Religious Institute

religious institute is a type of institute of consecrated life in the Catholic Church where its members take religious vows and lead a life in community with fellow members. Religious institutes are one of the two types of institutes of consecrated life; the other is that of the secular institute, where its members are “living in the world”.

Societies of apostolic life resemble religious institutes in that its members live in community, but differ as their members do not take religious vows. They pursue the apostolic purpose of the society to which they belong, while leading a life in common as brothers or sisters and striving for the perfection of charity through observing the society’s constitutions. In some of these societies the members assume the evangelical counsels by a bond other than that of religious vows defined in their constitutions.


Since each and every religious institute has its own unique aim, or charism, it has to adhere to a particular way of religious living that is conducive to it, whether “contemplative”, “enclosed”, mendicant, or apostolic. Thus some religious institutes – especially of nuns who are subject to “Papal Enclosure” – strictly isolate their members from the outside world, of which the “grilles” in their parlours and churches are tangible evidence. Other religious institutes have apostolates that require their members to interact practically with the secular world, such as teaching, medical work, producing religious artworks and texts, designing and making vestments and writing religious instruction books, while maintaining their distinctiveness in communal living. Several founders, in view of their aim, require the members of their institute not only to profess the three Evangelical Counsels of chastity, poverty, obedience, but also to vow or promise stability or loyalty, and maybe certain disciplines, such as self-denial, fasting, silence.

Bell Monk Mountains Holiness Fortress Ujarma

Monk ringing a bell

Religious orders are subdivided as:

  • monastic made up of monks (some of whom may be clerics, i.e. ordained priests) and/or nuns who are bound to live and work at their monastery and recite the Liturgy of the Hours in common
  • mendicant made up of friars (some of whom may be clerics) who, while living and praying in common, may have a more active apostolate, and depend on alms for their support
  • canons regular made up of canons (clerics) and canonesses regular, who sing the liturgy in choir and may run parish-like apostolates
  • clerics regular made up of priests who are also vowed religious and who usually have a more active apostolate

In each instance, the term “regular” means those following a rule; either a pre-existing one such as the Rule of St. Augustine or the Rule of St Basil, etc. or one composed by the founder, which generally incorporates aspects of earlier, traditional rules such as those mentioned or the Rule of St. Benedict.


Traditionally, institutes for men are referred to as the “First Orders” and those of women as the “Second Orders”. Some religious orders, for example the Franciscans or the Dominicans, have “Third Orders” of associated religious members who live in community and follow a rule (called Third Order Religious or TOR), or lay members who, without living in formal community with the order, have made a private vow or promise to it, such as of perseverance in pious life, hence are not “religious”, that is to say, not members of the Consecrated life (often called Third Order Secular, or TOS).

In common parlance, all members of male religious institutes are often termed “monks” and those of female religious institutes “nuns”, although in a more restricted sense, a monk is one who lives in a monastery under a monastic rule such as that of Saint Benedict and the term “nun” was in the 1917 Code of Canon Law officially reserved for members of a women’s religious institute of solemn vows, and is sometimes applied only to those who devote themselves wholly to the contemplative life and belong to one of the enclosed religious orders living and working within the confines of a monastery and reciting the Liturgy of the Hours in community. Religious who are not clergy tend to be called “Brother” or “Sister”, while the term “friar” properly refers to a member of a male mendicant order.

Priests in vows retain their usual title of “Father”, and “Reverend Father”. With a few exceptions, all men in vows who are not priests and would therefore not be addressed as “Father” are addressed as “Brother”. Women religious are addressed as “Sister”. The 1917 Code of Canon Law reserved the term “nun” (Latin: monialis) for women religious who took solemn vows or who, while being allowed in some places to take simple vows, belonged to institutes whose vows were normally solemn. It used the word “sister” (Latin: soror) exclusively for members of institutes for women that it classified as “congregations”; and for “nuns” and “sisters” jointly it used the Latin word religiosae (women religious). The current Code of Canon Law has dropped those distinctions. Some women superiors are properly addressed as “Mother” or “Reverend Mother”. Benedictines have traditionally used the form of address “Dom” for men and “Dame” for solemnly professed nuns.

Historically, what are now called religious institutes were distinguished as either religious orders, whose members took solemn vows, or religious congregations, whose members took simple vows. Since the 1983 Code of Canon Law, only the term “religious institute” is used, while the distinction between solemn and simple vows is still maintained. Canon lawyer Nicholas Cafardi writes that, since “religious institute” is the legal term in canon law, he regards the term “religious order” as a colloquialism.

Admission and religious vows

Photo Monk Memory Middle Ages Field Work Away


Admittance to a religious institute is regulated not only by Church law and the religious Rule it has adopted but also by its own norms. Broadly speaking, after a lengthy period spanning postulancy, aspirancy and novitiate and whilst in “temporary vows” to test their vocation with a particular institute, candidates wishing to be admitted permanently are required to make a public profession of the Evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience by means of a vow (which may be either simple or solemn) binding in Church law. One of the effects of this vow is that members of a religious institute are no longer free to marry; and should they subsequently want to leave the institute after permanent profession, they would have to seek a papal indult of dispensation from their vow. The benefits of the profession are of a spiritual nature.

After completion of the novitiate, members of religious institute make religious profession, which is “a public vow to observe the three evangelical counsels” of chastity, poverty and obedience. A vow is classified as public if a legitimate superior accepts it in the name of the Church, as happens when one joins a religious institute. In making their religious profession, they are “incorporated into the institute, with the rights and duties defined by law”, and “through the ministry of the Church they are consecrated to God”.

Religious profession can be temporary or perpetual: “Temporary profession is to be made for the period defined by the institute’s own law. This period may not be less than three years nor longer than six years.”

Typically, members of Religious Institutes either take vows of evangelical chastity, poverty and obedience (the “Evangelical Counsels”) to lead a life in imitation of Christ Jesus, or, those following the Rule of St Benedict, the vows of obedience, stability (that is, to remain with this particular community till death and not seek to move to another), and “conversion of life” which implicitly includes the counsels of chastity and evangelical poverty. Some institutes take additional vows (a “fourth vow” is typical), specifying some particular work or defining condition of their way of life (e.g., the Jesuit vow to undertake any mission upon which they are sent by the Pope; the Missionaries of Charity vow to serve always the poorest of the poor).

Daily living in religious institutes is regulated by Church law as well as the particular religious rule they have adopted and their own constitutions and customaries. Their respective timetables (“horarium”) allocate due time to communal prayer, private prayer, spiritual reading, work, meals, communal recreation, sleep, and fixes any hours during which stricter silence is to be observed, in accordance with their own institute’s charism.

The traditional distinction between simple and solemn vows no longer has any canonical effect. Solemn vows once meant those taken in what was called a religious order. “Today, in order to know when a vow is solemn it will be necessary to refer to the proper law of the institutes of consecrated life.”

Religious rules, constitutions and statutes

Religious institutes generally follow one of the four great religious rules: Rule of St Basil, Rule of St. Benedict, Rule of St. Augustine, and the Rule of St. Francis. The Rule of St Basil, one of the earliest rules for Christian religious life, is followed primarily by monastic communities of Byzantine tradition. Western monastics (Benedictines, Trappists, Cistercians, etc.) observe the Rule of St Benedict, a collection of precepts for what is called contemplative religious life. The Rule of St Augustine stresses self-denial, moderation, and care for those in need.

Jesuits follow what is called not a Rule, but the Constitutions composed by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, which laid aside traditional practices such as chanting the liturgy in favour of greater adaptability and mobility under a more authoritarian regime. Other institutes combine a Rule with Constitutions that give more precise indications for the life of the members. Thus the Capuchin Constitutions of 1536 are added to the Rule of St. Francis In addition to the more fundamental provisions of the Rule or Constitutions, religious institutes have statutes that are more easily subject to change.

Foundation and approval

Religious institutes normally begin as an association formed, with the consent of the diocesan bishop, for the purpose of becoming a religious institute. After time has provided proof of the rectitude, seriousness and durability of the new association, the bishop, having consulted the Holy See, may formally set it up as a religious institute under his own jurisdiction. Later, when it has grown in numbers, perhaps extending also into other dioceses, and further proved its worth, the Holy See may grant it formal approval, bringing it under the Holy See’s responsibility, rather than that of the Bishops of the dioceses where it is present. For the good of such institutes and to provide for the needs of their apostolate, the Holy See may exempt them from the governance of the local Bishops, bringing them entirely under the authority of the Holy See itself or of someone else. In some respects, for example public liturgical practice, they always remain under the local bishop’s supervision.


First millennium

Roots in Egypt and Syriac- and Greek-speaking East

From the earliest times there were probably individual hermits who lived a life in isolation in imitation of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. They have left no confirmed archaeological traces and only hints in the written record. Communities of virgins who had consecrated themselves to Christ are found at least as far back as the 2nd century. There were also individual ascetics, known as the “devout”, who usually lived not in the deserts but on the edge of inhabited places, still remaining in the world but practicing asceticism and striving for union with God, although extreme ascetism such as encratism was regarded as suspect by the Church.

Paul of Thebes (fl. 3rd century), commemorated in the writings of St Jerome, is regarded as the first Christian hermit in Egypt, his withdrawal into the desert apparently having been prompted by the persecution of the Christians at the time. Saint Anthony was the first to leave the world to live in the desert for specifically spiritual reasons; St Athanasius speaks of him as an anchorite. In upper Egypt, sometime around 323, Saint Pachomius decided to organize his disciples into a form of community in which they lived in individual huts or rooms (cellula in Latin), but worked, ate, and worshipped in shared space. Guidelines for daily life were drawn up (a monastic ‘rule’); and several monasteries were founded, nine for men and two for women. This method of monastic organization is called cenobitic or “community-based”. Towards the end of his life St Pachomius was therefore not only the abbot of a monastery but also the head of a whole group of monasteries.

The Greeks (e.g. St Basil the Great of Cappadocian Caesarea) and the Syriac-speaking east had their own monastic traditions (e.g. St Ephrem of Nisibis and Edessa).


The earliest forms of monasticism in Western Europe involved figures such as Martin of Tours, who after serving in a Roman legion converted to Christianity and established a hermitage near Milan. He then moved on to Poitiers, where a community gathered around his hermitage. In 372 he was called to become Bishop of Tours, and established a monastery at Marmoutiers on the opposite bank of the Loire River. His monastery was laid out as a colony of hermits rather than as a single integrated community.

John Cassian began his monastic career at a monastery in Palestine and Egypt around 385 to study monastic practice there. In Egypt he had been attracted to the isolated life of hermits, which he considered the highest form of monasticism, yet the monasteries he founded were all organized monastic communities. About 410 he established two monasteries near Marseilles, one for men, one for women. In time these attracted a total of 5,000 monks and nuns. Most significant for the future development of monasticism were Cassian’s Institutes, which provided a guide for monastic life and his Conferences, a collection of spiritual reflections.

Honoratus of Marseilles was a wealthy Gallo-Roman aristocrat, who after a pilgrimage to Egypt, founded the Monastery of Lérins, on an island lying off the modern city of Cannes. Lérins became, in time, a center of monastic culture and learning, and many later monks and bishops would pass through Lérins in the early stages of their career.


The anonymous Rule of the Master (Regula magistri), was written somewhere south of Rome around 500. The rule adds administrative elements not found in earlier rules, defining the activities of the monastery, its officers, and their responsibilities in great detail.

Benedict of Nursia was educated in Rome but soon sought the life of a hermit in a cave at Subiaco, outside the city. He then attracted followers with whom he founded the monastery of Monte Cassino around 520, between Rome and Naples. His Rule is shorter than the Master’s. It became by the 9th century the standard monastic rule in Western Europe.


The earliest Monastic settlements in Ireland emerged at the end of the 5th century. The first identifiable founder of a monastery was Saint Brigid of Kildare, who ranked with Saint Patrick as a major figure of the Irish church. The monastery at Kildare was a double monastery, with both men and women ruled by the Abbess, a pattern found in many other monastic foundations.

Commonly, Irish monasteries were established by grants of land to an abbot or abbess, who came from a local noble family. The monastery became the spiritual focus of the tribe or kin group. Irish monastic rules specify a stern life of prayer and discipline in which prayer, poverty, and obedience are the central themes. However Irish monks read even secular Latin texts with an enthusiasm that their contemporaries on the continent lacked. By the end of the 7th century, Irish monastic schools were attracting students from England and from Europe.

Irish monasticism spread widely, first to Scotland and Northern England, then to Gaul and Italy. Saint Columba and his followers established monasteries at Bangor, on the northeastern coast of Ireland, at Iona in Scotland, and at Lindisfarne, in Northumbria. Saint Columbanus, an abbot from a Leinster noble family, travelled to Gaul in the late 6th century with twelve companions. He and his followers spread the Irish model of monastic institutions established by noble families to the continent. A whole series of new rural monastic foundations on great rural estates under Irish influence sprang up, starting with St. Columbanus’s foundations of Fontaines and Luxeuil, sponsored by the Frankish King Childebert II. After Childebert’s death St. Columbanus travelled east to Metz, where Theudebert II allowed him to establish a new monastery among the semi-pagan Alemanni in what is now Switzerland. One of St. Columbanus’s followers founded the monastery of St. Gall on the shores of Lake Constance, while St. Columbanus continued onward across the Alps to the kingdom of the Lombards in Italy. There King Agilulf and his wife Theodolinda granted St. Columbanus land in the mountains between Genoa and Milan, where he established the monastery of Bobbio.

Developments around 1100

A monastic revival already begun in the 10th century with the Cluniac reform, which organized into an order with common governance the monasteries following the Benedictine Rule that chose to join it or were founded by it, continued with the foundation in 1084 of the Carthusian monasteries, which combined the hermit life with that of the cloister, each monk having his own hermitage, coming together only for the liturgy and an occasional meal, and having no contact with the outside world, and the foundation a few years later of the Cistercians, a foundation that seemed destined to fail until in 1113 a band of 30 young men of the noblest families of Burgundy arrived, led by Bernard of Clairvaux, then 23 years old, who was to prove a dominating figure in the life of Western Europe for forty years. This was followed by the foundation in 1120 of the Canons Regular of Prémontré, not monks but clergy devoted to ascetism, study and pastoral care. These aggregations of monasteries marked a departure from the previously existing arrangement whereby each monastery was totally independent and could decide what rule to follow. It also prepared the way for the quite different religious orders of the 13th century.

13th century

The 13th century saw the founding and rapid spread of the Dominicans in 1216 and the Franciscans in 1210, two of the principal mendicant orders, who supported themselves not, as the monasteries did, by rent on landed property, but by work and the charitable aid of others. Both these institutes had vows of poverty but, while for the Franciscans poverty was an aim in itself, the Dominicans, treating poverty as a means or instrument, were allowed to own their churches and convents. Similar institutes that appeared at about the same time were the Augustinians, Carmelites and Servites. While the monasteries had chosen situations in the remote countryside, these new institutes, which aimed at least as much at evangelizing others as at sanctifying their own members, had their houses in the cities and towns.

16th century and later

By the constitution Inter cetera of 20 January 1521, Pope Leo X appointed a rule for tertiaries with simple vows. Under this rule, enclosure was optional, enabling non-enclosed followers of the rule to engage in various works of charity not allowed to enclosed religious. In 1566 and 1568, Pope Pius V rejected this class of institute, but they continued to exist and even increased in number. After at first being merely tolerated, they afterwards obtained approval, finally gaining on 8 December 1900 recognition as religious by Pope Leo XIII. Their lives were oriented not to the ancient monastic way of life, but more to social service and to evangelization, both in Europe and in mission areas. The number of these “congregations” (not “orders”) increased further in the upheavals brought by the French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic invasions of other Catholic countries, depriving thousands of monks and nuns of the income that their communities held because of inheritances and forcing them to find a new way of living their religious life.

Examples of such institutes are the Claretians, La Salle Brothers, Passionists, Redemptorists, and Vincentians.

A special case happened in 1540. Ignatius of Loyola obtained authorization for the members of the Society of Jesus to be divided into professed with solemn vows and coadjutors with dispensable simple vows. The novelty was found in the nature of these simple vows, since they constituted the Jesuit coadjutors as religious in the true and proper sense of the word, with the consequent privileges and exemption of regulars, including them being a diriment impediment to matrimony, etc. In theory, the recognition as religious for simple vows had universal validity, but in practice, the Roman Curia considered it an exclusive privilege to the Society of Jesus.

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Further information: Orthodox brotherhood

20th century

The 1917 Code of Canon Law reserved the name “religious order” for institutes in which the vows were solemn, and used the term “religious congregation” or simply “congregation” for those with simple vows. The members of a religious order for men were called “regulars”, those belonging to a religious congregation were simply “religious”, a term that applied also to regulars. For women, those with simple vows were simply “sisters”, with the term “nun” reserved in canon law for those who belonged to an institute of solemn vows, even if in some localities they were allowed to take simple vows instead.

The same Code also abolished the distinction according to which solemn vows, unlike simple vows, were indissoluble. It recognized no totally indispensable religious vows and thereby abrogated for the Latin Church the special consecration that distinguished “orders” (institutes with solemn vows) from “congregations” (institutes with simple vows), while keeping some juridical distinctions between the two classes.

Even these remaining juridical distinctions were abolished by the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which distinguishes solemn from simple vows but does not divide religious into categories on that basis.

By then a new form of institutes of consecrated life had emerged alongside that of religious institutes: in 1947 Pope Pius XII recognized secular institutes as a form in which Christians profess the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience while living in the world.


In 1972, the French Jesuit Raymond Hostie published his study Vie et mort des ordres religieux: Approaches psychosociologiques (Paris. Desclée de Brouwer), an English translation of which appeared in 1983 as The Life and Death of Religious Orders (Washington: CARA). Hostie argued that the life of a religious institute passes through successive stages: 10–20 years of gestation, 20–40 years of consolidation, a century or so of expansion, another century or so of stabilization, 50–100 years of decline, followed by death, even if death is not officially declared until later. In this view, a religious institute lasts 250–350 years before being replaced by another religious institute with a similar life-span. Hostie recognized that there are exceptions: Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, and some others have lasted longer, either because transformed from what they were originally or because of the prestige of their founders. In 2015, Giancarlo Rocca suggested that attention should be given not so much to the life-span of individual religious institutes, as to the duration of what Rocca called “religious institutions”, corresponding to the juridical categories of monastics, canons, mendicant orders, clerks regular, priestly societies, religious congregations, secular institutes. The religious institutes that have disappeared since 1960 have mostly been congregations. This class of institutes with simple vows and a strong emphasis on apostolate arose shortly before the French Revolution. They modernized the Church, the State, and religious life itself. Older institutes adopted some of their features, especially in the fields of education and health care, areas, however, that the State has now almost entirely taken over. This suggests that the life-span of a religious institute is largely determined by the point at which it comes into being within the life cycle of the “religious institution” to which it belongs. “Religious institutions” themselves do not necessarily disappear altogether with time, but they lose importance, as happened to monasticism, which is no longer the force it was in the Middle Ages before the mendicant orders eclipsed it.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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