A History and Theology
of Sharing Responsibility
for the Church
by Richard K. Weber

Summer 1985, Vol. 37 No. 2, pp. 100-107

Richard K. Weber, O.P., Ph.D. was visiting professor of church history at Aquinas Institute in Louis, Missouri during the spring term of 1985. For many years he was involved ministry to and with the Dominican Laity. He died on Jan. 7, 1995.

The "third orders" associated with religious orders express the laity's conviction of their importance in the life of the church and testify to their concern for reform and renewal.

IT has been cynically observed that anniversaries are the enemies of truth. And always there are some who wonder why all this energy might not have been spent for something better. Yet there is something about marking the passage of time, something about observing an anniversary, a centennial -- or more -- that seems to be justly an occasion for congratulation, an opportunity for reflection, and, at times, a reaffirmation of purpose.

Last year the National Cash Register Corporation celebrated itd centennial and took the occasion to ask in its advertising: "What other computer company is one hundred years old?" The implication was obvious: our products are better because our company older and more experienced. This year the lay branch of the Dominican order celebrates the seventh centenary of its founding. The Dominican Laity cannot claim to be the oldest "third order," but they may be permitted to feel that seven centuries gives the a certain cachet of authenticity and legitimacy.

The Abbé Sieyes could boast, after the turmoil and changes of the French Revolution, of one accomplishment: "I survived!" This seventh centenary must prove more than that third orders have survived; it should provide the opportunity for them to build more securely upon their tradition and reach forward in confidence to the future.

It is now a commonplace that the late Middle Ages have many disturbing parallels with our own times. That indeed was the thesis of Barbara Tuchman's book A Distant Mirror. It is the background for enjoying the much more brilliant evocation of that time in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. Indeed, one reviewer of that novel detected "allusions to modern personalities, among them John Paul II, Stalin, and Che Guevera." Munio de Zamora, elected master of the Dominican order in 1285, was not drawing up a rule for simple people in serene times when he provided the first rule for Dominican laity in that year. The third orders were not founded in any "Age of Faith" for people without problems.

The times then demanded a committed and evangelical response among all Christian folk. On every level of society there were massive problems; it was a civilization in transition certainly, and perhaps in decay. "Evangelical poverty" was a slogan. How could it be translated into a program? The disputes about Aristotle were not about a long-dead Greek thinker but about the seemingly corrosive effect of "new learning" and "new theology" upon the foundations of the faith. Governments were growing more bureaucratic, more intrusive, and more amoral. Wars were dividing Christian kingdoms, while domestic violence, feeding on injustice, ripped apart the fabric of social life. To the east and the south there hovered constantly the threat of Islam, while within there was the threat of subversion from heresy and witchcraft. And priests and knights, kings and popes all seemed concerned only with their pursuit of power, money, and pleasure.

Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, and other medieval religious orders proposed some answers. But I do not propose here to speak directly of the charism, or spirit, of the friars. Rather I proPose the question: Given the problems, why did lay people opt to associate themselves with the religious orders? That the times were dreadful is obvious. But that the solution for some lay folk was a third order is not, at least to us.


Though historians are, as Martin Luther remarked, "most valuable people," they have some annoying professional habits. One of them is the compulsion to go far, far back in time to begin their story. John Tracy Ellis began his history of the Catholic church in colonial America with the Emperor Constantine in 312. It should come as no shock, then, if I begin my historical reflections on the third orders with Cicero!

In his De Officiis, Cicero spoke of "the order of things," that is, the just and proper organization of the universe. For him the preservation of that order was the locating of everything in its proper place. Rhetoric was the art of putting words, and politics was the art of placing people, in their correct positions relative to one another. This orderly universe was, of course, in accord with a prior and divine plan.

But Cicero was much more than a popularizer of Greek philosophy; he was a consummate politician. The word order (ordo) had an especial richness for the Roman mind. It had denoted the division of adult Roman males into distinct groups (ordines) for military organization; in the Roman legion it referred to the close-order troop of infantry deployed for battle; in Roman politics it denoted the group of men officially inscribed on a list drawn upby the magistrates; in the Roman social hierarchy it was used to refer to "the senatorial order" and "the equestrian order."

Order was, therefore, not only the abstract idea of the proper organization of the universe but its reflection in concrete relationships between people and classes. Ordo could refer to an elite social class or to the row or bank of oars on a galley; these were the human "pictures" that went into an image of the way the universe was arranged. There is, thus, the idea of structure, a whole in which each part is invested with particular responsibilities, made cohesive by shared ritual, and bound together in loyalty and service. To be a member of an ordo was to have a position. The undifferentiated, the unpositioned, belonged to the people without order, the plebs.

The rich and profound term ordo was adopted by the Christian church -- and used just as ambiguously. Authority was conferred on bishops and priests for the governance of the church, and hence they were spoken of as an order. But laity who went into the desert to live a life of total committment were also an order, the order of monks. Chaste and unmarried women, consecrated to the service of the church, also formed an order, the order of virgins.

There was, it must be acknowledged, in both Roman and Christian traditions, an element in the thinking about order that tended to coalesce the concept of order with the idea of "giving orders," that is, the concept of ordo is bound up with authority. In Cicero's time, the old republic was obviously bankrupt; the ideal of many orders cooperating was impossible. Caesar exemplified a structure and ideology in which there was one ruling ordo in society and everyone else obeyed. Living under that empire, Tertullian applied the same ideology and structure to the church. For him there was a single ordo; all else was plebs; the church was clergy and laity. Leo XIII's formulation of that plan in the nineteenth century is no different: "It is established and manifest," wrote Leo, "that there are in the church two orders by nature distinct: the pastors and the flock, that is to say, the leaders and those who obey."

But authority is not the sole basis for order. If it were, then the dual system of pastors and flock was sufficient. Classical and medieval thought saw that inequality governed the universe. In everything some command and others obey; some are leaders and the rest are followers. But classical and medieval thought was also agreed that this was simply not an adequate view of the world and reality. There is more to human relations than government -- and more to the church than hierarchy.

Christianity itself had brought division into the classical picture. The emperor had been princeps and pontifex; but Jesus spoke of obligations to both God and Caesar. How were Christians to image the relationships between church and world, between clergy and laity, between sacred and secular? They were intermixed but they were also distinct.

The common medieval image was that of three orders. Depending on the sector of life examined, these three orders could be described as king-bishop-knight, or clergy-nobility-towns, or bishop-priest-deacon, or priest-monk-laity. Yet each component was described as an ordo. It would almost seem that medieval thinkers felt that a three-legged "support" was stronger; it is almost certain that they saw it mirroring more of the messy reality of life.


The common assumption today is that "third order" is a disparaging name, that organizations so named are "third-class" organizations because they are behind the clergy in authority. My point here is not to argue for the retention of a title, especially a title that takes so many pages of explanation. But a serious theological point is to be made in the reconsideration of what "third order" meant to the men and women who eagerly adopted the name. I believe there is a deeper significance to the "third" in "third order" than simple "lack of real authority" in the parent order. I believe that the "third" invites us to go beyond the duality of officeholders and nonofficeholders. That division is, as Father Congar points out, the basis for the canonical distinction between clergy and laity, those who hold office in the church and those who do not.

That dualism has the deceptive appeal of contemporary political myth: the division of reality into political terms, the division between the haves and the have-nots, between the exploiters and the exploited, between the clerical fascists and the evangelical Marxists. That mythic picture, like the economic and social ideologies on which it is based, is rooted in a static view of life, the idea that there is "X" amount of authority in the church, and how do we go about distributing it -- or seizing it?

The ternary view always introduces another element into the simple equation of "them versus us." There is unity but there is also diversity. Ternary views are the despair of a theocratic clergy or a caesaropapist government. Humanity is one -- yet it is obviously divided by race, religion, and custom. Authority, even if acknowledged to be of God, must be seen as deriving in various ways and refracted in different modes, and set forth in different groups. Within the one church of Christ there are not only different ministries, different gifts; there are different orders.

In the medieval schema, the various strata of human life -- the sacred and the secular, for instance -- are inextricably mixed. The very common division of the three orders into those who fought, those who prayed, and those who worked, testifies to the complexity. Those who fought required the active cooperation and assistance of those who prayed and those who worked; the same applied to each order. It was obvious to medieval folk that there were connections between all things.

Thus, after 1100, when Western Europe entered a period of economic, social, political, and cultural change it was obvi ous that there was bound also to be religious change. These tremendous upheavals echo only faintly for us under the cumbrous academic phrases such as "the revival of the towns," the "rise of the monarchies," the "beginnings of the universities." These were not just culture shocks; they were religious earthquakes. Inevitably they impinged upon the idea of orders.

The "winds of change" swept through the church with the Gregorian reform movement. Clearly revolutionary, this is most often studied as a clerical movement, an attempt by the popes to gain control of the ordo of the clergy and to exercise authority over all of Christendom. But there was also a lay reform movement, and Gregory VII had consciously allied his program of ecclesiastical reform with the lay forces demanding reform within the church.

Integral to the lay reform movement was the idea of a return to evangelical living, a basing of Christian life upon gospel values. The reading of Scripture, the imitation of Christ, and the example of the apostolic church were its essential demands. Members of the movement were bitterly critical of the ordo of bishops for entangling themselves in struggles for land and power; they were critical of the ordo of monks for forgetting their vocation of being Poor and pious followers of Christ; they were critical of the ordo of priests for being ignorant, lazy, sensual, and greedy. In good and true medieval fashion, many of these groups called themselves an ordo - -the "order of penitents," the "order of penitence " etc. The very name was a statement of their belief that they had a place, a position, within the church; they were important for the life of the church.

The origins of our own superrespectable third orders is among these unruly, pietistic, evangelical, charismatic, and radical groups. Triggered by the decadence of the other orders -- bishops, priests, monks -- these groups determined to lead an evangelical way of life- in an "orderly" way.


Certain of these groups became associated with the Franciscans, the Dominicans, or the Carmelites. Still other groups, probably a majority, kept an independent existence. A significant number slipped into heresy and schism. The anniversary of the Dominican third order should not give anyone the impression that its creation was a masterstroke of genius that overnight defused a potentially dangerous situation and successfully channeled the religious effervescence of the lay reform movement into acceptable bounds,

But there was genius. Within the complex relationships of these lay groups and the equally complex relationships that developed with the friars, there was clearly the desire to be an ordo and the willingness to be recognized as such.

Because it happened, we tend to think that such an event was inevitable. It was not so. Some of the lay groups, angry and critical, had begun to develop "antihierarchical" beliefs. They began to develop an ecclesiology that identified authority or function within the church with personal goodness of life. Instead of an order based on officium, they insisted upon an order based upon merit. They began to disregard the sacramental within the life of the church and exalt the emotive and personal. They rejected the church as institution and saw it only as association.

The genius of the third orders was the refusal to confound distinctions, the ability to live with differences. The third orders sought not authority but the space in which to live religiously. in the thirteenth century, anyone who made profession of a particular rule and wore a particular habit was a "religious." By this profession, he or she bound himself or herself to a life "more arduous and holier than that led by the other seculars who live completely saeculariter, that is, dissolutely." The contrast was thus not between an ordo of religious and the ordo of laity; the distinction was in the acceptance of a rule of living. Hence, the brothers and sisters of the order of penance were truly "religious."

One aspect of the history of the friar movement that has been well and thoroughly researched is how it became "clericalized." That is true; but it is only part of the history of the movement. This anniversary should remind us of another facet of the history that needs more attention now: how the friar movement was seen as an order based, not upon clerical function, but upon a way of life.

If Dominicans are simply a "clerical order," a group of priests who wear a distinctive habit and have an extradiocesan organization, then there would seem to be no need and no place for a "third" order. But the Dominicans never regarded themselves in that light, nor did the Franciscans or Carmelites.

When Jordan of Saxony was asked what "rule of life" he followed, he replied: "The rule of the preacher, and it consists of three things: to live an upright life, to learn, and to teach." Goodness of life, discipleship, and knowledge were thus presented as "the Dominican way of life." In 1285, it was officially acknowledged that "the way of the preacher" was also a "way" for lay people, that the "order of preachers" included them.

St. Thomas Aquinas observed that every order implies a division. Where division in the church is seen in political terms, such as who rules, who obeys, who runs things, who gives the orders, then there is only clergy and laity and division means antagonism. in such a church, a third order is, at best, an anomaly and, at worst, a pious fraud. Boniface VIII has the last laugh: "Laymen have been hostile to the clergy from the most ancient times, and this is proved by the experiences of the present." But if division in the church is seen as the healthy process that a living body undergoes, if it is seen as reflecting the richness of reality and providing for the working of the Spirit, then the third orders still have a place.