Associations of the Faithful: A Working Definition An aggregate of persons, with a common purpose congruent with the mission of the Church, who freely associate in such a manner that rights are exercised and obligations acquired without change to the status of each individual person who form the association. An association of the faithful is an aggregate of persons, not of things. Christ’s faithful possess the natural right and have the liberty “to found and to govern associations for charitable and religious purposes or for the promotion of the Christian vocation in the world; they are free to hold meetings to pursue these purposes in common” (Canon 215). While the association may acquire property and enter into contracts in the pursuit of its purpose and fulfillment of apostolate, the association exists because of the people, not the goods it acquires. By the very nature of an association, the members pursue a common purpose. In secular society, many associations exist which purpose may or may not have Christian orientation. In contrast, associations of the faithful, by nature, maintain a purpose congruent with the mission of the Church. Ecclesiastical Authority and Associations of the Faithful Because associations of the faithful must have a common purpose congruent with the mission of the Church, competent ecclesiastical authority has the obligation of vigilance over all in matters of faith, morals and ecclesiastical discipline. The purpose of this vigilance is to promote the common good, protect against the infringement of rights and duties and provide a venue of vindication when necessary (cf. Canon 223). This vigilance allows competent authority to visit the associations in accord with the norms of law and the statutes of the association (Canon 305§1). Regarding public associations, the authority that erected it has direct supervision over the association. Regarding private associations, ecclesiastical authority must respect their autonomy but has the obligation to “take care that their energies are not dissipated and that the exercise of their apostolate is ordered toward the common good (Canon 323§2).” He also has the right “to be watchful that the goods are used for the purposes of the association (Canon 325§1).” Types of Associations Two broad categories of associations exist within the Church: public and private. Further distinctions made in law are beyond the parameters of this article [cf. Clerical associations (Canons 302) and third orders (Canon 303)]. “Associations of the faithful which are erected by competent ecclesiastical authority are called public associations (Canon 301§3).” In the decree of erection, the competent authority must bestow public juridic personality on the association and grant it a mission by which it formally acts in the name of the Church (Canon 313). Only the Holy See, a conference of bishops or a diocesan bishop has the authority to erect a public association of the faithful (Canon 312). Before issuing a decree of erection, the competent authority must approve its statutes (Canon 314). Only a public association can receive a mission to teach Christian doctrine in the name of the Church, promote public worship or pursue a purpose which by nature is reserved to ecclesiastical authority (Canon 301§1). As a public association, the members act in the name of the Church when fulfilling the purpose of the association. Because of its public nature, the authority who erected it has direct supervision over the association and specifically has the right to confirm the election of the moderator, install a moderator presented or name a moderator in accord with the approved statutes; name the chaplain or ecclesiastical assistant (Canon 317§1); designate a trustee to temporarily direct the association (Canon 318§1); remove the moderator for a just cause (Canon 318§2); direct and audit the 3 administration of goods and reception of offerings and alms (Canon 319); suppress the association or otherwise declare it extinct in accord with law (Canons 320, 120§1). In contrast, private associations exist by private agreement, freely made among members of the Christian faithful, with the intent to attain the aims mentioned in canon 298§1 (Canon 299§1). By far, private associations of the faithful are the most flexible and less restrictive means for the Christian faithful to pursue a common purpose as a group. While ecclesiastical authority maintains a certain degree of vigilance over private associations as noted above, the guidance and direction of the association comes from the members in accord with its statutes (Canon 321). Any further influence and involvement by ecclesiastical authority depends on the level of recognition the association seeks. From least to most structured, private associations are categorized as de facto, recognized, praised or recommended and private with juridic personality. Unless a private association receives juridic personality from competent ecclesiastical authority, the association itself has no rights or obligations in law. However, its members may collectively assert their rights and obligations, even by proxy (Canon 310). This will be further discussed in the example below. A de facto association of the faithful exists by common agreement among its members but has no recognition from Church authority. Because this type of association seeks no recognition from the Church, its statutes do not require review by ecclesiastical authority.
This first appeared in the September 8, 1997 issue of Christifidelis, the newsletter of the St. Joseph Foundation