Spring 1987, Vol. 39, pp. 68-74.

David O'Rourke:
      Current Trends: An Order Looks to its Future

Fr. David O'Rourke, O.P., is professor of theology at the Dominican School of Philosphy and Theoogy, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. Well known as a counselor, writer and lecturer, his recent book, A Process Called Conversion, was publised by Doubleday in 1985.

IN the summer of 1986, specially elected representatives of the four dozen Dominican provinces and vicariates throughout the world joined representatives of the Dominican family for a legislative chapter in Avila. Meeting in the convent of Santo Tomas, a hundred yards outside the walls of the historic Spanish city, the participants discussed the life, the laws, the work and the future of the order.

Like every chapter it produced a volume of conclusions, from nice ideas to binding legislation. It also produced a statement calling on the order to refocus its work, and placed this statement first in the chapter's printed report.


Mission statements among women religious and working goals for men in ministry have been articulated over and over during the past twenty years. This is not a mission statement. The Dominicans have long since identified their mission. This is a call to refocus ministry in light of current human needs. It lists those needs using a symbol concrete enough to focus attention. It is just possible that the symbol is sufficiently well chosen to become the core on which usable ideas will take form.

This statement is unusual for several reasons. First, during what many perceive as a time of retrenchment in the Church, it is aggressively activist. It places the work of the order clearly on the cutting edge, which it describes as "the frontiers" of life. Coming just when the American bishops have released their pastoral letter on the economy, it places an international order firmly alongside a national bishop's conference, a rare enough occurrence.

Second, it reflects a self-confidence in the members' ability to cope with the reality of life on social and intellectual frontiers. Life in these uncharted areas, from the margins of society to the depths of the spirit and mind, "demands a total openness to the truth wherever it is found." Again, the statement provides a confident and optimistic view at a time when some question the ability of church leaders to seize the initiative and provide leadership in facing the ethical demands of current affairs.

The third and perhaps most significant aspect of this statement of vision is its reception. Last November, three months after the Avila chapter ended, approximately twenty Englishspeaking Dominican provincials gathered with the head of the order for a leadership conference. Meeting in the Irish Dominicans' house of studies in Tallaght, near Dublin, the group studied and reaffirmed the statement. Elected chapter delegates, like visiting lecturers, have a freedom to speculate about possibilities because their role does not involve implementation. But provincials are the implementors. That a group, by office faced daily with the limits of their world and their men, should be enthusiastic about the call of future options reflects well on the way those options have been set out.

What are they? What were the frontiers the Avila chapter described, and what is the challenge they present? This is what I want to describe in this article. I am addressing this "in house" Dominican issue because it really goes beyond the borders of the order. It concerns the shape of ministry in the United States. The history of the past century has shown that ideas can mobilize men and women. There truly are ideas whose time has come. When the desire to act and the call to action coincide many a foot begins to move. Perhaps that is what we are seeing here. The frontiers of life described in the Avila chapter are:

The frontier between life and death
The frontier between humanity and inhumanity
The frontier of Christian experience
The frontier of religious experience
The frontiers of the church.
I want to describe, albeit summarily, what the authors mean by each of these frontiers, for they obviously involve more than these headings indicate. Listed simply as they are, they sound like slogans. There is more to them than that. They represent the assessment of current and future ministry reached by people well experienced in the work of the Church.

Second, I want to look at the changes their implementation would require. Most of us, especially our American Dominican institutions, are placed fairly solidly in the middle of the Church's life. There are some who maintain that such a "middle" designation extends across the board -- middle class, middle brow, etc. Be that as it may, if life on the frontiers described by the Avila chapter is to become typical of our ministry we will have to look less to external structures and more to inner resources for support. Again, this possibility would not be noteworthy were it not for the reception it is receiving among elected officials in the order.

Third, I want to comment on the role that ideas and plans have in the ministry of the church. The face of the church has been radically changed in the last twenty years. Those of us who lived with the chaos that accompanied the change forget, or perhaps choose to ignore, that the change was not only by decree but according to plan. The liturgy in every parish, the form of the sacraments administered throughout the church, and the life of the religious orders have been deeply changed by fiat, largely without consultation. The changes brought about by Vatican II implemented theories put together by specialists. To think that planners spin theories to no effect ignores reality. We live in a planned world, and the American church, too, has its planners.


The introduction to the frontiers notes that this frontier orientation dates from the founding of the order and its missionary roots. "Itinerance, mobility and the continuous movement toward new frontiers" should be a permanent character of the order. To find its current work the order must position itself at these intellectual and social frontiers.

The first frontier, the "frontier between life and death," refers to the "systems, the structures, the social, political, and economical practices" that can make the right to life fragile and tenuous. Justice, its lack, and the use of warfare as an ordinary instrument of national policy are central to this issue.

The "frontier between humanity and inhumanity" refers to the lot of those who face an inhuman or less-than-human life. The lot of these people is to be seen in the context of the "marginalizing structures" that create their lot.

The "frontier of Christian experience" is the place for a "dialogue with the great religions" -- Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam. The spirit of dialogue called for by Vatican II requires that the evangelical mission of the church be free of any elements of colonialism or imperialism, a difficult challenge as missionaries testify.

The "frontier of religious experience" brings us face to face with the predominance of secularism in much of the western world. Historically, the order has had the ability "to create a dialogue between the Christian message and cultures, either classical or new." The order's vitality has been a function of its ability to take seriously the "disputed questions" that are part of a true dialogue.

The "frontiers of the church" demand we see the plurality of Christian confessions as a scandal, despite recognizing the richness to be found in different Christian traditions. In addition, the frontier of the church also deals with "the growing phenomenon of sects," certainly a reality in the United States. What are we to make of these ideas? I believe that the authors made a double accomplishment. They have been able to highlight five issues that are of fundamental importance to the Church, and have also found a character they have in common they are on the edge. They are to be found beyond the scope of well-established social and religious institutions. The authors have also limited themselves to noting the frontiers as realities and challenges. Unlike the American bishops in their economic pastoral, they have not entered into discussions of means and methods. They have simply said "These are the issues, and they are our issues."

The arguments presented in support of the frontiers are not without their flaws. Viewing sects as a religious rather than a psychological phenomenon overlooks some solid research on sect recruitment and maintenance. Assuming that the Old World's weariness with its life and history and its lack of optimism, which seemed so evident in the 1985 Synod of Bishops, extend beyond the borders of Europe is not accurate. But flawed though some of the supporting arguments may be, the essential perceptions are on target.


What changes would the implementation of these ideas require of us? I believe that there are four fairly obvious changes, and they are not without their problems. They would require:

1. A greater institutionalized exposure to marginal
2. An increased itinerancy
3. A more aggressive intellectual life
4. A greater trust and valuing of the individual.

Our institutions and ministries are centered principally in Middle America, where we work effectively and well. The challenge of the authors is that we move from these centers to the margins, making the people there the "preferred receivers of the Dominican mission."

In addition there is the issue of money. Much of America's intellectual life is centered in its universities, which are bastions of financial privilege. To engage the issues, for example, of religious experience -- "atheism, disbelief, secularization and indifference" -- the participant must be conversant in what the authors call "the great questions of modern thought." This involves university education and presence. And that presence is both institutional and expensive.

American Catholics support their institutions through parish collections. We maintain middle-class parishes because they support the other work that we do. We staff these parishes well because, pastoral considerations aside, we are reasonably concerned that our ability to put assets to good use be evident.

In addition, a consideration of these frontiers requires that we look at the way we prepare our recruits. We prepare people to fit into and staff our current institutions. We do not ask them to develop native drives and inner strengths. Personal strengths and inner convictions are of value on the firing line. They can confound a committee meeting. A move to ministry on the margins would require greater individual strength, and a tougher, more developed intellectual life.

If the challenge in each of these areas was not enough, there is also the problem that, taken together, they collide. The itinerancy called for in ministering to some of the marginalized comes into conflict with the call to be effectively present to the poor. Regular exposure to people who suffer "material poverty, and cultural, social and political marginalization" involves institutions that do not provide the support we need to subsidize educational work and an intellectual ministry. Coming up with the funds to support this work is a very real challenge.


What is the future of the ideas presented in Avila? Americans seem to believe that ideas do not really affect life. Experience, personal attractions, and individual prejudices have their effect, but the man of ideas, so we think, does not enter into our daily life. That an idea so patently false should be believed is a puzzle, yet it is believed.

We live in a century formed, for better and worse, by people with plans. Hitler had a written plan for Germany. Gandhi had an idea for refashioning India. The liberation theologians have plans for Latin America. Ruhollah Khomeini has a plan for Iran. The bishops at the Second Vatican Council had a plan for the Church.

Closer to home, the American bishops and each diocese have plans for the way the sacraments will and will not be administered. Sacramental policies for baptism, marriage and confirmation are common throughout the United States. I am not faulting this situation. A few years ago I edited the first extensive study of American diocesan marriage preparation policies and saw how, in a brief eight years, diocesan policies have changed the way 300,000 American couples enter into Catholic marriages each year. I find the change for the better. But, for some reason, American Catholics seem to believe that the life of their church is somehow exempt from the plans of the planners. It isn't. Ideas are reshaping institutions.

For this reason I believe that the statement on frontiers may represent a significant trend in reshaping the Dominican Order. It speaks of the place where future ministry should be sought. That is all it does. It does not really speak of means and methods. It does not seek to address the problems and conflicts inherent in the ministry. It says only "This is where the problems are, and this is where we should be." But it pinpoints them simply and well. Perhaps that simplicity will prove mobilizing.