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Religious Communities: Christian Religious Orders


Christians have used the term religious order in both a narrow, technical sense and a broader, more common one. Popularly, religious orders are thought to include any and all men or women who profess public vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience; follow a common rule of life; engage in a specific kind of work (e.g., teaching, nursing, missionary endeavor); and submit to the directions of superiors who may be either appointed by higher ecclesiastical authority or elected in some manner by the order's members. In this broad sense, virtually all religious communities of Christian men and women may be referred to as orders, but more technically, a religious order is qualified by certain conditions that do not necessarily affect all Christians who choose a life of prayer and service in community with others.

Three qualifications have commonly been attached to this narrower meaning of a religious order: the public profession of "solemn" (as opposed to "simple") vows; an obligation to celebrate publicly each day the Liturgy of the Hours (a pattern of psalms, hymns, scripture readings, and prayers attached to specific times of day and night), and restriction to a cloister or "enclosure" (a defined space, often identified with the physical limits of the monastery or convent, within which members live and from which all outsiders are excluded). In history and practice, however, these qualifications have been neither rigid nor absolute. The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) has been regarded in Western church law as a religious order in the strict sense, even though its members have never been cloistered. Similarly, the exact distinction between solemn and simple vows, unknown before the thirteenth century, has never been entirely clear either to theologians or to experts in church law. In common theory, a solemn vow has been defined as a free, irrevocable promise made to God that binds the individual forever and renders certain actions opposed to the vows (e.g., marriage as opposed to celibacy; the ownership of property as opposed to poverty) not only illicit but null and invalid as well. A simple vow, in contrast, is regarded as having a less absolute character and may thus be made for a limited period of time (e.g., for one year or three years). In practice, however, the distinction blurs, since people may make simple vows in perpetuity, while those who have made irrevocable solemn vows may be released from them through a legal process known as dispensation.

The term religious order is more commonly used by Western Christians (e.g., Roman Catholics or members of Protestant communions) than by Eastern Christians (e.g., Greek or Russian Orthodox). Even within the Roman Catholic church, where attention to the precise legal status of religious vows and communities has been examined and evaluated for centuries, ambiguities still exist. Catholic members of religious orders are subject to the definitions and provisions of the Code of Canon Law (1983).


For centuries, Christian apologists have attempted to find a basis for religious orders in the historical ministry and teaching of Jesus. An early example may be seen in the Life of Antony by Athanasius (c. 298373), which reports Antony of Egypt's (c. 250355) conversion to a solitary life of prayer and asceticism after hearing Jesus' words in church: "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor and come, follow me" (Mt. 19:21). This biography helped spread monastic ideals throughout the Roman empire and encouraged the notion that to live alone with God, apart from all human company, is the supreme Christian response to Jesus' message.

There is no clear evidence that Jesus himself observed or promoted the ascetic life, or directly invited or commanded his followers to choose a life of poverty, celibacy, and obedience to human superiors. Central to Jesus' understanding of the relation between God and humankind was the conviction that God's reign (or kingdom) could break in upon the world at any time in any placeand that this reign would guarantee blessing and happiness for those open to receive it. Significant among the traditions associated with Jesus' life and collected in the Gospels are stories that show Jesus enjoying certain events (parties, dinners) and associating with people not ordinarily linked with an ascetic way of living (sinners, prostitutes).

While the remote origins of religious orders cannot be directly assigned to Jesus, possible antecedents to Christian asceticism may be discerned in both Judaism and the Greco-Roman world. Some members of the circle that gathered around John the Baptist probably adhered to a life of strict self-denial and repentance as preparation for God's impending judgment of the world. Most notable among Jewish antecedents were the sectarians of Qumran near the Dead Sea, whose collection of writings, the Dead Sea Scrolls, was discovered in 1947. Many scholars have identified the Qumran sectarians with a Jewish ascetic group known as the Essenes, who are mentioned by Philo of Alexandria (c. 13 bce45 to 50 ce), Josephus the Jewish historian (c. 37100 ce), and Pliny the Elder (2379 ce). Their descriptions show that the Essenes not only existed during Jesus' time but had developed a highly organized manner of life, which included an arduous three-year novitiate for newcomers, sharing of goods, celibacy, and strict obedience to authorities.

Similar to the Essenes was an Egyptian Jewish group of ascetics called the Therapeutae, whose principal center was a hill just outside Alexandria above Lake Mareotis. Among ancient writers, only Philo describes them. If his report is reliable, the Therapeutae were distinguished from more active groups like the Essenes by their strict seclusion. Each member of the sect seems to have had a separate dwelling, within which a special room was set aside for the daily study of scripture. Weekly, on the Sabbath, members met for common worship, while once every seven weeks a solemn feast, marked by a ritual meal eaten in silence and by the wearing of white clothing, was celebrated. The Therapeutae appear to have been celibate, though persons previously married were permitted to join them. Members were also expected to abjure the use of money, share goods in common, and keep bodily needs to a minimum.

Though the Therapeutae were Jewish, they can hardly have escaped influence from Greek philosophical traditions, especially in the region around Alexandria, the intellectual center of the Hellenistic world in the first century ce. In both the first century bce and the first century ce, there were non-Jewish ascetic movements inspired by philosophers like Pythagoras (c. 580500 bce) and the Neo-Pythagoreans. Pythagoras himself is thought to have established a quasi-religious "club" or school in Croton, Italy, which fostered secret initiation ceremonies, communal sharing of goods, vows, and a vegetarian diet. Neo-Pythagoreans were particularly interested in religious life and theology, and they probably exerted influence upon both Judaism, through Philo of Alexandria, and early Christianity, through Clement of Alexandria (150?215?).

While the extent of Jewish and Greco-Roman influence on the origins of Christian asceticism is difficult to assess, at least some early Christian congregations are known to have prized celibacy, if freely chosen for religious motives. In the First Letter to the Corinthians (c. 57), Paul encourages celibacy as a means of giving undivided attention to the Lord (1 Cor. 7:2535). Because in Christ the final age of salvation has dawned for the world, Paul argues, even married Christians should behave in a manner that leaves them unencumbered by the business and burdens of the world (1 Cor. 7:2931). Similarly, an earlier letter of Paul's to the congregation at Thessalonica (c. 51) had encouraged all Christians to pursue constant prayer and watchfulness (1 Thes. 5:117), practices later linked to monasticism and the ascetic life.

Before the end of the New Testament period, a distinct body of persons dedicated to prayer, celibacy, and charitable service within the congregation was recognized and regulated by church leaders. The widows described in the First Letter to Timothy appear to have been such a body. Widows were expected to be at least sixty years old, to be married only once, to be devoted to hospitality and the care of others, and to attend faithfully regular meetings for prayer and worship. In return, they could expect to receive material support from the congregation. Once admitted to the group, widows were to remain celibate; thus younger women who lost their husbands were advised to remarry (1 Tm. 5:1115).

These examples reveal that the earliest Christians did not think an ascetic way of life should involve separation from the rest of the community. The celibate widows of the First Letter to Timothy are organized for the edification and service of the local community; they do not take vows, nor are they set apart through a public ceremony. Neither the widows nor the virgins mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians are seen as having "superiors" distinct from the ordinary local leaders of the congregation. And nowhere in the New Testament are Christians advised to withdraw into solitary isolation.

Historical Development

Despite early Christian de-emphasis on an ascetic way of life separate from the community, the notion that some Christians might be called to a life of extraordinary dedication to God gained groundand with it the related idea that such a life was more perfect than that of other believers. Both Clement of Alexandria, head of an important Christian school in Alexandria in the late second century, and his pupil Origen (c. 185c. 254) were enthusiastic for ascetic ideals. Strongly influenced by the philosophy of Middle Platonism, both Clement and Origen spoke rapturously of the "true Christian gnostic" whose knowledge (Gr., gnōsis ) is perfectly illuminated by faith in Christ, God's Logos (the Greek logos meaning both "word" and "reason"). In his commentary on the Song of Songs, Origen traced the stages of growth in the Christian's interior life and seemed to suggest that certain degrees of contemplative intimacy with Christ were possible only for the "perfect"and that such perfect believers were a breed apart from the rest of the community.

Neither Clement nor Origen intended to create sectarian divisions within the church, nor did they want to pit groups of perfect Christians against less perfect ones in a battle for perfection. Still, their discussions of spiritual growth could be interpreted by less subtle thinkers as meaning that the truest Christians are celibate ascetics, while all others are innately inferior. It is not insignificant that Latin Christian writers of this period like Tertullian (c. 160?225?) and Cyprian of Carthage (third century) also began producing works devoted to the praise of virginity as an ideal state for Christians.

By the fourth century, ascetic ideals were securely entrenched, as was the notion that Christians might legitimately withdraw from society and church in a solitary pursuit of perfection. The example of Antony has already been mentioned. Changes in the relation between church and culture after the emperor Constantine's Edict of Milan (313), which recognized Christianity as a licit religion in the empire, created a new situation. Some Christians felt that acceptance of their religion by the empire posed a serious threat to devout living and perfect union with God. Martyrdom, the oldest form of Christian heroism and a symbol of utmost dedication to God, was displaced by celibate asceticism, a spiritual sacrifice of ultimate value. Numerous ascetic movements began in the fourth century; virgins and monks became the "new martyrs" in an imperialized Christianity.

This notion of protest leads directly to the question of monastic origins. For a long time scholars assumed that Christian monasticism began as an exclusively eremitical phenomenon in Egypt, with people like Antony, and that it spread from there to other parts of the world. Cenobitic monasticism (monks living in community with other monks) was thought to have developed in a similar way, beginning with Pachomius (c. 293?346) and his cenobitic foundation in the Thebaid near the Nile River (c. 320), but recent scholarship has shown that this hypothesis about monastic origins is untenable. A more likely theory is that monastic life, in both its eremitical and cenobitic forms, developed simultaneously in many different parts of the ancient worldEgypt, Syria, Palestine, Cappadocia, Mesopotamia.

The work of Pachomius was extremely influential because it provided an organized pattern of community life for men and women who wished to devote themselves both to asceticism and to service of others. Pachomian monks met twice daily for prayer and scripture-reading, but they also worked hard, raised their own food, engaged in handicrafts, shipped grain and products down the Nile to Alexandria, cared for orphans and the elderly, and nursed the sick. When Pachomius died in 346, there were eleven cenobitic monasteries, nine for men and two for women.

Elsewhere the development of organized monastic life encountered greater difficulty. In Cappadocia, Basil of Caesarea (c. 329379) struggled to keep Christian ascetics from both sectarian eccentricity and heretical separation from the church. In that region, the legitimacy of ascetic life had been compromised by the unbalanced views of Eustathius of Sebaste (c. 300377), who repudiated marriage for Christians, rejected the ministry of married clergy, and encouraged ascetics to hold their own worship services apart from those of the larger church. These views were denounced by the Council of Gangra (c. 345). Through his Moral Rules (c. 360) and his Longer Rules and Shorter Rules (c. 370), Basil tried to root Christian asceticism in texts drawn from the Bible. Rejecting sectarianism of the Eustathian sort, Basil affirmed the necessity of ascetic principles for all Christians and insisted that ascetics should remain close to the life and worship of the local congregation. Eastern Christian monks and nuns still regard Basil's rules as the fundamental charter for their way of life.

In the fourth century in the West, interest in asceticism and monastic life flourished. Jerome (c. 347420) relates that a disciplined ascetic life, especially for virgins and widows, was well known in Rome and elsewhere in Italy. Bishop Ambrose of Milan (c. 339397) is known to have consecrated virgins and also to have acted as patron for a monastery of men just outside Milan. Martin of Tours (c. 316397), traditionally if inaccurately known as "the first monk in the West," promoted monasticism in western France, while in the south, Lérins (actually two islands just off the coast from Cannes) became an influential monastic center after Honoratus, bishop of Arles (d. 429), established a monastery there around the year 410.

In Roman North Africa, too, monasticism was expanding. Augustine of Hippo (354430) provided advice and structural organization for communities of men and women. His rule (reconstructed from three separate documents) emphasizes such ideals as common ownership of property, communal prayer several times each day, simplicity in food and clothing, manual labor, celibacy, and obedience. At a later period, the Augustinian rule was adopted by groups known as "canons regular" (see below).

The most significant figure in Western monasticism was Benedict of Nursia (c. 480547). Though almost nothing certain is known of his life, the rule (c. 530) that bears his name became so widely respected that it eventually supplanted most other Western monastic legislation and remains the foundation for the Benedictine order to this day. While it does not reject the eremitical life, the Rule of Saint Benedict clearly prefers cenobitic living and proposes a pattern that balances prayer, scripture-reading, rest, and manual labor in almost equal proportion under the government of an abbot responsible to God for the welfare of each individual in the monastery.

Benedictine monasticism, like the other ascetic movements described so far, was primarily "lay" rather than clerical in character. Many early ascetics like Pachomius and Jerome were in fact politely hostile toward the clergy, and while sixth-century documents like Benedict's rule permit ordained people to seek admission to the monastery, they include stern warnings against clerical pride and privilege. After the ninth century especially, it became common to ordain most Benedictine monks to the priesthood, but this practice was a departure from the rule and from earlier tradition.

Like many movements, Christian monasticism periodically needed reform, sometimes to correct abuse, at other times to reinvigorate or redefine ideals. In the West, especially from the time of Charlemagne (r. 768814) onward, periodic reforms resulted in changes within monasticism and occasionally in the creation of new religious orders. Benedict of Aniane (c. 750821) helped reorganize monasticism in the Carolingian empire by promoting exclusive allegiance to the Benedictine rule. Toward the end of the eleventh century, the reforming efforts of Gregory VII (r. 10731085) had two important effects: the reform of groups known as "canons regular" and the emergence of a new monastic order, the Cistercians. These latter stem from the Monastery of Cïteaux, founded in 1098 by Robert of Molesmes and made most famous by Bernard of Clairvaux, who joined it in 1112. Reacting against the wealth and prestige of Benedictine houses like Cluny (founded in 909), the Cistercians hoped to recall monks to a stricter, more primitive observance of monastic life. The Cistercian order still exists, though it was later reformed by Armand-Jean de Rancé (16261700) at the Abbey of La Trappe (hence the name Trappists).

The reform of canons regular, whose way of life had already been organized by Chrodegang of Metz (d. 766) in the eighth century, resulted in adoption of Augustine's rule by groups such as the Augustinian Canons (papal approval in 1059 and 1063) and the Canons of Prémontré (Norbertines, after Norbert, who founded them in 1120). Unlike monks, who were originally laity, canons were from the beginning a body of clergy who lived in common and ministered with the bishop at a diocesan cathedral. As a result of the eleventh-century reforms, canons assumed many features of monastic life (including an abbatial structure of government), much as monks had taken on many characteristics of clerical life.

It was a Spanish canon regular, Dominic (c. 11701221), who was largely responsible, along with Francis of Assisi (1181/21226), for the emergence of a new type of religious order in the Westthe "mendicant friars." Unlike either canons (clergy) or monks (originally lay, but bound to one place by a vow of stability), the mendicants could move about freely to carry on tasks of teaching, preaching, studying, and serving the poor. Dominic's Order of Preachers quickly gained a reputation for scholarship, especially in the thirteenth-century universities. Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274), the great theologian, was an early and brilliant exponent of Dominican ideals, while his contemporary at the University of Paris was Bonaventure (c. 12171274), a Franciscan. Like the Augustinian and Norbertine canons, the Dominican and Franciscan friars still exist, with members working in many parts of the world.

In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council forbade the creation of more religious orders, though in fact new communities have continued to emerge up to the present time. Perhaps the most significant of these newer groups were the "congregations" of religious men and women that appeared after the Council of Trent (15451563). Some leaders at Trent appeared to agree with the Protestant reformers and sought to abolish religious orders altogether. But the work of people like Antonio Maria Zaccaria (15021539, founder of the Barnabites in 1530), and later of François de Sales (15671622) and Jeanne-Françoise de Chantal (15721641), founders of the Visitation sisters, helped convince doubters that viable new religious communities were possible. Most of these newer groups stressed active participation in church and society through works like teaching, nursing, care of orphans, and assistance to the needy.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, religious orders also appeared in some Protestant communions, such as the Church of England. A monastic community of men, the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (Cowley Fathers), was founded in 1865 by Richard M. Benson while in 1907, the Sisters of the Love of God were established as a cloistered, contemplative community for women at Fairacres, Oxford. Among Roman Catholics, the Second Vatican Council (19621965) caused sweeping changes in religious orders. Old styles of clothing (the religious habit), government (methods of choosing superiors, their terms of office, the practice of obedience), and local customs (rules of fasting, silence, prayer) were modernized or abandoned. For some orders these changes have brought dwindling memberships, while others have continued to grow.

See Also

Asceticism; Benedictines; Cistercians; Dominicans; Eremitism; Essenes; Franciscans; Jesuits; Monastery; Monasticism.


Annuario Pontificio. Vatican City, 1716. An annual publication available in most large libraries; includes statistics on Roman Catholic religious orders, together with further information about their founders and origins.

Brown, Peter. "The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity." Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971): 80101. A seminal article that studies the complex and changing relations between structures of civil authority in the ancient world and the emerging ascetic heroes and heroines of Christianity.

Brown, Peter. The World of Late Antiquity, AD 150750. New York, 1971. An excellent survey of the people and places that constituted the world within which Christian religious orders first developed, written for the nonspecialist.

Campenhausen, Hans von. "Early Christian Asceticism." In his Tradition and Life in the Church, pp. 9122. Philadelphia, 1968. A penetrating study of the origins of asceticism among Christians by a respected Protestant biblical scholar and church historian.

Chitty, Derwas J. The Desert a City. Oxford, 1966. Examines the origins of asceticism and monastic life with special attention to developments in the Christian East.

Gribomont, Jean. "Le monachisme au quatrième siècle en Asie Mineure: De Gangres au Messalianisme." In Studia Patristica, vol. 2, pp. 400415. Berlin, 1957. An important essay that reexamines and repudiates earlier hypotheses about the origins and early evolution of Christian monasticism.

Knowles, David. The Religious Orders in England. 3 vols. Cambridge, 19481959. An exhaustive study of the history of religious orders in the West, with special attention to their development in the British Isles.

Knowles, David. Christian Monasticism. New York, 1969. A brief and lucid exposition of the entire history of Christian monastic life.

The Rule of St. Benedict, RB 1980. Collegeville, Minn., 1980. Latin text of the Benedictine rule with English translation by Timothy Fry and extensive commentaries, notes, and essays on the history of Christian religious life by Imogene Baker, published by American Benedictine monks and nuns on the occasion of Benedict's sesquimillennium.

Southern, Richard W. Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. Harmondsworth, 1970. See pages 214299 for a succinct but comprehensive account of the rise of newer religious orders in the medieval West.

Veilleux, Armand. "The Abbatial Office in Cenobitic Life." Monastic Studies 6 (1968): 345. An important study of government, authority, and obedience in Christian monastic life.

Veilleux, Armand. "Évolution de la vie religieuse dans son contexte historico-spirituel." Collectanea Cisterciensia 32 (1970): 129154. A brilliant and comprehensive survey of all Christian religious orders, with special attention to the social and cultural conditions within which they arose.

New Sources

Brown, Peter. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation In Early Christianity. New York, 1988.

Constable, Giles. Monks, Hermits, and Crusaders in Medieval Europe. London, 1988.

Hunyadi, Zsolt, and Jözsef, eds. The Crusades and the Military Orders: Expanding Frontiers of Medieval Latin Christianity. Budapest, 2001.

Kollar, Rene. A Universal Appeal: Aspects of the Revival of Monasticism in the West in the late 19th and Early 20th Centuries. San Francisco, 1996.

Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury. The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc. Rev. ed. Edited and translated by David Knowles and Christopher N. L. Brooke. New York, 2002.

Palmer, Bernard. Men of Habit: The Franciscan Ideal in Action. Norwich, U.K., 1994.

Saxby, Trevor Johns. Pilgrims of a Common Life: Christian Communities of Goods through the Centuries. Scottsdale, Ariz., 1987.

Sutera, Judith, and Deborah Vess, et al. The Monastery and the City. Petersham, Mass., 1988.

Wynne, Edward. Traditional Catholic Religious Orders: Living in Community. New Brunswick, N.J., 1988.

Nathan D. Mitchell (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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