In the religious literature of the first centuries, the word "rule" (regula) means a way of life according to a predetermined model: the lifestyle of monks or of a master of the spiritual life, but above all the life of Christ and his Apostles. Gradually, the "rule" took on a more conventional meaning and applied to a whole set of texts, both spiritual and organizational, designed to structure and sustain the life of a community: the Rules of St. Basil, of St. Benedict, of St. Augustine.
In a more recent era (the 16th century), the clerics of the regular life (Jesuits, Theatines) were approved - no longer in virtue of a rule which enjoyed the prestige of the holiness of its author and its many centuries of existence - but rather of a "rule of life" (formula vitæ, forma vivendi), which was an expression of the original inspiration and of the spiritual and pastoral experience of a founding core group. Soon, however, these founders moved on to the writing of "constitutions" (constitutiones) which developed their charism and its living out in a more systematic and complete way. Then, alongside the constitutions there appeared "rules" (regulæ) which explained those basic texts and adapted them to concrete circumstances. That is how, from the 17th century on, the new congregations with simple vows, (Lazarists, Passionists, and later the Oblates of Mary Immaculate) produced "Constitutions and Rules" which were subsequently approved by the Holy See.
The Code of Canon Law of 1983 presents the constitutions as "the basic code" which must contain the essential norms concerning the "nature, purpose, spirit and character of the institute" (Canon 578), and "the governance of the institute, the discipline of the members, the admission and formation of members, and the proper object of their sacred bonds" (Canon 587,§ 1). The other elements more subject to change, or "rules", are to be found in other compilations (Canon 587, § 4).
If the formulation of a rule or of constitutions is based upon the spiritual experience of a founder and of an original group of disciples, it generally happens that an authoritative intervention on the part of the Church soon comes to give its stamp of approval, thus authenticating the original divine inspiration. "Again, in docile response to the promptings of the Holy Spirit the hierarchy accepts rules of religious life which are presented for its approval by outstanding men and women, improves them further and then officially authorizes them. It uses its supervisory and protective authority too to ensure that religious institutes established all over the world for building up the Body of Christ may develop and flourish in accordance with the spirit of their founders." The approbation of the Church in the initial stages of monasticism and other forms of consecrated life was given through the authority of the bishop. Sometimes the two authorities functioned as one, since the bishop added the weight of his authority to that of founder and author of the rule. Subsequently, we see the councils and, in the East, the civil authority, intervene to establish norms to be observed by all those men and women who bound themselves by vow to follow Christ. Already in the 9th century, and more frequently from the 12th century on, "pontifical protection" began to be established. Direct dependence on the Holy See was granted to monasteries to withdraw them from subjection to secular princes and to certain bishops, thus freeing them to better pursue their goals. From this time on, the official legislation for religious was issued either by the popes or by the great councils and it was by pontifical approbation that the authenticity of the charism of the founder was recognized. It also guaranteed the legitimacy of foundations and the fact that the rules were in conformity with the laws of the Church.
In the past, approbation by the Holy See has taken various forms, some more solemn than others: bulls, briefs, decrees. In this way, by extending its "protection" to religious congregations, the Holy See emphasized their dependence on it and the necessity for these institutes to periodically revise their constitutions according to the progressive development of the common law of the Church. That was the case especially after the promulgation of the Code of 1917, then after the Second Vatican Council and after the Code of 1983. Through the constitution Lumen Gentium the Council brought into sharp relief the theological significance and the ecclesial dimension of the religious life.  In its wake, the decree Perfectæ caritatis invited religious to implement an appropriate renewal which would deal with "a constant return to the source of the whole of the Christian life and to the primitive inspiration of the institutes, and their adaptation to the changed conditions of our time". 
In 1966, the motu proprio Ecclesiæ sanctæ gave concrete directives on how to successfully carry out this reform. These directives were designed to lead to the elimination of outdated elements contained in the constitutions and the kind of adaptation which would bring the manner of life, of prayer and of work "in harmony with the present-day physical and psychological condition of the members. It should also be in harmony with the needs of the apostolate, in the measure that the nature of each institute requires, with the requirements of culture and with social and economic circumstances. This should be the case everywhere, but especially in mission territories." 
Above all, these orientations in postconciliar legislation aim to underline the profound reality of the "following of Christ" (sequela Christi) and show how the concrete norms which direct the religious life flow from theological and spiritual considerations. As for the ecclesiastical authority, it declares unequivocally the duty it has of ensuring that the constitutions remain faithful to the charism of the founders, since this charism is not a gift made to only one particular religious family but to the entire Church, of which it is one of the most precious fruits.
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