THE 33 DOCTORS OF THE CHURCH
by Fr Christopher Rengers
PB, pp 696. Tan Books. ISBN 978-0-89555-440-6. Rec price $48.40.
It is not quite clear when the term “doctor of the church” was first used, but it was at least a thousand years ago. It has long been recognised that some of the early Fathers of the church had a formative influence on the intellectual tradition of the church. Different traditions emerged in the Eastern and Western churches long before the formal separation between them in the 11th century.
In the Western Church, they included Saint Gregory the Great, Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine, and Saint Jerome. In the East, it included Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory Nazianzen and St Athanasius, who had a pivotal role in putting down the Arian heresy in the 4th century.
The word “doctor” comes from the Latin word meaning teacher or instructor, and has nothing to do with the common English word which refers to a physician.
To differentiate these illustrious teachers of the faith from lesser theologians, they were given the title, doctor of the church, and were recognised as such in the Divine Office and the liturgy.
For centuries in the West, the term referred to just four saints. However, with the passage of time, the remarkable contributions of others were recognised as making a unique contribution to our understanding of the faith, and so a formal process was established to recognise them.
In an effort to unify the Eastern and Western traditions, and to give due recognition in the West to the contributions of Fathers of the Eastern tradition, Pope Pius V recognised the great Fathers of the East as Doctors of the Church in 1568.
Although the term Doctors of the Church is not officially recognised in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, it is recognised by other Eastern churches, including the Armenian Church, the Syro-Malabar Church, the Coptic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East.
Fr Rengers provides chronological biographies of 33 Doctors of the Church officially recognised by the Catholic church up to the year, when this book was originally written.
It is therefore a treasury of some of the greatest minds of the church, and also a history of some of the great controversies in Christianity, which gave rise to many of their writings.
Interestingly, the periods when the largest number of Doctors of the Church lived were the 4th century after the legalisation of Christianity by Constantine, during the Arian and Nestorian crises.
Apart from those referred to above, they include St Ephrem (306-373), St Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386), St Hilary of Poitiers (315-368), St Cyril of Alexandria (376-444), St Leo the Great (400-461), St Peter Crysologus (406-450), and St Gregory the Great (540-604).
Every one of these men played a crucial role in maintaining the “sensus fidelium” – what the Catechism described as “the supernatural appreciation of faith on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.”
Significant numbers of other Doctors of the Church come from the Medieval period at the time of the Albigensian heresy, and the Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries.
From the Medieval period, we have St Anselm, Father of Scholasticism, St Anthony of Padua, Bernard of Clairvaux, St Albert the Great and St Thomas Aquinas. It is no surprise that in times of great religious turmoil, some of the greatest writings of the Christian era were written by brilliant minds.
The Reformation period gave rise to St Teresa of Avila, St Peter Canisius, St Robert Bellarmine, St John of the Cross, St Lawrence of Brindisi and St Francis de Sales.
Fr Rengers includes some of the more recent Doctors of the church, St Alphonsus Ligouri and St Therese of Lisieux, but does not include the very recently declared St Edith Stein, executed by the Nazis in Auschwitz, St John of Avila, St Hildegard of Bingen and St Gregory of Narek, an Armenian theologian, writer and poet of the 11th century, who was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Francis.
This is a most interesting book which will be valuable for clergy and laity, and gives a wonderful overview of the contribution to the church of some of the greatest minds of Christendom.