11 January 2009

Religious Priests and Diocesan Priests

My post below on questions for those discerning a religious vocation has prompted more questions about the differences between "religious priests" (RP) and diocesan or secular priests (DP).

In the Catholic Church there are two kinds of priests: religious and diocesan. The primary canonical difference between the two is based on who serves as an immediate ecclesial superior. For RP's the immediate ecclesial superior is the local prior, abbot, or major superior; that is, a member of that priest's order/monastery who exercises canonical authority in virtue of holding an office within the order/monastery. My immediate ecclesial superior is the prior of this convent. For DP's, the immediate ecclesial superior is always the bishop of the priest's diocese.

Practically, this means that a friar's/monk's/nun's ministry and life in the community is directed by a fellow friar/monk/nun who is elected to authority by the community. For DP's, their ministry and life in the diocese is subject to the bishop. Now, all religious orders within a diocese are subject to the bishop in so far as that bishop must approve any religious ministry in his diocese. Bishops have no authority over the internal workings of a community. So, if a priory or monastery elects as prior/abbot someone the bishop doesn't like, he is not empowered to dispose of that election. He can revoke the faculties of the priests in the house, or fire any offending religious who works for the diocese. But he cannot step into the internal affairs of religious.

There are other prominent differences between RP's and DP's. One big difference is the taking of religious vows. RP's are made religious priests by making solemn vows regarding poverty, chastity, and obedience. DP's do not make religious vows. At ordination, all priests promise chastity and obedience to an "ordinary" superior. For religious priests at ordination, we make these promises to both our immediate superior and the bishop. DP's do not take a vow of poverty b/c they are considered "self-employed" by the IRS. RP's usually have access to community cars, funds, medical care, room and board, and other essentials for daily living. DP's provide most of these for themselves as "employees" of the diocese. In practical terms, the vow of poverty is about not owning anything in one's own name. RP's cannot own a car. DP can. Same goes for houses, boats, etc.

Another big difference is spirituality. RP's often belong to order's with long traditions in certain kinds of spirituality. Think: Ignatian Exercises for the Jebbies. Or the spirituality of "prayer and work'" for the Benedictines. Dominicans consider our daily lives lived according to the constitutions to be our spirituality. There is a spirituality for DP's. The big difference is that DP's rarely live in community. There prinicple spirituality revolves around their ministries in direct service to their parish.

This brings up several other differences rooted in ministry:

DP's work within the limits of their dioceses (there are exception for academics and others)
RP's can work anywhere in the world where their order has a house.

DP's usually work in parishes or ministries that directly serve the laity (exceptions: ditto)
RP's often work in universities, hospitals, secular jobs, etc. where the focus is not necessarily on serving the parochial laity directly (exceptions: many RP's serve parishes)

DP's have fewer opportunities to "switch ministries" b/c their immediate superior (the bishop) has responsibility for ministries only within his diocese and parishes need priests
RP's have much more flexibility in this regard b/c their assignments are made by superiors who have responsibilities beyond a diocesan border (e.g. yours truly assigned to Rome rather than a university in my province)

DP's have fewer opporunities for advanced study b/c of the pressing needs of their dioceses
RP's are usually encouraged to pursue advanced study if there is need

DP's have a more flexible daily schedule and tend to be more available for one-on-one interaction b/c they do not have community responsibilities (cooking for six or more brothers, taking care of community cars, accounts, etc.)
RP's are much more restricted by community obligations in their daily schedule and availability (communal prayer, meals, recreation time, etc.)

One interesting development since Vatican Two is the blurring of some of these lines between RP's and DP's. It is not at all uncommon now to find DP's living in small communities in urban areas where parishes are clustered together. In fact, many younger DP's are insisting on living in community as a way of maintaining accountability and fostering fraternity. At the same time, many religious, in the name of ministerial necessity, have moved out of community life and set up house in apartments or rectories to live alone. For the most part, this development was a reaction to the perceived restrictions of the community rule that some felt stifled their ministries. This trend among male religious is waning fast and in some cases actually forbidden.

One simplistic way of understanding the essential difference between RP's and DP's is to think of RP's as a bunch of guys living in a fraternity house (shudder) and DP's as guys who live by themselves as single men. This image (though deeply flawed) at least points up the day-to-day differences that emerge from the differences in living by yourself and living with your family.


  1. Anonymous7:47 AM

    "exceptions: many RP's serve parishes"

    I've always wondered how this works -- given the shortage of priests, I'd assume that RPs are pressed into parish service on days of obligation, that the orders play ball with the local ordinary to make this happen. Or...?

  2. Irenaeus,

    You are correct...though most of the times, the call comes from pastors directly. For my three years in Dallas I celebrated the Mass at St Paul's hospital. Of the seven priests in the house, six of us were "out" on Sundays...sometimes at multiple parishes.

  3. In many cases, a parish is assigned to the care of a religious community by the Ordinary of the Diocese. I live in the Archdiocese of New York; there are parishes here that have been assigned to the Salesians, Jesuits, Carmelites, Franciscans of all flavors, and the OPs. In many cases that assignment has been in place for more than a century.

  4. Another difference is that religious sometimes have the option or requirement of stability (staying in one monastery/priory/abbey their whole lives) and DP's never do.

  5. In other cases, such as in the Midwest and West, RP were present long before any diocesan authority was effectively present.

    Case in point: when the plains first opened up, huge tracts of Kansas and Nebraska were entrusted to the Benedictines (who hailed from Pennsylvania and Bavaria) initially (later the Jesuits, and still later DP). The Abbey in Atchison, KS still maintains several parishes that are both near and far to the Abbey. These parishes were founded by the RP.

    Although, this is probably an exceptional case, but the blurring of lines between DP and RP is not necessarily a novel concept, as the Kansas Monks moved out to north east Kansas in the 1850s.

  6. Sometimes the flexibility of the RP is very valuable. When a large influx of Poles arrived in Ireland (in the last 10 years), Polish Dominicans were invited by the Irish OPs to minister to them. They arrived within a few months and provided Masses, confessions etc to the expats; the Polish Bishops responded too but it took them more than 2 years to sort through all the obstacles. The religious priests were able to react to this pastoral need more flexibly and rapidly than DPs who are, quite rightly, bound to a particular diocese.

  7. DP's do not take a vow of poverty b/c they are considered "self-employed" by the IRS.

    Um... would it be better to say DP's don't take vows of poverty b/c they aren't members of religious institutes?

  8. Tom,

    Picky, picky...technically, you are right.

    But I like to put in that self-employed thing to make guys think twice about becoming diocesans!


  9. thanks for the info...

  10. Perhaps you mentioned this and I missed it...
    DP's are basically on their own as soon as their retirement is accepted by their Ordinary. Living arrangements and health care for the aged and infirmed are the responsibility of the individual.
    RP's are always members of their community/congregation no matter what the age. Health care, retirement living, and nursing care are provided as needed by the individual's religious order

  11. What about Oratorians, who live in communities, but do not take the three vows of a religious ? Also, each Oratorian house is considered a seperate entity, so members are not transferred from house to house.
    I would have thought that someone named "Fr. Philip Neri " would remember them...
    Perhaps the first sentence might be altered to "In the Catholic Church there are mainly two types of priest..." ?

  12. Narwen,

    I didn't forget the community of my namesake...

    The Oratorians are the what I hope the future of the diocesan priesthood looks like!

    Basically, I didn't include them b/c I didn't want to overly complicate the basic distinctions between the two larger groups. Like the friars in the 13th c., neither monk nor secular, the Oratorians represent a kind of tertia quid in the Church! Of course, their spirituality is deeply rooted in the Canon regular of the early medieval cathedrals.

  13. Fr- could you post more sometime about the Oratorians and explain your comment about the future of the DPs?

  14. Christopher,

    I would argue that for diocesan priests, an Oratorian-style living arrangement would be ideal. However, "ideal" is the key word here b/c community life takes numbers. There are instances where younger priests assigned to adjacent parishes are choosing to live in community rather than alone. Even if living together is not a real possibility, then at least praying lauds or vespers together.

    I believe this yearning for community is being seeded in the better seminaries by formattors who are rejecting the ego-centric "wounded healer" model of priestly ministry and encouraging their men to seek out community and service. This radically challenges the models prevalent in the 80's and 90's, models they shaped seminarians into "parochial charism facilitators" and/or "community justice organizers."

  15. Anonymous1:08 AM

    Thanks, Father. BTW the Oratory in my town just had two young men ordained to the diaconate. Their priesthood ordination is scheduled for May. Prayers for Deacon Joshua and Deacon Stephen would be most welcome !

  16. Thanks father, I really appreciate your effort to enlighten us about the sacred priesthood. But I want to know more about the lifestyle of the Capuchins. Thanks.

    1. Jeremiah, you'll have to google them. . .I don't know much off hand. They are Franciscan friars, I know that much. . .beyond that: nada.