The Dominicans

The Dominicans, officially the Order of Preachers (Ordo praedicatorum) or the Preaching Brothers (Fratres Praedicatores), like the Franciscans, arose early in the thirteenth century. The two had many similarities. They also displayed marked differences. At times they were unfriendly rivals. In contrast with the Franciscans, whose founder was deeply distressed by the drift towards the universities, from the outset the Dominicans were dedicated to teaching, and scholarship as well as to preaching. It was no accident that from them came Thomas Aquinas, whom Roman Catholics were eventually to regard as having made the authoritative systematic intellectual statement of their faith. Moreover, while committed to poverty, the Dominicans were not as haunted by the ideal of complete abnegation of all worldly goods as were Francis and some of his followers. With notable exceptions they tended to be recruited from the aristocracy. Also with outstanding exceptions the Franciscans were from the humble classes. Nor did the sons of Dominic have about them the explosive quality which so punctuated the early centuries of the Brothers Minor. From them issued no movement comparable with the Spirituals or the Fraticelli.

Of Dominic, the founder of the Order of Preachers, we have a far less vivid picture than we do of Francis of Assisi. He seems not to have been nearly so colourful a figure. Yet he appears to have been even more the creator of the order which is usually known by his name than was Francis of the Brothers Minor. He was born in Castile about the year 1170. He was, therefore, an older contemporary of Francis. In his youth and until his mid-twenties he was for several years a student in one of the cathedral schools of Spain. Then he became an Augustinian canon in the cathedral of his native bishopric and eventually under a reforming bishop rose to be prior of the chapter. In other words, his was the somewhat conventional course of an able, scholarly clergyman who was committed to the conscientious pursuit of his calling. He was humble, for he later refused two bishoprics and shortly before his death attempted to resign from the headship of the order of which he was the chief creator. He was stern with himself in his strict asceticism. He gave himself to prolonged prayer. He was gentle, and in spite of his austerities left the impression of always being joyful.

Dominic might have passed his life in comparative obscurity had he not been confronted by a major challenge. This was the defection from the Catholic Church of a large proportion of the population in what is now the south of France. That region had not yet been assimilated to the rising kingdom of France and was largely distinct in culture. In the latter part of the twelfth and in the thirteenth century the Catholic Church in that area was weak and was represented by a body of clergy who were predominantly ignorant and corrupt. As we are to see more at length in the next chapter, what the Church deemed heresy was rife. The major movement was that of the Cathari, and the leaders of that sect seem to have been better morally than the rank and file of the Catholic clergy. In Dominic's lifetime, as we are also to say later, the Inquisition and armed force in the form of a crusade were being brought to bear on them. Heresy was being wiped out by blood. Early in the thirteenth century, when he was in his thirties, Dominic travelled in the south of France with his bishop, Diego d'Azévédo, and was stirred to the depths by what was to him the appalling religious state of the populace.

It seems to have been Diego who took the lead in devising and carrying through the first stages a peaceful method of bringing into the Church those who had revolted from it. This was to be by bands of missionaries who in poverty, ascetic holiness, love, and intellectual calibre were to win respect for the Catholic faith and converts to it. A nunnery was founded at Prouille, near Toulouse, in 1206. It eventually grew to large proportions and in a sense was the mother house of the future order.

When Diego returned to his diocese, Dominic took over the leadership of the enterprise. The first few years were difficult and discouraging. Yet, with characteristic determination, he persisted. Kindly, winsome, possessed of deep convictions, he persevered, driven by a love of souls and sustained by a life of prayer. In 1214 or 1215 a citizen of Toulouse gave him a house and he gathered about him a small company of men who lived in community. In 1215 Dominic went to Rome to the Fourth Lateran Council, a gathering to the importance of which we are to recur in a later chapter. He sought from Pope Innocent III approval of the new order. The Pope was reluctant, partly because the Lateran Council, alarmed at the multiplication of novel monastic movements, had ordered that any one who wished to found a new religious house must accept its rule from one which had already been approved. The Pope gave his consent, but on condition that Dominic would adopt the rule of some established order. In conformity with this command, Dominic chose the rule of the Augustinian Canons. He may have been moved to do this by the fact that he had already been a member of a community which was of this pattern. In framing the constitution of his order, Dominic was especially influenced by the structure and experience of the Premonstratensians who, it will be remembered, were a widely spread development from the Augustinian Canons. Late in 1216 and early in 1217, at the request of Dominic, Pope Honorius III confirmed the order. The name, Friars Preachers, seems to have been suggested by Innocent III.

Dominic was profoundly moved by his contacts with Francis and the Franciscans. He met Francis in Rome in 1218 and attended the general chapter of the Brothers Minor at Portiuncula in that year. At their general chapter in 1220 the Dominicans decided to wed Lady Poverty. How far this was in imitation of the Franciscans is a matter of debate. That the Franciscans were an important influence in the step seems certain. Precisely how determinative they were we cannot tell. Like the Brothers Minor, the Dominicans became mendicants, begging their daily bread from door to door.

The Dominicans spread almost as rapidly and widely as the Franciscans. Dominic spent most of his later months in Rome. He died in 1221, shortly after presiding at the second general chapter of the Order. By that time the Dominicans are said to have had sixty houses. They were already represented at the new university centres of Paris and Bologna. The number of houses is reported to have grown to 404 in 1277, a little more than fifty years later.

The Franciscans and the Dominicans resembled each other not only in being "begging friars." In organization each had territorial provinces with chapters and a head, a general chapter of the entire order, and a single head of the whole. Each had a second order for women, and each a third order for the laity. Both were intensely missionary and by widely flung enterprises in Europe, Asia, and Africa sought to bring nominal Christians to a deeper faith and to win non-Christians. Both established themselves in the universities and the members of both did much preaching.

However, in contrast with the Franciscans, who sought the moral conversion of their hearers by the witness of untutored simplicity and a life of absolute poverty and self-giving love, the Dominicans strove to overcome ignorance and error through all the skills of trained minds. They stressed the education of their members. Each of their houses was a school and each must have at least one doctor of theology to direct the study of that sub ject. Scholarship was given an honoured place. But scholarship was for the purpose of preparing preachers who were to become missionaries to the masses.

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