What were the ‘acquired rights’ of the ICOs?

As I documented in an earlier post, prior to the dissolution of the Conference of International Catholic Organisations in 2008, the Holy See Secretariat of State and Pontifical Council for the Laity (PCL) argued that, under the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the category of ICOs had become “obsolete” and that they therefore no longer existed or “tended to no longer exist.”

A document entitled “Position of the Holy See on the future of the Conference of ICOs” dated 15 November 2006 and annexed to the letter to the ICO Conference from Mgr Pietro Sambri on 20 December 2006 made this argument in §3:

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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 recognized 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?


In short, the argument was that the new Code provided for public or private associations of the faithful and that therefore the category of “international Catholic organisations” had become or was becoming obsolete.

The obvious question here is: why would this be so?

One could just as easily argue that the new Code did nothing more than identify two new subsets (public and private) of the larger, existing category of international Catholic organisations.

Moreover, this interpretation would seem to be far more consistent with the 1983 Code, which provides in §4 the Introduction to Book 1 on General Norms that:

Acquired rights and privileges granted to physical or juridic persons up to this time by the Apostolic See remain intact if they are in use and have not been revoked, unless the canons of this Code expressly revoke them.

As Sr Amy Hereford points out in her commentary on the Code, canon law “doesn’t revoke rights and privileges unless it expressly so states.”


She also notes that there is only one instance in the Code itself of an acquired right being abrogated, namely in Canon 510 which relates to parishes and hence is not relevant here.

Indeed, none of the general norms applicable to “associations of the faithful” in the 1983 Code (§298-311) make any mention of the abrogation of the rights of existing associations.

Hence, any existing acquired rights of the ICOs were not abrogated by the Code itself.

The questions relevant to the ICOs then become:

  • Were the ICOs “juridic persons” prior to the 1983 Code?
  • If so, what acquired rights did the ICOs have under the 1971 Policy Document?
  • And were these rights ever expressly revoked in any other document?

I don’t have access to the 1971 Policy Document or other later documents of the Holy See or the PCL so I’m not sure what the answers to these questions might be.

Still, based on their correspondence with the ICO Conference, there’s no indication that the Secretariat of State or the PCL even considered these issues in arriving at the conclusion that the ICOs were obsolete and thus no longer existed or tended not to exist.

If this is so, then it raises the further question: why not?

Stefan Gigacz