Doctor of the Church

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St. Isidore of Seville, a 7th-century Doctor of the Church, depicted by Murillo (c. 1628) with a book, common iconographical attribute for a doctor.

Doctor of the Church (Latin doctor, teacher, from Latin docere, to teach) is a title given by a variety of Christian churches to individuals whom they recognize as having been of particular importance, particularly regarding their contribution to theology or doctrine.

Before the Sixteenth Century[edit]

In the Western church four eminent Fathers of the Church attained this honour in the early Middle Ages: Saint Gregory the Great, Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine, and Saint Jerome. The "four Doctors" became a commonplace among the Scholastics, and a decree of Boniface VIII (1298) ordering their feasts to be kept as doubles in the whole Church is contained in his sixth book of Decretals (cap. "Gloriosus", de relique. et vener. sanctorum, in Sexto, III, 22).[1]

In the Eastern Church three Doctors were pre-eminent: Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Basil the Great, and Saint Gregory Nazianzen. The feasts of these three saints were made obligatory throughout the Eastern Empire by Leo VI the Wise. A common feast was later instituted in their honour on 30 January, called "the feast of the three Hierarchs". In the Menaea for that day it is related that the three Doctors appeared in a dream to John Mauropous, Bishop of Euchaitae, and commanded him to institute a festival in their honour, in order to put a stop to the rivalries of their votaries and panegyrists. This was under Alexius Comnenus (1081-1118; see "Acta SS.", 14 June, under St. Basil, c. xxxviii). But sermons for the feast are attributed in manuscripts to Cosmas Vestitor, who flourished in the tenth century. The three are as common in Eastern art as the four are in Western. Durandus (i, 3) remarks that Doctors should be represented with books in their hands. In the West analogy led to the veneration of four Eastern Doctors, Saint Athanasius being added to the three hierarchs.[1]

Roman Catholic Church[edit]

The Four Great Doctors of the Western Church were often depicted in art, here by Pier Francesco Sacchi, c. 1516. From the left: Saint Augustine, Pope Gregory I, Saint Jerome, and Saint Ambrose, with their attributes.

The details of the title, doctor of the church, vary from one autonomous ritual church to another.

Latin church[edit]

In the Latin church, the four Latin Doctors had already long been recognized when the four Great Doctors of the Eastern Church, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Athanasius of Alexandria were recognized in 1568 by Pope St. Pius V.

To these great names others have subsequently been added. The requisite conditions are enumerated as three: eminens doctrina, insignis vitae sanctitas, Ecclesiae declaratio (i.e. eminent learning, a high degree of sanctity, and proclamation by the Church). Benedict XIV explains the third as a declaration by the supreme pontiff or by a general council. But though general councils have acclaimed the writings of certain Doctors, no council has actually conferred the title of Doctor of the Church. In practice the procedure consists in extending to the universal church the use of the Divine Office and Mass of a saint in which the title of doctor is applied to him. The decree is issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and approved by the pope, after a careful examination, if necessary, of the saint's writings. It is not in any way an ex cathedra decision, nor does it even amount to a declaration that no error is to be found in the teaching of the Doctor. It is, indeed, well known that the very greatest of them are not wholly immune from error. No martyr has ever been included in the list, since the Office and the Mass are for Confessors. Hence, as Benedict XIV points out, Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Saint Irenaeus, and Saint Cyprian are not called Doctors of the Church.

The Doctors' works vary greatly in subject and form. Some, such as Pope Gregory I and Ambrose were prominent writers of letters and short treatises. Catherine of Siena and John of the Cross wrote mystical theology. Augustine and Bellarmine defended the Church against heresy (Bellarmine condemned Giordano Bruno to death). Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People provides the best information on England in the early Middle Ages. Systematic theologians include the Scholastic philosophers Anselm, Albertus Magnus, and Thomas Aquinas.

Until 1970, no woman had been named a doctor in the church, but since then four additions to the list have been women: Saints Teresa of Ávila (St. Teresa of Jesus) and Catherine of Siena by Pope Paul VI; Thérèse de Lisieux[2] (St. Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face), "the Little Flower" by Pope John Paul II; and Hildegard of Bingen by Benedict XVI. Saints Teresa and Therese were both Discalced Carmelites, while St. Catherine was a lay Dominican.

Traditionally, in the Liturgy, the Office of Doctors was distinguished from that of Confessors by two changes: the Gospel reading Vos estis sal terrae ("You are the salt of the earth"), Matthew 5:13–19, and the eighth Respond at Matins, from Ecclesiasticus 15:5, In medio Ecclesiae aperuit os ejus, * Et implevit eum Deus spiritu sapientiae et intellectus. * Jucunditatem et exsultationem thesaurizavit super eum. ("In the midst of the Church he opened his mouth, * And God filled him with the spirit of wisdom and understanding. * He heaped upon him a treasure of joy and gladness.") The Nicene Creed was also recited at Mass, which is normally not said except on Sundays and the highest-ranking feast days. The 1962 revisions to the Missal dropped the Creed from feasts of Doctors.

As of 2012, the Catholic Church has named 35 Doctors of the Church. Of these, the 17 who died before the Great Schism of 1054 (marked * in the list below) are also venerated by the Eastern Orthodox Church. Among these 35 are 27 from the West and 8 from the East; 4 women; 18 bishops, 12 priests, 1 deacon, 3 nuns, 1 consecrated virgin; 26 from Europe, 3 from Africa, 6 from Asia. More Doctors (12) lived during the 4th century than any other; eminent Christian writers of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries are usually referred to as the Apostolic Fathers or Ante-Nicene Fathers, while the 9th, 10th and 20th centuries have so far produced no Doctors at all. The shortest period between death and nomination was that of Alphonsus Liguori, who died in 1787 and was named a Doctor of the Church in 1871 - a period of 84 years; the longest was that of Ephrem the Syrian, which took fifteen and a half centuries.

On 20 August 2011, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would soon declare St. John of Ávila a Doctor of the Church.[3] Although no official announcement was given, it was reported in December 2011 that Pope Benedict intended to declare Hildegard of Bingen as a Doctor of the Church despite her not yet having been officially canonised.[4] The liturgical cult of St. Hildegard of Bingen was officially extended to the universal Church by Pope Benedict XVI on 10 May 2012, clearing the way for her to be named a Doctor of the Church.[5] Pope Benedict formally declared SS John of Ávila and Hildegard of Bingen to be Doctors of the Church on 7 October 2012.[6]

List of Doctors[edit]

(For earlier authorities on Christian doctrine, see Church Fathers and Ante-Nicene Fathers)


Name Titles Born Died Promoted Activity
St. Gregory the Great* 540 (ca.) March 12, 604 1298 Pope
St. Ambrose* 340 (ca.) April 4, 397 1298 Bishop of Milan
St. Augustine* Doctor gratiae
(Doctor of Grace)
354 August 28, 430 1298 Bishop of Hippo (now Annaba)
St. Jerome* 347 (ca.) September 30, 420 1298 Priest, monk
St. John Chrysostom* 347 407 1568 Archbishop of Constantinople
St. Basil the Great* 330 January 1, 379 1568 Bishop of Caesarea
St. Gregory Nazianzus* 329 January 25, 389 1568 Archbishop of Constantinople
St. Athanasius* 298 May 2, 373 1568 Archbishop of Alexandria
St. Thomas Aquinas Doctor angelicus
(Angelic Doctor);
Doctor communis
(Common Doctor)
1225 March 7, 1274 1568 Priest, Theologian, O.P.
St. Bonaventure Doctor seraphicus
(Seraphic Doctor)
1221 July 15, 1274 1588 Cardinal Bishop of Albano, Theologian, Minister General, O.F.M.
St. Anselm Doctor magnificus
(Magnificent Doctor);
Doctor Marianus
(Marian Doctor)
1033 or 1034 April 21, 1109 1720 Archbishop of Canterbury, O.S.B.
St. Isidore of Seville* 560 April 4, 636 1722 Bishop of Seville
St. Peter Chrysologus* 406 450 1729 Bishop of Ravenna
St. Leo the Great* 400 November 10, 461 1754 Pope
St. Peter Damian 1007 February 21, 1072 1828 Cardinal Bishop of Ostia, monk, O.S.B.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux Doctor mellifluus
(Mellifluous Doctor)
1090 August 21, 1153 1830 Priest, O.Cist.
St. Hilary of Poitiers* 300 367 1851 Bishop of Poitiers
St. Alphonsus Liguori Doctor zelantissimus
(Most Zealous Doctor)
1696 August 1, 1787 1871 Bishop of Sant'Agata de' Goti, C.Ss.R. (Founder)
St. Francis de Sales Doctor caritatis
(Doctor of Charity)
1567 December 28, 1622 1877 Bishop of Geneva
St. Cyril of Alexandria* Doctor Incarnationis
(Doctor of the Incarnation)
376 July 27, 444 1883 Archbishop of Alexandria
St. Cyril of Jerusalem* 315 386 1883 Archbishop of Jerusalem
St. John Damascene* 676 December 5, 749 1883 Priest, monk
St. Bede the Venerable* 672 May 27, 735 1899 Priest, monk, O.S.B.
St. Ephrem* 306 373 1920 Deacon
St. Peter Canisius 1521 December 21, 1597 1925 Priest, S.J.
St. John of the Cross Doctor mysticus
(Mystic Doctor)
1542 December 14, 1591 1926 Priest, mystic, O.C.D. (Founder)
St. Robert Bellarmine 1542 September 17, 1621 1931 Archbishop of Capua, Theologian, S.J.
St. Albertus Magnus Doctor universalis
(Universal Doctor)
1193 November 15, 1280 1931 Bishop of Regensburg, Theologian, O.P.
St. Anthony of Lisbon and Padua Doctor evangelicus
(Evangelical Doctor)
1195 June 13, 1231 1946 Priest, O.F.M.
St. Lawrence of Brindisi Doctor apostolicus
(Apostolic Doctor)
1559 July 22, 1619 1959 Priest, Diplomat, O.F.M. Cap.
St. Teresa of Ávila 1515 October 4, 1582 1970 Mystic, O.C.D. (Founder)
St. Catherine of Siena 1347 April 29, 1380 1970 Mystic, O.P. (Consecrated virgin)
St. Thérèse of Lisieux 1873 September 30, 1897 1997 O.C.D. (Nun)
St. John of Ávila 1500 May 10, 1569 2012 Priest, Mystic
St. Hildegard of Bingen 1098 September 17, 1179 2012 Visionary, theologian, composer, polymath, O.S.B. (Abbess)

Other recognised Doctors[edit]

In addition, parts of the Roman Catholic Church have recognised other individuals with this title. In Spain, Fulgentius of Cartagena, Ildephonsus of Toledo and Leander of Seville have been recognized with this title.[citation needed] In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Spe Salvi, called Saint Maximus the Confessor 'the great Greek Doctor of the Church', though it is not yet clear as to whether this constitutes official recognition.

Scholastic epithets[edit]

Main article: Scholastic accolades

Though not named Doctors of the Church or even canonized, many of the more celebrated doctors of theology and law of the Middle Ages were given an epithet which expressed the nature of their expertise. Among these are Bl. John Duns Scotus, Doctor subtilis (Subtle Doctor); Bl. Ramon Llull, Doctor illuminatus (Illuminated Doctor); Bl. John of Ruysbroeck, Doctor divinus ecstaticus (Ecstatic Doctor); Alexander of Hales, Doctor irrefragabilis (Unanswerable Doctor); Roger Bacon, "Doctor Mirabilis" (Wondrous Doctor); Gregory of Rimini, Doctor authenticus (Authentic Doctor); John Gerson, Doctor christianissimus (Most Christian Doctor); Nicholas of Cusa, Doctor christianus (Christian Doctor); and the priest and professor Francisco Suárez, Doctor eximius (Exceptional Doctor).

Syro Malabar Catholic Church[edit]

The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church recognises Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory, Augustine, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom, as well as Ephrem the Syrian, Isaac the Elder, Pope Leo I, John of Damascus, Cyril of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, Epiphanius of Salamis, and Gregory of Nyssa.[citation needed]

Chaldean Catholic Church[edit]

The Chaldean Catholic Church honours as doctor Polycarp, Eustathius of Antioch, Meletius, Alexander of Jerusalem, Athanasius, Basil, Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Fravitta of Constantinople, Ephrem the Syrian, Jacob of Nisibis, Jacob of Serugh, Isaac of Armenia, Isaac of Nineveh, and Maruthas.[citation needed]

Eastern Orthodox Church[edit]

The Eastern Orthodox church honors many of the pre-schism saints as well, but the application of the term "Doctor of the Church" is, in effect, unnecessary within the overall praxis of Eastern Orthodox theology, thus omitting the need to look for lists of officially recognized "Doctors". The more usual term used is Father. An Eastern Orthodox understanding of such notables includes saints such as Photios I of Constantinople (see Photian schism), Gregory Palamas and Nicodemus the Hagiorite. One consistent use of the category is the trio of Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom, recognized as universal teachers and known as the Three Holy Hierarchs, representing the Christianization of the Hellenic tradition and education. In addition, besides St John the Evangelist, two other saints bear the title 'Theologian': they are St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Symeon the New Theologian.[citation needed]

Armenian Church[edit]

In the Armenian Church the following are recognized as Doctors of the Church:

Hierotheus the Thesmothete, Dionysius the Areopagite, Pope Sylvester I, Athanasius of Alexandria, Cyril of Alexandria, Ephrem the Syrian, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Epiphanius of Salamis, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, and their own saints Mesrob, Eliseus the historiographer, Moses of Chorene, David the philosopher, Gregory of Narek, Nerses III the Builder, and Nerses of Lambron. (See also Vardapet)

Assyrian Church of the East[edit]

The Assyrian Church of the East recognizes Eliseus, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Nestorius as Doctors of the Church.[citation needed]

Anglicanism[edit]

The churches of the Anglican Communion tend not to use the term "Doctor of the Church" in their calendars of saints, preferring expressions such as "Teacher of the Faith". Those thus recognized include figures from before and after the Reformation, most of whom are also recognized as Doctors of the Church in the Latin rite of the Catholic Church. Those designated as Teachers of the Faith in the Church of England's calendar of saints are as follows:

Since all of the above appear in the calendar at the level of Lesser Festival or Commemoration, their celebration is optional. Similarly, because "In the Calendar of the Saints, diocesan and other local provision may be made to supplement the national Calendar",[7] those Doctors of the Church recognized by the Catholic Church may also be celebrated in the Church of England.

Lutheranism[edit]

The Lutheran calendar of saints does not use the term "Doctor of the Church." The calendar of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod refers to Martin Luther by the title of "Doctor" in recognition of his academic degree, Doctor of Theology from the University of Wittenberg in 1512.

Pentecostalism[edit]

It is common to find ministers from the Pentecostal, Baptist and Independent churches with the honorary title "Doctor" conferred upon them by their church seminaries. Some ministers may also be referred to as Doctor in their churches in recognition of their academic degree from their seminary.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  • Holweck, F. G., A Biographical Dictionary of the Saint. St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co. 1924.

External links[edit]