In the past, the term lay brother and lay sister was used within some Catholic religious institutes to distinguish members who were not ordained from those members who were clerics (priests and seminarians). This term is now considered controversial by some because of the history of inequality between Brothers and clerics. The term "lay" has also been used in the past to designate someone as "uneducated" in contrast to "illiterate". Instead, the term "religious Brother" or simply "Brother" is appropriate when referring to a professed male religious who is neither a priest, deacon, nor seminarian. The vocational title "Brother" is generally capitalized to distinguish it from the word "brother" in the sense of "a male sibling".
In modern religious communities, Brothers are no longer restricted by institutional inequalities of the past and enjoy the same status, rights, and opportunities as priestly and seminarian confreres, except where sacramental ministry is concerned. Brothers today (at least in the United States) generally pursue academic, professional, or technical training that is appropriate to their interests and skills and can be found in a variety of non-sacramental ministries. Many Brothers also study theology, scripture, and philosophy to some degree, although there is a great deal of variance regarding the intensity and duration of these academic curriculums.
Although religious life began with communities of desert hermits and monks in which none of the members were ordained, over time the Church began to blend monastic life with the ordained ministry. Within this context, a rigid hierarchy eventually emerged in which the lay Brothers were restricted to ancillary roles, manual labor, and other secular affairs of a monastery or friary. In contrast, the choir monks (priests and seminarians) of the same monastery attended to the Liturgy of the Hours, or Opus Dei ("The Work of God"), sacramental ministry, celebration of the liturgy, and formal studies. The term is also used of those who are Brothers in those religious congregations which have been established since the Reformation. While taking vows particular to their religious community they have not been ordained by a bishop as deacon or priest. In this regard they are considered "lay religious," where "lay" simply means "non-clerical".
No such distinction existed in early Western monasticism. The majority of St. Benedict's monks were not clerics, and all performed manual labour, the word conversi being used only to designate those who had received the habit late in life, to distinguish them from the oblati and nutriti. But, by the beginning of the 11th century, the time devoted to study had greatly increased, thus a larger proportion of the monks were in Holy Orders, even though great numbers of illiterate persons had embraced the religious life. At the same time, it was found necessary to regulate the position of the famuli, the hired servants of the monastery, and to include some of these in the monastic family. So in Italy the lay Brothers were instituted; and we find similar attempts at organization at the Abbey of St. Benignus at Dijon, under William of Dijon (d. 1031) and Richard of Verdun (d. 1046), while at Hirschau Abbey, Abbot William (d. 1091) gave a special rule to the fratres barbati and exteriores.
At Cluny Abbey the manual work was relegated mostly to paid servants, but the Carthusians, the Cistercians, the Order of Grandmont, and most subsequent religious orders possessed lay Brothers, to whom they committed their secular cares. At Grandmont, indeed, the complete control of the order's property by the lay brothers led to serious disturbances, and finally to the ruin of the order; but the stricter regulations of the Cistercians provided against this danger and formed the model for the later orders. In England, the "Black Monks" (Benedictines) were reported by some writers to have made but slight use of lay brothers, finding the service of paid attendants more convenient. Thus one monastic historian, Dom Taunton asserted that, "in those days in English Benedictine monasteries there were no lay brothers". On the contrary, however, they are mentioned in the customaries of the Abbey of St. Augustine at Canterbury and the Abbey of St. Peter at Westminster.
Life as a lay brother
Many lay brothers were illiterate peasants who performed the domestic or agricultural work of the community. Some were skilled in artistic handicrafts, others filled administrative positions. Generally speaking, however, lay brothers roles were limited within most communities. This is not to suggest that lay brothers were unimportant; in fact, the economic success and stability of the monastery or community depended upon the skills and labor of the lay brothers.
Lay brothers were sometimes distinguished from their brethren by some difference in their habit: for instance, the Cistercian lay brother previously wore a brown tunic, instead of white, with the black scapular; in choir they wore a large cloak, instead of a cowl; the Vallombrosan lay brothers wore a cap instead of a hood, and their habit was shorter; the English Benedictine lay brothers wore a hood of a different shape from that of the choir monks, and no cowl; a Dominican lay brother would wear a black, instead of a white, scapular. In some orders they were required to recite daily the Little Office of Our Lady, but usually their labor in the fields (and hence away from the church) prevented them from participating in the Liturgy of the Hours. Lay brothers would instead pray Paters, Aves, and Glorias.
Lay sisters were found in most of the orders of women, and their origin, like that of the lay brothers, is to be found in the necessity of providing the choir nuns with more time for the Office and study. Often, they served as the "extern sister" of the community: the sister with the task of greeting visitors and handling relations between the cloistered nuns and the outside world. They, too, wore a habit different from those of the choir sisters, and their required daily prayers consisted of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary or a certain number of Paters, etc.
The system of lay sisters seem to have appeared earlier than that of lay brothers, being first recorded in a ninth century hagiography of Saint Denis. In the early medieval period, there was also mention of lay brothers attached to convents of women and of lay sisters attached to monasteries. In both configurations, the two sexes were strictly kept separate, housed in distinct buildings. This arrangement, however, has since been long abolished.
Brothers today can be found in a variety of religious institutes; some are made up entirely of Brothers (Religious Institutes of Brothers) and others are composed of religious priests, seminarians, and Brothers (so-called "mixed institutes"). Some Brothers live in contemplative communities (and are often referred to as monks) while others belong to apostolic institutes. Brothers minister in a diversity of academic, technical, and professional capacities. In the U.S., Brothers are represented by the Religious Brothers Conference.
The changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council included the call to all religious institutes to re-examine and renew their origins. As a result, most of the distinctions noted above, in terms of dress and spiritual regimen were abolished or mitigated. Many religious institutes now have equal rights and wear the same habit.
- Blessed Ambiguity: Brothers in the Church. Michael F. Meister, F.S.C., ed. Landover: Christian Brothers, 1993. ISBN 1-884904-00-9
- Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life In Western Europe In The Middle Ages. C.H. Lawrence. London: Longman, 1984. ISBN 0-582-40427-4
- Who Are My Brothers?: Cleric-Lay Relationships in Men's Religious Communities. Philip Armstrong, C.S.C., ed. New York: Society of St. Paul, 1988. ISBN 0-8189-0533-6