The Catholics Got It Right

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The primary engine of spiritual vigor and missional vision within Roman Catholicism has been the religious orders. the Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans, Sisters of Charity, Jesuits, etc … The orders, actually unnumbered, have been, and remain to this day, the backbone of the Catholic Church.

Figures are hard to come by, but best estimates optimistically put the worldwide number of women in orders close to 800,000 and about 200,000 men. The Statistical Yearbook of the Church puts total Catholic adherents at slightly over 1 billion at the end of 2004. That means that those committed to religious orders number around .1% of the total church. That is point one percent.

What is amazing is the phenomenal impact that such a small number exercise. The influence of those called to apostolic vocations far exceeds their numbers. The facts are that:

Most renewal has flowed historically from the orders into the modalic, diocesan structures of the church.
The best popes usually came from the orders.
The expansion of the Catholic Church is due almost in whole to the evangelistic and proselytizing efforts of the missionary orders.

One of the greatest errors of the Protestant tradition was the reaction of the reformation to these Catholic structures. The reformers, in their repulsion against all things Catholic, threw out the proverbial baby with the bath-water. For close to 300 years, the results were a truncated ecclesiology that hampered the Protestant understanding of the missio dei.

Even through there were some notable bright spots in this sad history, such as the Moravian Movement of the early 18th century, Protestants never fully recaptured the dynamic until 1792 with the emergence of what has been labeled in generous hindsight the “Modern Missionary Movement” stimulated by Englishman, William Carey.

When Protestants finally got their act together, the “orders” they multiplied were in typical Protestant fashion and true to stereotypical Protestant organizational culture: chaotic, decentralized, and highly entrepreneurial. While sorely lacking in the discipline, historicity, and hierarchical structure of Catholic orders, these countless sodalic, apostolic entities have had an enormous effect around the world throughout the past three centuries.

It is important to note that while all orders are apostolic entities, not all apostolic entities or structures are orders. That is true of the Catholic church and true of non-Catholic orders as well. Orders, by definition, are a particular sub-set of apostolic movements. They capture perhaps most poignantly the essence of what apostolic structure is all about and how it can accomplish remarkable results with so few people or resources.

*Image is of Benedict of Nursia (c.480-543) developed the leading “rule” that established the paradigm for monastic life and ministry that has lasted for 1500 years in Roman Catholicism.

3 Responses to “The Catholics Got It Right”

  1. » Blog Archive » greatest error of Protestant tradition Says:

    [...] Read more here [...]

  2. » Why church planters shouldn’tSteve Addison’s blog » World Changers Says:

    [...] What about the Catholics? Their religious orders are the key to Catholicism’s renewal and expansion as a movement. See Sam Metcalf: the Catholics got it right. While you’re there have a look at: Local churches as eunuchs? [...]

  3. Getting it right Says:

    [...] Metcalf is right: The Catholics got it right. It would be hard to find another movement in history with the durability and impact of [...]

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