By Cardinal Justin Rigali
In our human relationships, it is natural to desire to learn more about someone we love. This is especially true in the early stages of a relationship, when love is beginning, but it should be a characteristic of a loving relationship at all times. This is why we say about someone we love: “He or she knows everything about me.” We often use images from our human relationships to understand and explain our relationship with God. This is natural and appropriate for two reasons: first, we are using what we know to explain something we want to know more about and, secondly, our human abilities come to us from God and therefore are reflections of His own characteristics.
Faith seeking understanding
If we wish to enter into a loving relationship with God, we must seek to know Him. He has paid us the great compliment of revealing Himself to us in various ways down through the ages and finally, as Saint Paul reminds us, He revealed Himself to us in His Son, Jesus Christ. The Church guards her sacred Tradition as part of the guarantee that the knowledge of God that is handed down through her is the true image of God’s face. The desire to deepen our knowledge of this God whom we love has given rise to the science of theology, which is defined as faith seeking understanding. From the earliest ages, there have been those engaged in this study in one form or other. Pope Pius XII spoke of those who study and teach theology in this way: “Theologians must always return to the sources of spanine revelation: for it belongs to them to point out how the doctrine of the living Teaching Authority is to be found either explicitly or implicitly in the Scriptures and in Tradition. Besides, each source of spaninely revealed doctrine contains so many rich treasures of truth, that they can really never be exhausted” (Humani Generis, 21).
Throughout the history of the Church, there have been those who have been particularly outstanding in their ability to understand the things of God and transmit their understanding to the Church’s members. This was most often done through their writings. We have recently recalled the memorials of two of these outstanding theologians; Saint John Damascene (676-749) on December 4 and Saint Ambrose (337-397) on December 7. Their outstanding contribution to our understanding of the things of God has caused them to be given the title Doctor of the Church. There are only thirty-one other men and women who have been given this title and since we have so recently recalled the liturgical celebration of two of them, we take the occasion this week to reflect on the topic: What is a Doctor of the Church?
What we have already reflected upon concerning theology reminds us that the Church has always extolled and encouraged knowledge. In fact, we know that there were stages of human history during which the Church was practically the only means of preserving the treasures of human and spanine knowledge. She did this through her monasteries, through the copying of books before the printing press was invented and through the foundation of the first universities in the world, which were founded under her patronage.
Pope Benedict XVI recently reflected on the role of the study of the things of God. He said: “Theology speaks of God not as a hypothesis of our imagination. It speaks of God because God himself has spoken to us. The true work of theology is to enter into the word of God, to try to understand it as much as possible, and to make it understood by our world, and thus to find the answers to our great questions. In this work, it is also evident that faith is not only not opposed to reason, but that it opens the eyes of reason, it widens our horizon, and it allows us to find the answers which are necessary to the challenges of different times” (Audience, Participants in the Plenary Sessions of the International Theological Commission, 5 December 2008).
The Doctors of the Church
The Church gives the title of doctor of the Church to a man or woman who has contributed in an outstanding way to the knowledge and understanding of the things of God, especially through his or her writings. We should not think that in speaking of a Doctor of the Church we are entering into a very limited realm, only open to the very learned. One of the characteristics of a Doctor of the Church is that the entire Church benefits from the knowledge acquired and expressed by this learned person.
For instance, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, one of the most popular saints of the twentieth century, has been named a doctor of the Church because her spiritual writings and her understanding of the things of God have been so beneficial to the Church. It would be interesting to point out that some of the concepts many of us learned as children through the catechism and through the common expressions used in religious instruction actually come to us from one of the greatest of all doctors of the Church: Saint Thomas Aquinas. The concepts of his great mind are not closed off to the members of Christ’s Church but actually help them to understand the things of God in a deeper way.
The first-named Doctors of the Church were: Saint Ambrose (337-397), Saint Augustine (354-430), Saint Jerome (347-420) and Pope Saint Gregory I (540-604) and they were designated as such in 1298. They are also known as the Great Doctors of the Western Church. The Great Doctors of the Eastern Church are: Saint John Chrysostom (347-407), Saint Basil the Great (330-379), Saint Gregory Nazianzen (329-390) and Saint Athanasius (293-373). These were recognized in 1568 by Pope Saint Pius V.
It is interesting to note the great variety represented among the Doctors of the Church in both their subjects and manner of presentation. Some were famous for their letters and commentaries. Some were defenders of the doctrine of the Church in the face of error. There is an historian, known as Bede the Venerable, who gives us an excellent history of England in the early Middle Ages. Some of the great theologians among the Doctors are Saint Anselm, Saint Albert the Great and the justly famous Saint Thomas Aquinas. In addition to his works of theology, Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote magnificent Latin poetry in praise of the most Blessed Sacrament. We continue to express his teaching on this great Sacrament and his poetic expression of it whenever we sing hymns such as: “Pange Lingua,” “O Salutaris Hostia,” “Panis Angelicus,” and others.
Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross are famous for their mystical theology and their accounts of the most intimate union with God in this life. Saint Anthony of Padua, in addition to being a much-beloved intercessor is also a Doctor of the Church by virtue of his intimate knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. This is why one of his titles is, “Ark of the Testament” because he knew the Scriptures so well and preached on them with such great effect.
As a help in understanding the great breadth of the knowledge and teaching of the Doctors of the Church, I would like to mention some of the titles that have been given to several of these men and women, which reflect their area of specialized study and renown: Saint Augustine (354-430) is known as the Doctor of Grace, Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) as the Angelic Doctor or Common Doctor; Saint Bonaventure (1221-1274) as the Seraphic Doctor; Saint Anselm (1033-1109) as the Magnificent Doctor, Saint Bernard (1099-1153) as the Mellifluous Doctor, Saint Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) as the Most Zealous Doctor, Saint Cyril of Alexandria (376-444) as the Doctor of the Incarnation, Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591) as the Mystical Doctor, Saint Albert the Great (1193-1280) as the Universal Doctor, Saint Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) as the Evangelical Doctor, Saint Lawrence of Brindisi (1559-1619) as the Apostolic Doctor and Saint Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897) as the Doctor of Love.
Knowledge of the faith is open to all
In looking at the role of the Doctors of the Church, I do not want to give the impression that knowledge of the things of God is limited to the very learned. Our Lord Himself, speaking to His Father, said: “Although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike” (Matthew 11:25). The entire Church benefits in different ways from the study of those who are both learned and saintly. Those who possess both of these characteristics actually become more aware of how little they really know when compared to God’s infinite majesty.
We would do well to conclude this week with a famous incident from the life of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Not long before he died, he was given a vision of the majesty of God as it appears in heaven. When he was asked to dictate one last part to his great writings, he refused saying: “All that I have written is as straw in the light of the realities that I have seen.”
11 December 2008