Dominican Democracy


The history of the Dominican Order is marked by a paradox. It provided the Catholic Church a good number of the court personnel for the Inquisition while at the same time embodying in its own internal structures a singular commitment to democratic freedoms.

Each branch of the Dominican family embodies democracy a bit differently, but the friars' version is typical. The friar's constitutions written between 1216 and 1221 could be rightly called a cathedral of Constitutional Law (Leo Moulin, the living world of religious, Calmann-Lévy, Paris 1964, p. 114). The first Dominican constitutions were based on a true parliamentary system. Later constitutions added a balancing of legislative and executive powers. The legislation authority (constitutions) that governs Dominican life, such as the election of religious superiors, are the result of meetings called Chapters. They meet regularly. At the base, in each convent, all solemnly professed members participate in the election of the religious superior of the house, called a "prior." This function is temporary (3 years) and can be renewed only once immediately after a first term.

In turn, every four years, the priors of a region (called "Province"), joined by delegates that each community chooses for the occasion, elect a provincial. His mandate also can only be renewed once. Finally, this elective Chapter elects itself definitors, officials with the new Provincial, to set the agenda for the province for the next four years and possibly set specific rules required for the smooth running of the province.

Finally, and most importantly, the General Chapters representative of the whole Order are the highest legislative authority in the Order. They meet every three years and only they have the authority enact legislation for the entire Order. Two consecutive chapters must ratify a change in legislation before it becomes permanent, and a new Master of the Order is chosen every third chapter (every nine years). The Master of the Order cannot be reelected.

The Chapters are a parliamentary system working at several levels and respond to the standing concerns of its members guarantee democratic functioning. This does not preclude an executive decision. The Master of the Order has the right to send any Dominican on mission anywhere in the world. But it is typical that this power is exercised within the framework of the constitution, which he has no authority to change. Therefore, every Dominican, when committed to the Order by vows of obedience to the Master, is following constitutions.

The Dominicans tell the story that that around fifty years ago, Pope Pius XII, considering this system too democratic and liberal, wanted to modify it. He ran up against the objections of the Dominicans that the constitutions had served them for more than seven centuries and that changing them would deprive today's Dominicans of their voice.

Fiction or truth, this story indicates how much Dominicans are attached to their democratic traditions. Prophecy and freedom both do not come easily. The democratic tradition of the preaching friars is inseparable from a tradition of fraternal life, rigorous exchanges in intellectual debate, from interior life and an evangelic spirit. Thus it is precisely the Dominicans' democratic spirit that thrust them into the heart of the theological debates that were at the center of the Inquisition.



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