An institute of consecrated life is an association of faithful in the Catholic Church erected by canon law whose members profess the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience by vows or other sacred bonds. They are defined in the Code of Canon Law under canons 573-730.
The more numerous form of these are religious institutes, which are characterized by the public profession of vows, life in common as brothers or sisters, and a degree of separation from the world. They are defined in the Code of Canon Law under canons 607-709. The other form is that of secular institutes, in which the members live in the world, and work for the sanctification of the world from within.
Institutes of consecrated life need the written approval of a bishop to operate within his diocese, and a diocesan bishop can erect an institute of consecrated life in his own territory, after consulting the Apostolic See.
The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life has ecclesial oversight of institutes of consecrated life.
Institutes of consecrated life are canonically erected by competent church authorities to enable men or women who publicly profess the evangelical counsels by religious vows or other sacred bonds "through the charity to which these counsels lead to be joined to the Church and its mystery in a special way" without this making them members of the Church hierarchy.
Apart from being a member of an institute, consecrated life may also be lived individually; the Catholic Church recognises, as forms of individual consecrated life that are not members of institutes, namely that of hermits and consecrated virgins.
Institutes of consecrated life can be categorised into clerical and lay. They are clerical if, with recognition from the Church, they are directed by clerics and exercise sacred orders, and they are lay if recognized by the Church as not exercising sacred orders. For instance, the Order of Friars Preachers (O.P.) is a clerical institute of consecrated life as they are led and directed by ordained priests, and the Sisters of Charity[vague] a lay institute of consecrated life as they are all non-ordained religious sisters.
A religious institute is an institute of consecrated life whose members take public vows, lead a life in common, and are in some way separated from the world. They are broadly termed as religious and include monastic orders, mendicant orders, canons regular, and clerics regular.
A secular institute is an institute of consecrated life whose members live in the world, strive for the perfection of charity and seek to help to sanctify the world, especially from within. The current Code of Canon Law has not maintained the distinction that the earlier Code (1917) made between orders (religious institutes in which the members took solemn vows) and congregations (those in which simple vows were taken).
The Annuario Pontificio lists for both men and women the institutes of consecrated life and the like that are "of pontifical right" (those that the Holy See has erected or approved by formal decree). For the men, it gives what it now calls the Historical-Juridical List of Precedence. The arrangement of the institutes for men of the Latin Church in this list dates back many decades. It is found, for instance, in the 1964 edition of the Annuario Pontificio, pp. 807-870, where the heading is "States of Perfection (of pontifical right for men)." In the 1969 edition the heading has become "Religious and Secular Institutes of Pontifical Right for Men," a form it kept until 1975 inclusive. Since 1976, when work was already advanced on revising the Code of Canon Law, the list has been qualified as "historical-juridical" and still distinguishes "orders" from "congregations" in the case of Latin Church men, while not separating out "orders" and "congregations" in the case of the Eastern Catholic Churches and Latin Church women.
It arranges the institutes for men as follows:
The institutes for women are arranged alphabetically in the following categories:
These lists are followed by a list of 6 institutes under the heading "Other Institutes of Consecrated Life", a reference to new forms of consecrated life established in accordance with canons 604 §2 and 605 of the Code of Canon Law. Some of these have both male and female members, and one is open to married couples.