A Guide to Catholic Religious Orders

Fra Angelico - St. Dominic detail of The Mocking of Christ
St. Dominic

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.


Other Orders

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.


Image: St. Dominic, detail of “The Mocking of Christ” (1440-1441) by Fra Angelico, O.P.


  1. Good little guide. But on the Jesuits — you mean haven’t read Joyce’s Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? Seriously? And here I was thinking you were an educated guy! 😉

    • Ha. No, I haven’t. Dubliners has been recommended to me enough times that I should probably follow the advice.

      • If someone were to say to you “I need a seal of an order”, what would that mean to you?

  2. Among religious orders proper, you left out the Premonstratensians/Norbertines, who in addition to having one of the niftiest names for an order, comprise the only male religious community in the State of Mississippi. They’re canons regular but historically were kind of proto-mendicant. I don’t know the stereotypes, but I think they focus on ministry to the poor and contemplation.

    • Ah, that’s right. I’ve heard of the Norbertines, but I know very little about them. I also could have added the Cistercians. Apparently, they are both 12th century orders — so a century before the mendicants. Glad to know that the Norbertines are in Mississippi.

      • I think there are six Norbertine communities in the USA, in Mississippi, Wisconsin, California, New Mexico, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. The one in Mississippi (St. Moses the Black) is quite tiny, I think, located in an impoverished part of the state. That’s the only reason I know about them, frankly.

  3. The Dominicans also deserve credit for carrying out most of the early Spanish resistance to their country’s conquest and rape of the new world. Las Casas is the best known, but not the only one.

  4. Besides what you listed, the Jesuits are also famed assassins, saboteurs, court fawners (i.e. Chinese court), and persecutors of true Christians (i.e. the Jansenists). If I were in that order, I’d rethink my choice of joining an order of casuistry and murder!

    (But I do find Ignatius’ conversion heart-warming, being similarly almost given over to a military life myself, and being rescued by the love of Go. Also, Xavier’s mission to Japan puts any Protestant effort to shame of the same time to shame.)

    Also: It should be added that the Dominicans came into existence as a mirror order to oppose the Vaudois, who put Rome to shame in their preaching and reconverting of the Cathari back into orthodoxy. The vastly ignorant priesthood of Southern France was open to Vaudois influence. Thus the Dominicans, named not directly after Dominic but in their zeal (domini canes, ‘hounds of the lord’), went as a Rome-loyal order. This is what I’ve heard at least.


    • Besides what you listed, the Jesuits are also famed assassins, saboteurs, court fawners (i.e. Chinese court), and persecutors of true Christians (i.e. the Jansenists).

      Ha, yes, back in their pre-V2 days of being “God’s Marines.”

      I didn’t know about the origins of the Dominicans in relation to Southern France and the Cathars. That’s interesting.

      • Jansenesits are heretical. Condemned by the popes and church

  5. Kevin, you forgot about the Franciscan order’s incarnational theology. Stigmata, Stations of the Cross, Nativity, Eucharist (see Francis’ Admonitions), John Duns Scotus’ Absolute Primacy of Jesus Christ (God elects himself first in Jesus Christ. The elect are predestined through Christ.). My favorite passage from the Admonitions really sums up what’s at the heart of Franciscan spirituality: “Consider, O man, how great the excellence in which the Lord has placed you because He has created and formed you to the image of His beloved Son according to the body and to His own likeness according to the spirit.” We all know that we’ve been created in the image of God. But Francis gets even more specific. We are created in the image of the Son Incarnate. And that’s why the Franciscans are greater than the Dominicans 😉 The Dominicans make the Incarnation contingent on Adam’s Sin. Scotus (though he has problems in other areas) places the Incarnation at the heart of creation.

    • Ahh, yes, that would be a far more substantial account of the Franciscans. I was mixing humor with some basic facts, but you are surely correct to highlight the foundation for their “creation ethic,” namely, the Incarnation.

  6. There’s a Trappist monastery less than an hour from where I live. They’re famous for baked goods, bonsai trees, and conservationist religiously-neutral burial grounds. So obviously they want to out-hippie the Franciscans. 😉

  7. What about the Basilians? Educators and evangelizers. The University of St. Thomas in Houston Texas is Basilian. I attended UST 1980-1984, and the priests/professors were kind, intelligent, and thought provoking. My favorite, Father Michael Miller, was called to the Vatican for a time, and is now an Archbishop in Canada.

    • Sure, there are lots of orders I could have listed. These are just the ones that I have some familiarity with — and even “familiarity” is a stretch.

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  9. Another order to remember is the Servants of Mary or “Servites” who are a mendicant order established in Florence during the Middle Ages — about 1245, just behind the Franciscans & the Dominicans. They have 7
    male founders mostly from the rising merchant class, cloth dyers, etc. Several founders were married and needed time to transition from their family lives to live in common on Monte Senario away from the distractions
    of Florence. While praying in their community, they all had a vision of the Sorrowful Mother who brought them
    their religious habits. Servite habits are black & the priests & brothers serve the poor & teach in several
    as missionaries. Others serve in US parishes today. Lay servites meet for community prayer & other outreach
    in California, Oregon, New Mexico, Illinois, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Florida and more.

  10. You said “The University of Notre Dame in Illinois”. It’s not in Illinois, it’s in South Bend, Indiana.

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