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Article Saints, Feasts, and Seasons

Thenaming in 1997 of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux as a "Doctor of the church" by Pope John Paul II caused Catholics around the world to ask what the term means, what its history is, and what the significance of the title is, both for the one honored and for theCatholic tradition in general.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini's theatrically baroque "Altar of the Chair" in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican features a huge bronze throne that contains within it a smaller, ivory-covered chair thought to be the chair of Saint Peter. The vast bronze cathedra, which is basically an oversized reliquary, is held aloft by four bronze figures, two who wear miters while the other two stand bareheaded. The two mitered figures are Saints Ambrose and Augustine, bishop-Doctors of the Latin church, while the two who are bareheaded are the bishop-Doctors of the Greek church, Saints Athanasius and John Chrysostom. This great 17th-century ensemble both honored Peter for whom the basilica was dedicated and made the polemical point that the witness of Christian tradition, symbolized by these four great theologians of antiquity, bore witness to the primacy of the See of Rome and its first bishop, Peter. This was a message both for the Orthodox East and the churches of the Reformation to the north.

That these four figures were called "Doctors of the church" was already an ancient custom in Rome. At the end of the13th century, Pope Boniface VIII ordered the liturgical celebration of four Latin Doctors (Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great) while Pope Pius V in 1567, a century before the Bernini altar was dedicated, added Saint Thomas Aquinas to that list and, a year later, the Greek Fathers, Saints Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom. Twenty years later, Pope Sixtus V added Saint Bonaventure. There was probably at least one bit of friendly rivalry in these selections. If Pius V, a Dominican, would declare Saint Thomas Aquinas a Doctor, it only seemed fair to the Franciscan, Sixtus V, to name his fellow Franciscan, Saint Bonaventure. Ecclesiastical gossip has it that today the Jesuits are pushing hard for the inclusion of their founder, Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

More exact legal criteria than were earlier explicitly employed did not get established until the 18th century when the eminent canonist Prospero Lambertini, who himself would later become pope, taking the name Benedict XIV, set out regulations for naming a Doctor of the church as part of his ambitious program of proscribing legal procedures for beatification and canonization of saints. In fact, what Lambertini did was to make explicit what seemed to have been the tacit criteria employed by the popes over the centuries. Lambertini stipulated three criteria for naming a Doctor of the church although, as we shall see, these criteria have a certain degree of overlap.

 

A three-part prescription
First, according to Lambertini, the person should be an individual of great sanctity. For all practical purposes, that means a canonized saint. Indeed, no person has been named a Doctor of the church who is not recognized as a saint. Thus, for example, Origen, the third-century biblical commentator generally recognized as one of the greatest exegetes in the history of the church, has never been canonized, partially due, no doubt, to some of his more daring speculations. One way to vouchsafe the "orthodoxy" of this position is to name only canonized saints because doctrinal purity is one of the criteria for canonization.

In the second place, a Doctor of the church must be a person of preeminent learning in matters broadly theological. Doctors of the church, then, are the great teachers of the faith. They need not have been theologians in any narrow sense of the term, but they do need to have formulated in their lives and work a spiritual "doctrine" that has contributed to the church's theological and spiritual life. Hence, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (named in 1830) was a monastic writer and contemplative while Saint Anthony of Padua (named in 1946) is best known as a preacher. In this sense, the criterion of learning understands theology in the ancient sense of one who speaks authentically and compellingly out of deep experience of God and God's revelation.

Thus, one sees the criteria of holiness and learning in a mutually enriching way. Again, ecclesiastical gossip has it that there was recently a raging debate in Rome about whether Thérèse of Lisieux had a sufficiently weighty doctrine for inclusion among the Doctors of the church. The recent publication of the official Positio (the dossier for or against naming her a Doctor of the church) indicates that there were theologians opposed to her nomination because, despite her undeniable sanctity, it was thought that her doctrine was not strong.

Lambertini's third criterion stipulates that only a pope or a general council with the agreement of the pope may name someone as a Doctor of the church. This criterion, of course, reflects the concentration of authority under the papal office because this prerogative, like that of canonization itself, was limited to the pope only since the high Middle Ages. Throughout the patristic and early medieval period, great theologians like Augustine were routinely called doctores but only in the generic etymological sense of those who were learned.

In time the title was also used for anyone who graduated after a full university education; hence, our common term doctor for those who have attained the highest degree either in, for example, the humanities or the sciences, law, or medicine. Prior to the commonuse of the term doctor, it was customary to give public lecturers the title of magister-"master" (hence, our degree of master of arts). As a matter of historical record, no council has ever named a Doctor of the church. Everyone on the list was named by a pope but after consultation and probably as a result, in many cases, of suggestions coming from, say, the constituencies of the various religious orders.

 

The women doctors
The last line of the entry on "Doctors of the church" in the 1967 New Catholic Encyclopedia says, "It would seem that no woman is likely to be named because of the link between this titleand the teaching office, which is limited to males." Three years later, Pope Paul VI, in two consecutive weeks, named Saints Teresa of Ávila and Catherine of Siena as Doctors of the church. In 1997, John Paul II added Thérèse of Lisieux to the list. Indeed, in the year the encyclopedia was published, Paul VI already indicated in a public address that he intended to name the two to the rank of church Doctors in the not-too-distant future. So much for the opinions of a theologian! In fairness to the learned British theologian who wrote that article, there had been an attempt in the 1930s to have Teresa of Ávila named a Doctor, but Rome turned down the request with the terse response: obstat sexus" gender is an obstacle."

The nomination of three women as Doctors of the church over the past generation indicates a number of things that are worthy of reflection. It is a sign, of course, that the glacially slow attitude of church authority toward women is in a state of thaw. Second, the notion of what constitutes doctrine has "thickened" as it has become more common to think of those who initiate or deepen "schools of spirituality" as authentic theologians. This change reflects a closer correlation of theology and spirituality more generally. Third, the notion of who teaches and in what capacity, along with the issue of where theologians teach, has obviously broadened. Finally, the recent additions of these three women indicates that the litany of those who are authentic Doctors is open-ended in the sense that the list can (and, in time, probably will) be enlarged. It is interesting to note that John Paul II, who has canonized more saints than all of the other 20th-century popes combined, has only named one Doctor of the church: Thérèse of Lisieux.

 

Doctoral candidates
One could speculate about how to enlarge the canon of church Doctors by thinking imaginatively of how to broaden the criteria. In this same vein, we could argue about people who have not been named but perhaps should be named. Any number of favorites for inclusion would probably produce a long list. Here are a few names in no particular order of preference and my rationale for proposing them as a kind of  "thought experiment" to encourage others to do the same. The list is meant to be only suggestive, not definitive.

·Saint Francis of Assisi. Although his collected writings are rather thin and very much occasional, one could make the argument that it was his life and not his writings that constitute his doctrine. Francis did not write extensively about the imitation of Christ, but Christ's Passion was written on his body, as it were, especially in his stigmata, which "narrated" the Passion of Christ. Further, his life-doctrine was so influential that Francis marks a whole new way of seeing the gospel that was not only pivotal in his own day but has continued to inspire Christians in the centuries since, incarnating itself in such contemporary movements as the Catholic Worker. If there is anyone who can lay claim to having a "doctrine," it is the Poor Man of Assisi.

·John Henry Newman. Newman has not been canonized, seemingly because not enough miracles are attributed to his intervention. However, by any measure Newman has been the most influential and original Catholic theologian since the Enlightenment. It was Newman who managed to construct an entire theology almost totally free from the constraints of traditional scholasticism. He was a pioneer in showing how doctrine develops in the church, and few have more subtly analyzed the process of belief. His impact on the shaping of the ideas behind the Second Vatican Council was profound.

His deep spirituality is uncontested. His life, as his postulator once wrote, was itself a moral miracle. It also helps, in my estimation, that Newman demonstrated that profound theology could be written in matchless prose. Finally, Newman combined to an eminent degree the life of the mind with a vigorous pastoral ministry until the day he died.

·Saint Gertrude of Helfta. This 13th-century German nun was a pioneer of liturgical theology who demonstrated that it was possible to construct a vision of Catholic life by a profound meditation on the worship of the church. I suggest Helfta, rather than Hildegard of Bingen, who would probably be a sentimental favorite of many but whose polymath writings might be a bit too rich and idiosyncratic for officials of the church. (I'm only betting on people who have the possibility of attaining the title.) Gertrude combines deep learning and equally deep spirituality.

  • In that same vein, we might considerJulian of Norwich, whose revelations are so strikingly original. Julian would represent that great flowering of English mysticism in the 14th century. Julian is much studied today as an exemplar of devotional mysticism.

·Saint Benedict of Nursia. If there is one name from the list of Doctors that is conspicuous by omission, it is the author of the Rule for monks that bears his name. However cloudy the details of his own story (we know very little of his history beyond what Gregory the Great tells us in his somewhat hagiographical account of Benedict's life), and however much Benedict may have borrowed from earlier rules, the plain fact is that over the course of the centuries his "Rule for beginners," as he called it, has had a profound and enduring impact on the church. Monasticism in the West would be unthinkable without him.

If there was anyone in antiquity who gave the West a "doctrine" of Christian living, it was Benedict. The vast network of Benedictine, Cistercian, Camaldolese, and Carthusian monastic settlements planted all over the world is an incarnation of his ideals. Benedict would also be the first lay person added to the list of Doctors because all the evidence points to his lay status.

 

Others need a checkup
What about people in our own century? The church is probably right to take the long view on these matters and not hastily judge people whose influence may not survive long enough so that their intuitions, ideas, examples, and doctrine enter into the life of the church. My own conservative instincts would say to end with Newman, who lived until the last decade of the 19th century (as did Thérèse of Lisieux), and let the future generations at the beginning of the new millennium look back on our generations from the vantage point of the winnowing effects of historical distance.

It is in the nature of a classic that it speaks to its own time and in a way that one can discover what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur has called a "surplus of meaning." We go back to the wisdom of the Doctors of the church to learn how they expressed the gospel in their own time and to see if what they taught and how they lived can also speak to us today. That was surely the case with figures like John of the Cross, Thérèse of Lisieux, Thomas Aquinas, and so on. For other figures, the importance of their doctrine rests in the new ways in which they presented the faith and its practice. Their methods may now be superseded, but the impulses they unleashed still reverberate today. Contemporary moral theology would be unthinkable without the pioneering efforts of Saint Alphonsus Liguori (named a Doctor in 1871). And scholars still point to the impact of the French school of spirituality, of which one of the foundation blocks was the teaching of Saint Francis de Sales (named in 1877).

Among the Doctors of the church, there are 14 secular clergy and 18 religious priests (among whom are 2 popes, 18 bishops, 9 priests, and 1 deacon), as well as three religious women. The latest person from the Christian East named as a Doctor of the church (in 1890) was Saint John Damascene, the great defender of the use of icons in the church. Might it be a truly ecumenical gesture to name more from the Orthodox East? One thinks of Maximus the Confessor or Symeon the New Theologian.

And what about Protestants? Of course, one runs across the orthodox doctrinal problem because the likely candidates for the title Doctor had less than benign things to say about some aspects of papal authority, the sacramental system, and so on. That being said, it could be argued that great theological figures like Martin Luther or John Calvin contributed more to the shaping of Christian theology in general than figures of only historical interest like Isidore of Seville or Lawrence of Brindisi, who are included on the current roster. Well over a generation ago, the British Catholic writer John Todd suggested the canonization of John Wesley as an ecumenical gesture. Perhaps, in God's good time, he might well be thought of as a Doctor as recognition for his zeal, his hymnody, his voluminous writings, and his emphasis on interior conversion.

Increasingly, as we have noted, in the medieval period theologians gave up their titles of magister ("teacher") and began to use, usually for others, the title of doctor. Evidently, this custom developed from the then-common description of the great patristic theological authorities as doctores (learned ones). The medieval custom grew along with the custom of adding an honorific adjective. Thus, Bonaventure was the Doctor Seraphicus ("Seraphic Doctor"), Thomas Aquinas, the Doctor Angelicus ("Angelic Doctor"), and so on. To these honorifics were soon added others like calling Saint Jerome, Vir Trilinguis ("Man of Three Languages" i.e., Latin, Greek, and Hebrew) or, my favorite, Gregory of Rimini, Tortor Parvulorum ("Turtle Dove of the Young").

Some of the honorific doctoral titles strike me as less of an honor and more of a warning to avoid their writings. The little-known theologian Francis de Accoltis was called Princeps Subtilitatum ("Prince of Subtleties"), which means that he was most likely a late scholastic logic-chopper. The same would go, in my book, for "The Prince of the Scotists" (Bartholomew Mastrius) because John Duns Scotus (Doctor Subtilis "The Subtle Doctor") is hard enough to understand.

 

General practitioners
At any rate, such honorifics are now very much out of favor (even though in the academy we still make jokes about our colleagues with ersatz titles that are usually not very edifying). The true Doctors of the church, however, exist not only as people with an honored title but as part of the cycle of saints in the liturgy. This indicates that the church sees in these people not only models of holiness but also witnesses to the truths of the tradition. Some of their written work is read mainly by specialists, but others-the Carmelites Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross come immediately to mind-have a lasting influence on spiritual formation.

Others, like Thérèse of Lisieux and Francis de Sales wrote classic works that speak directly to the spirituality of ordinary people. Still others-Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the early Fathers-are the shoulders upon which theologians still stand today. All of these Doctors are like the good householder of the gospels: they know how to bring forth "old things and new." In doing that, they are witnesses to the riches of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

My friend Professor Keith Egan of Saint Mary's College has observed that groups like the Doctors of the church give visible evidence to a truth long neglected in the church but reinvigorated at the Second Vatican Council. While past theology paid much attention to ecclesiastical offices in the church, there was a lack of appreciation of charisms until their place was restated at Vatican II. Charisms are those gifts that are given to people in the church to carry out certain ways of living the gospel. These charisms occur in all strata of the church and are not specific to those who have received the sacrament of Orders. They are gifts of the Holy Spirit given as the Spirit wills. The gift or charism of teaching eminent doctrine does not derive from ordination but from an impulse of the Spirit of God that helps a person manifest ways of living true to the gospel.

Every bishop, by reason of his ordination, has the office of teaching. But not every bishop has received the charism of teaching in such an eminent way that the church might name that person a Doctor of the church. The important point, however, is that the litany of the Doctors teaches us that men and women, Greeks and Latins, ordained and nonordained, are all capable of teaching extraordinary doctrine. This helps in building up of church because charisms are always for the community and not for the sanctification of the recipient alone.

We can only hope, pray, and be open for the gift of teaching. We must also be alert to the people who teach. It is only in that fashion that we can add to that vast list of those who already enjoy the title Doctor of the church.