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Religious Orders

Next to the Papacy itself, there is no institution of Latin Christianity that fills so striking a place in history as do the Religious Orders. In whatever way the Church of mediaeval times is regarded, they seem to be its principal agent for good. If it is looked upon as the kingdom of Christ on earth, it was in the monasteries that His law was most faithfully observed. If it is conceived as the society in which men are trained for eternal life, the Religious Orders were its chief schools of holiness, in which nearly all its saints were formed. If it is remembered as the benefactor of mankind, teaching the arts of civilisation to the rude tribes of the north, it was the work of the Monks which gained it this renown. If it is thought of as the home and fostering parent of learning and the arts, it was in the monastic institutes that the peace was found in which alone learning can exist and the arts be practised.

Moreover, the monks themselves are, together with the knights, the most romantic and picturesque figures of mediaeval life. Chivalry, indeed, that other noble institution of the Middle Ages, was the offspring of the same Christian principles out of which the Religious Orders sprang. But while it has long since perished, leaving but its name and spirit to be the monuments of its past glories, the system embodied in the Religious Orders still remains, shorn, indeed, of much of its former glory, yet still so far alive as to give some ground for the epigram, "Les chenes et les moines sont eternels."

At the end of the 19th Century the existence of the Religious Orders was still a very evident fact, in Italy at least. By the 20th Century it was by no means so visible; hardly anywhere but at Rome are monks seen as of old; elsewhere they are rarely met. Still, they are known to exist, and may be found by those who care to seek for them. There are still monks living in one or two monasteries that were founded by St. Benedict in the sixth century, who call themselves by his name, and profess to follow the rule he gave them, and who are lineally descended by corporate life from his companions.

The continued existence of the Religious Orders after fifteen centuries of life is undoubtedly a striking fact. Whatever its imperfections and drawbacks, a system that has lived so long must have possessed a vigorous life, and must have corresponded in the days of its origin and prosperity to some deeply felt need of humanity. Buddhist monasteries are no doubt older than those of the Latin Church ; but life moves more quickly and counts for more in the West than in the East, because it does more work. And the prolonged existence of monasticism in the West is none the less worthy of attention because the monasticism of the East deserves it also, and on similar grounds.

The Religious State is a permanent manner of life, approved by the Papal See, in which men (or women) live in community, bound by vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They call this life the "Way of Perfection, for those who embrace it bind themselves to seek perfection. They call it also the Way of Counsels, for they distinguish two classes of maxims; some of them are precepts which every Christian is bound to observe; some of them are only counsels which He wishes to be followed by those, at least, to whom He gives the call to do so, though no one is bound to practise them, or commits a sin if he does not. These counsels, they say, are three. The lowest is poverty, contained in the words, "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell that thou hast and give to the poor" (Matt. xix. 21). A higher counsel is chastity, which they find in the saying, " There be eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it" (Matt. xix. 12). The highest counsel of all, they say, is obedience. There is, however, no saying which contains it. The practice of the three counsels does not constitute the Religious State unless it is made obligatory by vow.

In the Middle Ages it was the policy of the Popes to lean on the Orders, which were devoted to their cause, rather than on the Bishops, who were inclined to be independent. By the 19th Century the Pope can rely perfectly on the fidelity of the Bishops, who are his creatures, and who receive many of their powers from him only for a term of years; there is, therefore, no need to conciliate the Religious Orders in any special way, or to increase their independence of the Bishops.

The Reformation swept away all the monastic bodies from the countries where it triumphed. The French Revolution dealt the Religious Orders a perhaps still heavier blow. Before the Revolution the Dominicans had 143 houses in France; at the present day, after more than half a century of restoration, they have about eighteen. If a similar comparison were made in the case of the Benedictines,. Franciscans, and other Orders, the result would be even less favorable. Not only were they utterly destroyed in France itself, in every other country where France held temporary sway its effects were hardly less sweeping. Belgium, the Roman Catholic portion of Germany, and Italy, were affected in this way. In these countries all the monasteries were closed, and remained suppressed so long as the revolutionary governments ruled. In Italy almost alone were they restored when the French were driven out, but in woefully diminished numbers.

Two Roman Catholic countries, Austria and Spain, alone remained in which the monasteries continued to exist.* But in Austria they had already fallen under the knife of Joseph II, who cut and pared them at his will, changing their rules, their work, even their dress, .until they were hardly more than the caricatures of what they had been. In Spain the blow was delayed only for a few years. It fell -about the year 1835, when all the Religious Orders were suppressed, and their members cast upon the world, often with much violence on the part of the populace. A similar fate befell the Religious Orders in Spanish America, though the suppression was not everywhere complete or final.

There was not a single country where the Religious Orders have not been violently suppressed, except Austria. In every case the violent destruction of the Keligions Orders waa initiated and carried out by men who were baptized and educated in the Roman communion, while the populace, also Roman Catholic, looked on unmoved, often taking part in the suppression.

The grant of a third rule to secular persons gives rise to the third orders. At times it happens that these tertiaries are established in community under this rule; they are then religious, ordinarily members of a congregation with simple vows. But, there were communities of this character with solemn vows, and there is a regular Third Order of St. Francis, which goes back to the fifteenth century and which received modified constitutions from Leo XIII. The associations of secular tertiaries are also called orders; they owe this to the fact that they profess the Christian life under an approved rule: but these are secular orders; and religious, even those under simple vows, cannot validly belong to them. By his entrance into a religious order, a novice ceases to be a secular. Not all religious orders have third orders attached to them; but those which recognize an order of nuns as their second order generally have tertiaries also. Thus there are no Benedictine or Jesuit tertiaries: the Benedictines have no second order, and the Jesuit rule expressly forbids the Society to have an institute of nuns under its authority. In later times the Oblates of St. Benedict have been assimilated to tertiaries. Third orders are distinguished from confraternities, in as much as the former follow a general rule of life, while the members of confraternities are associated for some special purpose of piety or charity.

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Page last modified: 04-12-2011 19:38:15 ZULU