Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Saintly Scholars of the Church

by Fr. Stephen McKenna


The Saintly Scholars of the Church

Larger Work

The Ecclesiastical Review



Publisher & Date

American Ecclesiastical Review for The Catholic University of America, August 1942

Of the thousands of saints listed in the Roman Martyrology only twenty-eight (now thirty-four) have been accorded the title "Doctor of the Universal Church."1 The Church has assigned a special Mass and Office for this select group. In the antiphon at Vespers she addresses them as: "O excellent teacher, the light of Holy Church, blessed N., lover of the divine law, intercede with the Son of God for us." In the Gospel she applies to them the significant words of Christ: "You are the salt of the earth." "You are the light of the world." One of the best ways to appreciate the position and significance of the Doctors of the Church is to compare them with the "Fathers of the Church."

According to the text-books of Patrology, the term "Fathers" refers to the saints who wrote in the centuries when the influence of the ancient Greek and Roman culture was still evident in the life of the Church. This period came to an end in Europe with the death of St. Isidore of Seville in 636, while it continued in the East until the death of St. John Damascene about the year 749. But the Doctors of the Church span the centuries from St. Athanasius who was born in the closing decade of the third century to St. Alphonsus Liguori who died in 1787, two years before the outbreak of the French Revolution.

The Fathers and Doctors were men of great natural talents and many of them had been highly trained in secular subjects, such as rhetoric, law, and philosophy. But the Church honors them solely as the official witnesses and guardians of the divine Revelation contained in Scripture and Tradition. She lays it down as a general principle that the Doctors must be "eminent for their learning", that is, conspicuous for their knowledge of the sacred sciences. "They are not only teachers in the Church", writes Pope Benedict XIV, "but teachers of the Church",2 or to quote St. Hilary: "They are the preachers of heavenly things and, as it were, the sowers of eternity."3 Because of their skill in defending and explaining the doctrines of the Church the Creed is always recited in the Mass said on their feast-day. It is a point worthy of note that the Doctors of the Church were usually both "Apostles of the Pen" and preachers of the Gospel. Some of them, notably St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Leo the Great, and St. Cyril of Jerusalem owe their fame as exegetes and theologians to their sermons rather than to their written works.

The Fathers and Doctors guided men to the Truth not only by their learning but also by their example. Like Our Saviour they were "mighty in work and word before God and all the people." (St. Luke 24:19) Their holiness moreover is an added guarantee of the orthodoxy of their teaching. "Remarkable sanctity" then is a characteristic note of the Doctors of the Church. It is true that some Fathers, such as St. Justin and St. Cyprian, received the crown of martyrdom while all the Doctors are honored only as confessors. But would these men, who had such a passionate love for the Church, and who generally overcame tremendous obstacles in the defense of her doctrine, have hesitated for a moment to make the supreme sacrifice if they had ever been called upon to do so?

A writer of Christian antiquity whose works have been cited by the Vicar of Christ or by an ecumenical council in favor of a certain doctrine, or who has been merely praised by them for his learning and sanctity, is regarded as a Father of the Church. But the "explicit approbation" of the highest ecclesiastical authority is necessary before anyone can be given the title of Doctor of the universal Church. This approval does not mean that the Church accepts all their theological opinions for we must never forget the development and clarification which many dogmas have undergone in the course of time. Moreover even the Doctors who lived nearer to our own time do not always measure up to the high standards set by modern Catholic scholars who have specialized in the study of Sacred Scripture, Theology, and History. The reasons that have led the Sovereign Pontiffs to single out certain individuals as Doctors form an interesting page in the history of the Church.

The Fathers of the Church never enjoyed greater popularity than they did during the Middle Ages. To hold fast to their doctrines was then regarded as one of the touchstones of orthodoxy. Pope and Council invariably invoked them in settling disputed questions of theology or of canon law. The sermons to which the laity in those centuries listened were often the homilies of the Fathers translated into the vernacular languages. A few of these patristic writers were held in greater reverence than the others. In the East Saints Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, and John Chrysostom were "the great ecumenical teachers." They were regarded as the earthly counterpart of the Blessed Trinity. "Let us celebrate with hymns the great lights of the Divinity, as it were, of a triple sun" was a prayer said on the feast celebrated in their honor on January 30, one of the most solemn days of the liturgical year in the Greek Church. In Europe the saints most frequently quoted and whose opinions carried the greatest weight in theological controversies were the four western Doctors: Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great. Their pictures adorned many medieval altars and pulpits. They were sometimes compared to the four Evangelists and to the four rivers that flowed from Paradise.

Pope Boniface VIII in 1295, the first year of his memorable and troubled pontificate, placed the feasts of the four western Fathers in the same class with those of the Apostles and Evangelists and gave official sanction to the title of Doctor which they had enjoyed for so many centuries. His reason for doing so was because "by their profound and beautiful discourses the glorious fabric of the Church is resplendent, as it were, with flashing gems." The Sovereign Pontiff did not, however, accord a similar honor to Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, and John Chrysostom. This lack of appreciation for the saints to whom theology owed so much is easily explained. Hardly any of the ecclesiastics in medieval Europe could understand Greek and only a few of the works of the eastern theologians were available in a Latin translation. Moreover the schism of Cerularius in 1054 had thrown up an almost insuperable barrier between Rome and Constantinople. Christendom from the middle of the eleventh century was divided into two isolated and independent churches, the temporary reconciliations in the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries serving only to accentuate the differences between them.

It was not until three centuries later that justice was done to the learned saints of the Greek Church. Pope Pius V (1566-72), the great reform pontiff of the sixteenth century, published a revised edition of the Roman Breviary in the year 1568. In it he listed Saints Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, and Athanasius as Doctors of the Church. He selected the last-named saint either to emphasize the similarity in learning between the Greek and Latin Church, or more probably because of the help Athanasius had given to the Church in western Europe during the trying days when the Emperor Constantius was trying to foist Arianism upon the Catholics. Two events were mainly responsible for this change in the attitude of the Holy See.

(1) The Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth century led to a marked revival of interest in ancient Greek and Latin literature. Some European scholars of the time read only the pagan authors for they regarded as "barbarous" any work that bore the impress of Christianity. The Christian humanists on the contrary realized that it was historically inaccurate to ignore the Fathers of the Church who had done so much to mould the culture and civilization of Europe and whose literary style in many cases was not inferior to that of the best classical models. Hence they studied the early Greek as well as the early Latin Fathers, or, as C. Kneller has aptly observed: "The Church in the West now recognized in the great Doctors of the Orient flesh of their flesh and bone of their bone; they were, like the western Doctors, representative of the one, universal Church."4 The lists of the books in the European libraries of the sixteenth century reveal the increasing popularity of the writings of Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, and Athanasius.

(2) One of the favorite slogans of the Protestant Reformers was "Back to the doctrine of the primitive Church." Thus Luther in his debate with Eck at Leipzig in 1519 quoted the Greek Fathers in favor of his theological opinions and later Protestant authors and preachers imitated his example. The Catholic controversialists could not afford to ignore this challenge. They were obliged to make a careful investigation of the Greek as well as of the Latin Fathers in order to show the continuity of doctrine between the Catholic Church of antiquity and the Catholic Church of the sixteenth century.

Pius V was also responsible for another important innovation in regard to the Doctors of the Church. At the Council of Trent (1545-63), which marked a turning-point in the history of theology, the writer most often referred to was not one of the early Greek and Latin Fathers but St. Thomas Aquinas who lived and died in the thirteenth century. "The Fathers of Trent," wrote Pope Leo XIII, "made it part of the order of the conclave to lay upon the altar, together with the Sacred Scripture and the decrees of the Supreme Pontiffs, the Summa of St. Thomas. Aquinas whence to seek counsel, reason, and inspiration."5 It was eminently fitting therefore that St. Thomas should be rewarded and in 1567 the Holy Father declared him a Doctor of the universal Church. By thus honoring a writer of the Middle Ages Pius V denied the accusation of the Protestants that Scholasticism had been a period of hopeless confusion in the intellectual world and that the medieval theologians had sought to place human reason above the Word of God.

Other pontiffs followed the example of Pius V in not limiting the dignity of Doctor to the saintly scholars of Christian antiquity. They usually conferred it upon a man whose life and writings had been carefully examined and highly recommended by the Sacred Congregation of Rites. At times the Vicars of Christ merely ratified the title of Doctor which a saint had enjoyed for many centuries in a particular country. It was in this way, for example, that St. Isidore of Seville and St. Venerable Bede became Doctors of the universal Church. In recent times the Holy See has deservedly placed in the rank of Doctors writers of the early Church, such as Saints Ephrem and Cyril of Jerusalem, who were comparatively unknown for centuries, but whose theological importance has been clearly established by the researches of critical historians.

The Doctors make their first appearance in the period immediately following the persecutions when the Church, triumphant over her enemies from without, had to face the more subtle and more dangerous attacks from within her own ranks. They devoted all their energy and talents to a refutation of the early heresies—Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, and Pelagianism which denied the fundamental doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and Supernatural Grace. They were concerned almost exclusively with the specific heresy that had arisen during their lifetime and did not attempt a comprehensive survey of Catholic doctrine such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen had done. Their usual manner of refuting the heretics was by appealing to the texts of Sacred Scripture and the oral Traditions of the Apostles, as they were explained by the infallible successors of St. Peter at Rome and proclaimed to the world at the great ecumenical councils. Neo-Platonism, purged of its errors, is the philosophy which they favored, though St. Basil and especially St. Augustine are the only Doctors who used it extensively. Only occasionally did the Patristic Doctors feel it necessary to take up the pen against paganism, for the conversion of the Roman Emperors to Christianity sealed the doom of the heathen religion which depended upon the State for its support.

The spread of the Christological errors in Egypt and Syria, the schism of Cerularius, the conquest of the Byzantine empire by the followers of Mahomet, cast a blight upon the eastern Church from which it never recovered. The leadership in theology definitely passed to the Church in Europe during the Middle Ages. The Doctors during this period had no formidable heresies to combat and hence made no noteworthy progress in the scientific exegesis of Sacred Scripture or in the systematic study of positive theology. "They devoted themselves to a great work", as Leo XIII said in the Encyclical already cited, "that of diligently collecting, sifting, and storing up, as it were, in one place for the use and convenience of posterity the rich and voluminous harvest of learning, scattered abroad in the works of the holy Fathers." The best-known of the medieval Doctors were philosophers who analyzed the doctrines of the Church with all due reverence. They proved that reason does not contradict but clarifies the truths of revelation and enables the theologian to defend them more easily against the attacks of heretics and unbelievers. Without Scholastic Philosophy St. Thomas could never have written the Summa Theologica in which he synthesized the whole of Catholic theology and pointed out the harmony between dogmas of faith that appeared to be irreconcilable.

The Doctors of the Post-Reformation period lived in an atmosphere of controversy. But unlike their predecessors in the earlier centuries who could concentrate upon the defense of one dogma, they were obliged to justify almost all the dogmatic, ascetical and moral teachings of the Church. The attacks of the Reformers forced them to make a scientific study of Sacred Scripture, to lay greater emphasis upon positive theology, and to discuss explicitly for the first time the hierarchical nature of the Church—a dogma that had been universally accepted for more than a thousand years. They did not of course neglect the precious heritage bequeathed to them by the Doctors of the Middle Ages and profited especially by the principles and methods of St. Thomas. One striking difference between the Doctors of this period and those of the Middle Ages was that while the latter wrote only in Latin, the former did not hesitate at times to use the vernacular languages: Italian, Spanish, French, German, and Dutch. This employment of the language of the people was in keeping with the salutary counsel of Trent which had recommended the instructing of the laity in their religion and in the principles of solid Christian piety.

Two Sovereign Pontiffs are listed among the Doctors of the Church, eighteen bishops, seven priests, and one deacon. They are truly representative of a Church that points to catholicity as one of its characteristic marks. This is evident from the modern names of the countries in which they were born: Italy, France, Germany, Holland, England, Africa, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Turkey. This fact makes us realize the truth of Tertullian's phrase: "The soul is naturally Christian", and also demonstrates how the various nations have aided in the construction of the magnificent edifice of Catholic theology.

While the Doctors differ in ability, character, and rank in the Church, there is one trait that characterizes all of them. They did not bury their talents; they did not hide their light under a bushel. With the aid of God's grace they boldly met and answered the challenge which the pagans and heretics of their day hurled against the teachings of Christ. Their lives as well as their writings impressed upon their contemporaries and upon subsequent generations that only in humble submission to the one divinely-established Church would they be able to find peace and happiness in this world and in the world to come. As a mark of recognition for their notable services to the Church, the statues of four Doctors, Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius, and Chrysostom—two from the West and two from the East—were selected to uphold the venerable chair of the Prince of the Apostles in the tribune of St. Peter's in Rome.

1 Patristic Period:
East: Athanasius, Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, Ephrem, Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Damascene.
West: Hilary, Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose, Peter Chrysologus, Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, Isidore.

Middle Ages: Bede, Peter Damien, Anselm, Bernard, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Albert the Great.

Post-Reformation Period: Peter Canisius, John of the Cross, Bellarmine, Francis de Sales, Alphonsus Liguori.
More recent: St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Francis de Sales, St. John of the Cross, St. Lawrence of Brindisi, St. Peter Canisius, St. Robert Bellarmine, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux.

2 De Servorum Dei Beatificatione, Liber IV, pars ii, caput xii.

3 Commentary on St. Matthew's Gospel, c. 4.

4 "Zum Verzeichnis der Kirchenlehrer", Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie, XL (1916), p. 22.

5 Encyclical, Aeterni Patris.

For more information visit the Doctors of the Church website.

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