Variety of Religious Communities

"Thus it has come about, that, as if on a tree which has grown in the field of the Lord, various forms of solidarity and community life, as well as various religious families have branched out in a marvelous and multiple way from this divinely given seed. Such a multiple and miraculous growth augments both the progress of the members of these various religious families themselves and the welfare of the entire Body of Christ."

-Lumen Gentium, 43

Different Types of Religious Institutes

Please note that these terms are not exclusive. A particular community may fall under several of these categories. For instance, we are a Congregation, we are a Lay Institution, we are a Lay Religious Congregation, and we are an Apostolic Community. As you can see there is some repetition in the terms.

  • Orders - these are Institutes in which solemn vows are made by at least some of the members. All members of these orders are called regulars, and if they are women they are called nuns ("moniales").
  • Congregations (or religious congregations) - Their members are called religious of simple vows (can. 1192.2).
  • Clerical - these are Institutes which, in accordance with the intentions of the Founder or by reason of legitimate tradition, are governed by clerics (priests), assume the exercise of sacred Orders, and are recognized by the Church as clerical Institutes (can. 588.2).
  • Lay - If the spiritual heritage of an institute does not include the exercise of sacred Orders then the institute is recognized by the Church as a lay institute (can. 588.3).
  • Canons Regular - combine the clerical (priestly) office and state with religious life and have their origin in the communities of clergy which lived with their bishop.
    Examples: the Norbertines, the Crosiers, the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius
  • Monastic Orders - from a historical point of view, were the first religious to live in community. Monastic organization is not centralized, with each abbey and conventual priory being autonomous (sui iuris). This means that the local superior (abbot, prior) has wider powers and less dependence on a superior general (if there is one), and each house will have its own novitiate. Does not necessarily require the priesthood or any individual apostolate.
    Examples: the Benedictines and the Carthusians
  • Mendicant Orders - started in the early part of the thirteenth century. Their name comes from the corporate poverty which they practice in addition to individual poverty. Combine religious life with various forms of priestly, apostolic, missionary, or charitable ministry. The centralization of government with a single general superior having wide powers, and also a division of the Institute into provinces.
    Examples are: the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans), and the Order of Preachers (Dominicans)
  • Clerks Regular - appear in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. They make the religious life the foundation of their priestly apostolate.
    Examples: the Theatines, the Barnabites, and the Jesuits
  • Clerical Religious Congregations – Appear at the end of the sixteenth and in the seventeenth centuries. In addition to dedicating themselves to their own sanctification, they are also dedicated to the apostolate and to works of charity.
    Examples: the Viatorians, the Comboni Missionaries, the Holy Cross Fathers, the Redemptorist
  • Lay Religious Congregations – Appear at the end of the seventeenth century. These are communities of lay persons dedicated principally to apostolic works like: teaching, and the care of the sick, the poor, the imprisoned. Usually their own members may not become priests.
    Examples: The Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, and most of the communities of Sisters that you may know of.
  • Contemplative Communities - "institutes which are entirely ordered towards contemplation, in such wise that their members give themselves over to God alone in solitude and silence, in constant prayer and willing penance" (Perfectae Caritatis, 7). Communities of women devoted solely to contemplation, no to any exterior works are what we call "cloistered" under papal enclosure. Those that have some exterior work are not under papal enclosure and are sometimes referred to as semi-cloistered. See Verbi Sponsa
  • Apostolic Communities – "In these communities apostolic and charitable activity belongs to the very nature of the religious life, seeing that it is a holy service and a work characteristic of love, entrusted to them by the Church to be carried out in its name." (Perfectae Caritatis, 8)

Much taken from the page for The Congregation for Institutes of
Consecrated Life and Sociaeties of Apostolic Life
on the Vatican website