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A religious order is a lineage of communities and organizations of people who live in some way set apart from society in accordance with their specific religious devotion, usually characterized by the principles of its founder's religious practice. The order is composed of initiates (laity) and, in some traditions, ordained clergies. Religious orders exist in many of the world's religions.

Buddhist tradition

In Buddhist societies such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Korea and Tibet, a religious order is one of the number of monastic orders of monks and nuns, many of which follow under a different school of teaching, such as Zen. A well-known Chinese Buddhist order is the ancient Shaolin order in Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism.

Christian tradition

Main articles: Christian monasticism, Consecrated life, Roman Catholic religious order, Anglican religious order, Eastern Christian Monasticism

Orthodox tradition

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, there is only one type of monasticism. The profession of monastics is known as Tonsure (referring to the ritual cutting of the monastic's hair which takes place during the service) and is considered to be a Sacred Mystery (Sacrament). The Rite of Tonsure is printed in the Euchologion (Church Slavonic: Trebnik), the same book as the other Sacred Mysteries and services performed according to need.

Catholic tradition

Main articles: Roman Catholic religious order, Consecrated life (Catholic Church)

A religious order is an organization, recognised by the Church, whose members (commonly referred to as "religious") strive to achieve a common purpose through formally dedicating their life to God.[1] Religious orders are distinct from secular institutes and other lay ecclesial movements. In the Catholic Church non-ordained members of religious orders are not members of the hierarchy but belong to the Laity,[2] unless they are also deacons or priests in Holy Orders.

There are four main kinds of religious order:

  • monastic made up of monks (who may be clerics) and/or nuns who are bound to live and work at their monastery and recite the Office in common
  • mendicant made up of friars (either priests or lay brothers) and nuns/sisters who, while living and praying in common, may have a more active apostolate, and depend on alms for their life
  • canons regular made up of canons (clerics) and cannonesses regular, who sing the liturgy in choir and may run parish-like apostolates
  • clerks regular made up of priests who are also vowed religious and who usually have a more active apostolate

Religious congregations with simple vows instead of solemn are not, strictly speaking, religious orders. Their lifestyles and work may be indistinguishable from those of the religious orders, however.

Admittance to a religious order 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" (always simple) to test their vocation with a particular order, candidates wishing to be admitted permanently are required to make a public profession of the Evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience and confirm this by a vow (which may be either simple or solemn) that is binding in Church law. One of the effects of this vow is that members of a religious order are no longer free to marry; and should they subsequently want to leave the order, they would have to seek a Papal Indult. The benefits of the profession are of a spiritual nature.[3]

Francisco de Zurbarán's painting of a Mercedarian Friar, Fra Pedro Machado.

The members of male religious orders are often (and sometimes erroneously) termed "monks" and those of female religious orders "nuns", if they are "cloistered", that is to say, if they are under obligation to live and work within the confines of their monastery and say the Divine office in community (commonly referred to as "contemplative orders"). They tend to be called "brothers" or "friars", and "sisters", if their order's apostolate requires them to work outside the monastery as, for example, teachers, doctors, nurses or in some other practical charitable service. In common parlance the term "nun", traditionally reserved for cloistered women, is often used loosely to refer to any female "religious". In recent times the gender-neutral "monastics" has made an appearance in the relevant literature.

Traditionally, orders of 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).

Since each and every religious order 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 orders – 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 orders 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. Some Anglican and Protestant orders are "dispersed", that is, living in the world rather than communally. Several founders, in view of their aim, require the members of their order 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.

Daily living in religious orders 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 order's charism.

Well-known orders of the Roman Catholic Church include Augustinians, Carmelites, Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, Salesians, Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Congregation of Holy Cross.

Several religious orders evolved during the Crusades to incorporate a military mission and so became "religious military orders", such as the Knights of the Order of Saint John.

It is typical of non-monastic religious orders to have a Motherhouse or Generalate that has jurisdiction over any number of dependent religious communities, and for its members to be moved by their Superior General to any other of its communities, as the needs of the order at any one time demand.

In accordance with the concept of independent communities in the Rule of St Benedict, the Benedictines have autonomous Abbeys (so-called "independent Houses"); and their members profess "stability" to the Abbey where they make their vow, hence cannot move – nor be moved by their Abbot or Abbess – to another Abbey. An "independent House" may occasionally make a new foundation which remains a "dependent House" (identified by the name "Priory") until it is granted independence "by Rome" and itself becomes an "Abbey". Owing to the autonomy of each House, contrary to widespread misconception, the Benedictines are not a religious order (although individual members do profess the Evangelical counsels in a Profession ceremony). They have affiliated themselves, however, into congregations – whether national or based on some other joint characteristic – and these, in turn, into the supra-national Benedictine Confederation.

Anglican tradition

Religious orders in England were dissolved by King Henry VIII upon the separation of the English church from Roman primacy. For three hundred years, there were no formal religious orders in Anglicanism, although some informal communities – such as that founded by Nicholas Ferrar at Little Gidding – occasionally sprang into being. With the Catholic Revival in the Church of England and worldwide Anglicanism in the middle of the nineteenth century, several orders appeared. In 1841, the first order for women was established; and the first order for men was founded twenty-five years later.

Consonant with other Catholic orders, Anglican religious voluntarily commit themselves for life, or a term of years, to holding their possessions in common or in trust; to a celibate life in community; and obedience to their Rule and Constitution[4].

There are presently thirteen active religious orders for men, fifty-three for women, and eight mixed gender.

Protestant traditions

The Methodist Church of Great Britain, and its ancestors, have established a number of orders of Deaconesses, who are ordained as both regular and secular clergy. The Methodist Diaconal Order (MDO) currently admits both men and women to the Order. Since the functions of a deacon are primarily pastoral, the MDO may therefore be regarded as an order of Regular clerics.

Jehovah's Witnesses

Among their corporations, the Religious Order of Jehovah's Witnesses cares for matters specific to Jehovah's Witnesses special full-time servants. In the United States for example, traveling overseers, special pioneers, and branch staff are considered members of the Order of Special Full-time Servants and the Bethel Family; male and female members of such religious orders typically make a formal vow of poverty and are granted certain status and exemptions by many governments. While Jehovah's Witnesses do not consider members of their religious orders to be clergy, they recognize that a government may consider them such for administrative purposes.

Jehovah's Witnesses do not have a separate clergy class, but consider an adherent's qualified baptism to constitute his ordination as a lay minister. Governments have generally recognized that Jehovah's Witnesses' full-time appointees qualify as ministers[5] regardless of sex or appointment as an elder or deacon ("ministerial servant"); the religion itself asserts what is sometimes termed "ecclesiastical privilege" only for its appointed elders.

Islamic tradition

Although Islam has no organised clergy, and many forms of Islam reject monasticism, the Sufi have several religious orders, known as tariqah. Tariqahme are usually lead by a murshid, who gives spiritual guidance. The traditional orders include the Badawiyyah, Bektashi, Chishti, Mevlevi, Naqshbandi, Qadiri, Rifa'i, Shadhili, and Suhrawardiyya.

Other traditions

A form of ordered religious living is common also in many tribes of Africa and South America, though on a smaller scale, and some parts of England.

Ordo Templi Orientis is a Thelemic Religious Order with temples in 35 US states and 25 countries worldwide.

See also

  • Religion-supporting organization

Christian articles

Hindu articles

  • Matha

Islamic articles

  • Tariqah

External links

  • information about Catholic religious communities and life as a sister, brother, or priest.
  • helps those discerning a Catholic religious vocation sort through options and find the order or vocation that may be right for them.
  • digital edition of VISION, the annual Catholic religious vocation discernment guide.

Christian tradition


  1. The Code of Canon Law 1983, canons 607–709
  2. cf. The Code of Canon Law 1983, canon 207; Chart showing the place of members of religious orders among the People of God
  3. cf. Dom Columba Marmion, Christ the Ideal of the Monk, ch. VI.
  5. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court case Dickinson v. United States found that Dickinson should have been considered a minister by his draft board because of his ordination by baptism as a Jehovah's Witness and his continued service as a Jehovah's Witness "pioneer". Online