What is a Doctor of the Church?
The Catholic Church has a limitless source of life in the Holy Spirit. Over the course of her 2,000 years, God has raised up saint after saint to bring His life to His people. We see this from the calling of the apostles, the great saints down through the centuries, and the holy men and women of our present day. The Church bestows the special title of “Doctor of the Church” for those special saints that have given a great teaching to the Body of Christ. The life and teaching of the doctors came during a specific era of the Church, but their effect has reverberated throughout the centuries.
Groupings of saints under a title is not a new thing. The early saints are called the Fathers of the Church, which groups together the saints and pastors of the early centuries of Christianity. To be called a Doctor of the Church is something different. This title is given to ecclesiastical writers who have left a significant teaching to the Church. Given that the whole Body of Christ—triumphant, suffering, and militant—contemplates the same mysteries of faith, the doctors of the Church enrich more than their current day. The work of a doctor of the Church has the charism of being useful for that saint’s present time, but also for ages to come.
In the Middle Ages, feasts of four Latin doctors began to be celebrated as doctors: St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and St. Gregory the Great. In the eastern Church, St. John Chrysostum, St. Basil, and St. Gregory Nazianzen began to be celebrated around this time, under the title of hierarch. As the centuries passed, more saints were declared doctors (see below for the full list). Today, 37 saints have been honored with the title of doctor.
The great scholar-pope, Benedict XIV (reign from 1740-1758), specifically noted that doctors of the Church needed to be declared by an ecumenical council or by the pope. So far in history, no ecumenical council has declared a doctor—they often have a full agenda already. The other two conditions for a doctor of the Church are eminent learning and holiness.
Purpose of a Doctor
By declaring a saint a doctor of the Church, a pope seeks to highlight a special teaching/body of work on the part of a saint. St. Paul spoke to the special roles within the Body of Christ:
“And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles.” (Ephesians 4:11-14)
All good teachers of the faith guide us closer to Jesus and His Church. For a moment, think back and give thanks to God for the great teachers in your life.
Aside from that, what is a doctor for? St. Paul lists the purpose of all teachers in the passage above, but they apply in a unique way to the doctors. First, teachings in the faith should build up the Body of Christ (v. 12). Their goal is unity of faith, knowledge of Christ, and maturation (v. 13). St. Paul talks of different stages of faith in 1 Corinthians 2. “I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready” (1 Corinthians 2:3).
In these quotes from St. Paul, we can see that role of the doctors. They push us from an earlier stage of faith to the next, and to the next. If the initial teachers of the faith give an introduction, the doctors show us ways to “put out into the deep” (Luke 5:4). They serve as a reminder to us: no matter where we stand in our knowledge and love of the Catholic faith, there is more. By their body of work, the doctors provide us avenues to continually plumb the depths of the divine mysteries.
Even though the official title of doctor came many centuries into the Church’s history, the catalog of saints is impressive. Each of the doctors has contributed something profound to the Mystical Body. How many people has St. Therese brought closer to Christ through her profound writings? St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life was a spiritual masterpiece at the time, and it has not stopped inspiring Catholics in the centuries since. We still have St. Cyril of Alexandria’s catechetical lectures; 1,700 years later, they remain gems. How would the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) have gone without St. Leo the Great’s Christological Tome? A letter from one of her friends described St. Catherine of Siena as having thousands of spiritual children in her time. And saints have had favorite doctors as well! St. John Henry Newman greatly admired St. Athanasius for his firm stance against the Arian heresy in the 4th century.
Here are the 37 saints named as doctors of the Church (some have links to previous blog posts on these saints):
St. John Chrysostum
St. Basil the Great
St. Gregory of Nazianzus
St. Anselm of Canterbury
St. Isidor of Seville
St. Peter Chrysologus
St. Leo the Great
St. Peter Damian
St. Bernard of Claurvaux
St. Hilary of Poitiers
St. Alphonsus Liguouri
St. Francis de Sales
St. Cyril of Alexandria
St. John Damascene
St. Bede the Venerable
St. Peter Canisius
St. Albert the Great
St. John of Avila
St. Hildegard of Bingen
St. Gregory of Narek
St. Irenaeus of Lyon
On top of their title as doctors, some get an additional moniker, usually having to do with a main theme in their writings. St. Thomas Aquinas is called the Angelic Doctor; St. John of the Cross is the Mystical Doctor; St. Therese is called the Doctor of Confidence; St. Teresa of Avila is the Doctor of Prayer. The title most likely to be googled is the Mellifluous Doctor, St. Bernard of Clairvaux. These additional titles are not necessary but call out a particular gift on the part of the saint.
Female Doctors of the Church: Upcoming Posts
The first women on the list were St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena, as promulgated by St. Paul VI in 1970. After those two, St. John Paul II gave the title to St. Therese of Lisieux in 1997. Pope Benedict XVI named St. Hildegard of Bingen as a doctor in 2012.
Three of the four female doctors have feast days coming up in the season of autumn. Keep up with the Cora Evans blog to see posts on all four of those spiritual masters!
Thanks be to God for the great teachers He has given to the Church!