ROME - Though most might associate the Dominican order as having established much of the Catholic Church’s core theological principles, members of the order and scholars have suggested their contribution is much wider and is something needed in an increasingly secular culture.

In comments to Crux, Jay Richards, a research professor of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America and a third-order Dominican, said many people “tend to associate Dominicans with Thomas Aquinas and the doctrine of God,” and while that is important, they have also made large contributions to the “dignity of the human person and the common good.”

“We tend to think that theologians just do one thing or the other,” but many have offered key lessons not just on the divine, but also on practical topics such as moral philosophy and economics, he said.

Major Dominican thinkers, he said, have aimed not just to educate on God, but to form good societies, and good people who know how to run society according to good ethics.

Richards was one of four panelists at a Dec. 5 event titled “Freedom, Virtue and the Good of Society: the Dominican Contribution,” which was held at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome and which drew some 450 participants.

Founded by Spanish Saint Dominic of Caleruega in France, the Dominican order, formally called the “Order of Preachers,” was approved by Pope Honorious II in 1216 and established to preach the Gospel and oppose prominent heresies of the day.

Placing a heavy emphasis on teaching and intellectual formation, the order is famed for producing great thinkers and philosophers and includes religious sisters, priests and non-consecrated lay persons.

Organized by the Acton Institute, the conference explored the contribution of major Dominican personalities such as Thomas Aquinas, author of the historic Summa Theologica, and Saint Catherine of Siena, both of whom are among the 35 Doctors of the Church, recognized for exceptional contributions to Church teaching and doctrine.

The conference also highlighted the contribution of other, lesser known Dominicans such as Henri-Dominique Lacordaire, a theologian and activist who reestablished the Dominicans in post-revolutionary France, and Tomas de Mercado, known for issuing guidelines for confessors that helped to outline the Church’s moral principles on business and economics.

Richards spoke about Mercado, who lived during the 1500s and produced a booklet for merchants outlining moral business practices as well as guidelines for confessors, who often gave differing advice to salesmen and traders trying to navigate the questionable practices of the market.

Among other things, Mercado stressed that confessors “must be a man of conscience and science,” and his advice to merchants touched on modern ideas of inflation, market supply and demand, usury and economic value, concepts that were just being developed at the time.

During the event, Lacordaire was praised for his clarity in speaking about truth and what it means to be a free society, including how society becomes less free when God is taken out of the equation.

Thomas Aquinas, who lived during the 1200s and is easily one of the Catholic Church’s most influential theologians and philosophers, was also spoken of in terms of his writings on government, which are said to have explored the foundational principles for the modern concept of limited government.

On Catherine of Siena, who lived during the mid to late 1300s and is another of the most famed Dominican saints, was not a formal member of a religious community, but lived according to Dominican principles and is among the greatest influencers on Catholicism.

A mystic who had visions of Christ and was able to speak and write on complex theological concepts without having ever studied them, was instrumental in orchestrating the return of Pope Gregory XI to Rome after he fled to Avignon during an attack on the papal states, and she also helped to unite the Church during a time of schism.

Sister Catherine Joseph Droste, a member of the Nashville Dominican community who takes her religious name from the Twelfth-century saint, highlighted Catherine’s writings on self-awareness, specifically awareness of one’s human limitations before the omnipotence of God, as being key to building good and virtuous societies and citizens.

For Catherine, Droste said, humanity is only able to succeed and realize complete fulfillment when it recognize its limitations, the aspirations for people to achieve something beyond themselves and that the ultimate object of this desire is God. When a person or society fails to recognize God, she said, they end up feeling “powerless” and turn themselves into gods.

Droste said she believes the reason the Dominican order continues to have a strong presence in the world today is because their main contribution is and has been “rooted in the truth.”

“When Dominic founded the Dominicans, they were dealing with the problems and the heresies” that were widely diffused at the time, and “those same problems are here today,” she said, noting that the primary Dominican mission is “to preach the truth in difficult times when people don’t want to hear it.”

“It’s a witness to truth,” she said, adding that the core concepts of God, humanity and virtue don’t change, and this is what Dominicans are committed to communicating - the message that “we are made, created by God, we’re for the good, we’re made to be good, we know, we seek it, we need friends for that.”

As Dominicans, “a great part of this is that if we live what we preach, we will be happy, and people are attracted to happiness, so other people want to join something where there are happy people. It’s a very simple principle, and it’s very true,” she said.

With scandals happening not only in society but also in the Church, Droste, said witnesses are needed who preach the opposite of the modern cultural idea that no truth exists, insisting instead that “there is…and there’s something attractive about it that rings true with our human nature, it rings true with what we’re seeking.”