The Average Catholic’s Guide to Becoming A Doctor of the Church

Emily Stimpson
From the Jul/Aug 2006 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine

So, you want to be a Doctor of the Church? Good luck. Considering only 33 men and women in the entire 2000-year history of Christianity have obtained such lofty status, the odds are against you. Nonetheless, it is a worthy aspiration, and if those long odds don’t dissuade you, why should I? In fact, I’ll even give you a few helpful hints about how to stack the deck in your favor and increase your chances of joining the ranks of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Catherine of Siena.

First, let’s make sure you know what you’re aiming for. According to the textbooks, the Doctors of the Church are an elite cadre of Catholics who: 1) Demonstrated exemplary holiness; 2) Deepened the whole Church’s understanding of the Catholic faith; and 3) Were officially declared Doctors via papal proclamation. (Technically, an ecumenical council of bishops could also do the proclaiming, but they never have chosen to do so.)

The title itself dates back to the early fifth century, when Rufus of Aquileia decided the term “doctor” made a nice synonym for “teacher.” His innovation soon became a trend, and by AD 420, Augustine himself began giving the “doctor” label to some of the most authoritative teachers from the early Church.

Through the Middle Ages, the title remained a fluid and informal one, with different men called “Doctors of the Church” by different writers at different times. In the late thirteenth century, however, when the Church tightened up her policy on saint-making, she also formalized the process by which the Church could honor persons with the title “Doctor,” and then put out the first official “Doctor list.” That list included the Latin saints Gregory the
Great, Jerome, Ambrose, and, of course, Augustine. The list soon grew to eight, with the addition of four eminent teachers from the East: John Chrysostom, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Athanasius. It grew even more in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, and slowly but surely has grown ever since, with ten additions in the twentieth century alone.

That, of course, is good news for all aspiring Doctors. In terms of the Church’s sheer willingness to recognize Doctors of the Church, there has never been a better time to place yourself in contention for the title. Another bit of good news, at least for the ladies, is that the “Doctors of the Church” club is no longer “gentlemen only.” Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, the popes began adding women to the list, with the last three additions all hailing from the ranks of the gentler sex.

With that in mind, let’s move on to those promised hints. How can you increase your chances of a future pope elevating you to the illustrious rank of”Doctor of the Church”?

One

Get Yourself Ordained a Bishop

Obviously, this one doesn’t apply to us women, but if you have a Y chromosome, there is no surer way to make yourself a title contender. Of the 33 Doctors of the Church, 20 have carried the shepherd’s crook. Those numbers are hardly surprising when you consider that Christ invested his bishops with the charism of authoritative teaching, and the title of “Doctor” recognizes, above all, excellence in the aforementioned act of teaching. Interestingly, only two Bishops of Rome-Leo the Great and Gregory the Great-are on the list. The “Great” bit seems to have made the difference there. If, however, the word “great” doesn’t follow your name, and if you can’t convince the hierarchy to elevate you to the episcopacy, just make sure you get ordained to something. Of the ten remaining men on the Doctor list, nine were priests and one was a deacon. Although Holy Orders aren’t an official prerequisite for becoming a Doctor of the Church, no man, as of yet, has earned the title without them.

Two

Fight a Heresy

This one is a biggie. People don’t get themselves declared Doctors of the Church by going soft on heretics or sitting back and watching the spirit of the age ravage the culture. In fact, every Doctor save Thérèse of Lisieux spent a good part of his or her life sparring with the Church’s enemies, not to mention her wayward sons and daughters. Many of the early Doctors, including Hilary of Poitiers, Basil of Caesarea, and Ambrose of Milan, earned their stripes fighting Arians. Cyril of Alexandria took on the Nestorians, and John of Damascus went head to head with the Iconoclasts. A millennium later, Peter Canisius, Robert Bellarmine, and Lawrence of Brindisi devoted themselves to correcting the errors of Protestantism. Others in the late Middle Ages, such as Anselm of Canterbury and Catherine of Siena, fought corruption within the Church, while sixteenth-century contemporaries John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila took on corruption within their own religious orders.

Three

Spend Some Time in Exile

This one goes hand in hand with fighting heresy. If you want to be a Doctor of the Church, it’s not enough to just speak out against heterodoxy and heteropraxis. You also must be willing to flee your friends and family in the middle of the night with the emperor’s (or other ruling authorities’) guards in hot pursuit, and then spend years, possibly even decades, far from the comforts of home. Athanasius was exiled no less than five times for his
opposition to Arianism. Cyril of Jerusalem went into exile three times, and John Chrysostom fled his see of Constantinople twice. John of the Cross actually ran from his own religious order, and Francis de Sales spent the whole of his episcopacy exiled from his see’s traditional seat, the Calvinist stronghold of Geneva.

Four

Found (or Reform) a Religious Order

If no opportunities for exile arise, you should at the very least do your part in launching a renewal of religious life. Gregory the Great founded seven monasteries before becoming pope, and when Bernard of Clairvaux joined the Cistercians, he convinced 30 of his friends and neighbors to sign up along with him. Over the next 40 years, the Cistercian order flourished under his leadership, with 343 new monasteries established across Europe by the time of his death. Basil of Caesarea, Augustine, Francis de Sales, and Alphonsus de Ligouri all founded new orders, and Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross dramatically reformed the Carmelites, adding the term “Discalced Carmelite” to the Catholic lexicon.

Five

Write a Book

Like fighting heresies, leaving the Church with some substantive example of your teaching is also a key part of becoming a Doctor of the Church. It helps if the book is a theological treatise, a la Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae or Bonaventure’s The Mind’s Journey into God. Practical guides on Christian living, such as Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, also will do, as will spiritual autobiographies (think Thérèse’s Story of a Soul) and mystical treatises (Catherine’s Dialogues). Some Doctors authored catechisms-Peter Canisius wrote no less than three-while other Doctors’ writing took a more secular bent-Isidore of Seville penned the voluminous Encyclopedia, which saw the Western world through the Dark Ages, Albert the Great wrote the first systematic commentary on Aristotle’s Physics in the Latin West, and Bede the Venerable left us with The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. At the bare minimum, crank out a poem or two. Ephrem the Syrian, the only deacon on the Doctor list, managed to do a bit more, producing over 400 poems and hymns in his lifetime. And as long as you’re not contradicting defined Church teaching, fear not if you err ever so slightly from time to time: Even Thomas Aquinas got the Immaculate Conception wrong. Infallibility, you see, is not part of the charism of being a Doctor of the Church.

Six

Excel at Preaching

Not much of a writer? Don’t worry; you’re not completely out of the game. Just make sure you cultivate your public speaking skills, so you can join the ranks of the “golden-mouthed” John Chrysostom and speak “golden words” like Peter Chrysologus. Also, keep some record of your soul-stirring sermons to pass on to posterity. During Holy Week of AD 350, some quick-handed listener in Jerusalem took down 24 of Cyril’s Catechetical Lectures, giving the contemporary Church her clearest picture of catechetical practices in the fourth century and earning Cyril his place on the legendary list. Fame in preaching, however, carries even more weight than the number of sermons you leave behind. Anthony of Padua so excelled at homiletics that, after his death, his tongue remained incorrupt. And with a tongue like that, it doesn’t much matter that only a few of Anthony’s sermons still exist: The tongue says it all.

Seven

Have an Apparition

Ladies, this one is for you. Just as no man has made it onto the Doctor list without taking Holy Orders, no woman has made it onto the list without some fairly intense mystical experiences. Catherine first saw Christ in a vision at the age of seven, became mystically betrothed to him 12 years later, and recorded their conversations in her book, the Dialogue. Teresa of Avila experienced a deeper conversion to the faith when an angel pierced her heart with a “fiery golden spear,” representing God’s love, and then wrote her spiritual autobiography, The Life, after Christ appeared and promised to give her “a living book.” Later, Teresa gave form to those mystical experiences in a second book, the Interior Castle, which mapped out the soul’s journey to intimate union with Christ. Although Thérèse of Lisieux’s spirituality lacks the intense mysticism of Catherine’s and Teresa’s, the Little Flower still had more than your average number of mystical encounters. At the age of ten, a smile from a statue of Our Lady of Victories miraculously cured her from a mysterious illness. In the Carmel, like the first Teresa, she felt her heart physically pierced by God’s love, and near the end of her life, as she journeyed through the dark night of the soul, she regularly fought off the devil’s temptations to doubt and despair.

Eight

Do Not Become a Martyr

This isn’t a hint; this is an order. No matter how many heresies you combat, no matter how many years you spend in exile, and no matter how many one-on-one chats you have with God, if you go and get yourself martyred, you can forget about becoming a Doctor of the Church. The Catholic Church, for reasons she has never explicated, seems to prefer keeping the categories of “Doctor” and “Martyr” separate. This is one of the reasons why no great Christian teacher who lived before the year 300, including St. Paul, has been declared a Doctor- with few exceptions, they all died martyrs’ deaths.

Nine

Become a Saint

There’s no getting around it. If you want to become a Doctor of the Church, you have to be holy, certifiably holy. In this club, it’s not enough to just proclaim the truth; you also have to live it. Luckily, there are as many different ways to live the universal call to holiness as there are men and women in creation, so you don’t have to imitate Catherine, who ate nothing for years except the Eucharist and the occasional twig. You also don’t have to follow Lawrence of Brindisi, who thought it terrific fun to tramp barefoot across the snow-covered mountains of Europe in the dead of winter. In fact, as long as you eventually see the error of your ways and repent, you can live the life of a libertine in your youth, like Augustine, be “tactless and ill-tempered,” like John Chrysostom, or, to put it charitably, lack “people skills,” like the infamously crotchety Jerome. Sainthood, it seems, is a singular, surprising, enlightening, frightening, wild, and wacky kind of thing. And if you want that word “Doctor” before your name, you need to attain it in your own singular, surprising, enlightening, frightening, wild, and wacky kind of way. No Ten-Step Program for this bit, unfortunately.

Ten

Be Anointed by the Holy Spirit

As Shakespeare’s troubled Prince of Denmark once said, “Ay, there’s the rub.” You can assiduously follow all the sage advice laid out in these pages, you can even have a large religious congregation campaigning on your behalf, but in the end it all comes down to God. Only He has the power to make someone a Doctor of the Church. And that’s because being a Doctor isn’t just a title awarded by the pope to a worthy teacher: It’s a charism, given to an individual by the Holy Spirit and recognized by the Church. Pope Paul VI made that clear in 1970 when he named Teresa of Avila as the first woman Doctor, saying, “We have conferred, or better, we have recognized the title Doctor of the Church for St. Teresa of Jesus.” So, while only the Church has the power to confer the title of “Doctor,” it is the Holy Spirit, not the Holy Father, who actually creates those Doctors.

And there you have it-the ten most important steps you can take to improve your chances of becoming a Doctor of the Church. Obviously, not all ten steps are equally important or even necessary, and if you can’t convince the Holy Spirit to grant you the doctoral charism, you’re pretty much out of luck. But even if the Trinity doesn’t come through on the whole Doctor thing, and even if the Church never adds you to the official list, pursuing wisdom and holiness still has other rewards. Just a few small ones. Like helping you to become a blessing to the Church and the world in this life, and enabling you to enjoy eternal bliss with the Creator in the next.

I guess, when it all comes down to it, setting your sights on becoming a Doctor of the Church isn’t such a crazy idea after all. I may even try it myself.

(And heaven laughed.)

Emily Stimpson lives in Steubenville, OH, where she writes for Franciscan University’s magazine

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