'The Doctors of the Church' by Bernard McGinn

'The Doctors of the Church' by Bernard McGinn

Angela Joseph

The Doctors Of The Church: Thirty-three men and women who shaped Christianity by Bernard McGinn (2001, 208pp, A$39.95). Available from AD Books.

"On 19 October 1997, Pope John Paul II named Thérèse of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church, thus raising this enclosed Carmelite nun to the ranks of the premier instructors of Christianity. In two-thousand years of history only thirty-three individuals have been accorded the title of doctor ecclesiae," writes Bernard McGinn, author of The Doctors of the Church.

Church doctors, says McGinn, are the "light of the holy Church." They have an important and "distinctive role in Christianity." This book clearly examines how doctors of the Church are defined and describes their roles. It includes the life stories of the thirty-three doctors of the Church, and finally discusses the future of Church doctors.

The author sets out the three conditions necessary for someone to be declared a doctor: "eminent teaching, outstanding sanctity and official declaration by the Church" (Lambertini, book 2, chaps 11-12). Doctors are teachers of "spiritual wisdom", following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and are "the mouthpiece of Christ." They possess a special "charism or grace that arises from within, that is from the gift of the Holy Spirit." This is especially the case with female doctors, e.g., St Thérèse of Lisieux.

Physicians of the soul

McGinn uses Isidore of Seville's analogy to liken the role of Church doctors to that of medical physicians: "Just as skilled physicians treat the body's varied illnesses with different medicine, there being diverse cures for the varieties of wounds, so too a doctor of the Church uses the fitting remedy of teaching for each and all, and will proclaim whatever is needed for each person, according to age, sex and profession" (Book of Sentences).

Part two of The Doctors of the Church briefly examines each of the lives of the thirty-three doctors, from patristic, medieval and modern times, among them, St Ambrose, St Gregory the Great and St Teresa of Avila.

The author believes that the future of Church doctors rests in the continued impact and inspiration that they provide for all Christians, especially in "the model they present of combining the intense love of God and neighbour with a commitment to the intellectual work of learning, preaching, teaching and writing." Also there is the exciting prospect of new doctors of the Church being identified.

This book is well written and certainly worth reading, as it will increase one's knowledge and understanding not only of Church history but also of the lives of the Church doctors, including how saints are declared doctors.

Angela Joseph is a Melbourne Catholic writer.

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