A Guide to Catholic Religious Orders
July 31, 2015
Everything you need to know about the major Roman Catholic religious orders will be included in this post.
Gratuitous stereotypes are also included.
Order of Preachers (Dominicans)
When you see an O.P. after an author’s name, you know some serious brain-storming is coming your way! The Dominicans are my favorite Catholic order, because everyone needs a favorite. It’s like baseball.
The Dominicans are Thomists. All of them. If they discover a non-Thomist in their midst, he is unceremoniously booted out of the order. I don’t have proof of that, but it is surely common knowledge. As Thomists, they are theological. Real theology. Doctrine of God. Christology. Sacraments. The whole shebang. They treat systematic theology like it’s a religious duty, because it is. While the Franciscans cuddle bunny rabbits (see below), the Dominicans are fine-tuning the difference between substantia and accidentia, as I once blogged.
As a Dominican, you may have a shot at becoming the Theologian of the Pontifical Household, a.k.a., “the pope’s theologian.”
In America, the Dominicans have done the seemingly impossible — attract members to their order. In the city that made Hank Williams famous, the Nashville Dominicans are gaining novices like it’s the 13th century. In the city that made Bill Clinton famous, the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., is doing the same, even running an impressive blog/journal. The Nashville order is for women; the D.C. order is for men. Both are doing St. Dominic proud.
I am told that the Dominicans had a role to play in the Spanish Inquisition. But, as I say, let bygones be bygones.
Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans)
While the Dominicans are busy discerning whether the souls of brute animals are subsistent, the Franciscans are busy loving anything and everything that comes across their path. Rabbits. Kittens. Spiders. Trees. Mushrooms. I would rather hang-out with the Dominicans, but I would rather entrust my two cats to the Franciscans when I’m on vacation.
As an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, I knew the Franciscans who ran the parish church across the street from the university. Fr. Martin endured my many questions, God bless him. In Fr. Martin’s office, he would deflect attention toward his pet bird whenever I asked weird questions about the sacraments. He was (and is) a good Franciscan.
The Franciscans are, of course, inspired by their founder, St. Francis of Assisi. Every Christian has sung the hymn, “All Creatures of Our God and King,” attributed to St. Francis. Perhaps the greatest portrait of Francis was written by G. K. Chesterton, now published in the second volume of his collected works, alongside his much-praised biographical interpretation of St. Thomas Aquinas. According to Chesterton, St. Francis was a joyful beggar and St Thomas was a joyful scholar, both discovering the secret of the Cross. Life from death.
Society of Jesus (Jesuits)
Everything I know about the Jesuits comes from The Mission and The Exorcist. In sum, they are the kickass order. Whether they are resisting Portuguese slave-traders or fighting the Devil himself, you can count on the Jesuits to get it done. They are originally famed for their opposition to Protestantism and impressive missionary endeavors, all in the service of the bishop of Rome — to whom they vow a fourth vow.
If you search for “the Jesuits” on YouTube, you will quickly learn that they are key figures in the New World Order, the Illuminati, the Apocalypse, and other excitements. Since the current pope is a Jesuit and Russia is on the move, you know that the end is nigh!
But, the Jesuits of the post-1960’s are not exactly the same as the Jesuits of the counter-Reformation. If you are a fundamentalist Protestant, then the Jesuits should be among the least of your worries. In the fallout of Vatican II, Jesuits were more likely to advocate for “discontinuity” than for the “hermeneutic of continuity” advocated by John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, now pope emeritus. I am, by the way, a big fan of Ratzinger. His book, Eschatology, is among my favorite books in my library.
Even though the Dominicans are known for their education, the Jesuits have likewise positioned themselves as premier educators in the Catholic Church. This is especially obvious in America where several Catholic universities have some connection, whether strong or not, with the Jesuits. These include Marquette University, Boston College, Loyola University Chicago, and Georgetown University, among many others. In Rome, the two most prestigious universities that grant pontifical degrees are the Gregorian (Jesuit) and the Angelicum (Dominican).
Order of St. Benedict (Benedictines)
The Benedictines saved Western civilization. Do you know how to read and write? Thank the Benedictines. That is perhaps an exaggeration. But it is nonetheless true — the patrimony of Greek and Roman culture was preserved and sustained by the Benedictines after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries anno Domini. By the time of the “High Middle Ages” in the 12th and 13th centuries, this reservoir of learning would also benefit from the Arab-Muslim patronage of Aristotelian logic and Indian numerals/mathematics.
Unlike the religious orders that emerge in the 13th century (Dominicans and Franciscans) or the 16th century (Jesuits and Oratorians), the much earlier Benedictines are a monastic order. The later orders are “mendicant” orders (lit. “beggar”), which gives them a certain freedom in contrast to the “monastics” (lit. “alone” or “cloistered”) who live and work in a single monastery, typically for their entire lives.
As you would expect, the Benedictines are still active in education. Here in North Carolina, the only Catholic college is Belmont Abbey College, which has a fine reputation for its orthodoxy and academics. From what I have heard, the Benedictine monks are very present in the administration and everyday life of the college.
In the history of the Catholic Church, the Benedictines include Bede, Alcuin, Rabanus Maurus, Ratramanus, Hincmar, Peter Damian, Lanfranc, Anselm of Canterbury, Eadmer — pretty much anyone important from the early to high middle ages. In the twentieth century, Benedictine oblates have included Dorothy Day, the great social worker, and Walker Percy, the great Southern novelist.
There are far too many religious orders to enumerate.
The Carmelites — especially the Order of Discalced Carmelites (O.C.D.) — are highly influential in the history of Catholic spirituality. The most important figures in Carmelite spirituality are St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Ávila, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
The Congregation of Holy Cross (C.S.C.) are best known for founding and still operating the University of Notre Dame in Illinois. Fighting Irish!
The Vincentians — the Society of St. Vincent de Paul — are known for their service to the poor. The Shrine to St. Vincent de Paul is in Paris, near the popular Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.
The Oratorians – the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri — are unique as communities of priests and lay-members. Perhaps the most famous Oratorian is Venerable John Henry Newman, founder of the Birmingham Oratory and the most important Catholic theologian in the 19th century.
Among many others, there are also Assumptionists, Basilians, Passionists, Poor Clares, Salesians, and the Missionaries of Charity. The Missionaries of Charity were founded in 1950 by Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.