Canon Law on third orders

This article was first featured in the Autumn 2013 issue of Sursum Corda, the newsletter of the SSPX's Third Order.


There are often inquiries about the Third Order of the Society of St. Pius X. At times, explanations seem vague or insufficient, as if the whole context or background is missing. This issue of Sursum Corda is to expound on the question of third orders according to Canon Law, thus providing the background and entire context to the definition of a third order.

If a definition were to be given—a third order is an association of laity who are members in a religious order. It is in this light that Tertiaries are part of the family and truly members of any religious order. As such, they possess an additional means of sanctification through the order; they are instructed in the spiritual life by the specific character and spirit of the order; and they partake in the spiritual treasures of the order.

Why does a young man join a monastery? If one considers the ultimate reason, it is to follow the call of God. The more proximate reason is to follow a certain rule of life. The monk has the objective to live in a certain manner, to be subject to a certain formation and practices, indeed a whole life. He hopes to partake in a program of sanctification, that program laid down by the order he joins. As the order has a certain character and means of sanctification, the monastery is for him a school in sanctity.

What of faithful who do not live in a monastery? Can they take something of that way of life, something of that spirit and road to sanctification, and apply it to themselves? Can they engage in some of the same practices so as to reach sanctity? This is a third order.

The Code of Canon Law speaks volumes concerning the salvation of souls, as well as the means to provide for that sanctification. These laws concern all the members of the Church including the laity. There are sections of the law concerning the laity, what are their rights, what associations they may belong to, how these groups are formed, etc. Third orders are therefore regulated by the laws of the Church.

Concerning the laity, the Code of Canon Law states:

The laity has the right to receive from the clergy the spiritual goods and especially the necessary means of salvation, according to the rules of ecclesiastical discipline." (Canon 682)

The law speaks of the right of the laity. As Jesus Christ instituted the sacrament of the priesthood, and indeed the Church as a hierarchical society, certain things are due in justice to the members of that society. This right of the laity corresponds to the duty of the clergy. If the laity has the right to receive from the clergy, the clergy in turn have an obligation to provide. This right of the laity is conferred partly by the divine law (in reference to the necessary means of salvation), and partly by ecclesiastical law (as regards the sacramentals, sacraments not necessary by divine precept, etc.)

Associations of faithful in general

Third orders come under that section in the Law referred to as Associations. Every Third Order is an Association of Laity. The Church understands these associations to be beneficial to the laity as a means of sanctification.

The Code states:

The faithful deserve praise when they join associations which have been erected, or at least recommended, by the Church. They should beware of associations which are secret, condemned, seditious or suspected, and of those which strive to withdraw themselves from the legitimate authority of the Church." (Canon 684)

The general principle is simple: it is good for laity to be engaged in good associations. The reason is provided in the following canon:

Associations distinct from the religious organizations and societies spoken of in Canons 487-681 may be erected by the Church either to promote a more perfect Christian life among her members, or for the undertaking of works of piety and charity, or for the advancement of the public cult." (Canon 685)

Erection of an association


No society is recognized in the Church unless it has been either erected by the competent ecclesiastical authority, or at least approved by it. The right to erect or approve associations is vested in the Roman Pontiff, and also in the local Ordinary except in the case of those associations the erection of which is by Apostolic privilege reserved to others. Even though it can be proved that a papal privilege was required for the validity of the erection, unless it is stated otherwise in the privilege: however, the consent of the Ordinary granted for the erection of a religious house applies also the erection in that same house—or in the church attached to it—of an association which is not constituted after the nature of an organic body and is proper to the respective religious organization." (Canon 686.1-3)

This canon explains why it was so important for Archbishop Lefebvre to receive approval in founding the Society of St. Pius X. In fact, the archbishop showed off the document of approbation to the seminarians with a great enthusiasm and excitement. He said on the occasion, "you see, we have the approval of the Church". Archbishop Lefebvre was a man animated with love for the Church. He knew the importance of the adhering to the laws of the Church. He knew that in completing the requirements of the law, his work would certainly be blessed by God.

Admission and expulsion of members


To participate in the rights, privileges, indulgences and other spiritual favors of an association, it is necessary and suffices that a person be validly received into the association according to the proper statutes of the association, and that he has not been legally deprived of membership." (Canon 692)

It is further necessary that a member perform the pious works legitimately prescribed in the statutes, as declared by the Committee for the Authentic Interpretation of the Code. (Jan. 4, 1946)

The necessity of direction and accountability is thus established. Certainly seminarians, aside from their studies, receive spiritual direction to discern their vocation. Moreover, the rector and professors have an obligation to make sure those unfit do not progress. Applying the same principle to the Third Order, aspirants must follow the Rule and Statutes. They must also be deemed worthy by a director. This is the reason for a recommendation from a priest. Moreover, profession should not be made without the blessing of a director/confessor.

Non-Catholics, members of a condemned sect, persons publicly known to be under ecclesiastical censure, and in general any public sinners, cannot be validly received into an association." (Canon 693.1)

Herein lies the reason of ineligibility for those convicted of public crimes/sentenced to incarceration for as long as that penalty persists. Canon 542:5 refers to a similar restriction stating novitiate is invalid for candidates subject to penalty for crimes which they have been or may be accused of. Such restrictions are to preserve the good reputation of the order as well as those existing members. This is not a judgement as to one’s state of soul, but rather a judgment of externals public to all.

The same person may be enrolled in several associations, subject to the law of Canon 705, which states that nobody can belong at the same time to two Third Orders. Absent persons shall not be enrolled in associations which are constituted after the manner of an organic body; those present cannot be received except with their knowledge and of their own will." (Canon 693.2-3)

The last words of this canon also indicate something of procedure. In order to make profession in a third order, and provided the candidate has completed the required postulancy, a request for admission must be made in writing to the superior. Engagement into a religious order cannot happen without the affirmation of the order. There is no ‘self-profession’ of members, but all must be in accordance with the statutes of the order.

This request is to be made in writing to the chaplain who has been delegated by the superior to manage the affairs of the third order. The letter is to request profession, provide one’s motives for seeking profession, state that this request comes with the blessing of a director/confessor, and that is made by one’s own free will.[1]

No legitimately enrolled member of a society shall be dismissed from the association except for a good reason and in accordance with the statutes. Catholics, who have fallen into one of the categories mention in Canon 693.1, shall after previous admonition and with the observance of the proper statutes be deprived of membership." (Canon 696)

It happens at times that third order members wish to be dismissed for various reasons. The most common good reasons are: Failure in the obligations or an inability to keep the Rule or a desire to transfer to another third order.

Particular associations of the faithful


There are three distinct kinds of associations of the faithful in the Church: Third Order Seculars, Confraternities, and Pious Unions. (Canon 700) The order of precedence is as follows: 1. Third Orders: 2. Archconfraternities: 3. Confraternities: 4. Primary Pious Unions: 5. Other Pious Unions."

Secular third orders


Secular tertiaries are those persons who strive to attain Christian perfection in the world under the guidance and according to the spirit of some Order, in a manner compatible with the secular life and according to the rules approved for them by the Apostolic See. If a Third order secular is divided into several associations, each legitimately established branch is called a Sodality of Tertiaries." (Canon 702)

Third orders are so called by reason of the analogy which they have with religious orders. Their end is the Christian perfection of the tertiaries, and they have rules approved by the Holy See (a novitiate, profession and requirements for valid enrollment, etc.), just as religious orders. Tertiaries are under the direction of the Regular Superiors, and not that of the local Ordinaries.

Traces of a third order are found as early as the 11th century in the Secular Oblates of St. Benedict. St. Francis of Assisi, however, is regarded as the real founder of the third order. He perfected it, wrote a rule for it, and personally (through his Order) spread it among the laity throughout the world. There is evidence that he founded the first sodality of his third order as early as 1221, and that it spread rapidly thereafter. This movement was to satisfy the desire of countless numbers of the laity who desired to embrace his form of the religious life without, however, disrupting families or abandoning family responsibility. St. Dominic and his Order did the same, as well as the other Orders. It is the old religious orders that have third orders.

No religious organization can add to itself a Third Order, but the privilege granted to some Orders remains." (Canon 703)

It may be noted at this moment that the Society of St. Pius X is defined as a Society of Common Life without Vows. It is a clerical institute and not a religious order. As such, its members are not religious. Only religious orders (and the old ones!) have third orders, and no religious congregation, still less a clerical institute, can just make up its own third order.

This having been said, the archbishop provided a structure which allowed the faithful to participate more fully in the life and spirit of the Society. He called it third order for practical purposes, and with the intention of offering an alternative to those who in conscience could not enter or continue in the conciliarist third orders. Once again, in an extraordinary situation the archbishop took the point of view of the salvation of the souls, fostering and blessing every initiative in this direction.

We do not therefore attempt to accommodate such an extraordinary situation within the frame of canonical normality. The situation in the Church is not normal. In the meantime, we persevere in what Archbishop Lefebvre established, knowing well it is in line with the spirit of the Church, with the salvation of souls as its impetus. We wait and expect the moment in which Rome will provide a canonical framework for this large association of faithful which has been called a "Third Order".

Persons who have taken either perpetual or temporary vows in some religious organization cannot at the same time belong to any Third Order, even though they had been received into the Third Order before they embraced religious life. When such a person is freed from the vows and returns to the world, the former membership revives." (Canon 704)

"Without an Apostolic indult, no sodality of tertiaries can receive tertiaries from another Third Order, if they intend to remain in the former Third Order. Individual tertiaries may for a just reason transfer from one Third Order to another, and also from one sodality to another of the same Third Order." (Canon 705)

Such a transfer from one third order to another is only possible with dismissal from the first and acceptance by the second. This dismissal is requested from the chaplain. Once obtained, the letter of dismissal is to be presented to the receiving superior.

I hope such an article provides fruit for thought and clears up any lack of clarity for members and aspirants alike.

Fr. Adam Purdy

SSPX Third Order Chaplain


  • [1] I understand this has not been a requirement in the past; it is from this point forward necessary for profession.