I had a few lists of saints I was considering for this next series, including some great obscure saints (and you know of my love for obscure saints…), but I settled on the Doctors of the Church. When I was younger, I used to think that as “Doctors,” they were the ones people went to for some kind of healing – you know, like St. Luke! He was a physician, right? That’s how we use the word “doctor” today, at least since the 1700’s. But the word actually comes from the Latin word docere, meaning “to teach.”
With the rise of the medieval university system, “doctors” were those considered to be experts in their fields. That’s still very true today: the Doctoral degree is the highest degree of learning, above the Masters and Bachelors degrees. So when we speak of the Doctors of the Church, what we’re really talking about are those who are the greatest teachers of the faith – those who teach us about God and about ourselves in relationship to God through their writings and homilies.
Cardinal Francis George, the former cardinal archbishop of Chicago, wrote that there were four questions the Doctors of the Church strove to answer. The first is “Who is Jesus Christ?”, the question asked in the earliest days of the Church, and notably answered by Sts. Augustine, Basil, Ambrose, and Jerome.
The second is “How do we know Christ?” Great Doctors such as Sts. Augustine and Gregory the Great tried to throw philosophy and reason into the equation to better know Jesus.
The third question is “How do we act as Christ’s disciples?” Once we come to some level of understanding of the first two questions, we begin to wonder about ourselves. Our faith is a relationship, after all, and it takes two to tango, right? Saints like St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas addressed the questions “Who are we?” and “How has God created us?”
Lastly, the fourth question is “How are we in Christ?” Here, we are trying to bring together what we know of God and what we know of ourselves to see what our relationship with God should be like and what prayer should look like. Saints who addressed this question were great spiritual masters like Sts. John of the Cross, Francis de Sales, Teresa of Ávila, and Thérèse of Lisieux.
Originally, there were only eight Doctors: four in the West (Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Jerome), and four in the East (Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nanzianzen, and John Chrysostom). But as time passed, it became apparent that some saints deserved to find a place among this ancient rank, and now the pope makes a formal declaration to add saints to the list of Doctors. This has happened as recently as 2015 with Pope Francis!
My goal over the next few weeks (and weeks, and weeks) will be to write a little about the Doctors themselves – their stories, their lives, and their contributions – but also a little about the times they lived in, and the challenges they faced. As Cardinal George wrote, “The mission of the Church in every age is to introduce the world to Christ, its savior. The Church cannot accomplish her mission without learned men and women who are saints of God. These are the Doctors of the Church.”