Pope Francis is warning bishops that they must consult with the Vatican before approving new would-be religious orders or risk having their decisions overturned.
The revised law published Friday aims to ensure that new religious institutes meet all the criteria for religious orders, especially that they have a unique "charism" or founding spirit and that their members practice poverty, chastity and obedience.
Previously, bishops were required to consult with the Vatican about new orders but there were no consequences if they didn't. Now, their decisions can be invalidated.
Usually, orders begin as small "institutes of consecrated life" that are approved by a local bishop to operate in his diocese. Over time if they attract more members, they can apply to the Vatican to get pontifical recognition, like the Jesuits or Missionaries of Charity.
Kurt Martens, canon law professor at The Catholic University of America, said the new law aims to prevent "disasters from happening" when a bishop approves a new religious institute without doing the proper checks.
While Francis has been keen to decentralize church decision-making to bishops, Martens noted that the Holy See has a lot of experience to offer them. He said the new law seems to seek a "healthy balance."
While the new law concerns the early phases of church approval for new orders, it comes as the Vatican is grappling with a new scandal at the Peru-based Sodalitium Christianae Vitae community, which received diocesan approval in 1994 and pontifical recognition in 1997.
The Vatican recently named its former No. 2 official in charge of religious orders, Archbishop Joseph Tobin, to oversee reforms at Sodalitium after an internal ethics commission found that young recruits were victims of physical, psychological and sexual abuse, according to the Catholic News Agency.
The agency, whose executive director is a Sodalitium member, has said the commission found an internal culture of extreme "discipline and obedience to the founder" — a parallel to another scandal at the Mexico-based Legion of Christ.