A religious order is a lineage of communities and organizations of people who live in some way set apart from society in accordance with their specific religious devotion, usually characterized by the principles of its founder's religious practice. The order is composed of initiates (laity) and, in some traditions, ordinated clergies. Religious orders exist in many of the world's religions.
There are four main kinds of religious order:
The term nun may refer a female member of any of the above.
It is typical of a religious order to have a Motherhouse or Generalate that has jurisdiction over any number of dependent religious communities, and for its members to be moved by their Superior General to any other of its communities, as the needs of the order at any one time demand.
Admittance to a religious order is regulated not only by Church law and the religious Rule it has adopted but also by its own norms. Broadly speaking, after a lengthy period spanning probation and novitiate and in "temporary vows" (always simple) to test their vocation with a particular order, candidates (usually called "Juniors") wishing to be admitted permanently are required to make a public profession of the Evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience and confirm this by a vow (which may be either simple or solemn) that is binding in Church law. One of the effects of this vow is that members of a religious order are no longer free to marry; and should they subsequently want to leave the order, they would have to seek a Papal Indult. The benefits of the profession are of a spiritual nature.
The members of male religious orders are usually termed "monks" and those of female religious orders "nuns", if they are "cloistered", that is to say, if they are under obligation to live and work within the confines of their monastery and say the Divine office in community (commonly referred to as "contemplative orders"). They tend to be called "brothers" or "friars", and "sisters", if their order's apostolate requires them to work outside the monastery as, for example, teachers, doctors, nurses or in some other practical charitable service. In common parlance the term "nun", traditionally reserved for cloistered women, is often used loosely to refer to any female "religious". In recent times the gender-neutral "monastics" has made an appearance in the relevant literature.
Traditionally, orders of monks are referred to as the "First Orders" and those of nuns as the "Second Orders". Some religious orders, for example the Franciscans or the Dominicans, have "Third Orders" of associated religious members who live in community and follow a rule (called Third Order Religious or TOR), or lay members who, without living in formal community with the order, have made a private vow or promise to it, such as of perseverance in pious life, hence are not "religious", that is to say, not members of the Consecrated life (often called Third Order Secular, or TOS).
Since each and every religious order has its own unique aim, or charism, it has to adhere to a particular way of religious living that is conducive to it, whether "contemplative", "enclosed", mendicant, or apostolic. Thus some religious orders – especially of nuns who are subject to "Papal Enclosure" – strictly isolate their members from the outside world, of which the "grilles" in their parlours and churches are tangible evidence. Other religious orders have apostolates that require their members to interact practically with the secular world, such as teaching, medical work, producing religious artworks and texts, designing and making vestments and writing religious instruction books, while maintaining their distinctiveness in communal living. Some Anglican and Protestant orders are "dispersed", that is, living in the world rather than communally. Several founders, in view of their aim, require the members of their order not only to profess the three Evangelical Counsels of chastity, poverty, obedience, but also to vow or promise stability or loyalty, and maybe certain disciplines, such as self-denial, fasting, silence.
Daily living in religious orders is regulated by Church law as well as the particular religious rule they have adopted and their own constitutions and customaries. Their respective timetables ("horarium") allocate due time to communal prayer, private prayer, spiritual reading, work, meals, communal recreation, sleep, and fixes any hours during which stricter silence is to be observed, in accordance with their own order's charism.
In accordance with the concept of independent communities in the Rule of St Benedict, the Benedictines have autonomous Abbeys (so-called "independent Houses"); and their members profess "stability" to the Abbey where they make their vow, hence cannot move – nor be moved by their Abbot or Abbess – to another Abbey. An "independent House" may occasionally make a new foundation which remains a "dependent House" (identified by the name "Priory") until it is granted independence "by Rome" and itself becomes an "Abbey". Owing to the autonomy of each House, contrary to wide-spread misconception, the Benedictines are not a religious order. They have affiliated themselves, however, into congregations – whether national or based on some other joint characteristic – and these, in turn, into the supra-national Benedictine Confederation.
Consonant with other Catholic orders, Anglican religious voluntarily commit themselves for life, or a term of years, to holding their possessions in common or in trust; to a celibate life in community; and obedience to their Rule and Constitution.
There are presently thirteen active religious orders for men, fifty-three for women, and eight mixed gender.