Life: Legal Structures Like Civil Law Can Strengthen Sisters’ Ministry


This month, The Life panelists shared stories from their own congregations and other religious groups on how they benefit from the legal structures offered by their own constitutions as well as by civil and canon law. They answered this question:

In your experience, is canon law oppressive for religious women, or is it rather legal protection? Do you think religious congregations could make more use of civil law to improve their ministry?

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Amy hereford is a Sister of Saint-Joseph de Saint-Louis. His experience includes teaching, communication, management and administration. As an author, theologian, and civil and canonical advocate, she consults with religious communities and charitable organizations around the world, addressing the technical concerns of religious institutes and exploring the evolving nature of religious life.

I work as a lawyer and canonist, helping religious communities solve the thorniest issues in their life together. I think the law gets a bad rap because people often call a lawyer or canonist when something is wrong. But the same goes for other service professionals. Something hurts and we call a healthcare professional. Our car stops running and we call a mechanic. When something goes wrong in the communities, they can call on a multitude of professionals who can help them, and a canonist is one such person. Canon law does not pose a problem any more than an oncologist causes cancer.

Good law embodies the values ​​of a society; the constitutions of a religious community embody the values ​​of our religious communities. They are the internal law of the community; they say who we are in our common experience of God, community and mission; and they establish a framework for our life together. Most of life in our communities is lived in a sphere of freedom established by the legal framework of our constitutions. When there is a conflict or relationship breakdown, the law helps us resolve issues by reminding us of our common core values ​​and the rights and obligations that flow from those values.

Religious institutes grow and change, mature and decline; they find it necessary to change their law and their structures to reflect their new understanding of themselves and to embody the new articulation of their values. The law in religious institutes establishes governance, organizes activities, guides relations inside and outside the institute in justice and charity, helps us to mediate between competing interests and values , and directs and sustains the whole life of the institute so that all together, the institute and its members can “follow Christ with greater freedom … under the action of the Holy Spirit” (Perfectae Caritatis).


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