New Ecclesial Movements & Associations

Tuesday, September 05 2006


Throughout the history of the Church, the Holy Spirit has continually raised up ecclesial movements and associations as instruments in the Church for spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ. At the beginning of every such movement, there is always some charismatic figure, some founding individual who has the capacity to attract people around him or her and brings newness of life in the Church. Through the vitality and variety of their differing charisms and Christian objectives, ecclesial movements and associations are often the result and fruit of actively involved Catholics who assume responsibility for their Christian vocation to sanctify themselves and the world. In his Encyclical Letter on mission, Redemptoris Missio, the Holy Father says of them: “When these movements humbly seek to become part of the life of local Churches and are welcomed by bishops and priests within diocesan and parish structures, they represent a true gift of God both for new evangelization and for missionary activity properly so-called.” 1

In the last thirty years, there has been a rapid increase and growth of ecclesial movements within the Church. At times the sheer number, names, and diversity of these new groups and movements may appear daunting. Each movement pursues its aim in the Church with its  distinctive charism and approach, its own membership and particular style of life, often with remarkable vitality and Spirit-filled zeal. The originality of these new movements, or “new communities” as they are sometimes called, “often consists in the fact that they are composed of mixed groups of men and women, of clerics and lay persons, of married couples and celibates, all of whom pursue a particular style of life.”2 While each movement and new ecclesial community is different from the others, they are all united in the same communion and share in the same mission of the Church. “I have often had occasion to stress,” Pope John Paul has said, “that there is no conflict or opposition in the Church between the institutional dimension and the charismatic dimension, of which the [ecclesial] movements are a significant expression. Both are co-essential to the divine constitution of the Church founded by Jesus, because they both help to make the mystery of Christ and his saving grace present in the world.”3 What is apparent today is that the faithful are exercising their inherent right of association on an unprecedented scale and it is incumbent upon the bishop to oversee and coordinate their endeavours.

Freedom of Association in the Church

Following the Vatican II conciliar decree Apostolicam Actuositatem on the apostolate of lay persons, which presents the foundation of the right of association of the faithful in the Church,4 the new Code of Canon Law formally recognizes that the right to association is a right proper to all the faithful within the Church:

Can. 215 Christ’s faithful may freely establish and direct associations which serve charitable or pious purposes or which foster the Christian vocation in the world, and they may hold meetings to pursue these purposes by common effort.

The right of association is thus guaranteed and there is no requirement for anybody’s permission for such associations to be established, or to meet and carry out the function for which they were established. In this regard the Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici affirms that the formation of such groups “expresses the social nature of the [human] person” and is also a “sign of communion and of unity of the Church of Christ.”5 The foundation of this right, therefore, is both anthropological and ecclesiological; the order of creation is herein assumed and perfected by the order of redemption. The Apostolic Exhortation goes on to say that the freedom of the faithful to form and direct such associative groups or movements in the Church “is a true and proper right that is not derived from any kind of ‘concession’ by authority, but flows from the Sacrament of Baptism, which calls the lay faithful to participate actively in the Church’s communion and mission.”6

This means that associations and ecclesial movements can and do enjoy considerable autonomy, both with regard to their internal spiritual life and with regard to their external activity or apostolate. They are in fact freer than religious orders or societies of the apostolic life in this regard. Associations in the Church are divided into those that are public, and those that are private. Only those that are founded and given legal establishment by the competent authority are granted public status (Can. 301 § 3). Most other associations are private, that is, founded by individual agreement amongst members of the faithful (Can. 299 § 1). Some of these are granted juridical personality, while others are merely recognized by the Church after a review of their statutes. There are also purely voluntary associations that have no formal recognition, which is not to say that these are inferior or operating outside Church law. It simply means that with greater canonical standing and rights, an association receives greater supervision.

What is an ecclesial movement?

Clearly, when speaking of new movements, associations or new ecclesial communities in the Church, we are dealing with a multifarious reality that cannot easily be defined in precise terms or classified in neat juridical categories. The new Code of Canon Law, when dealing with these, does not use the term “ecclesial movements” or “new communities,” two expressions that are relatively new in the official lexicon of the Church; it only speaks of “associations of the faithful” (cc 298-329). Hence a possible confusion regarding terminology. Already a cautionary remark to this effect was made in the study Recognition of National Catholic Associations, published by the CCCB in 1993, wherein attention was drawn to a certain lack of clarity in defining these important terms:

Neither the Code nor the exhortation Christifideles laici gives a precise definition of the term association. John Paul II, in his exhortation, uses it in a rather broad sense when referring to different forms of coming together, as groups, communities or movements… As far as movements are concerned, it remains to be seen how far each has the common characteristics of associations of the faithful. Certain movements, as their name indicates, are constantly evolving: they have no statutes and often their members are transient.7

How then are we to differentiate, if at all, between a movement, an association, a community, or a fraternity, especially when used in a magisterial document? Canonically and for all intents and purposes, we may regard all these terms as interchangeable, as close synonyms, “cut from the same cloth,” as it were, since they merely seek to describe and take into account the many diverse ways the faithful do in fact choose to come together and associate. This nomenclature arises, in part, because the ecclesial groups designate and name themselves differently, some as a “movement,” a “community,” a “fraternity,” or an “association,” etc. It should be noted that canonically, movements and communities come under the broad category of associations of the faithful, a term that is all-inclusive. In practice, all these various ways of associating refer to the same basic reality, the same associative phenomenon in the Church, namely, those group endeavours that arise within the Church, sometimes quite unexpectedly, on the basis of a particular charism that takes shape in some form of fellowship, which in turn generates new life in the local Church.

Given the great diversity of these private and public associations, one of the principal challenges for the local bishop is to coordinate their apostolate and help them become more integrated in the life and existing structures of the local Church. This dual challenge will provide the strategic ecclesiological framework for the foregoing criteria, also called “Criteria of Ecclesiality.” The Instrumentum Laboris of the Xth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops anticipated this challenge as follows: “The responses to the Lineamenta stress that many ecclesial movements are truly constructive at the universal, diocesan and parochial level; that some, remaining on the periphery of parish and diocesan life, are not beneficial to the growth of the local Church; and that others, because of certain pretences, risk undermining the communion of the entire particular Church.”8 Hence the need to evaluate the ecclesiality of these numerous movements and communities against some clear and well-defined criteria. Today as in the past, the question remains: How can these ecclesial movements be integrated better within the Church’s life and structure at the diocesan and parochial levels? What criteria can the bishop and the faithful use to evaluate and ascertain their proper relationship within the faith community of the local Church?

Criteria for the discernment of ecclesial movements and associations

1. Criterion of Accountability

Criterion: Ecclesial movements and associations have a duty to hold themselves accountable to the competent ecclesial authority.

Rationale: Good stewardship invariably entails being responsible and answerable for one’s initiatives and actions to the competent authority. The ways for doing this of course may vary from case to case and according to the nature of the movement or association. Yet it makes eminent ecclesial sense that every movement or association be honour-bound to provide periodic reports of its initiatives, programs and activities to the local Ordinary or his representative.

The reason this is very important is because the responsibility of the diocesan bishop is not restricted to supervising matters of faith and morals. He must also coordinate the works of the apostolate in his diocese (Can. 394 ‘ 1) and, with due respect to the autonomy of these associations and ecclesial movements, he must ensure that the exercise of their apostolate is directed to the common good (Can. 323 ‘ 2). The exercise of the right of association is not absolute or unlimited. Given the ecclesial nature of this right, the faithful “must take account of the common good of the Church” (Can. 223 ‘ 1) and accept that the “ecclesiastical authority is entitled to regulate, in view of the common good, the exercise of rights which are proper to Christ’s faithful” (Can. 223 ‘ 2). Vatican Council II is very explicit: “The hierarchy’s duty is to promote the apostolate of the laity, furnish it with spiritual principles and support, direct the exercise of this apostolate to the common good of the Church, and see to it that doctrine and order are safeguarded.”9

Recommended Action: In addition to more formal reports, it is strongly suggested that new channels of communication be established whereby an on-going and more systematic dialogue be initiated between the leaders of the movement and the local Ordinary or his designated representative. Such a dialogue, which conceivably would include mutual sharing of information and encouragement, exchange of ideas and pastoral support, would foster a greater co-ordination of needs and resources in the diocese. It would harness the vitality and differing charisms of these movements and allow them to become more “in tune” with, and at the service of, the existing diocesan and parochial programs. Such regular exchanges would not only provide the bishop and the ecclesial movements an opportunity for closer collaboration, but it is even conceivable that out of such regular encounters new creative insights will emerge to meet the more urgent pastoral needs of the local Church, at both the diocesan and parish levels.

2. Criterion of Implantation

Criterion: The criterion of implantation stipulates that every ecclesial movement and   association be conspicuously rooted and  involved in the life of the parish and in some area of its mission: celebrating, evangelizing, caring, teaching and participating.

Rationale: Past experience has shown that one of the dangers of any movement or association is a tendency to isolation and hence a certain detachment from the life of the local Church. If not properly integrated in the life and institutional structure of the local Church, ecclesial movements may come to be seen, or see themselves, as floating ‘above’ or ‘parallel’ to the local Church, with scant direct involvement in the on-going programs and life of the parish or diocese. Since they are all ecclesial in nature, these movements and associations should be ‘grounded’ or ‘implanted’ in the life and structures of the local Church, especially at the parish level.

Recommended Action: There are many channels open for ecclesial movements and new communities to be truly ‘grounded’ in the life and mission of the local Church, but pride of place must be given to those programs and local structures that already exist within a diocese. These constitute the ‘heartbeat’ of the parish community. Notwithstanding their distinctive charism and spirituality, members of an ecclesial movement are seen (and must consciously see themselves) first and foremost as members of the Church. Firmly implanted and involved in the life of the parish community, the distinctive charism and richness of these ecclesial movements will permeate the faith life of the entire local community. Parishes will become enriched and vibrant through such intentional involvement. As St. Paul reminds us, we need each other, as each part of the body needs every other part. “If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body.”10 The criterion of implantation is meant to ensure a collaborative use of resources and personnel, the combining of gifts and creativity, and the edification or ‘building’ up of parish life so that all the faithful may be exposed to and experience the fullest possible manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

3. Criterion of Authentic Doctrine

Criterion: Fidelity to the authentic doctrine of the faith.

Rationale: “Test everything, hold fast to what is good” (I Thess. 5:16). The first duty of the local bishop is to oversee matters of doctrine and spirituality. Whatever contradicts the doctrine of the faith does not come from the Holy Spirit, since the Spirit who bestows his gifts is the same Spirit who inspired the Scriptures and who continues to assist the Magisterium of the Church in the authentic interpretation of these. In the Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, John Paul II reiterates this basic criterion for evaluating an association of the lay faithful in the Church: “The responsibility of professing the Catholic faith, embracing and proclaiming the truth about Christ, the Church and humanity, in obedience to the Church’s Magisterium, as the Church interprets it. For this reason every association of the lay faithful must be a forum where the faith is proclaimed as well as taught in its total content.”11

Recommended Action: Not only should the discernment of the bishop focus on the doctrine professed and proposed by the movement, but also on its spiritual praxis and the concrete manner in which the members of a movement relate to God, to the Church and to society. Such discernment is incumbent upon the diocesan bishop even if the movement does not enjoy juridical status in the Church as a recognized association. The purpose of this supervision is to preserve the integrity of faith and morals and to ensure that “abuses in ecclesiastical discipline do not creep in” (Can. 305 ‘ 1). “The local Ordinary may intervene, should there be reason, not only when a diocesan association has its headquarters in his diocese, but when an association of the faithful, diocesan or not, is active in his diocese, even if its headquarters is elsewhere.”12

4. Criterion of Complementarity

Criterion: The criterion of complementarity stipulates that an ecclesial movement should strive to have  some knowledge of and contact with the other existing ecclesial movements in the local Church.

Rationale: Conscious of the fact that many ecclesial movements co-exist in a diocese or parish, it is important that they themselves come to recognize and appreciate the complementarity of their respective gifts and objectives. When an ecclesial movement has little or no appreciable contact or established relationship with its “sister” movements, it can all too readily acquire over time something of a ‘ghetto’ or ‘elitist’ mentality. Severed from the life and gifts of these other movements in the diocese or parish, its own charism will do little to complement theirs. The criterion of complementarity is intended to prevent an ecclesial movement from being too inwardly turned in upon itself, or focused too exclusively on its own particular gift or charism and thus isolating itself from other ecclesial movements in the diocese or parish. It is important that they be made aware of the complementarity of their differing gifts and charisms, their respective spiritualities and agenda. This implies more than just mutual esteem or superficial familiarity with the other ecclesial movements that exist in the diocese or parish. It means a clear willingness to cooperate in working together for the good of the entire faith community.

Recommended Action: In much the same way that the various religious congregations who work in a region or diocese have now established closer collaborative links and joint projects — indeed have even given themselves a permanent structure, i.e., the Canadian Religious Conference — so too the different ecclesial movements should forge closer ties with one another for the good of the wider community. In the same way that the ray of light joins all the colours that appear in the rainbow, only when joining forces and talents can ecclesial movements and associations give light to those around them. The criterion of complementarity would insist that there be a certain concerted effort to bring these ecclesial movements together periodically — possibly in an annual forum in every diocese and parish. This will enable them to become more aware of one another and their respective spiritual resources. Such forums would also provide ecclesial movements the opportunity for further study, reflection and joint action.

5. Criterion of Social Involvement

Criterion: This criterion seeks from every  ecclesial movement a commitment to a presence in human society. Whatever their charism, they must be seen as fruitful outlets for participation and solidarity in bringing about conditions that are more just and loving within society.13

Rationale: Ever since the Synod of Bishops on “Justice in the World” (1971) declared that justice is a “constitutive dimension” of the gospel, the link between justice and spirituality has become constant. Before that, the Catholic approach to justice often separated the issue of human rights and responsibilities from spirituality. Since then it has become incumbent on every spiritual person, group, and organizational structure in the Church to work for the dignity of all persons, a greater equity in the way the resources of the earth are produced and distributed, and better ways to foster solidarity between the rich and the poor. “Participation in the struggle for freedom and justice is a duty for each one of us, as it is a central element of the Church’s mission of redemption and liberation.”14 In short, with this new reading of the signs of the times, it is inconceivable that an ecclesial movement or association in the Church today should remain unconcerned and uninvolved in the pursuit of peace and social justice as an integral element of its spirituality.

Recommended Action: There are numerous ways that an ecclesial movement or association can become involved in the plight of the poor and the oppressed in the world and assist in bringing about greater equity, justice and reconciliation in a troubled world. Before creating any new program in this regard, however, ecclesial movements and associations should be made aware of the existing diocesan and parish programs for social justice and be encouraged to lend their support and assistance to these. The issues involved in social justice are not only complex but it is very important that the Church be seen and heard to “speak” as with one voice. In this area, especially, there is need for close collaboration, even with other non-ecclesial organizations with a similar common purpose. As well, it is recommended that each ecclesial movement be invited to prayerfully reflect on how their specific charism is inherently related to this larger mission of the Church in today’s world and how this charism may indeed be enlisted in the struggle for a more just and compassionate society. Thus while rooted in the local Church, ecclesial movements will remain open to the Church’s broader mission ad extra as well as its mission ad intra.

6. Criterion of Holiness

Criterion: This criterion stipulates that every  ecclesial movement be conspicuously seen and bent on being an effective instrument of holiness for its members and an inspiration to all the faithful.

Rationale: One of the dangers that can beset an ecclesial movement is when it concentrates solely or too exclusively on its one defining charism, as though this one special gift exhausts or captures the total experience of the faith and the integrity of the Gospel. When the charism of a movement is absolutized, members can come to perceive their way of following Jesus Christ, their method of prayer, and their way of relating to God as the only legitimate form of Christian holiness. The call to holiness is of course the fundamental imperative of every Christian of whatever rank or status, as Lumen Gentium points out: “Thus it is evident to everyone that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity.” (LG 40). The call to holiness is not the vocation of a select few or special group within the Church but the universal vocation of every Christian. The primacy given to this quest for Christian holiness is also one of the authenticating criteria for discerning lay groups and movements in the Church.

Recommended Action: It might be argued that the criterion of holiness is too broad and variable, too elusive and intangible, to really serve as an authenticating criterion for ecclesial movements. While it is true that there are many different approaches to holiness in the Church, many legitimate traditions and schools of spirituality, there is one “over-arching” and readily discernible hallmark of authentic holiness, namely, the love of charity. In the final analysis, every individual Christian and every ecclesial movement is and must be forever judged by love. Pope Paul VI saw this clearly when he affirms that charity is one of the basic criteria for discerning ecclesial movements.15 He said that of all the spiritual gifts, the gift of love (agapè) is the only one that guarantees not just the bestowal of some special gift, but also the very presence of the Holy Spirit in Person. However desirable the other spiritual gifts may be, the love of charity alone is what makes a Christian perfect and most agreeable to God. It is also good to remind members of ecclesial movements — and indeed all the faithful — that even though our human efforts to become holy are praiseworthy, God — and God alone – is the One who ultimately makes us holy by communicating and bestowing His own divine life on those whom He loves. “Be holy because I am holy” (I Pet 1:16).


1.  John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Missio, no.72.

2.  John Paul II, Angelus Talk on 23 August 1987.

3. Message to the participants at the World Congress of Ecclesial Movements, in L’Osservatore Romano, 28 May 1998, 5.

4. Vatican Council II, Apostolicam Actuositatem, no. 18.

5. Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, no. 29.
6. Ibid. See also R. Page, “Associations of the faithful in the Church,” in The Jurist, 47 (1987), 165; Lluís Martínez Sistach, “Freedom of Association in the Church,” in Ecclesial Movements in the Pastoral Concern of the Bishops, Pontificium Consilium Pro Laicis, Vatican City, 2000, 187-201.
7. Recognition of National Catholic Associations, CCCB, Ottawa, 1993, p.10.
8. Instrumentum laboris, “The Bishop: Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World,” no. 99.
9. Vatican II, Apostolicam Actuositatem, no. 24.
10. I Cor.12:19-20.
11. John Paul II, Christifideles Laici, no. 30.
12. Recognition of National Catholic Associations, CCCB, 1993, 19.
13. John Paul II, Christifideles Laici, no. 30.
14. U.S. Catholic Bishops, The Eucharist and the Hungers of the Human Family, 1975, no. 12.
15. Paul VI, Address to the Third International Congress of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, May 19, 1975, in La Documentation catholique, 15 juin 1975, 563.