One of the tasks of the Dicastery is to recognise (or erect) international associations of the faithful (cfr. Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium, Art. 134). The international character of associations is therefore an essential requirement, and consists in the effective presence of a considerable number of members of the applicant association in Dioceses in different countries.
Alongside the number of members, which must be significant, the Dicastery assesses the nature and importance of the activities carried out by the association, understood as an expression of effective associative life in the countries where it is present. These are open criteria, to be applied with a necessary flexibility to each associative reality. The periodic contacts that the Dicastery maintains with the leaders of associations of the faithful is an indispensable tool for an adequate knowledge of these associations.
The recognition of an association of the faithful by the Holy See usually presupposes that the association has been previously recognised in a Particular Church, ordinarily the diocese in which the association first developed. The Dicastery also the opinion of bishops in other dioceses where the association is established, to confirm the appropriateness of a request for international recognition. In this way the Dicastery can verify the international character of the association and the spiritual and apostolic fruits of its members, attested to by the Church's own Pastors. This requirement has an important ecclesiological significance, as it represents a concrete manifestation of the mutual cooperation between the Universal Church and Particular Churches.
The rapid spread of the phenomenon of associative life at an international level in the Church, a marked characteristic of the second half of the 20th Century, has committed the Holy See, and more particularly the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, to a continuous activity of discernment and pastoral and juridical companionship in favour of these new associative realities, in the light of the Magisterium and the canonical norms in force. On the strength of this experience, the Dicastery has established a specific procedure for the recognition of these associative realities, constituting an expression and guarantee of their ecclesiality.
The procedure begins with a formal request, signed by the moderator of the association and sent in hard copy to the Prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life. The request should be accompanied by draft statutes, drawn up by the association with the help of a canon lawyer expert in the law of associations. The request should also be accompanied by all other documentation necessary for an adequate knowledge of the association’s history, purposes and activities, as well as the approximate number of members and their geographical distribution, its presence in various Particular Churches and its relationship with these Diocesan Ordinaries. The formal request for recognition is significant from a canonical point of view, because it constitutes an exercise of the freedom of association of the faithful, recognised by Church law.
As a first step, the Dicastery examines the documentation received to verify whether the necessary requirements are in place to begin the procedure. It must be emphasised that recognition by the Holy See cannot in any way be considered a sort of honorary title: an association in a diocesan or national sphere is just as ecclesial as an international association of the faithful. International recognition is, however, an indication of the maturity of an association, of its process of diffusion in different countries and proof of a well-established associative life. Applying for recognition is possible when an association has reached a level of diffusion that requires accompaniment by the ecclesiastical authorities at an international level.
Once the initial study has been completed – this may take some time depending on the texts to be analysed – the Dicastery consults several expert canon lawyers for their opinion on the statutes, and on the basis of the opinions and judgements received, the Dicastery formulates its observations. At this technical-legal stage of the process, the association of the faithful integrates the suggestions made by the Dicastery into the statutes, in order to prepare the final text to be submitted for approval. The Dicastery then requests an opinion on the statutes from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, which analyses their doctrinal conformity and, in the case of an association arising from a charism, assesses its charismatic identity. After a further review of the statutes, the final stage of the procedure is reached. The Dicastery draws up a decree recognising or erecting the international association of the faithful, and approves its statutes ad experimentum for an initial period of five years. At the end of the ad experimentum phase and in dialogue with the association, after incorporating any changes that may have appeared opportune in the meantime, the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life issues a new decree definitively approving the association’s statutes. As can be seen, with this administrative act, the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life exercises ecclesiastical power of governance.