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How to become a Doctor of the Church

The 'big four' Doctors of the Church: Sts Augustine, Gregory the Great, Jerome and Ambrose, as depicted by Pier Francesco Sacchi (c 1516)

Anyone aspiring to become a Doctor of the Church requires an impressive CV. The official criteria are a major contribution to Christian thought (be it at the spiritual or lofty theological level), a hefty dose of sanctity, and formal recognition by the pope or a General Council. Thus far, the final nod of approval has always been left to the pope. The standard was set by the big four who were promoted during the 13th century: Saints Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome and Gregory the Great.

You don’t have to be an overly enthusiastic fan of Rome to get the job. During the 16th century four more easterly Doctors were granted the honour: John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus and Athanasius. In 2015 St Gregory of Narek, a 10th-century member of the Armenian Apostolic Church, made the grade. And quite right, too. His Book of Lamentations tackles the toughest of issues: wanting to be perfect, knowing you are not, and realising how God can help to bridge the gap.

The Doctor category is wide-ranging, stretching from St Bede the Venerable in his library to the mystical utterances of Catherine of Siena. It is quite a club that can boast the membership of Aquinas, Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux and Teresa of Avila. I imagine that it is a little naughty to have a favourite Doctor (we are dealing with more serious issues, here, than the famous sci-fi series), but I’d probably go for Hildegard of Bingen, who only earned her promotion in 2012. I’m also fond of St Alphonsus Liguori. What’s not to like about the asthmatic boy from Naples who could write music, produce art, philosophise and delve into moral theology? Some may find his writing too fierce, but he had the good sense to abandon a career in the law and he even helped out earthquake victims in 1730s Foggia.

When choosing Doctors of the Church much more is at stake than a game of celebrity saints. The category enshrines a fundamental Catholic concept: that wisdom emerging from a particular time and place continues to resonate and inspire forever. This “eminent doctrine”, to deploy the posh term, has to merge with orthodoxy and thus becomes a theological building block for future generations.

It’s no surprise, then, that the selection process is rigorous. These days, both the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith get involved: not easy crowds to please. Few measure up – 36 at the last count – but those who do represent a who’s who of the best and brightest.

Who was ever more wide-ranging and painstaking in his thinking than St Bonaventure, and who was ever smarter than Albertus Magnus? Peter Damian may have taken the penitence a little too far but he was one of the most fascinating figures of the medieval era. He even managed to impress Dante (a demanding judge) who granted him an entry ticket to his literary Paradiso. And what of the inspiring tale of Francis de Sales? Leaving aside his learning, it is hard not to be inspired by the tale of the man who was so worried about predestination that he took to his bed; but he came out the other side of his anguish and pursued an extraordinary ministry, even dodging assassins upon occasion.

In 2004, Pope John Paul II did a fine job of summing up the role of the Doctors in a prayer for Augustine: “May the profound teaching that you drew, with loving and patient study from the ever-living source of Scripture, enlighten all who are tempted today by alienating mirages.”

Jonathan Wright is an honorary fellow in the department of theology and religion at Durham University