Living Fraternity: can a 21st century society draw any lessons from the Dominican Tradition?

Sr Helen Alford | PASS Academician

Living Fraternity: can a 21st century society draw any lessons from the Dominican Tradition?

We know from the opening paragraphs of Fratelli Tutti (FT) that Pope Francis was inspired by the figure of St Francis while writing it. He therefore uses a medieval mendicant brother as the starting point for his reflections on fraternity for our day, our 21st century society. This paper tries to expand on Pope Francis’ reference to St Francis by attempting to look a bit further at what we might learn from the experience of living fraternity that comes out of the form of life that Francis and, contemporaneously, Dominic founded. Since my experience is as a member of the Dominicans, I will refer mostly to this tradition. It is not the same as the Franciscan, but it grows out of the same historical milieu; the differences between these two traditions are minimal compared to the difference between both of them and life in the 21st century. Dominicans refer to St Francis with the same term that is used for St Dominic, that is, “our Holy Father”.[1]

In the early paragraphs of FT, which is the section explicitly connected with St Francis, the Holy Father says that he is not providing a “complete teaching on fraternal love”, but rather a “consideration of its universal scope, its openness to every man and woman” (n. 6). Others in our meeting have made various summaries of the encyclical or some of its parts or themes. I would like to suggest that Pope Francis has three main points that he wants to make regarding the idea of fraternity, based on the parts of FT where he uses the term with the greatest density (paragraphs 103-110, 271-272 and 277-279):

  1. Fraternity makes freedom and equality really possible, or fully possible (103);
  2. Universal fraternity starts with the recognition of dignity (106) and will be complete (the “feast of universal fraternity”) only when no-one is left behind (110);
  3. "Openness to the Father of all” gives “solid and stable reasons” for fraternity (272). Christians find the “wellspring” of fraternity in the Gospel (277); they know that fraternity has a mother and her name is Mary (278) and they promote religious freedom for others, just as they ask for it for themselves where they are in the minority, as part of the “journey towards fraternity” (279).

If this summary is fair, we see here a line of reflection that moves from the “discovery” on a human level of fraternity for all, captured in the slogan from the French Revolution, through to a deepening and widening of this idea towards its genuinely universal dimensions, pointing out that, as a universal value, the key components of fraternity are the recognition of dignity and the inclusion of all, and finally arriving at the “solid and stable” grounding of fraternity which is in “openness to the Father of all”. Presented like this, it seems that the Holy Father wants to make fraternity as open as possible to non-believers as he can, while arriving at the end of the document at the affirmation that, without the recognition of God as Father, we do not have a solid basis for a fraternal way of life. One of the implications of this might be that it is the believers in our society who help all of society’s members to give a solid basis to fraternity.

So what can we say about this presentation from the point of view of the Dominican tradition? I think a key contribution is to look at how the order understands living fraternity, or, perhaps better, understands the answer to the question: “How do we live fraternally?”.

It is probably a good idea to deal immediately with some objections. These might be:

  1. “God is at the foundation of a religious order, but we can’t assume that for society as a whole”;
  2. “One chooses to join a religious order because one senses a call to do so, but one doesn’t choose to join one’s society”;
  3. “Members of a religious order are celibate, and that makes them too different from the rest of society to be able to make useful comparisons”.

Firstly, we already looked briefly at the way Pope Francis deals with the issue of belief in God as grounding fraternity; beyond that, we can say that even non-believers may have some kind of implicit recognition of some kind of higher power or principle, even if their lack of an explicit recognition of God makes their grounding of fraternity less “solid and stable” than it is for believers that belong to a recognizable (especially “Abrahamic”) tradition.

Secondly, we cannot choose our parents, but to some degree we can choose many other aspects of the social system to which we belong – our friendship network; the type of work we do and the relationships associated with that; the place where we live, and even our citizenship. In some ways, people in wider society have more choice over the people to whom they relate than members of a religious order do, although they probably do not often feel that they are “called” to those choices.

Probably the biggest difference is the option that members of a religious order make for celibacy; even here, however, religious still belong to families, networks of friends and wider political communities. Their option for celibacy is about dedicating themselves to a different kind of fertility, as a “sign of the kingdom”, rather than about denigrating marriage, sexual relations or childbearing.[2] At any rate, the ways in which religious orders are different from, and similar to, the rest of society may be more complex than it seems at first sight.

St Dominic founded his community of brothers for “preaching and the salvation of souls” (Fundamental Constitution, II). God is therefore at the starting point and foundation of the Order, not at the end, as in FT. However, since FT makes it clear that without belief in God we have no solid basis for fraternity, we might say that the Dominican approach is complementary to the one we find in FT (as we might also say of the approach of Benedict XVI to fraternity). Another of the key things to note about the Dominicans is the continual reference to all of the members as “brothers”, emphasizing their equality. We see this especially in the authority structures, in which elections are the basic tool, as well as in the names that are used for superiors. They are “priors” of convents (individual houses) and “prior provincials” of the basic territorial structure that makes up the Order as a whole, the “province” – in other words, they are a kind of “first among equals”.[3] Similarly, no one is elected to the role of superior for life, so superiors are always changing. Still, the role of superiors is also about creating fraternity. To have a superior as a figure of unity allows the brothers to express their differences, tensions and problems more openly, without the fear that this could blow their relationships apart, since the superior remains a kind of guarantee of their unity. There are also interesting examples from the history of the Order that relate to how important equality between the brothers was. In the Acts of the General Chapter of Florence in 1321, for instance, we find a text considering the situation of any Dominican brother who has some kind of academic title (perhaps he is a “Master” of Sacred Theology); such a friar should not expect to be called “Master” in his everyday dealings with his brothers; he should be known as “brother” like all of the others.[4] A recent Master of the Order puts the preaching mission of the Dominicans together with building fraternity and in relation to the role of superiors in the following way: “Dominic asked the first friars to promise him obedience for the common life. I think in this way, he was insisting upon the link between preaching and the work of fraternity, implicitly affirming that the service of preaching is intimately linked to the mystery of the grace by which Christ establishes his Church as Fraternity given to the world as the sign of the hope of salvation”.[5] These brief indications help us to see that the sense of living a fraternal life was really central to the basic understanding that the Dominicans had, and still have, of themselves. With this in mind, we could perhaps focus on three key issues in Dominican life that set up a sense of fraternal communion among its members:

  1. the role of faith in God in allowing us to develop a sense of a fraternal relation to others. In terms of living fraternity in the world to which FT is addressed, this might get us thinking: do we need to face the problem created by secularisation for building a sense of fraternity? Could we imagine an “interreligious platform” for fraternity, maybe building on the imagery of St Francis and the Sultan and the meeting between Pope Francis and the Imam?
  2. the role of sensing a calling or vocation to a life of fraternity. In terms of living fraternity in the 21st century, this might get us thinking: if we use the language of being “called” to be a part of society, and recognise that calling in some symbolic way, could it help us build more fraternal relations between us?
  3. the role of a rule and constitutions in creating a framework for fraternity: which might get us thinking: do we have legal structures in society today that permit the development of fraternal relations? We could go into the various possibilities that the constitutions create for fostering fraternity. We might mention two in particular:

a)     having a voice (active and passive) in chapter and elections. From Table 1 below, we can see that the section of the LCO that covers government is nearly 50% longer than the section on the life of the brothers. Nevertheless, government only makes sense in the light of the life of the brothers, so this section, even if shorter, is more crucial and comes first. Law and government only work because the brothers are trying to live a life of fraternal communion, however imperfectly they manage to do it;

b)    The possibility for fraternal correction and patience and support in our weakness and frailty. We know that fraternal life is difficult; history teaches us that, and the friars and sisters are constantly struggling to live it (the Church might see the religious life as a “state of perfection”, but it is certainly not heaven on earth). The early accounts of the lives of the friars about 50 years after the foundation of the Order in the Vitae fratrum show that the friars were well aware of their faults. The constitutions provide mechanisms for dealing with these difficulties so that they do not undermine the whole project of trying to live fraternally.


Rule of St Augustine

Book of the Constitutions and Ordinations of the Brothers of the Order of Preachers (LCO)

Part One


No. of paragraphs

Fundamental Constitution



First Distinction: The Life of the Brothers



Section 1: The Following of Christ



Section 2: The Formation of Brothers



Second Distinction: The Government of the Order



Section 1: General Norms



Section 2: Government



Section 3: Elections



Section 4: Economic Administration



Part Two: Constitutions and Ordinations for which another text is in force






Table 1: Structure of the LCO (2012 version in English)

A concluding comment: we said that the friars were founded for preaching, so they were founded for a particular mission. The way of carrying out this mission, however, involves putting effort into building fraternal communion; from the earliest times, the convents and houses of the brothers were called “the holy preaching”, so that the community life itself was seen as part of their preaching mission. However, if we compare the Dominicans to the Jesuits, or some of the later religious communities such as the Salesians or Opus Dei, we can see some of the drawbacks of the Dominican approach to carrying out their mission. Dominicans are not going to be so available (especially as individuals) for missions that take them away from the centres of community life. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Jesuits, and some of the later orders, who do not have the idea of “regular life”, as well as a more interior, psychological and therefore individual spirituality than the Dominicans, have been able to be more effective as regards the mission in this sense. Building fraternal communion takes work and effort; it inevitably means that less effort can be put into an external mission. Still, the “cost” of the Dominican way of life, which requires “investment” in community life as well as in more classic missionary or preaching activity, may represent an interesting model for a society that has difficulty with “work-life balance” and where women are often penalised in the workplace because they devote more time than men to the “work of caring”. As we try to move towards more sustainable economies, the work of caring will need to be treated in a more just and life-giving way, and perhaps the analogous work of Dominicans, both brothers and sisters, in building fraternal communion could be a contribution to that.


[1] In order to do this, we will use the Book of the Constitutions of the Order of Preachers (Liber Constitutionum et Ordinationum, or LCO for short), which apply to the Dominican friars, as well as some recent Letters to the Order by the Masters (successors of St Dominic), with some reference to the basic structure and history of the Order. In order to produce a final version of this paper, the use of these sources would need to be rationalized, and maybe some reference made to the constitutions of the sisters, but I do not think the conclusions would change a lot compared to the ones we have here.
[2] At the same time, we know that over history some quite influential members of the Church have not been as clear about this as we might like today, and the continued strong distinction made in the Church’s liturgy between female saints as “virgins” or “holy women” still might question the message the Church wants to give the world on this issue even in our own day.
[3] The only real exception to this is the reference to the “Master of the Order”, who is seen as the successor of St Dominic. The Dominicans do also use the terms “novice master” and “student master”, but here the term “master” is related to helping the newer members grow and develop into the way of life, in the sense of a “master-disciple” relationship.
[4] Reference needed.
[5] Fr Bruno Cadoré, Mendicants and Being in Solidarity with Others, 2014, p. 4, available at: (last accessed 03.03.21).