Dissolution or destruction of the ICO Conference?

As shown in my previous post, participation of international Catholic organisations, movements and communities in Assemblies of the Synods of Bishops declined precipitously between 1987 and the present.

I’ve not been able to find or obtain access to lists of lay participants at the various Special and Ordinary Assemblies since 1987 so I’ve been unable to determine whether the decline and change in lay participation was a gradual process or the result of any particular decision.

Nevertheless, one important change regarding the relationship between the Holy See and the mainly lay Catholic organisations, movements and communities that took place in 2008, did occur during this period, i.e. namely the dissolution of the Conference of International Catholic Organisations – the “ICO Conference” as it used to be more colloquially known.

Was this a factor? Indeed, why was the ICO Conference dissolved? Let’s look at a brief history of the Conference before coming to its demise, drawing on documents compiled and published after the dissolution of the Conference under the title Repères pour l’histoire de la Conférence des Organisations Internationales Catholiques (1927-2008) (English: Landmarks for the history of the Conference of International Catholic Organisations (1927-2008)) by Dr François Blin, a member of the archives team.

The Conference of Presidents of the ICOs

In short, the origins of the ICO Conference date back to the 1920s, i.e. the period between the two 20th century world wars, which included the establishment of the League of Nations, the precursor of the United Nations.

Catholic leaders and groups wished to make their presence felt among the growing network of international institutions, including the International Labor Organisation (ILO) that began to emerge during this period.

Thus, in April 1927, representatives of eight Catholic organisations with an international spread met in Fribourg, Switzerland under the auspices of the bishop of Lausanne. These organisations included the Society of St Vincent de Paul, represented by the former Sillon chaplain, Mgr Eugène Beaupin, Pax Romana, the International Association of Charity and the International Federation of Catholic Boy Scouts. The International Federation of Christian Trade Unions also sent an observer in the person of Maria Baers, a close collaborator of Cardijn in the foundation of the future Young Christian Workers (YCW) movement in Belgium. as did the National Catholic Welfare Conference of the US bishops.

Reports addressed a variety of issues including the emergence of the cinema, the struggle against immoral publications, the protection of children, and a proposed International Social Congress, which took place in Paris in 1928.

However, the main objective of the meeting was “to promote understanding between the major international Catholic organisations.” Thus, it was resolved to create the “Conference of Presidents of International Catholic Organisations” to meet annually to exchange views and develop common action. Importantly, each organisation would preserve its own freedom of action and autonomy.

The aim was thus not to create a new organisation or peak body but simply to organise “an annual meeting of a confidential nature” whereby the organisations concerned would be able to exchange views and experiences and come together without imposing obligations on each other.

As Rosemary Goldie wrote much later, however, “the pre-war (Second World War) meetings were barely tolerated by the Roman authorities who mistrusted the laicity (French: laïcité) of certain international organisations.”

Indeed, I believe that this Roman or Vatican mistrust also lay behind the choice of the name “Conference of Presidents,” which was apparently intended to allay those fears, which remained throughout the papacy of Pius XI.

Despite these difficulties, there was one young priest working at the Holy See, who was more sympathetic to the work of the ICOs. He was Giovanni-Battista Montini, a university student chaplain as well as future pope and saint Paul VI, who in 1925 was appointed as an attaché in the Ordinary Affairs Section of the Holy See. And he would soon come to play a key role in the development of the ICO Conference.

The Conference of International Catholic Organisations

After the end of World War II, the establishment of the United Nations, the election of Pope Pius XII not to mention the threat of international communism, the attitude of the Holy See to the ICOs changed markedly. Now the Vatican wished to see the ICOs playing a much greater role on the international stage.

In 1947, an International Catholic Coordination Committee for UNESCO was established in Paris. In 1950, an ICO Information Centre was created in Geneva, the seat of the new UN. By this time many more ICOs had emerged, including the Specialised Catholic Action movements modelled on Cardijn’s Young Christian Workers movement.

Soon after, benefiting from the greatly increased openness from the Holy See, including the support of Montini, who had now risen to the post of Substitute, the Conference of International Catholic Organisations was founded at a conference in Utrecht, Netherlands in February 1951.

Later that year the First World Congress on World Apostolate would also take place in Rome and this was followed by the second and third such congresses in 1957 and 1967. From this arose the establishment of the COPECIAL, a Vatican-backed body responsible for organising world congresses on lay apostolate.

These developments in turn raised the question as to which organisations were in fact “international Catholic organisations”? As there were no provisions in the 1917 Code of Canon Law regarding this, the Holy See began to negotiate a series of bilateral “protocols” with each organisation wishing to be so recognised.

The Vatican II years

By the time that John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council in January 1959, the ICO Conference was well established and it immediately began to mobilise its member ICOs to play an active role in its preparation.

John XXIII, however, did not see the need for lay auditors at the Council and thus there were none at the First Session in 1962. However, following the election of Montini as Paul VI in July 1963, everything changed again.

Commenting on his election, Ramon Sugranyes de Franch, the then president of the ICO Conference, noted that “the election of Pope Paul VI was that of a friend of the Conference of ICOs.”

Pope Paul confirmed this by quickly appointing thirteen lay auditors, including eleven from the various members of the ICO Conference, to attend the Second Session of the Council. In a meeting with ICO leaders in November 1963, he explained his intentions:

It seems to Us, following Our unforgettable Predecessor John XXIII, that several qualified representatives of the laity could and should be associated, as auditors, in this major ‘review of life’, and admitted to sit at the Council.

And We first of all turned towards the movements which represented the laity with the greatest authority and on a vaster scale: the International Catholic Organisations. We have noted with pleasure the way that this appointment of ‘auditores’ has echoed around the world. The discussions which have just taken place in the vaults of the Vatican Basilica concerning the role of lay people in the Church have enabled Us to see what a happy and opportune initiative this was, and We consider possible that it will lead to other developments in the future.

Source (in French):


Let’s note in passing Paul’s reference to the jocist “review of life” method, a great insight into the way he saw the lay auditors contributing.

Over the following sessions of the Council the number of lay auditors continued to expand to include in particular a number of women lay auditors. See the 1965 list of auditors, I’ve compiled here (in a comparison with the Australian Plenary Council):

Representation of lay groups at Vatican II vs the Australian Plenary Council

What happened after the Council?

As the Holy See moved to implement the teachings and decisions of Vatican II, the COPECIAL was replaced in 1967 by a new, more official Vatican body, namely the Pontifical Council of (later “for”) the Laity (PCL), the forerunner of the current Dicastery of Laity, Family and Life. Soon after, the PCL and the Vatican Secretariat of State began work to renegotiate many of the protocols governing recognition of the movements in light of the Council.

The ICO Conference itself continued to flourish during this period with support from Paul VI and later from Pope John Paul II. In an even more significant event in 1983, however, Pope John Paul II promulgated the new Code of Canon Law, which now provided for two classes of Catholic organisations:

a) Public associations of the faithful that are governed “under the higher direction of the ecclesiastical authority”;

b) Private associations that are “are subject to the vigilance of ecclesiastical authority.”

This new classification would soon have a major impact on relations between the Holy See and the existing ICOs.

Thus, in 1988, following the 1987 Synod on the Vocation and Mission of the Laity, Pope John Paul issued his apostolic exhortation, Christifideles Laici, in which he set out a series of “criteria of ecclesiality” for discerning and recognising lay groups in line with the new Code of Canon Law.

As a result, by the 1990s, the PCL was seeking to encourage the various members of the ICO Conference to decide whether they now wished to be recognised as either public or private associations of the faithful.

Vatican calls for a “renewal” of the ICO Conference

Meanwhile, the United Nations itself had begun to revise and renew the status of the NGOs that it recognised.

The Vatican also began to review its involvement and that of the ICOs in the UN. Thus, in 1995, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran of the Vatican Secretariat of State also called for a “renewal of the ICOs” in order to have a greater impact within the UN eco-system.

Six years later, in a message to the participants at the 34th General Assembly of the ICOs in November 2001, Pope John Paul again highlighted the “criteria of ecclesiality,” which, he insisted, remained “a sure and permanent point of reference.”

He said:

The Synod of Bishops in 1997 clearly shows the path that your associations must follow. For the “criteria of ecclesiality” proposed by the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici to associations of the faithful constitute a permanent and sure point of reference. They ask you to give priority to the call of all Christians to holiness by encouraging each of your members to closely link faith and daily life. They define your associations as places where the faith is proclaimed and proposed, where this same faith is taught as a whole. They ask you to enter into essential and profound communion with the Pope and the Bishops. Finally, they encourage you to an ever more intense missionary activity, and entrust you with the task of stimulating in people a keener sense of participation and solidarity in order to create within society conditions that are more just and fraternal. (cf. Christifideles Laici, 30).

In November 2003, he again sent a message to the president of the ICO Conference “encouraging each of your organisations to revise its statutes in virtue of the Code of Canon Law, and to make the modifications necessary to ensure that a genuine spirit of engagement towards the Universal Church will always be led to prevail in your ranks.”

PCL president, Archbishop Stanislaw Rylko, repeated and expanded on this message in his own letter to the president of the ICO Conference. Although he insisted that the dicastery was “at your entire disposal” in the task of revising statutes, etc., it was clear that the tone of relations had greatly changed from that which prevailed during the time of Pope Paul VI.

The end of Pope John Paul II’s long reign was now approaching with Benedict XV elected to replace him on 19 April 2005. John Paul II’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who remained in office, sent a polite but very short personal message to the ICO Conference that took place in Jerusalem in November 2005.

He left the real message in the hands of Holy See nuncio to the Holy Land, Archbishop Pietro Sambri, who read the Conference a very long message from the Secretariat of State, again insisting on the need for a renewal of the ICOs in light of the “double challenge” that he said they faced:

ICOs today find themselves faced with a double challenge. On the one hand, the international reality which concerns them and which requires them to take effective action. On the other hand, the need to complete the process of legal adaptation to current canonical legislation, in close collaboration with the Pontifical Council for the Laity. It is hoped that such a process of canonical “aggiornamento”, which will lead the ICOs to constitute themselves into public or private associations of the faithful, will also be for each organisation the opportunity to begin a path of close collaboration at the international level with the Section for Relations with States of the Secretariat of State, directly or through collaboration and agreement with the Pontifical Representatives in the cities where the main international organisations have their headquarters (New York, Geneva, Washington, Paris, Strasbourg, etc.).

The whole message can be read here:


And here is a rough Google-assisted translation:


Although couched in very polite terms, it was clear that the Vatican under Pope Benedict wanted to speed up the process of revising the status of the various ICOs. The pace would continue to pick up under Benedict’s new Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who succeeded Sodano in September 2006.

ICO Conference no longer needed!

The same month, a new document from the PCL entitled “Towards a profound renewal of the tradition of the International Catholic Organisations” was presented at its own Plenary Assembly on 21-23 September 2006:


Referring to the “double challenge” outlined by Archbishop Sambi of complying with the 1983 Code and taking part in the UN process, the document abandoned diplomatic niceties and in effect accused the ICOs of not doing their job in the UN and failing to comply with canon law:

The consequence is that with this new legal configuration, the “Catholic International Organisations”, as they were traditionally called, no longer distinguish themselves from other international associations of the faithful that the Pontifical Council for the Laity erected or recognised after the entry into force of the Code of Canon Law of 1983, a code which appeared at the same time as the flowering of new and various associative forms, in particular “ecclesial movements” and “new communities”.

In fact, in the new statutes approved or in the process of being approved, the expression “International Catholic Organisations” is no longer cited, but these are recognised as international associations of the faithful, private or public, and therefore inserted into the complex panorama and diversified which emerges from the “new associative stage of the faithful” in the Catholic Church.

The associative category traditionally known under the common denominator of “OIC” will henceforth tend to no longer exist as such, in particular because the criteria making it possible to distinguish it from other Catholic associative realities no longer exist, and that one does not see the need to maintain this differentiation between Catholic associations.

Another factor of novelty emerges from the profound transformations that international life has undergone over the past twenty years, due in large part to the historic end of the bipolar world, to the accelerated scientific and technological progress which offers new possibilities – but which also pose serious ethical issues – to the whole reality and challenges involved in what is called “globalisation” or “globalisation”, to the dramatic search for a new world order, to the encounter-confrontation of cultures and to the appearance of religions in the public life of nations and in the international order.

All this has meant that the institutionalisation of international life has acquired a greater density and intensity, which has developed through a series of different places, agencies and initiatives where new organisms – the World Trade Organisation, to name just one – have been of great importance. This requires a renewal and relaunch of the presence of the Holy See in the field of international intergovernmental life, an issue that has been faced for some time now.

But, at the non-governmental level, we can say that the ICOs and the Conference of ICOs find it very difficult to ensure their presence and their contribution so as to have a certain impact and importance at the international level. Moreover, their presence and their contribution – very valid in certain cases and situations – seem in general to be weakened and to exert little influence on the facts.

At the same time, we are witnessing a proliferation of an ever-increasing number of international non-governmental organisations, which are very active and influential in carrying out lobbying, awareness-raising, information, cooperation, etc. tasks. Among this great variety of NGOs, having consultative status with various

Matters were now clearly moving very quickly. Thus, one year later, an annex to a 15 November 2006 letter to the ICOs from Archbishop Pietro Parolin of the Secretariat of State, entitled “Position of the Holy See on the future of the Conference of ICOs” made the following observations:

It must be sincerely recognised that the ICOs and the Conference of ICOs experience these difficulties, they whose presence and contribution, very effective in certain situations, seem in general to be quite weakened and without much influence in practice…

Among Catholics, alongside the International Catholic Organisations (ICO), new movements and new communities have appeared (the Pontifical Council for the Laity brought together more than 120 of them on June 3), many of which have already obtained or are in authority to apply for consultative status for various bodies and in various forms.

In other words, in the view of the Vatican, the ICO Conference was no longer fulfilling the purpose for which it had been created. The Vatican’s confidence had shifted from what it regarded as the fading ICOs towards what it often referred to as the “new ecclesial movements and communities.”

In the Vatican understanding, these movements and communities included Opus Dei, Charismatic Renewal, the Emmanuel Community, the Community of the Beatitudes, the Neocatechumenal Way, Communion and Liberation, and Focolare.

See Ian Ker, New Ecclesial Communities and Movements (Oxford Academic, 2016)

This was really a quite staggering development!

Vatican proposes dissolution of the ICOs

The annex continued:

From the juridical point of view, one must necessarily take into account the canonical norms in force concerning international associations of the faithful, of public or private law, in accordance with what the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles laici called “a new associative phase of the lay faithful”. This led to the process of reformulating the Statutes of the ICOs, some of which have already been approved and others in the approval phase. In these statutes, reference is no longer made to ICOs, but only to international associations of the public or private faithful.

This is because the 1971 Policy Document (along with the Additional Protocol), through which the ICOs were recognised as international associations under public law, was drawn up because of a lacuna legis, namely to integrate a reality that was not foreseen by the Code of 1917. Since the Code of 1983, on the other hand, introduced the category of “associations of the faithful”, the Orientation Document (together with the Additional Protocol) of which we have spoken was becoming obsolete.

This is the reason why the Holy See, through the Pontifical Council for the Laity, has invited each ICO to review its Statutes and to find the legal form most appropriate to its nature, according to the canonical norms in force; this is the reason why the ICO acronym inevitably comes to disappear.

In the same way, we consider that we do not see any decisive criteria making it possible to distinguish the associative category which traditionally constitutes the common denominator of the ICOs from the other Catholic associative realities, and we do not furthermore see the need for this separation between Catholic associations. In the light of what has just been exposed, one cannot avoid asking the following question: if the ICOs no longer exist or if they tend to no longer exist (when the process of reformulation of the statutes is completed ), does it still make sense to keep talking about a Conference of ICOs?

4. The disappearance of the acronym obviously in no way means ignoring the merits of the presence and action of ICOs in the international arena and setting aside the rich heritage of experience that they have acquired. On the contrary, it can be generously placed at the disposal of other more recent NGOs, of which we have spoken previously, which allow the participation of Christians in international institutions (cf. GS 90)…

With these words, the Holy See proposed the dissolution of the 80-year-old ICO Conference!

Towards a new Forum of Catholic-inspired NGOs

And this was the proposed alternative: a new forum or platform of Catholic-inspired NGOs:

5. At the Secretariat of State and at the Pontifical Council for the Laity, it seems that the lines which have just been set out must find a concrete application in what could be called a Forum or a Platform which brings together the NGOs Catholics or those of Catholic inspiration present in the international sphere, who are willing to unite their efforts with those of the Holy See (without claiming to create a sort of “Catholic bloc”, but leaving freedom of initiative and of responsibility in the field of a legitimate associative autonomy) to collaborate in the service of every man and of the whole man. This could be an open space for exchanging information on the international situation (problems, trends, difficulties, etc.), for reflection and deepening in the light of the Magisterium of the Church, for consultation, when it appears necessary or opportune, and coordination of activities carried out at the regional or continental level, calling for collaboration in view of events, conferences, programs and debates concerning international life. This Forum or this Platform would have a minimum structure of coordination, a Secretariat or a restricted Committee which, in contact with the Holy See, would deal with the preparation, the convocation and the progress of the periodic meetings and the coordination between the activities of the various International Centres.

6. This proposal provides, at the same time, for strengthening the function of “International Centres” so that the various associations, organisations and bodies that meet at the level of the Forum or the Platform usually do so in these Centres, which would become meetings, ad intra training of the representatives of the NGOs present, ad extra information for the National Episcopal Conferences, the thematic “networks” of other associations which do not have consultative status, the Dicasteries of the Holy Headquarters, etc…, in close relation with the Permanent Missions of the Holy See.

Six months later at the 80th anniversary of the ICO Conference in Paris on 19 June 2007, Ms Fermina Alvarez Alonso, an official of the PCL, confirmed that the Vatican’s motivation for the proposed dissolution of the ICO Conference was based on the changes introduced by the 1983 Code:

For a long time, and in particular since the last General Assembly in Jerusalem in 2005, you have traveled a path of commitment and reflection which has brought you here, to decide on the future of the Conference. In the meantime, the demanding and still ongoing work of updating the legal statutes of each organisation has been organised, through the Pontifical Council for the Laity for the lay associations of the faithful and the Secretariat of State for all those who are different nature.

Such a revision of the Statutes, on the basis of the new Code of Canon Law (CIC), necessitated certain substantial modifications with respect to the past, such as the elimination of the acronym “ICO”, which no longer appears in the CIC, and the insertion of the reference clause to the Secretariat of State, Section for Relations with States, with regard to activity with international organisations.

In response, the Secretariat of State was already working to launch the new Forum of Catholic-inspired organisations, she noted:

For this reason, the Secretariat of State, also accepting requests that have come to it from various points, has convened a Forum of NGOs of Catholic inspiration, with a view to shaping this collaboration. It therefore appeals to the associations that make up the Conference to participate in it and to be an active core of organisation and animation. In the Organizing Committee there are already some representatives of the Conference, to highlight the experience acquired throughout these years.

The next day, 20 June 2007, another PCL official, Guzman Carriquiry, further insisted on the need for ICOs to comply with the 1983 Code:

Our Dicastery is very pleased that most of the ICOs have undertaken the path of reformulating their statutes according to the code of Canon Law, as it is established, in view of the decree confirming their recognition and the approval of their statutes. There are already at least fifteen if not twenty ICOs that have undertaken this journey, and recognition has already been confirmed for many of them. We did not want to force or hurry the pace of this process, but we repeat that all ICOs must necessarily go through this conversion as an international association of the faithful under public law or private law as established by the Code of Canon Law.

Response of the ICOs

Unsurprisingly, it seems that the ICO Conference and/or its members were not wholly convinced of the Holy See proposals, necessitating a series of further meetings and discussions between the Conference, the PCL and the Secretariat. Thus, at a meeting at the Secretariat of State on 8 June 2008 between ICO president, Johan Ketelers, Mgr Parolin, Mgr Caccia and Ms Alvarez, the ICOs were bluntly informed that:

The Holy See clearly considers that the Conference no longer has any reason for existence.

Twelve days later, at an Extraordinary General Assembly held in Paris on 19-20 June 2008 a resolution to dissolve the ICO Conference was adopted 21 votes to seven – clearly not a unanimous decision! Indeed, reading between the lines, it was a decision regretted by more than one!

In a revealing comment in the introduction of his book, Dr Blin notes that:

Some of these (documents) – beyond their apostolic value – allow for a better perception of the genuinely amicable character and the mutual comprehension of certain relations that were established after the war with the hierarchy of the Church, notably with Mgr Montini, later Pope Paul VI.

Here, it’s hard to miss the comparison he doesn’t make between the positive relations with the ICOs that developed while Montini was involved and what came later.

It’s also difficult to overlook the similarity with the fate of the Sillon movement, which disbanded in the wake of Pius X’s 25 August 1910 letter to the French bishops, Notre charge apostolique (Our apostolic mandate) calling on Sillon leaders to resign, which they dutifully did. But that was 1910 and this was nearly a century later!


Well, I have to say that I’ve been stunned by what I’ve found in these documents.

From apparently full support for the ICO Conference until the early 1990s, the Vatican shifted to insistent, growing pressure for its dissolution barely fifteen years later based on the alleged failures of the ICO Conference and its members and the requirements of the new Code.

Did the implementation of the new Code of Canon Law really require such a move? What other avenues were explored? Why not a renewal of the ICO Conference as the Vatican had originally called for in 1995?

Were similar pressures brought to bear on other Catholic organisations, e.g. the International Union of Superiors General, which brings together female religious congregations from around the world?


What happened to the proposed Forum of Catholic-inspired NGOs, which seems to be largely moribund with a website that has not been updated since 2021?


And in the context of the forthcoming Synod on Synodality, what was the impact of all this on the participation of lay movements and organisations in subsequent Synod assemblies? Given the barely disguised contempt for the ICO Conference from the PCL and Secretariat of State, it’s hard to imagine this was not a factor.

Having read the documents compiled by Dr Blin, I’m finding it hard to imagine a more anti-synodal process than this one, which led not just to the dissolution but in fact to the deliberate destruction of the ICO Conference without even ensuring the establishment of a viable alternative.

Stefan Gigacz


Dr François Blin, Repères pour l’histoire de la Conférence des Organisations Internationales Catholiques (1927-2008) (Landmarks for the history of the Conference of International Catholic Organisations (1927-2008). Editions Eclectica, Geneva, 2010.

Short quotes translated by me; longer quotes by Google Translate with corrections by me.