Saturday, January 10, 2015


Pretend for a moment that you have a friend in Germany named Hans, and you are going to spend a few weeks of your vacation at his home in Frankfurt.  Everything goes fine for a few days until you awaken in the middle of one night with a terrible cough and sore throat.  You knock on Hans’ bedroom door and say to him, using your inadequate German vocabulary for what you think translates the English word, “doctor” into German, as you say, “I need to see a doktor!”  Hans mumbles back to you in his sleepy German, “What kind of doktor do you want to see?  A Doktor of Philosophy,  a Doktor of Mathematics or a Doktor of Science, or some other kind of Doktor?”  Hans thinks you are talking in your sleep with your excited utterance for the need of a doktor. You in turn think Hans likewise is talking in his sleep with his “crazy questions” to you.  “What on earth are you talking about?” you ask. “I’m sick; I need to see an emergency-room physician.”  Hans has by now opened his door and says to you, “Oh, you don’t need a doktor; you need an Arzt!”

Using the German language to introduce an essay on “Doctors of the Church” demonstrates that in German, the word we use in English for “Doctor” is primarily a mis-use, whereas the Germans use their word Doktor literally and correctly.  The ordinary English use of “Doctor” is, in German, Arzt, or a “physician. What is the principle definition, not just in German, but in English as well, of “Doctor?”  The answer is found in the number 1(first) definition of the English, “Doctor,” in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language (Unabridged), as follows: “A religious scholar who is eminent in theological learning and personal holiness and usually an expounder and defender of established doctrine.”  Webster’s example of the correct usage of “Doctor” in a sentence is, “St. Jerome was one of the great Doctors of the church.”  Only farther down the page in Webster’s (p. 666), do we get to the number 2 definition of “doctor,” as “one skilled or specializing in healing arts: a practitioner of medicine, dentistry, or veterinary medicine.”

English has become something of a lazy language, whereas the Germans learn from elementary school on up the accurate and precise use of their words, and strictly use their language based on that principle. This is why they have so many more words in their formal vocabulary than does English (about one-third more than English).  The German use of the Latin, doctores ecclesiae, or “Doctors” of the Church,” is their word that the English Webster’s uses to define our word, “Doctor,” which in German is “Doktor.”  But enough German for one day!  Now that we know the formal definition of “Doctor” in the Catholic phrase, “Doctors of the Church,” we shall move toward answering the questions, “What is a Doctor of the Church in Catholic usage? Where does the phrase originate?  Who were (and are) the Doctors of the Church?  What did they, and what do they, contribute to our Catholic faith?

Introduction: A Catholic Theology of the Intellectual Life

The continuity of reason and faith is a central pillar in Catholic thought. One principal example of this professsion is St. Pope John Paul II's 1998 encyclical letter, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason). There the pope affirms the Catholic teaching that the human quest for truth, most particularly the truth that transcends us and is God, is a quest to grow in our humanity, a quest to know who we are as humans and to know our place in the natural world. What is more, the human desire to know is given to us by God, a gift that comes from God's own desire to be known. In other words, human striving toward knowledge and truth can result in the fulfillment of God's will, an assent to God's dream that we might come to know God as God is. Intellectuals clearly have a major role to play in this search, a search that is not for the benefit of themselves alone but for the benefit of all people.

The foremost group of Catholic intellectuals, that from the early church to recent times, most strongly undergirds the foundation of humanity's search to know God as God is, has been given the name "Doctors of the Church." We will explore the meaning of this phrase and come to know what they have done for the church, and further, no matter how ancient some of them are, what they are still doing for the church. They are saints and teachers, monks, priests, bishops, and nuns. They faced opposition and exile, were chased and harrassed by secular rulers, often times wanderers and hermits in hiding. They lived in periods of confusion and conflict. Yet, their teachings and insights not only brought peace and understanding to the Church of their time, but continue to anchor the Church of today.

They brought clarity to the fragments of Church knowledge, and simplicity to the complex expression of dogma. They used speeches, documents, poems, and songs to reach the people of their time -- and through their written records they reach us today. With Pope Benedict XVI, who named the last two Doctors in 2012 before he retired from the papacy, their total number comes to thirty-five as of 2012. We take an incredible journey through time to better understand these individuals who explored and explained the critical teachings of the Church. They were masters at defining the Christian understanding of that most difficult of all relationships -- the Church and the world.

First, let's make sure we understand the title "Doctors" given to these greatest of intellectuals in the Church.

Part One: Defining "Doctors of the Church" Correctly

So what is the correct definition of the English,"Doctor," in the phrase "Doctor of the Church?" The answer may surprise you as we turn to the foremost source for defining the fundamental meaning of English words. The correct English usage of "Doctor" is found in the first (i.e., primary) definition of the English word "Doctor," in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language (Merriam-Webster, Unabridged), as follows: A Doctor is "[a] religious scholar who is eminent in theological learning and personal holiness and usually an expounder and defender of established doctrine." Webster’s example of the correct usage of "Doctor" in a sentence is: "St. Jerome was one of the great Doctors of the church." Only farther down the Dictionary's page 666, where "Doctor" is defined as above, i.e., "as a religious scholar," do we get to the second (i.e.secondary) definition of "doctor," as "one skilled or specializing in healing arts: a practitioner of medicine, dentistry, or veterinary medicine."

This essay will not misuse the English word, doctor, in its secondary definition. Instead, we will use only the primary definition ofdoctor. So let's eradicate "one skilled or specializing in healing arts" as we proceed with this study of "Doctors of the Church," and focus only on "[a] religious scholar who is eminent in theological learning and personal holiness."

Part Two: What is the Catholic History and Usage of "Doctors of the Church

We must date the four earliest Doctors of the Western Latin Church not by a particular date, because, for one thing, they themselves didn't even know they were "Doctors," and never referred to themselves and each other by that title. The first four Doctors -- addressed by this title only informally and colloquially in their own day by educated Christians, and not by the hierarchy of the organized Church -- only came to be called by that title formally and with honor by the Church's magisterium centuries after they had served as what much later came to be called "official" Doctors. As for dates of origin of the title, the average early Christians in the years when the four earliest Doctors of the Western Latin Church served the Church naturally knew their servants. These early Christians would have been the best people to answer the question of the Doctors' titles by dates of origin as servants and leaders of the early Church. However, since we don't have common records of these dates, we must approximate the dates of service of the four earliest doctors from the dates when they lived.

Setting aside the fact of their only being called Doctors formally and officially centuries after their deaths, the Church, in 1298, had eventually come to an agreed-upon recognition at the highest levels of who these first four Doctors of the Western Latin Church were, namely: (1) St. Augustine (354-430), (2) St. Ambrose (339-97) (both bishops in the Western Latin Church), (3) St. Pope Gregory I ("the Great" -- pope from 590 to 604) and the leading Catholic Scholar of Scripture, (4) St. Jerome (342-420). This first date, 1298, that we have for the recognition and naming of these earliest Doctors was the date of the first formalized recognition and selection of Doctors -- by Pope Boniface VIII (1234-1303). This date is roughly seven centuries after the dates of death of the four earliest Western Latin Doctors.

As for the application of the title Doctor, we find that at first, "Doctor" was merely a colloquial epithet or "nickname" of sorts that passed to eminent theologians from time to time by scholars and bishops of the Latin West. However, the Eastern Greek Church has never applied the phrase "Doctor of the Church" to its own eminent and universal teachers, although Rome has always used the title "Doctor" for the Greek equivalents of Western Doctors of the Church. The Greeks instead use the words "Theologian" and "Hierarchs" [The Anglican Church likewise does not use "Doctor of the Church" for its saints who also happen to be Doctors of the Catholic Church. Instead, the Anglicans refer to such men as "Teachers of the Faith."]

A second, post-1298 date for formally recognizing and naming men as Doctors of the Church in the Latin West is 1567, which was during the papacy of St. Pope Pius V (1504-72). He named St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) as a Doctor of the Latin West, and in the same year named the following eminent theologians of the Greek East -- calling them "Doctors" in spite of the Greeks disdain for the western title Doctor. These Greek theologians honored by St. Pope Pius V in the Latin West with the title "Doctor" in 1567 were: (1) St. John Chrysostom (347-407) (Bishop of Constantinople); (2) St. Basil the Great (330-379) (Priest, monk, preacher and heresy fighter); (3) St. Gregory Nazianzus (329-389) (Priest, monk, briefly Bishop of Constantinople before resigning and writing a theology of the Holy Spirit); (4) St. Athanasius (298-373) (Bishop of Alexandria, theological leader at the Council of Nicaea). By 1567, then, the Church had firmly decided that its Doctors were a different, higher intellectual class of Catholic prelates, and from that date onward "Doctors of the Church" became a permanent order of men honored by recognition, service and dignity within the Church, much like "The College of Cardinals" had become a permanent order of service by 1586.

The title "Doctor," was used in naming these men in 1298 and 1567, respectively, simply because that title had been in use by the scholarly Roman philosophers of themselves. (The Church co-opted many words from pagan Roman Latin, such as, for example,diocese.) The Church's usage of Doctor was an informal philosophical designation going back to Roman intellectuals such as Cicero, who described Plato as a Doctor. Roman philosophers thus used Doctor to describe someone who engaged in Doctrina("teaching"), which meant for them the act of instructing or training students in the higher forms of education, especially in classical Latin. Thus the Church's title "Doctor" was at first simply an analogy drawing its meaning from pagan Roman scholars who themselves, centuries before Christ, were first called "Doctors" -- not "of the Church" of course, but of "philosophy, science, mathematics and literature."

The first Christian application of the term doctor to the life of the Church was by Tertullian (160-225), an African Church Father, although a layman, who in his treatise, Objection against Heretics (c. 200), uses Doctor both to refer to priests and also to indicate how all Christian teachers depend ultimately on the Holy Spirit. Tertullian explained his rationale as follows: "If the apostles themselves, who were appointed as doctors to the nations, were to follow the Paraclete as their doctor, how much more room was there for us in the saying, 'Seek and you shall find' -- we to whom teaching comes further down through the apostles, just as the apostles had their teaching through the Holy Spirit."

Unfortunately for the Church, Tertullian in 206 joined an heretical sect, Montanism. Yet, he influenced early Latin Christianity, establishing Doctor as a generic term for all who gave instruction in the faith with the greatest degree of eminence and universality. Long after Tertullian, Doctor had come to be used routinely for the following eminent, universal and leading teachers of the faith of the Church, who now, in the present life of the Church, may be categorized as follows: Among the present 35 Doctors of the Church, and as of the year 2012, 27 are from the Western Latin Church and 8 from the Eastern Greek Church; there are 18 bishops, 12 priests, 1 deacon, 4 religious sisters; 26 come from Europe, 3 from Africa, 6 from Asia. More Doctors (12) lived during the 4th Century than any other century.

What, then, is the role within the Church's history and in its present day of a "Doctor of the Church" in Catholic usage? Who were (and are) the Doctors of the Church? What did they, and what do they, contribute to our Catholic faith? To answer these questions, let's start by imagining we are entering St. Peter's Basilica and looking toward the very back of the great church. Since at least the 1200's, an ancient wooden chair, named the cathedra Petri, or "St. Peter's Throne," has been venerated in the rear of the cathedral as the throne on which the Apostle Peter, the first Bishop of Rome, sat when he taught the faith to early Christians.

The next major date (after 1298 and 1567) leading to the further solidifying of the permanent class of Doctors in the Church was 1656. In that year, the famous sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, entered into a project assigned to him by Pope Alexander VII (1655-1667), to make the cathedra Petri into a reliquary. The pope was himself an intellectual and determined to enshrine the cathedra Petri in a manner befitting its importance as the symbol of the teaching authority of St. Peter. Alexander realized the importance of emphasizing to the faithful who visited St. Peter's Basilica, and from there throughout the Church, the growing Catholic theology of the intellectual life. Underlying the pope's desire for a reliquary was his belief that St. Peter had the first, although perhaps a primitive vision (for a fisherman Apostle) of the Catholic intellectual life. Alexander believed that St. Peter's own teaching, seated on his famous Throne, had given rise to an understaning of the importance of eminent teachers in the Church. Accordingly, he persuaded Bernini to sculpt four statues of famous Doctors of the Church -- two from the West and two from the East -- and to add his statues to the reliquary structure which the great artist was making to surround the cathedra Petri 

Bernini enclosed the cathedra Petri inside a huge structure with large marble pillars. Onto the pillars he sculpted four towering bronze figures, appearing to support St. Peter's teaching throne -- and artistically actually doing so. (Bernini later also sculpted in a side altar in St. Peter's the famous reclining figure of St. Theresa of Avila in an ecstatic mystical state. Little did the sculptor know that in fact he had added one more Doctor to the Church -- this time a woman, to be formally selected in 1970 by Pope Paul VI -- to the four males sorrounding St. Peter's Throne.) Artistically, the four figures have enormous power and expressivity, and were used by Bernini to illustrate that the Catholic intellectual tradition descended in time from the early Church, initially to support the "seat of learning," or St. Peter's Throne. The four statues added to the reliquary of the cathedra Petri were two Doctors from the Latin West -- St. Augustine and St. Ambrose -- and two from the Greek East -- St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom.

Part Three: An Historical Interruption -- The Schism Between Eastern and Western Churches

Naming two doctors from the Western, Latin Church, and two from the Eastern, Greek Church, as statuary symbols based on Bernini's 1656 sculpture was an ecumenical gesture on the part of Pope Alexander VII. To explain this statement, we should investigate the historical background underlying a full-scale Schism between two parts of the Church, namely, the Latin Western Church in Rome and the Greek Eastern Church in Byzantium (a city later named Constantinople). A rancorous division between Cardinals named by the Pope in Rome on the one hand, and the Patriarch of Constantinople, on the other hand, reached its climax in the year 1054. The resulting schism between West and East would come to have an influence on the selection and naming of Doctors of the Church. Greek Eastern Christians in Byzantium wanted their candidates named Doctors, and Rome wanted theirs.

The Byzantine Church did not like the Roman bishops' efforts to set Rome up as the chief center for all of Christianity, both west and east, under the Bishop of Rome. The Greek Patriarch, Archbishop Michael, advanced the claim that it was Constantinople and not Rome that infallibly preserved the ancient faith. Michaell closed all the Latin-rite churches in Constantinople. Pope Leo IX (1048-1054) responded by sending a delegation to Constantinople, headed by Cardinal Humbert, to determine if the two churches could reach some kind of accord. Humbert was not the right man to send to Constantinople on a mission of reconciliation.

He arrived in the city and began issuing orders to Byzantine bishops as if they were his servants. He proudly displayed a list of more than 90 heresies of which he proclaimed the Byzantine Church was guilty. Patriarch Michael refused to negotiate with Humbert and his team, prompting them to leave Constantinople and return to Rome, departing on July 16, 1054, but not before they went to the holiest, most important mother church of the Greek east, Hagia Sophia ("Holy Wisdom"), and placed a decree excommunicating Patriarch Michael on the main altar. Not to be outdone in hostility, Michael in turn excommunicated Humbert and St. Pope Leo IX (1002-54), the latter of whom had taken no part in the controversies other than appointing Humbert.

This digression away from the efforts to solidify further the permanence of the class of Doctors of the Church was relevant to our discussion of Doctors of the Church. It can be seen that, with both churches excommunicating theologians from the other side and insulting each other in harsh and condemnatory language for six hundred years that the notion of recognizing Doctors of the Church from either side and naming them as great and eminent teachers of the one, true faith, tended to make overly complicated the process of naming Doctors in a formal manner.

Part Four: Summarizing the Doctors of the Church from St. Augustine to St. Hildegard of Bingen: The Stunning Addition of Women As Doctors

The phrase "Doctors of the Church" was not new with in the seventeenth century with Bernini and Pope Alexander VII, nor was it invented by the bishops of Rome. However, with Bernini's masterpiece enclosing the cathedra Petri in the figures of four Doctors of the early church, and with Pope Alexander VII's personal expertise and interest in writings that were adjudged to be eminent in their sacred doctrine and scholarship, the bishops of Rome established an unbreakable bond between papal teaching authority and Christendom's most prestigious community of eminent theologians -- the Doctors of the Church. Just as the popes asserted ultimate authority over the canonization process for those persons nominated for sainthood (and as they became the leading authority figures making such nominations), so too, by the end of the sixteenth century, the popes had asserted the prerogative formally to recognize and select Doctors of the Church.

After Pope Alexander VII's tenure as pope, and after the building of St. Peter's Basilica was completed, more recent Doctors came to be selected. Gradually three criteria emerged as essential conditions necessary for someone to be declared a Doctor: (1) eminent teaching, (2) outstanding sanctity, and, of course, (3) official declaration by the church. When a saint is declared a Doctor, criterion number (2) tends to be pushed to the forefront, so that the saint's writings don't necessarily have to be masterpieces of theology. Likewise, criterion number (1) can make up for issues related to the saint's failure to excel in saintly charisms like working miracles. For example, perhaps the greatest Doctor in the Church's listing for having achieved eminent teaching, St. Thomas Aquinas, stirred up grumblings among some in the church about his opposition to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, tending to make his sanctity appear less outstanding.


Until 1970, no woman was named a Doctor of the Church. There are several ways to analyze and respond to this pre-1970 vacancy of women from within the Church's major office for establishing and honoring its elite group of intellectuals, the Doctors of the Church. Why were not women called by the Church to join men -- men who from the early Church to recent times, truthfully and capably sought after the Catholic foundation of humanity's search to know God as God is? Was the Catholic theology of the intellectual life stunted and diminished by the lack of women's voices within the search by the Church's Doctors to answer God's calling for humanity to know God as fully as humanly possible? These are questions that cannot be answered, because we cannot know how the history of Doctors of the Church would have been different had women been present from earliest times. The reason for this is self-evidently persuasive. Because the history of Doctors of the Church did not include women, we have nothing with which to compare the absence of women against the selection only of men as Doctors of the Church.

Further, the exclusion of women was not a Catholic decision; rather, it was a global historical decison. Women in the Church up until the 20th Century were treated like women in every other human institution. Women simply were not given educational opportunities equal to those given to men until the beginning of the mid-20th Century. The Church did not cause this situatiion The Church simply lived in a world where women were not educated to the highest extent to be qualified as Doctors of the Church. But since 1970 and through 2012, at least as a start, the absence of women from the society of Doctors of the Church has been eliminated, just as women's rights have improved generally throughout the world in the last half-century.

Pope Paul VI, St. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have taken a courageous and innovative stance on including women among the Doctors of the Church. We cannot expect, nor can we require, that the four women selected as Doctors will teach, write, think and evangelize exactly as male Doctors. Women Doctors will bring fresh and invigorating visions into the community of Doctors of the Church. However their visions will not simply be a duplicates of what male Doctors do and have already done. Women will be Doctors in different ways from the ways male Doctors have been and are Doctors. Women Doctors will be just that -- Doctors as women.

The future addition of women to the rank of Doctors will contribute greatly, enormously and conclusively to the Catholic theology of the Church's intellectual life. The history of women's absence from the ranks of Doctors of the Church is over. By adding the first four women to the Doctors, the Church's eminent teaching mission has already grown in positive directions, and can only improve as more and more women are added in upcoming years. It is pointless to condemn the Church for not living in accordance with universal historical norms of past centuries in which women were excluded -- not just from being Doctors of the Church, but from nearly every human endeavor. Now history will go in a new direction. Four women are now Doctors of the Church. More will be selected. This process can only enrich the calling of Doctors of the Church and heighten the service of the male and female Doctors to come.

The Church cannot be blamed for not naming women to become Doctors of the Church until 1970. It was not the Church that should be held accountable for patterns of history restricting women from living fuller lives -- whether in the Church or in global society as a whole. The Church has lived until the 21st Century hemmed in by history, as has every other human institution. History is now changing, and the Church will change with it. This will lead to more women becoming Doctors of the Church in years ahead.

The four women who have now become Doctors of the Church are (1) St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), and (2) St. Teresa of Avila (a/k/a "St. Teresa of Jesus") (1515-82), both named Doctors in 1970 by Pope Paul VI (1963-1978). The third woman Doctor, named in 1997 by St. John Paul II, was (3) St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-97), popularly called "The Little Flower," which was the sub-title of her autobiography; she was also called "St. Therese of the Child Jesus." The fourth and latest woman Doctor was (4) St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), selected by Pope Benedict XVI on October 7, 2012.

[Pope Benedict, on the same day as his naming St. Hildegard a Doctor, also named St. John of Avila (1500-69), a trusted counsellor of St. Teresa of Avila, as a Doctor.]

The Holy Spirit will guide the Church in its selection of women as Doctors of the Church. Hence we have nothing to fear and everything to look forward to, as the Spirit brings new life to the Church.

Conclusion: Naming the Thirty-Five Doctors

Fourteen Doctors Already Discussed Above: (1) St. Augustine (354-430), (2) St. Ambrose (339-97), (3) St. Pope Gregory I (590 to 604); (4) St. Jerome (342-420); (5) St. John Chrysostom (347-407); (6) St. Athanasius (296-373); (7) St. Basil the Great (330-379); (7) St. Gregory Nazianzus (329-389); (8) St. Athanasius (296-373) ; (9) (St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274); (10) St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380); (11) St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582); (12) St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897); (13) St.Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179); (14) St. John of Avila (1500-1569) .

The remaining twenty-one Doctors:

Doctor                              Translated Latin Title       Date Selected        Ministry as Doctor
St. Bonaventure                 Seraphic Doctor              1588                      Cardinal Bishop of Alban
St. Anselm                         Magnificent Doctor        1720                       Archbishop of Canterbury
St. Isidore of Seville          (No Title)                        1722                       Bishop of Seville
St. Peter Chrysologus        (No Title)                         1729                       Bishop of Ravenna
St. Leo the Great                (No Title)                        1754                       Pope
St. Peter Damian                (No Title)                        1828                       Cardinal Bishop of Ostia
St. Bernard of Clairvaux    (Mellifluous Doctor)       1830                       Priest, O.Cist.
St. Hilary of Poitiers          (No Title)                         1851                      Bishop of Poitiers
St. Alphonsus Liguori        (Most Zealous Doctor)    1871                      Bishop of St. Agata
St. Francis de Sales           (Doctor of Charity)           1877                      Bishop of Geneva
St. Cyril of Alexandria      (Doctor of the Incarnation) 1883                   Archbishop of Alexandria
St. Cyril of Jerusalem        (No Title)                         1883                       Archbishop of Jerusalem
St. John Damascene          (No Title)                          1890                      Theologian
St. Bede the Venerable      (NoTitle)                          1899                       Priest, Monk, O.S.B.
St. Ephrem                         (No Title)                         1920                       Deacon
St. Peter Canisius              (No Title)                          1925                       Priest, S.J.
St. John of the Cross          (Mystic Doctor)               1926                       Priest, Mystic, O.C.D.
St. Robert Bellarmine        (No Title)                         1931                       Theologian, S.J.
St. Albert the Great           (Universal Doctor)           1931                       Theologian, O.P.
St. Anthony of Padua        (Evangelical Doctor)       1946                        Priest, O.F.M.
St. Lawrence of Brindisi   (Apostlic Doctor)             1959                       Priest, O.F.M.

--Tony Gilles

This theological reflection courtesy of the parishioners of St Paul Catholic Church in Pensacola, Florida: