A religious habit is the distinctive attire or dress proper to a particular religious institute. From early times the basic religious habit generally consisted of a tunic that was secured by a cincture or belt; a scapular; and a hood. Most religious women wore a veil and wimple instead of the hood. This remained the model of religious attire until the rise of apostolic religious congregations in the sixteenth century, and still obtains in some of the contemplative, cloistered orders.
From the outset, the habit adopted by any religious institute served several purposes. First, and most basically, it identified the individual wearing it as a member of a particular group. Then, very often within an institute, differences in the habit distinguished those in leadership positions from the others, or distinguished brothers from clerics or those in solemn vows from those in simple vows. The habit was also worn as an expression of spirituality that reflected the values and charism of the institute and its separation from the world. Finally, the habit was an essential piece of the common life of religious, and a means of assuring the observance of poverty.
History. Saint Pachomius (294–346), who introduced cenobitical monachism in Egypt, was the first to establish definite provisions regarding monastic attire. The Pachomian habit consisted of a sleeveless linen tunic, held together by a cincture, a tanned goatskin or sheepskin cloak, and a small thin cape to which was connected a hood bearing a special badge of the monastery. Saint Basil the Great (329–79), who observed the conditions of monastic life while journeying in Egypt, succeeded in adopting a special garb for the monks of the Eastern Church. For Saint Basil the habit was an effective instrument to make a monk realize his station in life and to keep him from indecorous conduct. John Cassian (350–447) gives a detailed description of the monk's garb. While insisting on the utility of dress appropriate to monastic life, he explains the mystical significance of each item—cincture, hood, tunic, scarf, cape and goatskin.
Fourth-century writers record many testimonies on the ceremony of veiling virgins and the garb of female religious. Saint Ambrose related that his sister Marcellina received the "robe of virginity" from the hands of Pope Liberius (352–366) in Rome. Elsewhere, Saint Ambrose recounted that many young women came to be veiled in Milan.
The first pontifical directive dealing explicitly with the wearing of the religious habit is the epistle of Pope Celestine (423–32), written in 428. Celestine reprimanded clerics who attempted to introduce the monastic garb as a distinctive garb for the clergy of Gaul. Saint Benedict (480?–543), the father of Western monasticism, summarized his directions regarding the monk's clothing in chapter 55 of his Rule. Their attire was to be dictated according
to the circumstances of the place and the nature of the climate in which they live according to the discretion of the abbot. In a temperate climate a cowl and a tunic were deemed sufficient plus a scapular for work and stockings and shoes. The color and texture of the clothes were not a concern except that they be such as can be bought cheaply.
According to early monastic custom the habit was not usually assumed until the novitiate was over; consequently, the practice of the Congregation of Cluny in having its novices wear the entire habit, with the exception of the hood or cowl, was a deviation from previous monastic practice. Later the Regula Bullata of Saint Francis (1223) describes the "habit of probation" given to candidates. It consisted of two tunics without the capuche (hood); the cord, trousers, and cape. Franciscans did not wear a scapular and the habit, modelled on the pilgrim's garb, substituted a cord for the belt (cincture). Professed friars—those who had "promised obedience"—wore the capuche and "in case of necessity" shoes. In the Middle Ages color became a distinguishing feature of the habits worn by mendicants. In England, Franciscans were known as the Grey friars, Domincans as Black friars and Carmelites as White Friars.
The apostolic congregations that developed in the sixteenth century modelled their attire on the dress of clerics rather than the habits of monks or mendicants. The Jesuit Constitutions, for example, set down only three conditions for clothing: that it be appropriate, that it conform to clerical dress in the locality, and that it be in keeping with the vow of poverty. In practice this meant, the Jesuits wore cassocks but there was a certain latitude in color. Most wore black or grey, but in Aragon some wore violet and possibly brown.
Similarly, the newer congregations of women usually adapted the contemporary dress of the locality, in some cases dressed as ordinary women of the countryside. Saint Vincent de Paul, carefully distinguishing the Daughters of Charity from cloistered nuns does not speak of a habit except to say their veil is to be "holy modesty" (The End and Fundamental Virtues of the Institute, ch.1). Both Elizabeth Seton, in the United States, and Cornelia Connelly, in England, adopted the simple black "widow's weeds" common at the time (nineteenth century). Thus many did not adopt a habit in the monastic sense, but a style of dress that only became uniform with the passage of time because it was not changed or adapted. The distinctive garb of the Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta in the twentieth century is an adaptation of the cotton sari worn by women in India.
Legislation. Among the papal and conciliar enactments, the Fourth Council of Constantinople (869–70) may be the first to have regulated the wearing of the habit. According to canon 27 monks who were raised to the episcopate were liable to the severe penalty of deposition for laying aside the monastic habit. The Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215) reaffirmed canon 27, but it was the constitution Ut Periculosa in the time of Pope Boniface VIII (1294–1303) that had the force of universal law by reason of its inclusion in the Liber Sextus. Ut Periculosa forbade regulars to remove their religious garb under pain of excommunication latae sententiae. It remained the fundamental source of law and served as the basis for the various disquisitions on the habit up to, through and after the Council of Trent. Commentators continued to discuss the conditions required to incur the excommunication of Boniface VIII for the temerarious removal of the religious garb.
At the end of the 19th century Pope Leo XIII published the Constitution Conditae a Christo that gave bishops the legal right to found new religious institutes, and shortly afterward the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars published its Normae, or directives, for the foundation of institutes of simple vows. These latter directed that a detailed description of the habit adopted by any new institute be included in constitutions sent for approbation to Rome. After application had been made to the Holy See for approval of constitutions, alterations in the form of the habit were prohibited without authorization from the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars. It was the desire of the Holy See to curb the odd forms of religious habit that were being adopted. Notwithstanding the Normae, adequate control was not attained over the practices of the religious institutes. Consequently, Pope Saint Pius X (1903–14) issued the motu proprio Dei Providentis, demanding that bishops consult the Holy See before they founded institutes. Explicit information had to be transmitted to Rome regarding the name, founder, purpose, scope, and religious habit of prospective institutes. The Pontiff wished to check the establishment of new congregations that would have no specific difference from extant ones but would merely employ a new name or new form of religious habit.
In the 1940s Pope Pius XII (1939–58) counseled a prudent modification of the garb of sisters in keeping with the demands of reason, hygiene, and well-ordered charity. At the time his exhortations went unheeded for the most part, and it was not until Vatican Council II 20 years later that religious heeded the call to modify, and in many instances, discard the habit entirely, except for some type of sign or symbol which would identify the wearer as a member of a particular congregation. This was the result of the interpretation of Perfectae Caritatis, the Vatican document on the renewal of religious life, which stated "The religious habit, as a symbol of consecration, must be simple and modest, at once poor and becoming. In addition, it must be in keeping with the requirements of health and it must be suited to the times and place and to the needs of the apostolate. The habits, both of men and of women, which are not in conformity with these norms ought to be changed" (number 17). Renovationis Causam, the Instruction on the Renewal of Religious Life dealing with formation, issued in 1969, stated only that "As for the habit of the novices and other candidates to the religious life, the decision rests with the General Chapter."
The Code of Canon Law of the Latin church, promulgated in 1983, states that religious are to wear the habit of the institute, made according to the norm of proper law, as a sign of consecration and as a witness to poverty. Clerical religious, that is, priests who are religious, if they belong to an institute which does not have a proper habit, are to wear the clerical dress mandated by the episcopal conference norms and legitimate local custom (c.669).
The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches has similar norms for monks and other religious, stating that they should wear the monastic habit in and outside of the monastery or the house, in accord with their statutes and the norms of the eparchial bishop.
Bibliography: d. m. huot, "Summus Pontifex Pius XII et accomodata renovatio in statibus perfectionis," Apollonaris 32 (1959) 360–68. g. rocca, ed., La Sostanza dell'Effemero: gli abiti degli Ordini religiosi in Occidente (Rome 2000).
[r. m. sermak/