An unacceptable wardship model

Continuing my research on the demise of the ICO Conference (better known by its French acronym as the COIC), I recently spoke to Fernand Vincent (above), a Swiss development expert as well as a former YCW leader and extension worker in Africa, who was the treasurer of the COIC during the period leading up to its dissolution in 2008.

According to Vincent, a confrontation (French: affrontement) developed between the COIC and the Holy See during the early 2000s. In essence, he explained, the conflict emerged over the role of lay people in the Church, and particularly lay organisations.

At that time, as we saw in my previous article, the Holy See was attempting to encourage (or pressure) the COIC and its members to update their constitutions to bring them under the new categories of private or public associations adopted by the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

In Fernand Vincent’s view and that of other COIC leaders of that time, what the Vatican was in effect trying to do was to place the COIC under what he characterised as a system of “tutelle” – literally “wardship” or “guardianship.”

In other words, the Vatican was seeking to impose clerical control, even to the point of insisting that a cleric needed to be president of the COIC.

I suspect that this was based on the criteria for “public associations of the faithful” as set out in Canon 312:

Understandably, this was rejected by the lay leaders of the COIC, who had already been electing lay presidents for decades.

In the face of this Vatican pressure, most COIC leaders (including Fernand Vincent) resigned in protest,. Others, however, remained to see if they could find a way forward.

This did not happen and the COIC was contentiously dissolved in 2008.

Other background issues

Finally, let me note here that there were other background issues involved in the demise of the COIC.

According to Fernand Vincent, these included the stances taken at the UN by various Catholic organisations, which apparently did not always coincide with the Vatican line.

He also cited the tensions between the ICOs, including the Specialised Catholic Action movements, and the so-called “new ecclesial movements,” which the Vatican has promoted in recent decades.

The contrast with Cardijn’s Vatican II proposal

However, here, it’s important here to note how dramatically the model espoused by the Vatican authorities diverged from the model that Cardijn (and others) advocated for during the Second Vatican Council.

As I also noted in a previous article, Cardijn valiantly advocated for a Vatican body that would speak to the Church hierarchy on behalf of the lay movements, rather than its opposite, which emerged with the Pontifical Council for the Laity. A fortiori, he would have rejected any form of tutelle over the COIC.

Marguerite Fiévez, who was appointed as a member of the first PCL in 1967 and who also took part in many COIC meetings, was extremely critical of the way in which the PCL developed, shared Cardijn’s view.

Moreover, as Fernand Vincent reiterated to me by email today, the “tutelle” model proposed by the Holy See in 2007-08 was simply “inacceptable pour de vrais laïcs chrétiens” -”unacceptable for genuine lay Christians.”

Nous sommes des adultes et non des exécutants subalternes,” he insisted, “we are adults not subordinate executors.”

The Forum of Catholic-inspired International NGOs

Regarding the new Forum of Catholic-inspired International NGOs, Vincent told me that the Vatican had placed the ICOs before a fait accompli. In other words, they helped set it up in the expectation that the ICO Conference would close down and that the various ICOs would adhere to the new Forum.

As I remarked to Fernand, and he agreed, this was exactly the strategy that the Vatican used with the IYCW during the 1980s, setting up a new Vatican-recognised competing entity, the ICYCW, then pressuring national movements to affiliate to the new body.

I also know independently of the above that at least some Catholic organisations decided not to participate in the new Forum, because of what they perceived as Vatican control. I don’t know if this is a widespread attitude.

In any event, the fact that the officials of the ICO Conference felt strongly enough to resign during the 2000s would help explain that there was likely a strong reluctance to join the new Forum.


In my conversation with Fernand Vincent, he also noted the similarity of the conflicts with the COIC to those that emerged with respect to Caritas International, which has only ever had one lay president and that for a short period.

See this post:

He is of the view that the reason that the Vatican was even more insistent on maintaining clerical control over Caritas was principally because money was involved.

Indeed, to this day, Caritas International still has a cleric as president (a Japanese bishop).

Questions for the Synod

Here I should note that the Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod does pose several questions relating to lay movements, organisations and communities. This is certainly a positive development.

Nevertheless, it does raise other questions:

What will the Synod say about those lay movements, organisations and communities?

What model of lay-clerical partnership will it propose?

But before even addressing the above questions, how can a Synod on Synodality deal with issues and questions relating to international lay movements, organisations and communities in their (virtual) absence?

Surely, this contradicts the whole idea of synodality as “walking together.”

Stefan Gigacz