Call: 877-542-7664

The Doctors of the Church: A History

Pier Francesco Sacchi (circa 1485–1528)
Four doctors of the Church represented with attributes of the Four Evangelists: St. Augustine with an eagle, St. Gregory the Great with a bull, St. Hieronymus with an angel, St. Ambrosius with a winged lion.

The Doctors of the Church did not begin to be officially identified as such until relatively late in Church history.  It was the Catholic Church that confers the title upon both western and eastern Christians.  In the post today, I’d like to share with you a little of the history of how the Doctors of the Church came to be.

The Ecumenical Doctors

The eight Doctors of the Church commonly known as the Ecumenical Doctors are the earliest recognized Doctors of the Church.  They are St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzen, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.  As one can see, this list of eight neatly divides into four Doctors from the Latin West and four Doctors from the East.

The Latin Doctors

The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that:

In the Western church four eminent Fathers of the Church attained this honour in the early Middle Ages: St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. 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).

This notion of doctor as an authoritative teacher of the faith originated in the “early Middle Ages.” Saints Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome were contemporaries, each living into the early 400s. Gregory the Great was the last of these four to have lived and died in the early 600s.  Thus, it is reasonable to assume that possibly as early as the 700s the liturgy would be reflecting these doctor saints.

The Eastern Doctors

Here again, the Catholic Encyclopedia tells us:

In the Eastern Church three Doctors were pre-eminent: St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil, and St. Gregory Nazianzen. The feasts of these three saints were made obligatory throughout the Eastern Empire by Leo VI, the Wise, the deposer of Photius. 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, 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, St. Athanasius being very properly added to the three hierarchs.

In the Catholic Church in the Latin West, it was Pope St. Pius V in 1568 proclaimed official feasts in the Roman Calendar for these eight Ecumenical Doctors with their addition to the newly reformed Roman Breivary.

Additional Doctors

Pope St. Pius V officially established the Ecumenical Doctors, but also one new Doctor: the medieval Scholastic theologian extraordinaire, St. Thomas Aquinas.  He thus established the precedent and pattern of popes proclaiming Doctors of the Church for the benefit of the faithful.  Twenty years later, in 1588, Pope Sixtus V, a Franciscian, named the famous medieval Franciscian theologian St. Bonaventure a Doctor of the Church.

Over the next several centuries, the following popes named the following saints to the rank of Doctor (the list was adapted from the Catholic Encyclopedia)

  • St. Anselm was added by Clement XI in 1720.
  • St. Isidore by Innocent XIII in 1722.
  • St. Peter Chrysologus by Benedict XIII in 1729.
  • St. Leo I by Benedict XIV in 1754.
  • St. Peter Damian by Leo XII in 1828.
  • St. Bernard of Clairvaux by Pius VIII in 1830.
  • St. Hilary was added in 1851 by Pius IX along with two more modern saints, St. Alphonsus Liguori in 1871 and St. Francis de Sales in 1877.
  • St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, and St. John Damascene were named in 1883 by Leo XIII, who also named the Venerable Bede  in 1899.

Modern Doctors

The twentieth and early twenty-first century saw the naming of thirteen new doctors:

  • St. Ephrem the Syrian, a Deacon, was named in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV as “Doctor of the Syrians.”
  • St. Peter Canisius was named in 1925, St. John of the Cross was named in 1926, St. Robert Bellarmine and St. Albert the Great were named in 1931, each by Pope Pius XI.
  • St. Anthony of Lisbon and Padua was named in 1946 by Pope Pius XII.
  • St. Lawrence of Brindisi was named in 1959 by Pope John XXIII.
  • St. Teresa of Ávila and St. Catherine of Sienna–the first women named as Doctors of the Church–were named in 1970 by Pope Paul VI.
  • St. Thérèse of Lisieux was named by Pope John Paul II in 1997.
  • St. John of Ávila and St. Hildegard of Bingen were named by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.
  • St. Gregory of Narek was named by Pope Francis in 2015.

You still have a few days left to check out our Doctor for the month of March: St. Cyril of Jerusalem.  We have several volumes of his for up to 50% off.  Add this Doctor to your Verbum library before these titles go back to full price!

Looking forward to our April Doctors: St. Anselm of Canterbury, St. Isidore of Seville, and St. Catherine of Siena.

February Doctors of the Church

This month in February we celebrate two Doctors of the Church: St. Peter Damian and St. Gregory of Narek.

St. Gregory of Narek (February 27)

St. Gregory of Narek is the most recent Doctor of the Church to be recognized.  Pope Francis named Gregory a Doctor in 2015.  He was an Armenian Christian and has been venerated as a saint in the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church for centuries.  Gregory, born around 951 and died in 1003, lived his life as a monk and was a noted poet, mystic, philosopher, composer, and theologian in present-day Turkey.

Pope Francis, in his usual style, raised some questions about recognizing this Christian saint whose church during his life was not in direct communion with Rome.  Catholic theologian Dr. R. Jared Staudt describes the process by which Gegory came to be acknowledged as a Doctor in a 2015 article and the Holy Father followed the precedent of recognition of other Doctors.  Staudt states regarding the process of equipollent or equivalent canonization:

It should be noted that when Pope Benedict XVI declared St. Hildegard von Bingen as a Doctor of Church he used the process of equipollent or equivalent canonization, as she also had not been formally canonized. Even St. Albert the Great was canonized in this fashion when he was declared a doctor of the Church in 1931 by Pope Pius XI. Pope Benedict used this process of canonization a few other times and Pope Francis has done so with even greater regularity, so much so, that Vatican Radio felt the need to explain the process:

“When there is strong devotion among the faithful toward holy men and women who have not been canonized, the Pope can choose to authorize their veneration as saints without going through that whole process. … This is often done when the saints lived so long ago that fulfilling all the requirements of canonization would be exceedingly difficult.”

From Andrea Tornielli’s commentary, referenced above, it seems likely that an equipollent canonization is forthcoming. Hopefully we will have clarification on this point soon. What is clear in the meantime is that there is a foundation for the equipollent canonization of saints in association with their being named a Doctor of the Church and there is a longstanding practice of celebrating St. Gregory of Narek’s feast day within the Armenian Catholic Church.

We currently don’t have any resources in Verbum we can share with you, but St. Gregory’s feast day in the Eastern liturgy is celebrated on October 13 and we are aiming to have some of his works available later in the year, hopefully in time for his feast.

St. Peter Damian (February 21)

St. Peter Damian was a Benedictine monk, a cardinal under Pope Leo IX, a bishop of Ostia and was recognized by the poet Dante as inhabiting one of the highest levels of his Paradiso.  He was born around 1007 and died February in 1072 or 1073.  St. Peter was blessed with a reforming zeal, and upon abandoning his secular career and seeking a monastic life, he avoided the more luxurious monastery of Cluny and opted for a more primitive life as a hermit.  While a disciplined and zealous monk, he also recognized the practical needs of the body–in true Benedictine fashion–by prescribing a daily siesta to balance the short night of sleep the monks typically got.

St. Peter Damian was never formally canonized, similar to Gregory of Narek, Albert the Great, and Julian of Norwich, as the Catholic News Agency states:

Never formally canonized, St. Peter Damian was celebrated as a saint after his death in many of the places associated with his life. In 1823, Pope Leo XII named him a Doctor of the Church and extended the observance of his feast day throughout the Western Church.

Unlike Gregory of Narek right now, we do offer several resources by St. Peter Damian.  The letters of St. Peter are contained in  the 15 volumes of the Fathers of the Church: Medieval Continuation collection.  This not only contains 180 letters by St. Peter Damian, but it also contains sermons by St. Thomas Aquinas, a commentary on Romans by Peter Abelard, and a treatise on Aristotle’s Categories by John Duns Scotus.

You can check out all of the February deals for Verbum here.


Doctors of the Church: What, Who, and Why

You may have noticed back in January that we were promoting the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory Nazianzus, St. Hilary of Poitiers, and St. Francis de Sales.  You may have noticed further that each of these great saints had feast days in January.  Bonus points for those in the audience that also realized that each of these saints is also designated as a “Doctor of the Church.” We’ll be talking a lot about the Doctors of the Church this year.

What is a “Doctor of the Church?”

The Catholic Church recognizes 36 exemplary saints from throughout the history of the church as doctors, which in Latin means teacher. The Doctors are designated as such for their extraordinary teaching on some aspect of ecclesial life, including, preaching, prayer, holiness, but above all in the way in which they shared their faith and way of life with the Church.

Who are the Doctors of the Church?

The following list of the 36 doctors is ordered according to their appearance on the liturgical calendar.

Saint Feast Date
Hilary of Poitiers  1/13
Basil of Caesera  1/02
Gregory Nazianzus  1/02
Thomas Aquinas  1/28
Francis de Sales  1/24
Gregory of Narek  2/27
Peter Damian  2/21
Cyril of Jerusalem  3/18
Isidore of Seville  4/04
Anselm of Canterbury  4/21
Catherine of Siena  4/29
Athanasius of Alexandria  5/02
Bede the Venerable  5/25
John of Avila  5/10
Ephrem the Syrian  6/09
Cyril of Alexandria  6/27
Anthony of Padua  6/13
Augustine of Hippo  8/28
Peter Chrysologus  8/30
Bernard of Clairvaux  8/20
Bonaventure  8/15
Lawrence of Brindisi  8/21
Alphonsus Liguori  8/01
Jerome  9/30
Gregory the Great  9/03
Robert Bellarmine  9/17
John Chrysostom  9/13
Hildegard of Bingen  9/17
Teresa of Ávila 10/15
Thérèse of Lisieux 10/01
Leo the Great 11/10
Albertus Magnus 11/15
Ambrose of Milan 12/7
John Damascene 12/4
John of the Cross 12/14
Peter Canisius 12/21

Why the Doctors of the Church?

The Church has chosen to recognize these great saints for our edification and so we can learn from their teaching. For similar reasons, we are choosing to focus our attention here at Verbum in 2018 on the Doctors of the Church because if there are any resources you should have in your library outside of the Bible and the Catechism—it is the works of these great saints. Whether it is research, everyday study, or daily devotions, we want you to get to know them (and so does the Church).

So, in January, if you missed our doctors, then we have extended the sale on their resources through February 28th.

Each month throughout 2018 we will be featuring each doctor who has a feast for that month. We will be selecting resources written by or about them for you to add to your Verbum library. So stay tuned and don’t miss this opportunity to build your library with the best the Church has to offer.

Help Desk Software