In Vatican II’s document on the renewal of religious life, Perfectae Caritatis, the Council fathers called on all religious orders to participate afresh in “the constant return to the sources of all Christian life and to the original spirit of the institutes and their adaptation to the changed conditions of our time,” in particular updating their constitutions to the Council’s decrees (2).
In 1968, the Order of Preachers held a Most General Chapter in River Forest, Illinois, as an initial response to the Council’s exhortation. As part of their deliberations, the chapter fathers sought to express the timeless, unchanging core of the Dominican Order in a few short elements, as a monument to the Holy Spirit’s work in the Order and as a call to continuing growth and conversion in the spirit of St. Dominic. The result of that effort was the Fundamental Constitution.
This simple document, comprising no more than two typed pages, expresses with admirable concision the historical groundedness of the Order, the life of preaching that has sustained it over the centuries, and the perpetual sources of renewal that well up from the Spirit’s gifts to the Order. It is, in summary form, the past, present, and future of the Order, not as a set of prescriptions or demands, but almost as a love letter, exhorting all who read it to open their hearts afresh to God after the pattern of St. Dominic.
The Fundamental Constitution
The Order’s purpose was described as follows by Pope Honorius III in a letter to St Dominic and his brothers: ‘He who never ceases to make his church fruitful through new offspring wishes to make these modern times the equal of former days and to spread the Catholic faith. So he inspired you with a holy desire to embrace poverty, profess the regular life and commit yourselves to the proclamation of the word of God, preaching everywhere the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.’
The Order of Friars Preachers, founded by St Dominic, ‘is known to have been established, from the beginning, for preaching and the salvation of souls, specifically.’ Our brothers, therefore, as the founder prescribed, ‘should everywhere behave uprightly and religiously, as men intent on procuring their own and other people’s salvation; they should behave as gospel men, following in the footsteps of the Saviour, speaking to God or of God, among themselves or with their neighbours.’
To ensure that by following Christ in this way we would perfect our love of God and of our neighbour, we consecrate ourselves entirely to God by profession, thus becoming members of our Order and dedicated in a new way to the universal Church, fully committed to preaching the word of God in its totality.
Sharing the Apostles’ mission, we also follow their way of life, in the form devised by Saint Dominic. We do our best to live of one accord the common life, observing faithfully the celebration of the liturgy, especially the Eucharist and the divine office, diligent in study and constant in regular observance. Not only do these things contribute to the glory of God and our sanctification, they also bear directly on the salvation of humankind, since together they prepare and impel us to preach; they give our preaching its character, and, in turn, are influenced by it. The life of the order comprises a synthesis of these elements, inseparably interconnected, harmoniously balanced and mutually enriching. It is an apostolic life in the full sense of the word, from which preaching and teaching ought to issue from an abundance of contemplation.
Having been made cooperators with the episcopal order by priestly ordination, we have as our special function a prophetic task, which is to proclaim everywhere by word and example the Gospel of Jesus Christ, taking into account people’s situations, the times and the locations. The object of our preaching is either to cause the faith to be born, or to allow it to penetrate people’s entire lives more deeply, thus building the Body of Christ which is brought to perfection by the sacraments of faith.
The Order’s nature as a religious society derives from its mission and its fraternal communion. Since the ministry of the Word and of the sacraments of faith is a priestly function, ours is a clerical Order, in whose mission the cooperator brothers too share in many ways, exercising the common priesthood in a manner specific to them. The total commitment of the Preachers to the proclamation of the Gospel by word and work is shown by the fact that at solemn profession they are united fully and permanently with Christ’s life and mission.
Since our Order is sent to the whole world, in collaboration with the entire Church, it is universal in character. The better to equip it for this mission, it is granted exemption and draws strength from a robust unity centred on the Master of the Order, its head, with whom all brothers are directly linked by profession, since study and evangelization require everyone’s availability.
Because of the Order’s mission, personal talents and a sense of responsibility are especially esteemed and cultivated by the brothers. After the completion of his formation, each brother is treated as an adult, competent to teach others and take on various responsibilities in the Order. For this reason, the Order has decided that its rules do not bind under pain of sin, so that the brothers may accept them with mature understanding, since ‘you are no longer slaves under the law, but a people living in freedom under grace.’
Lastly, in order that the Order may achieve its purpose, a superior has the power to dispense ‘whenever he deems it appropriate, especially in regard to what may impede study, preaching or the good of souls.’
Our Order is both universal and a communion, and this is reflected in its type of government. Of special importance is the organic and proportionate sharing of all its members in achieving the Order’s purpose. For the Order is not confined to a single community, though this is its basic unit; it extends to a communion of convents, which constitute a province and to a communion of provinces, which constitute the entire Order. For this reason its authority, which is universal at the highest level – a General Chapter and the Master of the Order – is shared proportionately and with corresponding autonomy by the provinces and convents. 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.
This communitarian form of government is particularly suited to the Order’s development and frequent renewal. For, in General Chapters superiors and – through their delegates – the brothers enjoy equal rights and freedom with provincials and diffinitors, and together with them ensure that the Order’s mission is advanced and that the Order itself is suitably renewed. 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.
The Order’s fundamental purpose and the way of life which follows from it retain their worth in every age of the Church’s existence. However, as our tradition teaches us, it is of the greatest importance that in times of accelerating change and development they be understood and given due weight. In such circumstances it is for the Order to renew itself and adapt itself courageously, discerning and testing the elements which are good and useful in humanity’s aspirations, taking them into the unchangeable equilibrium of the fundamental elements of its life.
With us, these elements cannot be changed substantially and must inspire forms of living and of preaching suited to the needs of the Church and of humankind.
The Dominican family is composed of clerical and cooperator brothers, nuns, sisters, members of secular institutes, and fraternities of priests and laity. The Constitutions and Ordinations which follow concern the brothers only, unless it be otherwise expressly stated. The essential unity of the Order is protected by these regulations, without excluding a necessary diversity according to those same laws.