Earlier in October, the Church celebrated the feast days of two notable saints—St. Therese of Lisieux on October 1, and St. Teresa of Avila on October 15. These holy women share many similarities: both were Carmelite nuns who modeled lives of radical simplicity, and both provided significant insight to Christian spirituality. Their written works have contributed so much to theological understanding that these saints have been recognized as Doctors of the Church. This sounds like an important title, but what does it mean? How does one become a Doctor of the Church?
The practice of recognizing saints as Doctors of the Church began in the late 13th century. Pope Boniface VIII declared that the doctrines and theological concepts penned by St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, St. Jerome, and St. Ambrose had benefited the church so much that they deserved special recognition. These saints’ accomplishments and written works had been promulgated throughout the world and became synonymous with Catholic teaching.
The original four remained the only Doctors of the Church until the late 16th century, when Pope Pius V added St. Thomas Aquinas. He also added the four Doctors of the Eastern Church: St. Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus. Interestingly, the Eastern Church’s recognition of Doctors of the Church predates the Roman Church, as St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil, and St. Gregory Nazianzus have been revered by that title since the 11th century.
There are three criteria used to distinguish a saint as a Doctor. First, they must have eminent learning, meaning their theological understanding is profound and outstanding. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiæ masterfully summarizes contemporary theological debates. Most of the debate about whether someone should be named a Doctor rests on this criteria. Second, they must live a life of sanctity, meaning they must be named a saint. Finally, the designation of Doctor must come from the Church, either by the Pope or by a general council.
It is important to note being named a Doctor does not make the person’s teachings infallible. If we combed through all the works of the doctors, we could find quite a few errors. While there may be mistakes, the insights from the Doctors far outweigh these small inconsistencies. These errors remind us that the Doctors, as distinguished as they are, are still human.
Today, there are 36 Doctors of the Church, 32 men and four women. The inclusion of women as Doctors of the Church was begun by Pope Paul VI in 1970, when he recognized St. Catherine of Sienna and St. Teresa of Avila. Pope John Paul II added St. Thérèse of Lisieux to the list, and Pope Benedict XVI added St. Hildegard of Bingen. All of these holy Doctors have fundamentally shaped our relationship with God, as their private revelations serve as a model for all the faithful.
Take for example the two women Doctors we celebrated in October. St. Teresa of Avila was recognized as a Doctor for her work in founding a group of nuns known as the Discalced (shoeless) Carmelites. In her renowned work, The Way of Perfection, Teresa outlines what it truly means to detach from worldly things and pray with authentic love and humility, even in an era when many Carmelite monasteries were corrupted by wealth and political influence.
About 300 years later, a 15-year-old girl from Lisieux, France was inspired to join the Discalced Carmelites and devote her life to Jesus. In the Story of a Soul, St. Therese of Lisieux depicts her relationship with Jesus in intimate detail. She pioneered the “little way” of following God through everyday actions. Because of these women, the theology of the Catholic Church became deeper and more personal than ever—and it was for this that they were recognized with the title of Doctor.
Featured image courtesy of Integrated Catholic Life