Are Contemplative Orders superior to Active Orders?
The Lord declared that Mary's was the best part, and she is the type of the contemplative life.
Religious Orders differ from one another primarily according to the ends they have in view, but secondarily according to the works they practise. And since one thing cannot be said to be superior to another save by reason of the differences between them, it will follow that the superiority of one Religious Order to another must depend primarily upon their respective ends, secondarily upon the works they practise.
And these two grounds of comparison are not of equal value; for the comparison between them from the point of view of their respective ends is an absolute one, since an end is sought for its own sake; whereas the comparison arising from their respective works is a relative one, since works are not done for their own sake but for the sake of the end to be gained.
Consequently one Religious Order is superior to another if its end is absolutely a superior one, either as being in itself a greater good, or as being of wider scope. On the supposition, however, that the ends of any two Orders are the same, then the superiority of one to the other can be gauged, not by the quantity of works they undertake, but by the proportion these bear to the end in view. Thus it is that we find introduced into the Conferences of the Fathers the opinion of S. Antony, who preferred that discretion by which a man moderates all things to fasts and watchings and similar observances.
The works, then, of the active life are twofold. There is one which springs from the fulness of contemplation: teaching, for example, and preaching. Whence S. Gregory says: "It is said of perfect men that on their return from contemplation: They shall pour forth the memory of Thy sweetness." And this is preferable to simple contemplation. For just as it is a greater thing to shed light than to be full of light, so is it a greater thing to spread abroad the fruits of our contemplation than merely to contemplate. And the second work of the active life is that which wholly consists in external occupation, such as giving alms, receiving guests, etc. And such works are inferior to the works of contemplation, except it be in some case of necessity.
Consequently, then, those Religious Orders are in the highest rank which are devoted to teaching and preaching. And these, too, approach most nearly to the perfection of the Episcopate; just as in other things, too, the ends of those in the first place are, as S. Denis says, close knit to the principles of those in the second place. The second rank is occupied by those Orders which are devoted to contemplation. And the third with those devoted to external works.
And in each of these grades there is a certain superiority according as one Order aims at acts of a higher order than does another, though of the same class. Thus in the works of the active life it is a greater thing to redeem captives than to receive guests; in the contemplative life, too, it is a greater thing to pray than to study. There may also be a certain superiority in this that one is occupied with more of such works than another; or again, that the rules of one are better adapted to the attainment of their end than are those of another.
Some, however, maintain that the contemplative Orders are not superior to the active Orders, thus:
1. In the Canon Law it is said: "Since the greater good is to be preferred to the less, so, too, the common gain is to be preferred to private gain; and in this sense teaching is rightly preferred to silence, anxious care for others to contemplation, and toil to repose." But that Religious Order is the better which is directed to the attainment of the greater good. Hence it seems that Orders which are devoted to an active life are superior to those which aim solely at contemplation.
But this Decretal speaks of the active life as concerned with the salvation of souls.
2. All Religious Orders aim at the perfection of charity. But on those words in the Epistle to the Hebrews, Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, the Gloss has: "There is no more perfect charity in this life than that to which the holy Martyrs attained, for they strove against sin even unto blood." But to strive unto blood belongs to the Military Religious Orders, and they lead an active life. It would seem, then, that these latter are the highest form of Religious Order.
But these Military Orders are more concerned with shedding the blood of their enemies than with shedding their own, which is the feature of the Martyrs. At the same time, there is nothing to preclude these Religious from at times winning the crown of martyrdom and thus attaining to a greater height than other Religious; just as in some cases active works are to be preferred to contemplation.
3. Lastly, the stricter an Order the more perfect it seems to be. But there is nothing to preclude active Orders from being stricter in their observance than some contemplative Orders.
But strictness of observance is not that which is especially commendable in Religious life, as S. Antony has already told us, and as is also said in Isaias: Is this such a fast as I have chosen, for a man to afflict his soul for a day? Strictness of observance is, however, made use of in Religious Orders for the subjection of the flesh; but if such strictness is carried out without discretion there is danger lest it should come to naught, as S. Antony says. Hence one Religious Order is not superior to another because its observances are stricter, but because its observances are directed to the end of that Order with greater discretion. Thus, for example, abstinence from food and drink, which means hunger and thirst, are more efficacious means for preserving chastity than wearing less clothing, which means cold and nakedness; more efficacious, too, than bodily labour.
 S. Luke x.42.
 Conf., ii.2.
 Hom. V., On Ezechiel.
 Of the Divine Names, vii.
 Extrav. Of Regulars and of those who pass to the Religious Orders, cap. Licet.