Summer 1985, Vol. 37, pp. 150-159.

Ruth A. Lewis:
      Toward Making the Dominican Family a Reality

The notion "Dominican family," rooted in history, enables Dominicans to keep up with the church's self-understanding and meet the needs of today's world.

Ms. Lewis works as a purchasing agent for a nonprofit corporation that assists poverty-level and disadvantaged citizens. She is active in the Dominican Laity in Chicago. She holds a masters degree in religious education from Loyola University, Chicago, and has taught religion at the CCD and high school levels.

THE notion "Dominican family" is part of the Dominicans' response to Vatican II's call for renewal in the church and in religious communities. The idea of the Dominican family raises many questions. Is it a new concept or has it been utilized before in Dominican history? What are the historical relationships between the various groups that go by the name "Dominican"? Can the members of the Dominican order, once structured into distinct first, second, and third orders, cooperate in a familial manner?

To answer these and other questions at least tentatively, we will note the origin of the idea of the Dominican family and the sense in which the notion "family" is applied to the order. Then we will reflect on reasons for adopting the idea of Dominican family in our time. After that reflection, we will consider some factors in the general notion of family and see how they might function among Dominicans of all groups.

Is the effort to apply the description "family" to the Dominican community a new concept or an old idea? It is not a recent notion, but goes back to 1405. Early in its history, the friars of the Dominican order were asked by cloistered sisters and by laity to provide for their spiritual welfare. The friars were also under papal pressure to care for the needs of all these people. The friars delayed to acquiesce in the laity's request until a papal mandate was given. In 1285 the first rule for laity was provided. In a papal approval of the "Brothers and Sisters of Penance of Blessed Dominic" issued in 1405, reference was made to the "Dominican family." It was an appropriate designation because the members of the group were called "brothers" and "sisters" and were regarded as being related to the friars in a way of belonging more intimate than that in which people "belong" to many public organizations. Since Vatican II, especially under the leadership of the former master of the Dominican order, Fr. Vincent de Couesnongle, the use of the title "Dominican family" has become commonplace.


But is that use really valid? Let us consider the general characteristics of a family. What is a family? A definition of a family is a unity of one man and one woman in marriage with offspring -- parents and children living together in one household. How do the members of a family relate to each other and in what sort of structures? Husband and wife are related to one another in a structure of adult-to-adult. They cooperate with each other in the common task of fostering their marital union and rearing their children, each of them contributing their particular gifts of nature and grace to this work. The children must cooperate also in the common tasks of family life, but they relate to their parents, not as adults to adults, but in a child-to-adult pattern, and their parents relate to them in an adult-to-child pattern. An authority-subject relationship exists here, though as the children grow, the parents endeavor to relate to them increasingly in an adult-to-adult way. Children are also dependent but, again, parents aim to help them grow in independence. And as mutual love binds husband and wife together, so it binds parents and children. Everyone in the family, moreover, even the infant in the crib, is respected as a person of precious worth and with basic rights. The uniqueness of each member of the family is also respected. Sharing is another characteristic of family. Each member can refer to "my house" or "our meals," even though different members of the family make diverse contributions to what is common. The family, however, is a natural unity; it is part of creation and, for the children, it is not something to which they belong by their personal choice -- they are simply born into a family.

When we apply the notion of family to the Dominican order, we recognize that it is not a natural unit like the family, into which one is born, but it is a free association of people. Several other elements are applicable to all the men and women -- lay, religious, and clerics -- who go by the name "Dominican": adult-to-adult relations, cooperation in life and mission of the order, respect for the dignity and uniqueness and particular talents of each person, love, and sharing in the treasures of the Dominican heritage.

An element of family not applicable in the Dominican family is that of parental authority over dependent subjects, children, for the members of the Dominican family are all adults. An historical factor often makes it difficult not to project this trait into the Dominican family. For centuries the Dominican order has been divided into the first order (priests and religious brothers), the second order (cloistered nuns), and the third order, some of whom live in canonically erected religious communities, others, both men and women, who live by a rule and meet regularly, but who remain with their families or lead single lives. The very designations "first," "second," "third" tend to put the priests and cooperator brothers on the "top," so to speak, with the others on an "inferior" position below.


But why change from thinking of first, second, and third orders to thinking about Dominican family? For centuries Dominicans have lived with the hierarchical structure implied in the triple division of the order. This pattern has corresponded to the structure of the church generally and worked reasonably well. Why change to the concept of family which implies more interaction between all those people who go by the name "Dominican"?

In answer we should note some shifts in the church's self-understanding manifested in Vatican Council II. Lumen gentium, the dogmatic constitution on the church, emphasized the notion of the people of God over that of the body of Christ for thinking about the church today. The latter is more hierarchical than the former. The constitution also developed the notion of the people of God (chapter 2) before venturing to treat the hierarchical nature of the church (chapters 3 and 4). The same document stressed the basic equality of all those baptized in Jesus Christ and everyone's responsibility for, and share in, the mission of the church. It proceeded then to distinguish various roles which different members in the church have in carrying out the mission. But the constitution makes it clear that the laity as well as the ordained hierarchy in the church share in the prophetic, priestly, and royal dignity of Christ, and they make equally valid and important, even if very different, contributions to the proclamation of God's word, to worship and sanctification, and to advancing Christ's reign in the hearts of men and women and in the structures and life of society. The role of the simply baptized is also eloquently expressed in Vatican II's Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity.

The adoption of the notion of Dominican family in contrast to first, second, and third orders is an effort to reflect among Dominic,,ans a vision which Vatican II has adopted for the church as a whole. All Dominicans, in whichever "order" they may be, share a common baptism in Jesus Christ in whom they are, by grace, brothers and sisters. They belong to the same church and all share in the church's mission in complementary ways. All have also been attracted by the spirit of Dominic and his ideal of preaching God's word to believers and unbelievers, in season and out of season. They have all made some sort of profession to live in an ecclesially approved way that is appropriate to that preaching mission. The particular styles of life (in celibate communities, in cloisters, among their own families) and roles in the church (nonordained and ordained) differ, but these ought not obscure common elements nor the love, respect, and appreciation due each Dominican for his or her contribution to the preaching mission of St. Dominic.

A second reason for this new way of thinking is included in the first but deserves to be singled out: the new understanding we now have about the dignity and role of the laity in the church. One of our Dominicans, Father Yves Congar, in his book Lay People in the Church (published in English in 1957), was one of the principal pioneers in bringing to light of day the immense glory of being a simply baptized member of the church. Prior to the twentieth century, much thought had been given to the ministerial priesthood, often because of distorted views or denials of it that had to be refuted. Similarly, much thought had been given to religious life. But only in recent times has comparable attention been given to Christian lay life, at least in the Catholic church. Now we have to reconsider what we have thought about ordained priesthood and religious life in the light of the "discovery" of lay life.


A third reason for adopting the notion of the Dominican family is not so clearly expressed in Vatican II documents, but it is there in Gaudium et spes, the pastoral constitution on the church in the modern world. That document asserts the essential equality of all human beings and the need for social justice (no. 29). The third reason for the notion of Dominican family is the growing consciousness on the part of women, and men also, that women in the church as well as in society at large have not been justly appreciated, valued, recompensed, and allowed to participate in social and ecclesial life according to all their personal talents and charisms. The result of this neglect and often downright oppression has been the less than wholesome development of the church's self-understanding, its theology, its preaching ministry, and its service to its own members and the wider human community. Gradually this costly neglect and oppression is being recognized and righted, but there is a long way to go, especially in regard to changing attitudes. What is true in the church generally is being seen as true also among Dominicans. One of the gifts which the Dominican order has is its varied membership of men and women, priests, religious, and lay people, so that it can set an example in the church for how all these different persons can relate to one another justly and for an effective ministry to the world. Adoption of the notion of Dominican family is meant to help bring justice and an improved preaching ministry into the Dominican community.

Mention of service to the world and improved preaching ministry introduces a fourth reason for adoption of the notion of Dominican family. Dominic was bent upon preaching the word of God. That was his primary goal. To support that task he established the nuns at Prouille. The men's order which he founded was principally composed of priests because in Dominic's day only bishops and approved delegates of bishops could preach in the strict, canonical sense of that term. Lay people were restricted to hortatory sermons. Women, like Catherine of Siena, and women's groups, like modern sisters' congregations, valued preaching and saw their work, especially teaching, as a form of preaching. The important point is that Dominic was intent upon preaching and, it may be surmised, he would want any of his followers to preach, ordained or not, women or men, in the strict canonical sense or otherwise, insofar as ecclesial and social conditions made it possible. Dominic would find a basis for this view in Vatican II's Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, where it is said of the laity that the "witness of life is not the sole element in the apostolate; the true apostle is on the lookout for occasions of announcing Christ by word, either to unbelievers to draw them towards the faith, or to the faithful to instruct them, strengthen them, incite them to more fervent life" (no. 6). The notion of Dominican family aims at raising the consciousness of all Dominicans that all members of the order, whatever group they belong to, are called to some form of preaching.

The need for the preached word in our world today is a fifth reason for adopting the notion of Dominican family. We can think of the vast numbers of people who never heard of Christ in a way that could be a personal invitation to follow him. Then there are huge numbers of people who have heard of Christ, are even baptized, but are only nominally Christian, or have only the meagerest understanding of their faith or hunger for its development beyond ordinary churchgoing. Beyond personal needs for the word of God are the needs of society. God's saving revelation is not only for personal salvation but also for the renewal of the temporal order, so that even in this life men and women may live in truth, freedom, justice, peace, and love. So all possible preachers of the word are needed. The notion of Dominican family is adopted in order to encourage Dominicans of the various groups to help one another to become preachers of some kind so that the number of preachers of the word may grow to respond to the vast need of the day.


What are some components of the ideal family that can help Dominicans keep up with the church's self-understanding, recognize in word and deed the dignity and mission of lay people, incorporate women more justly and fully into St. Dominic's ministry, and provide more preachers of various kinds to satisfy the widespread need for God's word all over our world today? We will consider five factors found in family life: cooperation, communication, respect for individuality, guidance, and support.

Cooperation among Dominicans of various groups can occur in the areas of study and prayer in order to build up the mission of preaching. Opportunities for shared study among Dominicans could be planned gatherings of different members of the Dominican family to study the Scriptures, for example, the readings of the coming Sunday. Friars could bring their pastoral views to the study; sisters could bring their rich experience in personally sensitive ministry to God's people; lay men and women could bring their "inside" knowledge of the social institutions in which people live their daily lives. Each could bring a unique sort of personal experience to throw light on the truth hidden in the texts.

Prayer could be shared also by gathering to celebrate the liturgy of the hours or the Eucharist. Time could be set aside, in the liturgy or outside of it, for more informal prayer. Such sharing in prayer, especially informal prayer, could provide a great deal of mutual support not only for preaching but especially for the deepening of the spiritual life, an important basis for genuine preaching which is effective.

It is possible for there to be cooperation in the preaching function itself. The new Code of Canon Law (no. 766) makes preaching in the strict canonical sense of the word possible, at least, for others than priests under certain conditions not yet defined. But there are other forms of preaching, for example, the witness in word to the faith which we saw Vatican II's Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity urge upon lay people. At a retreat, for instance, Dominicans of the various groups within the family could cooperate in the general preaching task. We can hope that in the years to come the possibility for the nonordained to preach in the strict canonical sense of the word will grow and become an actuality.

But what are the possibilities of this sort of cooperation? The most challenging area is probably that between the friars and the laity. For so long in the church the ordained have been regarded as the active members and others as the passive or, at best, receptive members. The friars for centuries have been more caretakers of the laity than anything else. To alter this caretaking relationship to one of mutual cooperation requires work on the part of both friars and laity. Friars need to learn to listen to the laity's needs and aspirations, to challenge them to go beyond that to which they are accustomed, to allow and facilitate their sharing in the preaching mission through study groups, teaching, and the administration of parish missions. The friars need to resist the temptation to do everything themselves and let the laity merely follow. The laity on the other hand need to change their often passive attitude of dependency on the friars and assume responsibility for their Dominican life and their manner of preaching the word, interacting with and cooperating with the friars. They need to appreciate that the call to Dominican life is not identical with a call to the priesthood, but is a call to a way of life after the model of St. Dominic as preacher of the word.


Communication is another factor in family life and a requisite for Dominican family. Communication means simply that people talk to one another, that friars, sisters, lay Dominicans, cloistered nuns, and active apostles share their understanding of, and questions about, Dominican life and ministry today. Communication can concern many issues. What are the real problems which must be addressed today by the word of God? What changes are needed in the way in which Dominican life is led today to make it more consistent with Dominican preaching? What sort of life-style will reflect dependence on God rather than ourselves? The Bologna Document on the Dominican Family states: "In the spirit of Dominic this Word is addressed to all, to the sinners, the destitute, and the afflicted, and is awaited especially by the poor, the blind, captives and those on the margins of society."(1) How can Dominicans, working together in all the Dominican groups, more effectively meet that challenge?

To develop Dominican family, there must also be respect for differences of its members. One of the differences will be, of course, the unique personality of each member. But there is also the uniqueness that comes from the particular Dominican group in which one lives and works. One group of sisters, for example, was founded for teaching; a lay Dominican chapter began with a ministry of word to the elderly. Differences will be found also in how each group views the practical aspects of daily living. Cloistered sisters, friars, active sisters, lay people will live quite differently day by day. Common life, for instance, cannot mean the same thing for, let us say, cloistered sisters and lay people. The various ways of living Dominican life have their particular validity. When the differences are shared and their reasons understood, the groups can grow in affection for one another, and individuals can deepen their understanding and appreciation of their own purpose and method in preaching the word. As in a natural family, differences create tensions, but the tensions can be healthy ones which create challenge, change, and vitality.

A fourth component of family life is guidance. The guidance given when one adult challenges another is the sort we are interested in here. Dominicans can challenge each other to grow. It can happen between individuals, or between houses of sisters, or between friars and sisters, sisters and laity, laity and friars. These opportunities for growth through challenge need not be hostile, by any means, but a simple question "Why are you doing that?" They may come in the setting of conferences, retreats, scheduled meetings, or informal gatherings. The guidance may be as formal as a lecture and question period, or as informal as a conversation over dinner. To have to answer to the question "Why are you doing that?" compels us to look more closely and more deeply at the way we are living, or ministering, or preaching. Coming to an answer may confirm us in what we are doing or open the door to new ways.

Finally, the family factor of support must be considered. Support is a result, surely, of cooperation and communication. When Dominicans of the various groups work together in the ministry, they affirm one another in their particular Dominican community or group and in their particular way of being Dominican and carrying on the mission. Communication more explicitly yields support, for it involves sharing with one another strengths and weaknesses -- strengths that can bolster others when they are weak, weaknesses that can be overcome by the strengths of others.

Support is, of course, especially necessary today in a secularized society. The Dominican laity who live and work in the midst of this milieu in a special way need the support of Dominicans who live in an atmosphere more clearly religious. On the other hand, those who live in the latter sort of situation need to be supported in their way of life which at times can be lacking in needed intimacy. Both groups need support to be faithful to the ministry of the word whose effectiveness is frequently not easy to see or to measure.

Support for the ministry of the word can come from the simple awareness of the Dominican family. When times of discouragement come, it is heartening to know that, in the words of the Bologna Document on the Dominican Family, "the Dominican family is present with a certain vitality in all five continents. We are united to one another by the deepest bonds of the Lord's love. We affirm our solidarity with our suffering brothers and sisters, especially those who are persecuted for their fearless proclamation of he gospel of peace and justice. Grounded in the profound peace of our common vocation, we move full of hope into the future. We pray the Holy Spirit to renew in us the courage to continue in he footsteps of Dominic, speaking only to God and of God."(2)

We have seen reasons for learning to think in terms of Dominican family and for changing attitudes and actions. The movement is well under way and we can hope that with each passing month the followers of Dominic will be more and more recognized as brothers and sisters of one family by all who see and meet them.(3)

  1. "The Bologna Document on the Dominican Family," International Dominican Information, no. 203 (May 1983): 87.
  2. Ibid.
  3. I wish to acknowledge the help of Spirituality Today's editor in the development of this article.