What’s it take to be a doctor of the church?

By | September 27, 2011

The word “doctor” as a title for an advanced degree of education dates to the late Middle Ages, around the 14th century, when advanced training in law, the arts, medicine and theology was gaining priority. Of course, long before this, there were masters in these areas. And they were “doctors” too.


The classical Latin word for “one who teaches” is docere. It didn’t generally refer to those who were then called “healers,” “herbalists” or even “leeches” (because they used them). That helps us understand what a “doctor of the church” — as Pope Benedict XVI recently proclaimed St. John of Avila — means.

There was nothing medical about St. John (1499-1569), but there was expertise. He was a Spanish priest and mystic who longed to be a missionary. He never left Spanish soil, but he did preach eloquently and wrote several works, including three on the priesthood for those attending the Council of Trent.

Including John of Avila, there are 34 “doctors of the church.” The church designates as “doctors” those saints considered exceptional teachers of doctrine who have made significant contributions to the faith.

The earliest doctors of the church were spontaneously recognized. There were four of the Western (Latin-rite) church — Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose and Gregory the Great. In the Eastern-rite church, there are also four doctors: “the Three Hierarchs” — whose feast is Jan. 30: John Chrysostom, Basil and Gregory Nazianz — and St. Athanasius.

These eight are also called “fathers of the church,” because they helped set the foundations of our faith: Some attended the first church councils that settled matters like the creed said at Mass each Sunday, while others were Scripture experts. There are other “fathers of the church,” but not all are “doctors of the church.” The last father-doctor was St. Gregory the Great, who died in A.D. 604.

The next doctor, declared in 1568 by Pope St. Pius V, was St. Thomas Aquinas. Thomas died in 1225, more than 600 years after Gregory the Great.

Why did it take so long to find another doctor? Why have only 25 been declared since? And why are some of the greatest saints not on the doctor list?

When we look both at the writings of those called doctors of the church — and at the times in which they were so declared — we can gain some insights.

From the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century until the 16th century, the church was largely unchallenged in culture and history. All that changed when Martin Luther posted his protests on Wittenburg’s church door in 1517 and helped ignite the Protestant Revolution.

Thomas Aquinas was named a doctor in this turbulent time. The Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestant Huguenots raged in France (1562-98), Calvinism was on the rise in Scotland, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, the Church of England had separated from Rome in 1534 and its Queen Elizabeth I defeated the Catholic Spanish Armada in 1588.

Against this backdrop, Thomas was named. In his day, Thomas defended the faith against those who championed Aristotle, the Greek (and pagan) philosopher. Also, Thomas’ Summa Theologica is considered the greatest single defense of the faith ever written.

Through this historical lens, it’s easier to see why Pius V felt 1568 was a good time to formalize the process of naming doctors of the church. And why he added Thomas Aquinas to that formal list.

Since then, naming doctors of the church has been done by popes.

In 1588, Pope Sixtus V named a new doctor: St. Bonaventure. Bonaventure, a minister-general of the Franciscans, revitalized his order to such a degree that he is called its second founder. Pope Sixtus likewise undertook reforms, including of the College of Cardinals and Vatican congregations, reforms that remained essentially unchanged until Vatican II.

Doctors often seem to be named at times when their writings and teachings are particularly relevant. For example, Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena were declared doctors in 1970 (the first women so honored). The 1970s were full of change — in the world and the church. These were also the first years of the reforms of Vatican II. Both Catherine and Teresa worked dynamically in the church: Teresa reformed her Carmelite order and Catherine was a lay woman and mystic who interacted directly with popes.

In 1997, Pope John Paul II named Thérèse  of Lisieux as the 33rd doctor of the church

The teachings of the Little Flower are known as her “little way.” It involves complete trust in God and a great love for Jesus, whom she believed loved her deeply in return. Thérèse  lived in a world that viewed Jesus as remote and found mostly at the altar — not the close friend Thérèse  knew. In the increasingly secular society of 1997, Pope John Paul chose Thérèse  as a guide back to a loving Jesus.

Today, what might Pope Benedict XVI see in the life of John of Avila?

One theme of this papacy has been revitalization of the priesthood. We also live in a time of scandal involving some priests. John of Avila, himself a priest, preached reform of the priesthood and called priests to sanctity because their hands “touch the most pure body of Christ our Lord, the holiest thing of all.”

Certainly Pope Benedict must believe such thoughts have great healing value today.

Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia;” “Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Catholic History;” catholicculture.org; “The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia;” “The New Dictionary of Theology.”

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