What Are Canons Regular and Clerks Regular?

These two vocations have bolstered the Church for millennia.

Klosterneuburg Abbey is a 12th-century Augustinian monastery
Klosterneuburg Abbey is a 12th-century Augustinian monastery (photo: Shutterstock)

In the 2,000 years of Church history, many religious congregations, societies and religious orders have flourished: from the medicant (Franciscan, Dominican) to the monastic (Benedictine, Trappist) to the missionary (Vincentians, Jesuits) to eremitical (Carthusian, Camaldolese), that there seems to have been a fit for just about any person wanting to join a religious order.

However there are two types of religious groups in the American Church that have gone more or less undetected — mainly because they were European imports that didn’t easily translate to the missionary territory of the United States. Further, the two have similar names, adding to the confusion: canons regular and clerks regular.

Unlike all the religious orders mentioned above, “canons regular” and “clerks regular” refer not to one particular group, but to a type of lifestyle for a certain sort of religious priest, brother or sister.

To take them in historical order: 


Canons Regular

This refers to a group of men, known as “canons” (the women are called “canonesses”) who follow a rule. Perhaps the earliest group of canons regular were those founded by the great doctor of the Church, St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), who, as bishop, drew up a rule (now known as “The Rule of St. Augustine”) that spelled out how the priests who prayed in his cathedral church would live. This gave birth to the Canons Regular of St. Augustine.

Now, since there can only be one (or occasionally two) cathedrals in any given diocese, other churches where priests wanted to follow St. Augustine’s Rule were founded and known as “collegiate churches” (see note at the end of this article). Hence these men, generally priests, but occasionally containing religious lay brothers, would come together for prayer in that particular place of worship.

What made canons regular — and the word “regular” here comes from the same root-word as “regulate,” as in “regulated by the rule” — unique was how they developed from St. Augustine’s diocese in fourth-century Africa to, say, the Canons Regular of Prémontré, also known as the Premonstratensians or Norbertines. Founded by St. Norbert of Xanten in 12th-century France, St. Norbert took the Rule of St. Augustine and adapted it to life in an Abbey.

We generally think that only monks or nuns live in abbeys, but that’s not the case: the Canons Regular of Prémontré are priests and brothers who live, eat, sleep and pray in their abbey — but they go out into the world to do parish work. This was St. Norbert’s vision and it has been variously interpreted in 20th-century America, where there are four Norbertine abbeys. The Canons Regular of St. Michael’s Abbey in Orange, California, lead an almost monastic existence: they recite all seven hours of the Divine Office together, celebrate communal Mass and the Holy Rosary and still observe the “Chapter of Faults” where a canon must admit to having committed some wrong.

The Canons Regular at St. Norbert Abbey near Green Bay, Wisconsin, are canons who are much more in and of the world — they do missionary work in Peru and have a dependent house (St. Moses the Black) in Jackson, Mississippi. They pray only Morning and Evening Prayer together and some of the canons live in the parish at which they are stationed.

The Canons of Daylesford Abbey outside of Philadelphia are a blend of both the monastic and the active life of the Church, busy with parish work, spiritual direction and education.

Thus canons regular, whether of Saint Augustine’s version or Saint Norbert’s, have been around for millennia. 


Clerks Regular

Also known as “clerics” regular, since “clerks” is simply another form for “clerics” (deacons, priests and bishops), didn’t appear until the Counter-Reformation in the 16th century, and then mainly in Italy. One of the first groups of clerks regular were the Barnabites. Their mission — indeed, the mission of all clerics regular — was to reform both the clergy and the laity through education and edification.

Unlike canons regular, who have their own special habits (e.g. Norbertines wear an elaborate all-white replica of basically papal garments), clerics regular wore the clerical garb of the local clergy, and did not live in abbeys. 

The Barnabites (technically, the “Clerics Regular of Saint Paul”) were founded by a doctor-turned-priest, St. Anthony Maria Zaccaria, who is known in Italy simply as “The Reformer.” His idea was to get the clergy of Milan to pray together more often — their Church was that of St. Barnabas, hence the name “Barnabite” — and then encourage the laity to do the same. He also founded a group of women’s religious, the Angelic Sisters — but since women can’t be clerics, they don’t fall into this category (unlike canonesses).

Barnabites, like Theatines, and other clerics regular such as the Adorno Fathers, flourished at almost exactly the same time in Italy mainly because the Counter-Reformation needed well-educated and pious priests to come together to fight off the tide of the heresy of Protestantism.

Both canons and clerks regular take vows around the Evangelical Counsels — poverty, chastity and obedience. Canons regular also take a fourth vow of stability — that is, they promise to stay within the Order. This is tantamount to saying that they will stay in a particular abbey — unless the abbot deems it necessary for a particular canon to move. An example of this would be the first Norbertines who arrived in Green Bay from the Netherlands. It is also different from a monk’s vow of stability, which means he will not move from that particular monastery, period.

Clerks regular often take a fourth vow, but it has nothing to do with stability — clerks regular move about quite freely — and has everything to do with the particular charism or peculiarities of that order. For example, the Adorno Fathers (whose full title is “the Clerics Regular Minor”) take a fourth vow never to seek any office or dignity within the order or outside of it. The Camillians, or Clerics Regulars Ministers of the Sick, vow to care for the ill and infirm.

Both canons regular and clerics regular, though separated by centuries and different types of governance, had one surprising trait in common: both groups drew from the nobility of society. St. Norbert was to the manor born, but gave everything away to the point where, when he was appointed Archbishop of Magdeburg in Germany, he was refused entrance at the chancery because the porter thought he was a beggar! St. Cajetan’s Theatines (“The Congregation of Clerics Regular of Divine Providence”) were almost exclusively noblemen from some of the wealthiest families in Italy. Indeed, Theatine Father Giovanni Pietro Carafa — known to history as Pope Paul IV — was from one of the most illustrious pedigrees, spawning at least seven cardinals and numerous bishops and dukes, starting back in the 12th century.

This meant that both canons regular and clerks regular could do two things especially well: first, they had the material means at their disposal to serve the poor and suffering, and to keep their own new foundations (such as hospitals, orphanages, schools and seminaries) well-endowed for centuries to come. It also meant that they spent lavishly on their “home” — which meant churches and, in the case of the canons, abbeys. To visit some of the ancient Premonstratensian abbeys of Europe — Strahov Abbey in the Czech Republic, or the Theatines’ San Andrea de Valle in Rome, or the Crosiers’ (Canons Regular of the Holy Cross) non-destroyed cathedral of Liège is to be almost overcome with a baroque beauty that we are not accustomed to seeing here in North America.

Not that canons and clerics regular are some relic of the Church past: The Canons Regular of St. John Cantius are a new group of canons, originating in Chicago, and dedicated to the Tridentine form of the liturgy. They seem to attract a good number of vocations to the priesthood.

As mentioned above canons regular, whether Norbertine, Augustinian or of St. John Cantius, have unique religious garb. However, while clerics regular initially wore the simple clerical outfit of the times, this has given way over the centuries to what is known as “choir dress” in some orders when they pray in chapter (or “in choir”). For example: full choir regalia includes a black cape with Roman purple on the back over a white rochet with laced fringe and sleeves, and over all is a black mozzetta, or giant hood.

Despite their many differences, both canons regular and clerics regular have contributed to the history of the Church in terms of birth and rebirth — while St. Augustine gave us canons regular as far back as the fifth century, St. Norbert combined the active and contemplative apostolates in the 12th century — and clerics regular renewed the clergy and laity of a Church, who, at the time (the 16th century) was under siege by heretics.

Today, despite declining numbers in general, both canons regular and clerics regular continue their work. In the words of St. Augustine himself they are both “ever ancient, ever new” — and two of the glories of the Catholic faith.


What Is a Collegiate Church?

While Canons Regular and Clerics Regular made their way to America, they wound up taking on forms and apostolates that were unique to this missionary land. However, one European import that did not translate was the “collegiate church.” In Europe, a collegiate church was a church where the celebration of Holy Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours was controlled by a group of canons (priests), the way a bishop is the head of cathedral and sets the schedule of prayers there along with his “cathedral chapter” — that is, the priests who are assigned to the cathedral as well. In this highly-qualified way, Catholic cathedrals are technically “collegiate churches,” but only in terms of name and canon law. Oddly, some Protestant denominations use the term “collegiate churches” in the United States, but their function is so different from that of Catholic worship that it amounts to a misuse of a European Catholic term.