"By their labors, whether skilled or unskilled, the brothers freed the clerics for the more exacting works of study and preaching."
In the above quote you have a concise statement of the origin of the Dominican cooperator brotherhood, and also the root of the modern identity crisis for this branch of the Dominican family. For, while the work and function of the priest-brothers, the contemplative nuns, and the sisters as tied to their various identities have not changed radically during their various histories (one could argue), the work done by the cooperator brother, as tied to his identity as a Dominican, has.
What do I mean by this? Well, my explanation will unfold as I address three key areas for studying the history of the cooperator brothers, and their parallels in the present. They are: I) Why were/are non-ordained brothers admitted into a clerical order? II) What work did/do they do? III) And what was/is their connection to the Dominican charism of preaching for the salvation of souls?
I) Lay Brothers in a Clerical Order
The constitutions of the Order of Preachers acknowledges that it is a clerical order, and yet we have non-ordained brothers, contemplative nuns, sisters, and lay members as branches of the Dominican family tree. It seems strange to define ourselves as clerical, when four out of the five branches of the family tree listed here are non-clerical. In fact, the first branch of the Dominican Order established was the contemplative nuns at Prouille, France. And yet, it is a clerical order, because the charism of the Dominicans will always be preaching the Gospel and working for the salvation of souls, and this is primary the work of priests, preaching from the pulpit and administering the sacraments to the faithful. All the other branches were established and exist today to help the ordained friars in this mission of preaching the Gospel.
In his book The History of the Dominican Order, Hinnebusch explains that while the Franciscan Order had always been a mix of lay and cleric members, the Dominicans were predominantly clerical: "Among the Dominicans, on the other hand, lay brothers were a relatively small group, an adjunct or auxiliary arm, necessary to free the priests for their primary clerical purpose of doctrinal preaching" (Hinnebusch, 125.) This difference in membership makeup is significant to note, because in orders and congregations that have a more balanced membership between ordained and non-ordained the kind of work done by the non-ordained may be different, the relationship between ordained and non-ordained may be different, and the personal identity of the non-ordained in relation to his membership/place/purpose in the order or congregation may be different. For example, while a non-ordained brother may feel as if he has to fight for his place in an order that defines itself as clerical, another non-ordained brother in a order with a greater balance in membership which has always valued its non-ordained as direct co-workers in the order’s charism, and which does not define itself as clerical, might not feel that way.
Just consider for a moment the fact that the Dominican Order historically has gone as far as to regulate the number of cooperator brothers it accepted to keep this group at a "proper ratio" to the ordained, meaning, more ordained brothers than not (Hinnebusch, 288.) Hinnebusch details the strict regulations outlining the admissions of men into the lay brotherhood, noting policies passed by general chapters geared toward limiting the number of lay brothers (288-289.) Clearly, there’s a value statement in this which relates directly to the purpose of having non-ordained brothers in a clerical order: if the non-ordained brother’s work is not deemed useful or if he is unable to work, then the Dominican community could not or would not take him on as a member. While a cleric is always deemed useful, due to the rights, education, and ministry associated with his ordination, a lay brother, whose skills, education, and work might vary from one brother to another, had to earn his place.
That said, the lay brothers have been valued members of the Order since its earliest days, beginning with Brother Oderic of Normandy, the first man admitted into the Order as a lay brother was sent with Blessed Mannes and others to found the community of Saint Jacques in Paris. Lay brothers went with the missionary priests across Europe, helped found new communities, and some were martyred for the faith with their ordained brothers. Lay brothers would play an important part in the early support of the newly founded province of St. Joseph in the United States, also.