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The Doctors of the Church

by Fr. Stephen McKenna

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  • Description:
    This article offers an examination of the characteristics possessed by the saints who have been named Doctors of the Church: eminent learning, outstanding champions of orthodoxy, amazing literary achievements, remarkable sanctity, humility and loyalty, and special prestige.
  • Larger Work:
    Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  • Pages: 1031 – 1039
  • Publisher & Date:
    Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., New York, NY, August 1950

One of the oldest and most common accusations against the Catholic Church is that she is opposed to learning and shackles man's intellectual freedom. Thus, in the second century Celsus in his work "The True Discourse" says that Christianity appeals to those only who are "without intelligence and weak in mind," and that she is constantly repeating: "Wisdom is an evil; foolishness is a good thing." The same charge of ignorance was leveled against the Church by many humanists of the fifteenth century and the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century. In our own time Will Durant in his "History of Philosophy" dismissed the contribution of the medieval scholastics in a single, contemptuous paragraph.

We could refute this calumny in many ways. St. Jerome did so in his "Illustrious Men" by listing the names and writings of the noted scholars produced by Christianity up to the end of the fourth century. We could imitate his example and fill a goodly sized volume by merely bringing the "Illustrious Men" up to date. Or we could give an account of the educated converts to the Church, such as St. Paul, St. Augustine, Brownson, Newman, and Chesterton who attained in Catholicism the full maturity of their intellectual powers. Or we could show how scholarship is indebted to the Church for the preservation of the ancient classics of Greece and Rome, and for the origin and development of our modern colleges and universities. But instead we shall limit ourselves to the "teachers" of the Church, or "Doctors" as they are usually called (from the Latin word "docere" which means to teach). The very existence of such a group proves the Church's esteem for sound scholarship that is rooted in and proceeds from genuine spirituality.

List and Nationality of the Doctors

Up to the present time twenty-nine men have been declared Doctors. Their lives span the greater part of the history of the Church. The first in the order of time is St. Athanasius, who was born in the closing decade of the third century when the Catholic Church was regarded as an illegal society by the Roman government. The last is St. Alphonsus Liguori, who died in 1787, just two years before the outbreak of the French Revolution.

Sixteen of the Doctors lived in the early centuries and within the boundaries of the mighty empire of Rome. Eight of them came from the eastern section, where Greek was the principal language, and eight from the western section where Latin was commonly used. Eastern Doctors: Athanasius, Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, Ephrem, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, and John Damascene. Western Doctors: Hilary, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Peter Chrysologus, Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, and Isidore.

In the Middle Ages, from the eighth to the thirteenth century, all the Doctors are from western Europe, for the eastern empire had become separated from Rome by heresy, schism, or the political conquest of the Moslems. Their names are: Bede, Peter Damian, Anselm, Bernard, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Albert the Great, and Anthony of Padua.

The modern period of ecclesiastical history, which begins with the Protestant Reformation, has produced five men who have been honored with this title: Peter Canisius, John of the Cross, Robert Bellarmine, Francis de Sales, and Alphonsus Liguori.

The Doctors have come from the various parts of the Christian world, as is evident from the modern names of the countries in which they were born: Italy, France, Spain, Holland, Germany, England, Yugoslavia, Syria, Palestine, Turkey, Africa, and Egypt. Thus, they are a reminder of the Catholicity or universality of the Church, and also of the part that so many nations through them have played in the building of the magnificent edifice of Catholic theology.

Ecclesiastical Offices Held by the Doctors

Equally significant is the variety of office which they have held in the Church. St. Ephrem probably always remained a deacon, eight of them were priests, and twenty were members of the hierarchy. Three in the latter group — Peter Damian, Bonaventure, and Bellarmine — were also cardinals, while Leo the Great and Gregory the Great were the supreme rulers of Christendom. And finally among them are representatives of the older and more recent religious institutes: Benedictines, Carmelities, Cistercians, Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, and Redemptorists. St. Basil and St. Augustine are also deservedly ranked among the early founders of the monastic life.

One naturally wonders why St. Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons in the second century, is not included in this list. He was the first one to explain the teachings of Christianity in a scientific manner, and also to formulate the principles for refuting the dangerous Gnostics of his own day and future errors as well. Not undeservedly has he been called "The Founder of Catholic Theology." The simplest explanation for the omission of his name is that he is a Martyr. The Church does not confer the title of Doctor upon such men, whose life-blood is a more eloquent testimony to their faith in Christ than their writings.

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-83) seems indeed worthy of a place among these saintly scholars by reasons of her unusual holiness as well as her lucid explanation of ascetical and mystical theology. But the Church has never recognized her as such in accordance with the emphatic declaration of St. Paul: "I do not allow a woman to teach" (I Tim., ii. 12). But in her restricted role as a "private" Doctor and "unofficial" teacher she has exerted a tremendous influence upon the history of Christian spirituality.

Prospero Lambertini, the future Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58), has discussed the qualifications for admission into the select circle of the Doctors of the Church in the "Beatification and Canonization of the Servants of God." This book is a monumental masterpiece of Catholic scholarship and is still regarded, after the lapse of two hundred years, as the standard work on this subject. From a careful study of the various papal decrees he concluded that this dignity should be conferred only on men of (1) eminent learning; (2) remarkable sanctity; (3) those who have received the explicit approbation of the Vicar of Christ.

Eminent Learning of the Doctors

All of the Doctors were endowed with great natural talents. Some of them displayed administrative ability of a very high order in civil and ecclesiastical affairs, while others were conspicuous among their contemporaries for their knowledge of secular subjects, such as philosophy, literature, civil law, and the natural sciences. But the Church honors them only because of their outstanding services as interpreters of Sacred Scripture and as exponents or defenders of Catholic theology.

Many non-Catholics are wont to disparage the scholarship of the Doctors as being limited to "theological subtleties," and likewise condemn them for promoting schism rather than unity in Christendom by their intransigence towards their religious opponents. This criticism shows an unawareness of the fundamental issues at stake in the controversies with the Arians, Nestorians, Pelagians, Jansenists, etc. Just as St. Paul would anathematize even "an angel from heaven" who would preach a different Gospel from his, so the Doctors refused to compromise in doctrines that had been revealed by the Son of God. It is not difficult, however, to explain this unfriendly and unsympathetic attitude. The Protestant Reformation has lessened respect for religious belief by the rise of many sects, which hold contradictory beliefs and yet call themselves Christians. And secondly, the secular culture of the present day regards an open mind rather than the possession of truth as the highest achievement of a liberal education.

Outstanding Champions of Orthodoxy

The Doctors of the Church had what St. Clement Hofbauer humorously referred to as "a Catholic nose." They were usually among the first to detect the errors that the heretics attempted to conceal by a vague and apparently orthodox terminology. It is certainly more than a mere coincidence that so many of them were particularly well-qualified to defend the doctrines that were challenged in their day. Two examples must suffice to illustrate the truth of this statement. St. Athanasius had written two books in defense of Christ's divinity, and hence became the champion of orthodoxy when Arius and his followers later on denied this doctrine. St. Leo the Great had made the human nature of Christ the main theme of his sermons and explained this dogma with admirable simplicity and theological precision. He was thus unconsciously preparing himself for the coming struggle against the Monophysites, who claimed that it was unworthy of the Son of God to assume a human nature.

Amazing Literary Output of the Doctors

The Doctors of the Church were apostles of the pen and their literary output in many instances is truly amazing. Like St. Alphonsus Liguori, they seem to have made a vow never to waste a moment of time. By reason of their office in the Church they were also preachers of the Gospel. Among them are the outstanding orators of Christianity: John Chrysostom, Peter Chrysologus, Gregory Nazianzen, Augustine, Ambrose, and Bernard. In fact, most of the extant works of the Doctors in the early centuries were originally sermons. While their main purpose was to instruct, to edify, or to move their readers or hearers to repentance rather than to arouse their admiration by the grace and beauty of their style, their works are often not inferior to the masterpieces of secular literature.

Preeminence of Individual, Doctors in Special Fields

Comparisons are odious even among the Doctors. Yet, the fact cannot be denied that the highest authority in the Church has singled out some of them for special praise, as for example, St. Augustine's writings on the subject of grace, St. John Damascene's defense of the veneration of sacred images, and the explanation of St. Cyril of Alexandria on the Oneness of Person and St. Leo the Great on the two natures in Christ. St. John of the Cross is a safe guide in mystical theology, as St. Alphonsus is in moral theology, while the Code of Canon Law prescribes that the method, principles, and doctrines of St. Thomas Aquinas are to be the basis of the philosophical and theological studies in all Catholic seminaries.

The Doctors' preeminence in the sacred sciences has made them in a certain sense the spokesmen of the Church. But we must always carefully distinguish between doctrines that had been settled either before or during their lifetime, and those that were defined only after their death. In regard to the former they were perfectly orthodox, but in regard to the latter they sometimes went astray or at least held opinions that are today regarded as untenable. Perhaps the clearest case is St. Jerome's attitude towards certain of the so-called deutero-canonical books. He refused to place them in his Vulgate translation of the Bible, while the Council of Trent, more than a thousand years later, declared them to be divinely inspired. But as a general rule their works threw new light on the questions under discussion, enabled their biblical and theological successors to anticipate the arguments of later heretics, and thus paved the way for the final decision of the authorized teaching-body in the Church.

Remarkable Sanctity of the Doctors

Christianity is not a philosophical system which proposes truths for the acceptance of the intellect. It is a way of life that demands the allegiance of the will. Knowledge of God will be of no avail for salvation unless it is combined with love of God. The Doctors must, like their Divine Master, be mighty in "work and word," leading the people to heaven by their example as well as by their sermons and writings. Holiness must be truly characteristic of them, as it is one of the distinguishing marks of the Church which they represent.

Moreover, just as the light of the sun shines more clearly through a clean rather than through a soiled window, so the rays of divine truth penetrate more easily and more deeply into a mind that is free from sin and detached from the things of this world. Thus, St. Pascal Baylon, a humble Franciscan lay-brother who had studied only the rudiments of the Catholic faith, amazed others by his correct explanation of the most profound dogmas. While St. Teresa of Avila was writing "The Interior Castle," a flash of divine truth so enlightened her that she "understood more truths about the highest things of God than if great theologians had taught her for a thousand years." The sanctity of the Doctors, therefore, is an added guarantee of their orthodoxy of doctrine.

Extreme Variety Manifested in Lives

Although these twenty-nine men have been raised to the altars, there is nothing stereotyped about their lives. Some of them, such as Ambrose and Gregory the Great, lived almost constantly in the limelight; Bede and John Damascene, on the contrary, labored in comparative obscurity. St. Basil was a man of dynamic energy, keenly interested in the ecclesiastical and social problems of the time, while his compatriot, St. Gregory Nazianzen, preferred a life of contemplation and only left his beloved solitude when the voice of duty called him to place his learning and eloquence at the service of the Church. There can hardly be a greater diversity of temperament than between the ardent, passionate Augustine and the calm, methodical Aquinas. St. Jerome's intense loyalty to the Church caused him to denounce heretics in fiery language, but St. Francis de Sales called the Calvinists his "brothers" and sought to win them by kindness.

Usually Persecuted for their Opinions

None of the Doctors shed their blood for Christ as the martyrs did, but they proved their love for Him in an unmistakable manner. The majority of them lived in periods of bitter religious controversy and had to bear the brunt of the battle. Their enemies usually had the support of the civil authorities and often succeeded in driving them into exile. At times vile calumnies were spread about them, and even well-meaning Catholics, anxious for peace at any price though it meant the sacrifice of important dogmas, accused them of seeking their own glory rather than the glory of God. Seldom were the Doctors permitted to see the complete triumph of the causes for which they had fought so valiantly. But they never lost hope and continued to labor to the end. They knew that in God's own time and way the truth would prevail, and that the seeming failures of Christianity, like the crucifixion on Calvary, are paradoxically the prelude to a glorious resurrection.

During the past 1900 years there have appeared many men who seemed to be destined to do great things for God and His Church. For example, after his conversion Tertullian became the foremost apologist of Christianity against the pagans and heretics. At the beginning of their public career, Arius and Pelagius were regarded as saints because of their zeal in preaching the Gospel and their practices of asceticism. But the brilliance of these men and their reputation for sanctity were but a thin veneer. Their hidden pride and inordinate self-love became immediately apparent when the Church condemned some doctrines that they taught. Instead of retracting, they stubbornly persisted in spreading their errors.

Humility and Loyalty of the Doctors

The Doctors, on the other hand, gave credit to God for whatever talents they possessed. Their humility of mind and will showed itself externally in their spirit of obedience. They submitted their writings on Scripture and theology to their ecclesiastical superiors, for they realized that, no matter how deeply versed an individual might be in such subjects, he could easily go astray by trusting exclusively to his own judgment. If they suspected any writer or preacher of heresy, one of the first things they generally did was to inform the Vicar of Christ, to abide by his decision, and to carry out his directions to the very letter. Some of the finest tributes to the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome over Christendom are to be found in the writings and sermons of the Doctors. It is not without significance that the statues of four of them — Ambrose and Augustine from the West, Athanasius and Chrysostom from the East — were selected to uphold the venerable chair of the Prince of the Apostles in the tribune of St. Peter's at Rome.

Explicit Approbation of the Holy See

The Bishop of Rome, as the lawful successor of St. Peter, is the supreme head of the Church and the infallible judge of faith and morals. It is his responsibility to see to it that the people are not led astray, for, as the history of the past 1900 years proves so abundantly, an error in doctrine leads inevitably to spiritual disaster. For this reason he alone may determine what men are qualified by their life and writings to aid him in teaching the flock committed to his care. But the manner in which the Sovereign Pontiffs have exercised this right forms an interesting page in the history of the Church.

In the early days of Christianity the bishop alone was accustomed to administer the Sacraments, to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass, and to instruct the people in their religious duties. He was after God the one mainly responsible for the birth of his flock to the supernatural life, and each one of them could say just as truly as St. Paul did to the Corinthians: "In Christ Jesus through the Gospel did I beget you." Each bishop, therefore, was called "Father," and the bishops of Christendom were known collectively as the "Fathers." But in the fifth century the practice arose of giving this same title to men who, though not members of the hierarchy, had aided in the spiritual development of the people by their sanctity as well as by their sermons and writings.

Because of their proximity to apostolic times and their learning the Fathers have always been held in the highest veneration as reliable interpreters of Sacred Scripture and true exponents of the Church's doctrine. For instance, all the homilies in the Roman Breviary, with but few exceptions, are selections from their works. Almost every General Council, from Nice in the fourth century to the Vatican in the nineteenth century, has appealed to them in settling the scriptural and theological problems with which it was concerned. In fact, to be in agreement with them in matters of faith and morals has always been one of the touchstones of orthodoxy. Thus, the oath against the insidious heresy of Modernism, drawn up by Pope Pius X, contains these words: "I hold the Faith of the Fathers most tenaciously and I shall do so until the end of my life."

Doctors Who Enjoyed Special Prestige

A few of the Fathers enjoyed greater prestige and authority than the others, In the Eastern Church a special feast was instituted on January 30 to pay common tribute to Sts. Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, and John Chrysostom. They were considered the earthly counterpart of the Father, Son, and. Holy Ghost. With vivid oriental imagery the liturgy on this occasion declared: "Let us consecrate with hymns the great lights of the divinity, as it were, of a triple sun." Sts. Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great enjoyed a similar position among the Catholics of the West. Their pictures adorned many medieval altars and pulpits. They were compared in literature and art to the Four Evangelists and to the four rivers that flowed from the Garden of Eden.

To Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1305), whose pontificate is associated with the memorable struggle against Philip the Fair of France, belongs the credit of ratifying officially this distinction among the Fathers. By a Decree of 1298 he raised the feasts of Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great to the same rank as that of the Apostles. These four men, therefore, were the first to receive explicit papal approval as Doctors of the Universal Church.

It is easy to explain why the pontiff did not confer this same honor upon Sts. Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, and John Chrysostom. During the Middle Ages Greek was practically unknown in the West, and only a few writings of the Eastern Fathers were available in a Latin translation. Moreover, the schism of Cerularius in 1054 had divided Christendom into two independent churches, and the Crusades had served only to increase the tension between Rome and Constantinople. Furthermore, Egypt and Syria, once renowned for their champions of the Catholic Faith in the days of Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, and Ephrem, had for centuries been the stronghold of the Nestorians and the Monophysites. Finally, the conquest of most of the Eastern Empire by the Moslems, the traditional foes of the Christians, raised up almost insuperable barriers between the East and the West, and prevented the free interchange of ideas. Under such circumstances it is hardly surprising that the Western theologians forgot the important part that the Eastern Fathers had once played in the history of the early Church.

In the fifteenth century, however, there was an undeniable revival of interest throughout the whole of Western Europe in the Greek and Latin writings of classical antiquity, known as the Renaissance or Humanism. Unfortunately many of the humanists went so far as to place the principles taught by the pagan authors above those of Christ. In order to counteract this harmful influence the "Christian Humanists" began to familiarize themselves and their contemporaries with the glories of ancient ecclesiastical literature. Their efforts were ably seconded by the arrival of scholars in Europe as a result of the growing power of the Ottoman Turks in the Eastern Empire, which led to the temporary end of the schism between Rome and Constantinople in 1439 and the seizure of the Eastern capital in 1453. These studies were intensified in the following century when the Protestants asserted that they were not innovators but merely returning to the doctrine of primitive Christianity. To prove their point they appealed to the early Fathers of the East and the West. The Catholic champions accepted the challenge and marshaled texts and arguments from these early writers to show the identity between the Catholic Church of antiquity and the Catholic Church of the sixteenth century.

Greatness of Eastern Doctors Recognized in West

The ecclesiastics of Europe now recognized the true intellectual stature of the early Eastern Saints, as well as the wealth of biblical and theological knowledge which their writings contained. Pope Pius V (1665-70) decided that the time had come to honor publicly these heroic defenders of the Faith and thereby proclaim to the Christians, separated from Rome by heresy or schism, the unity and universality of the Catholic Church. Consequently, in the revision of the Breviary which he authorized and promulgated in 1568, he listed Sts. Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, and Athanasius as Doctors of the Universal Church.

The Special Prestige of St. Thomas Aquinas

The Catholics of the sixteenth century owed a debt of gratitude not only to the writers of antiquity but also to many of the medieval scholastics. This was particularly true of St. Thomas Aquinas. His influence was paramount at the Council of Trent (1545-63). According to Pope Leo XIII, it was the practice of the bishops assembled there "to lay upon the altar, together with the code of Sacred Scripture and the decrees of the Supreme Pontiffs, the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, whence to seek counsel, reason, and inspiration." It was only fitting and just that his services to the Church at a critical moment in her history should be rewarded. Pius V, therefore, broke away from the centuries-old precedent that only the Fathers were to be considered as the public teachers of the Church, and in this same Breviary of 1568 he gave the title of Doctor to St. Thomas Aquinas. Other pontiffs, imitating his example, have increased the number of Doctors so that today there are three times as many as in the sixteenth century.

St. Alphonsus Liguori the Most Modern Doctor

While there are no carefully defined steps in this process of admitting new teachers of the faithful (as there are in that of canonization), certain unwritten rules are generally followed. The Holy See confers the title of Doctor upon a man only centuries after his death. The only exception thus far is St. Alphonsus Liguori, who died in 1787 and was declared a Doctor in 1871. The Church wishes to make sure that the writings of the Saint have withstood the acid test of time, just as it is the commonly accepted test of literary merit for an author to outlive his century. Proof must be furnished that the Catholics of succeeding generations have read his works, and that learned men have appealed to him in the solution of biblical and theological problems. Some of the present-day Doctors of the Universal Church had been honored with this title by the Catholics of certain localities almost from the time of their death. This was the case with Venerable Bede in England, St. Isidore in Spain and the Spanish-speaking countries, and St. Anthony of Padua in Portugal and Brazil as well as among the various branches of the Franciscan Order.

Letters are addressed to the Holy Father from bishops, Superiors of Orders and Congregations, the faculties of Catholic universities and other members of the Church respectfully asking him to confer the doctorate upon a particular Saint. The Sovereign Pontiff does not decide the matter immediately, even if he feels that these petitions echo the sentiments of the Catholic world. He refers it to the Sacred Congregation of Rites, whose Cardinal-Prefect appoints men, skilled in the ecclesiastical sciences, to re-investigate the Saint's life and writings. They do so in a very frank and thorough manner; at their sessions a "devil's advocate" may argue that the individual in question does not measure up to the rigorous standard of eminent learning or remarkable sanctity. If his objections are answered in a satisfactory manner, and if the examiners and members of the Sacred Congregation vote unanimously in favor of the Saint, only then does the Holy Father proclaim him a Doctor of the Church. Nowadays he informs the Catholic clergy and laity of his action in the pages of the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, official publication of the Holy See.

The Doctors Honored in the Liturgy

The Church is not content with sounding the praises of her Doctors in a document that may soon be forgotten, but singles them out in her Liturgy. Thus, there is a special Mass and Office which may be said only on their feast-day. This "Commune Doctorum," as it is called in the Missal and Breviary, is made up of prayers, selections from the Old and New Testament, and from the patristic writings, that are particularly appropriate to the teachers of the faithful. The Creed is always recited at their Mass because of their noteworthy defense or explanation of Catholic dogma — a privilege that is given to no other group of Saints except the Apostles and Evangelists. The most characteristic feature of the Divine Office is the antiphon which is recited at Vespers. Though brief, it aptly summarizes the sentiments of the Church: "O excellent Doctor, thou light of holy Church, blessed N., thou lover of the divine law, intercede with the Son of God for us."

Life of Doctors Perpetuated in Church

The care with which the Church selects her Doctors, the honored place she assigns them in her public and official worship, shows that their title is not purely honorary or a mere reward for past achievements. Rather she regards it as the addition of another chapter to the Saint's life, the beginning of a new, though posthumous, period of activity in the service of Christ.

Her purpose, therefore, will be defeated if the works of the Doctors are neglected, and if they themselves remain dim, shadowy figures instead of creatures of flesh and blood. It is most encouraging to note the appearance in recent years of such splendid biographies as St. Ambrose by Dudden, St. Anthony of Padua by Raphael Huber, O.F.M., St. Peter Canisius and St. Robert Bellarmine by James Brodrick, S.J. Equally worthy of praise are Allison Peer's English translation of the works of St. John of the Cross, and the popularization of the Summa Theologica of Aquinas by Walter Farrell, O.P. Regarding such books we can only quote the well-known words of the young boy to St. Augustine: "Take, read."

The study of the lives and writings of Doctors will pay rich dividends. The reader will be forced to admire the Providence of God, who down through the centuries has raised up so many men to preserve the doctrine of Christ in its original purity and to watch over its orderly development. He will have a clearer and more profound knowledge of the Bible as well as of the unchanging and unchangeable principles of dogmatic, moral, and ascetical theology. Often too these books will make him better equipped to meet the challenge of the modern enemies of the Church, who have revived under a different name many of the errors that the Doctors refuted centuries ago. And finally their example will convince him that sanctity is not only possible under the most adverse circumstances, but that in our day as in theirs it is a most effective argument for the divinity of the Catholic Church.

© Homiletic & Pastoral Review / Ignatius Press

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