate screening process, in the case of member misconduct and in the case of access to member personal files; however,  matters of conscience are always held sacrosanct. This requires a balancing of the appropriate respect for privacy and reputation with the necessary openness for the proper functioning of the institute or society.

Due Process is another important right protected in Canon 221 which ensures all Christians that they will be treated with fundamental fairness when actions are being taken against them by Church officials and tribunals, including those in leadership positions in an institute or society. While the mechanisms of due process are not fully spelled out in the code, there is some provision for defense of one's rights, the assistance of canonical counsel, and procedures designed to protect the integrity of the Church's legal system. 

Each Christian also has the right and obligation to make opinions known (Canon 212) and the right to pursue one's vocation (Canon 219).

Obligations and Rights of Religious are enumerated in a special section of Book Two dedicated to Consecrated Life (Canons 662-672). There are no rights explicitly mentioned in this section, however, some of the obligations mentioned would imply the right to those things necessary to carry out the obligations. Canon 670 lays on the Institute the obligation to provide for the members "all those things which are necessary to achieve the purpose of their vocation." Canon 619 lays on the superior the obligation to ensure that members are cared for, particularly with regard to pastoral care. Canon 610 cautions that each house of the institute must have suitable means to allow for the members to live their religious life. The obligations of religious fall into several categories. For each of the categories, there are basic obligations of Christians, then further obligations of Religious. In addition, the implict rights are briefly mentioned as well.

  1. Prayer: Each Christian is in a personal relationship with God, and that relationship is fostered in an important way by prayer and the sacraments (Canons 210-214). Canons 662-664 spell out in further detail those practices by which members foster their spiritual life. Many of these practices are common to all Christians; however their presence in this section of the code highlights that the God-quest is central to religious life, and also underlines that each religious should have the possibility of nourishing the spiritual life.
  2. Community:  Canon 665 requires that members live in houses of the institute, as described in Canons 608-616. The house is the place where religious share life in community, and often is a place where they gather for prayer and ministry as well.
  3. Ministry: Each Christian is called to ministry by virtue of Baptism (Canon 211), religious take on a further commitment to ministry as an integral part of religious life (Canons 573, 273ff).
  4. Finance: Canon 668 outlines the juridical framework for financial interdependence of members in the institute. In this canon members give up their independent use of goods, and thereafter must rely on the institute which has the obligation to ensure they have those things necessary to live out their vocation. Both leadership and finance people are called to steward the resources of the institute for present and future needs and works.
  5. Other Obligations: Canons 671 and 672 contain a number of cautions about outside offices and about certain commercial and political activities.
  6. Vocation: All the Christian faithful have the right to freely choose their vocation. In religious profession members exercise this choice in a definitive way. However, it may happen that for serious reasons, members separate from their institute or society, and provisions for this ensure that such moves are made with due consideration and with care for the rights of those involved.

For more information about the canonical obligations and rights of members of religious institutes, consider viewing the November 2009 Webcast on this topic. To subscribe to this free newsletter go to

Recorded Webcasts: Not available for a webcast? You can register to view it On-Demand or on CD-ROM.

  1. An On-Demand webcast is available for those who are unable to attend the webcast live. It is generally available within 48 hrs after the live webcast and may be view at your convenience over a several month period. The program can be downloaded or viewed on the web. (More environmentally friendly than the CD-ROM below)
  2. In addition, webcasts are also now offered on CD-ROM. This format is especially helpful for those without access to high speed internet. CD-ROMs are shipped a few weeks after the webcast.

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    Canonical Obligations and Rights of Religious
    Tuesday, November 17, 2009
    2:00 pm ET, 11:00 am PT
    Register online at

    Next Webcast:

    Basic Taxation of Religious - 2010 Update
    Tuesday, February 16, 2010
    2:00 pm ET, 11:00 am PT
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    Cost: $65* (*Late Registration $75)

Webcasts will be held quarterly on the third Tuesday of the month, at 2:00 pm Eastern time, 11:00 am Pacific Time. Past programs are available at

Please let me know if I can be of assistance to you or your organization.

Amy Hereford

*A webcast is a seminar delivered over the internet.

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