How the Order is Governed
Dominican friars only make one promise at Profession; the other two are implied. This is the promise of obedience, which is made to God, Our Lady, St Dominic, and the Master of the Order. The friar promises obedience “according to the rule of blessed Augustine and the institutions of the Friars Preachers”, these being the foundation of the laws by which we live. Obedience is made in imitation of Christ, “who always obeyed the Father, for the life of the world” (LCO 18 § 1).
In a similar manner, religious promise to always obey God, who is represented by their religious superiors, for the common good. As St Thomas Aquinas taught, the common good and one’s growth in virtue is achieved through a freely-given obedience to the law. Thus the laws of the Order “do not bind under pain of sin” (Fundamental Constitutions, VI) but fidelity to our profession calls us to respond with generosity, mature responsibility and Christ-like obedience to what is asked of us, for the good of the Order and its mission. “Indeed, if a community is to remain true to its spirit and its mission, it needs that unity achieved through obedience” (LCO 17 § 2). Therefore, fr Timothy Radcliffe OP says that “the test of good government is whether it is at the service of the mission”.
The structure of the Order
“The Order of Friars Preachers, which is ruled by a general chapter and the Master of the Order, is made up of provinces, each of which is ruled by a provincial chapter and the prior provincial. Each province is made up of convents and houses, which are governed by a prior or superior” (LCO 252).
From this structure, one can see that the Order is “both universal and a communion” (Fundamental Constitutions, VII). The universal character of the Order’s structure corresponds to its universal mission to preach the Gospel in all nations. Thus, the Order “draws strength from a robust unity centred on the Master of the Order, its head, with whom all brothers are directly linked by profession” (Fundamental Constitutions, VI). The communitarian character of the Order is seen in the levels of shared government.
The training of Friars
Such study is the work of a life time, though it has a more formal, institutional, form in a friar’s initial training. Through academic study of philosophy and then theology, both Scripture and Tradition, we come in the course of some six or so years to surrender some of our half truths or prejudices, and attend to the Church’s rich teaching. In this we draw especially on the wisdom of St Thomas Aquinas, with his concern for reasoned argument and attention to counter-arguments, as well as his crucial insight that God in Christ desires our knowing, trusting, friendship. This initial formation often leads to higher and more specialised studies later, so that we can in turn teach and share what we have learnt.
Such study is not divorced from prayer or spirituality. Heart and mind are closely connected. We cannot love what we do not know. We are chastened, humbled, interrogated, sustained by what we learn of God’s majesty, generosity, and mercy. Theology provides food for contemplation, the fruits of which we are called to communicate in our preaching.
Dominican approach to democracy
As fr Timothy explains: “fundamental to the life of the brethren is that we gather in Chapter [essentially, in meetings], whether conventual, provincial or general, to take decisions about our life and mission”. These decisions are said to be made in a democratic process because the brothers in Chapter engage in “debate leading to voting”.
What is Dominican about this kind of ‘democracy’ is that it is primarily concerned with “the needs of the mission” rather than the will of the majority: “our democracy is only Dominican if our debating and voting is an attempt to hear the Word of God summoning us to walk in the way of discipleship”.
Moreover, fr Timothy stresses the importance of discussion and debate in Chapter: attentiveness to our brothers, and learning to listen to views which differ from ours is “an expression of [Christ’s] obedience to the Father” and of our Dominican quest for even the smallest grain of truth.
Together with the Master of the Order, the General Chapter is the highest level of authority in the Order.
Every three years, certain elected friars meet in General Chapter to consider the mission of the whole Order. There is a sequence of General Chapters, each consisting of groups of elected friars: the General Chapter of diffinitors [delegates], then the General Chapter of Priors Provincial, then the Elective General Chapter. So, every third General Chapter is ‘elective’, that is, elected delegates from the various communities around the world gather to elect a new Master as successor to St Dominic, who thus sits for nine years. This seemingly complex sequence of General Chapters “is a recognition of the fact that for us authority is granted to all the brethren [and that it is] multi-faceted”.
This system of government with fixed-term elections has been said to have influenced the Constitution of the U.S.A., and some have called it a ‘layered democracy’. fr Pierre Mandonet OP explains St Dominic’s innovative system of governance historically. He contrasts the friars with the monks and canons, who in the 13th-century were governed by prelates who “assumed all authority and exercised it in perpetuity without control, and subjects never participated in its exercise”.
Unlike the monks and canons, the Order of Preachers, being composed of educated men, “governed itself through members drawn temporarily from its ranks. [Each solemnly professed friar is] legally emancipated, and each individual possessed the plenitude of his rights: in the social structure of his Order, the Preacher was [ordinarily] always an elector”. Such a brother is said to have ‘active voice’. fr Timothy says that this ‘layered democracy’ is an expression of Order’s shared responsibility and of the trust that is placed in each individual brother.
“Consequently our government is communitarian in a manner peculiar to itself, for superiors ordinarily take office after election by the brothers and confirmation by a higher superior. Furthermore, when matters of greater moment are being determined, communities share in several ways in the exercise of self-government, in chapter or council” (Fundamental Constitutions, VII).
Every four years, elected delegates from the houses of a province meet with the priors or superiors of the province to “discuss and to make decisions about all that pertains to the fraternal and apostolic life and the good administration of the province” (LCO 351 § I). The Provincial Chapter also elects major office-holders for the province, including the Prior Provincial and delegates to the General Chapters.
The Prior Provincial thus holds a four-year term and may ordinarily be re-elected only once. He is the “major superior and the proper ordinary of the brothers [and] in his province he has power corresponding to that which the Master of the Order has in the whole Order” (LCO 338). He governs the province together with the Provincial Council, which is comprised of elected members and officials of the province.
Within the priory, “the conventual chapter is a gathering of the brothers, with the Prior presiding, to discuss or come to a decision about matters concerning the common and apostolic life of the convent and with its good administration” (LCO 307). This Chapter is ordinarily comprised of brothers who are solemnly professed and who have active voice, and they vote on such matters as the admission of brothers to profession, delegates to the Provincial Chapter, and of course, they elect the Prior of the community.
The Prior is elected for three years and may ordinarily be re-elected only once. He is called by the Rule of St Augustine to “serve [the brothers] in love” and he is assisted in the government of the priory by a Conventual Council, which is comprised of brothers elected by the Conventual Chapter. Mindful of the wider mission of the Order, the Prior, in the words of fr Timothy, is the “servant of the common good” as well as the “guardian of the religious and apostolic life of the community”.
Communitarian government and the mission
The apostolic mission, the common good, freedom and responsibility in the living of the religious life: these are the factors that underpin Dominican government. As the Fundamental Constitutions, VII says: “This communitarian form of government is particularly suited to the Order’s development and frequent renewal… This constant renewal of the Order is demanded by the Christian spirit of continuing conversion and by the Order’s special vocation, which compels it to adapt its presence in the world to the needs of successive generations”.