An interpretation of the canons on personal prelatures

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Benedict XVI, in his address to the Roman Rota in 2012, stated: “in order to grasp the true meaning of the law one must always seize the very reality that is being disciplined, and that not only when the law is primarily declarative of the Divine Law, but also when it constitutively introduces human rules. These are, in fact, to be interpreted also in the light of the reality being regulated, which always contains a nucleus of the Natural Law and the Divine Positive Law, with which every norm must be in harmony in order to be rational and truly juridical”.

Following these words of the Pope, and as an example of what is the meaning of the interpretation of the law in light of reality, E. Baura reflects on the canons of the Code of Canon Law which regulate personal prelatures (294-297), in his recent Manual of the General Part of Canon Law (published in Italian by EDUSC, Rome 2013, the translation is ours):

“Some authors, considering only the legal text, the systematic positioning of can. 294 to 297, and a few issues that arose during the drafting of the text, have interpreted can. 294, which states that such prelatures ‘presbyteris et diaconis cleri saecularis constent’, in the sense that personal prelatures would be exclusively clerical entities. However, this interpretation provokes many problems of a theological order concerning the realities present in the regulation which it seeks to address: What mission would correspond to a secular clergy incardinated in a prelature without reference to a people? It also creates difficulties of coherence with the rest of the canonical system: What difference would there be between personal prelatures and clerical societies of apostolic life of pontifical right? What sense would it make to have a codicial mention of “pastoral” works of the prelature? Moreover, the interpretation mentioned above contradicts the reality of the first personal prelature erected.

The reference to the reality being disciplined shows, therefore, the need to reconsider more carefully the legal text. In this way, it becomes clear that an interpretation like the one mentioned does not even respect the strict literal analysis of the canons. Indeed, personal prelatures should be in the first place ‘prelatures’, which means spheres of the jurisdiction and pastoral mission of a prelate (totally different from societies of apostolic life). If the prelature is identified as personal, it means that the sphere of jurisdiction is defined according to a personal criteria, rather than a territorial one: if the entity were merely clerical, the adjective “personal” would be meaningless. Turning to the mens legislatoris, it is understood that, since the Code explains that personal prelatures comprise priests and deacons, the important fact is the specification that they form part of the secular clergy. In fact, the precedents for these prelatures were what the Code of 1917 referred to as the ‘nullius dioecesis’. They could be ‘secular’ or ‘regular’, but, in addition to the prelate and his presbytery (whether secular clergy or regular clergy), both had, of course, a people. As a consequence of the consideration of the reality being regulated, and of a more careful observation of the text, one comes to the conclusion, therefore, that the 1983 Code states that personal prelatures are ‘secular’ prelatures with a people delimited personally”.