Community in Civil and Canon Law

Canon 665 provides that Sisters and Brothers have the right and obligation to live in “their own religious house.” The canon goes on to describe the parameters of absence from community:

Observing a common life, religious are to live in their own religious house and not be absent from it without the permission of their superior. However, if it is a question of a lengthy absence from the house the major superior for a just cause and with the consent of the council can permit the member to live outside a house of the institute, but not for more than a year, except for the purpose of caring for poor health, for the purpose of studies or of undertaking an apostolate in the name of the institute.

Religious form community in that house, a community that is supportive of the commitment that they have made, particularly to a life of prayer, to gospel living, to ministry and to justice. Traditionally, the local house of religious has been seen as a witness to and support of the vows of poverty and chastity. Religious live simply and joyfully in mutual support.

The situation of many religious in the United States today does not resonate with the presentation of religious community presented in this canon. Yet there is also ferment on the part of some to rediscover the values of living in community. This can present a challenge as religious of various generations seek a common vision of community that is life-giving and mutually supportive.

Canon 608 describes a religious house as follows:
Can. 608 A religious community must live in a house legitimately constituted under the authority of the superior designated according to the norm of law. Each house is to have at least an oratory in which the Eucharist is celebrated and reserved so that it truly is the center of the community.

In some institutes, all the houses are canonically constituted, in other institutes, this is not the case and has not been for many years. There are many reasons for this: ministry needs and the availability of houses of sufficient size, and sometimes a reaction, now many years prolonged, against a prior rigid uniformity and sometimes harsh deprivation. In some cases, individuals have chosen to live alone or in diads or triads. In other cases, larger communities dwindled as religious one-by-one moved away or retired.

The situation of singles, diads and triads is now a reality for many, raising challenges of arranging community and governance structures that are non-residential. With no leadership at the local level, provincial and congregational leadership is responsible for relating to each of the sisters or brothers directly. Many face the challenge of keeping members connected with one another, with the community and with leadership. Some have turned to inter-congregational living, in order to foster vibrant communities, and this raises questions of the proper way of organizing the house and its finances, and how it relates to each home congregation.

Larger communities have their challenges as well, particularly as the brothers and sisters age. They need more care, and there are fewer religious ready or able to be community leaders on the local level. These houses have the Eucharist reserved and may have sacramental ministry for those who live there. Canonically erected houses are juridic persons, and some congregations also civilly incorporate each of their houses.

Discussions of community in religious life often raise questions of finding appropriate communities for newer members, varying expectations of sisters and of brothers regarding community, and the balance between the values of community, and the call to live and/or do ministry at a distance from others in the congregation.

For more on Community in Civil and Canon Law, register for August's webcast on Community in Civil and Canon Law. In September you have the opportunity to participate in the Covenant Project workshop ( and in November we launch a new series the Online Canon Law Institute – an introductory course in canon law, 4 webcasts, available live or on-demand.

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

Please let me know if I can be of assistance to you or your congregation.
Amy Hereford

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