Who are the Doctors of the Church? Are they some weird Catholic medical society that gets called in when the priest’s homily puts someone into a coma? Are they a religious order of time lords that battle against Daleks and Satan?
Nope. Actually, they’re not medical doctors and they’re not Doctor Who. Rather, “doctor” here means “teacher” in Latin. The Doctors of the Church are the great teachers who have helped explain and pass on the Catholic Faith for the past two millennia. To put it simply, they’re the Catholic Church’s brain trust. Much of our best theology, philosophy, and spirituality has come from the 36 saints whom the Catholic Church has named “doctors.”
So, how does the Church decide who to recognize as a doctor? We’ve already mentioned that this title goes to Catholic saints who are really smart and have explained the Faith in a way we can all benefit from. Brains and good books, however, aren’t enough to be a saint; holiness of life is also an imperative. Each one of these Church Doctors was not only brilliant, but also devoted their mind, their intelligence, and their whole lives to the service of God and the preaching of the Gospel.
Here are a few of the bigger names on that list, as well as a few that may surprise you:
1. St. Athanasius (298-373)
At a time when many were denying the divinity of Christ, Athanasius was one of the staunchest advocates for the doctrine of the Trinity. Not only did he write about the nature of God, but he also inspired countless Christians to cast aside their worldly vices with his famous biography of St. Anthony of the Desert, a pioneer of monasticism.
“The Son of God became man so that we might become God.” 1
2. St. Ambrose (340-397)
Everyone loved St. Ambrose so much, they elected him bishop of Milan before he was even baptized. He was quickly initiated into the Church before he was ordained a bishop. He also helped to convert St. Augustine to Catholicism.
“Let the Word of God come; let it enter the church; let it become a consuming fire, that it may burn the hay and stubble, and consume whatever is worldly.” 2
3. St. John Chrysostom (349-407)
No need to call in the doctors during this guy’s homilies: his title Chrysostomos, which is Greek for golden-mouthed, comes from his reputation for epic preaching.
“Christ went forth bearing the Cross as a trophy over the tyranny of death: and as conquerors do, so He bore upon His shoulders the symbol of victory.” 3
4. St. Jerome (347-420)
St. Jerome is known for being sassy and supposedly taming a lion, but his biggest achievement was arguably translating the Bible into Latin. His translation, the Vulgate, was widely used for over 1000 years.
“Thank God I am deemed worthy to be hated by the world. . . What real sorrows have I to bear – I who fight for the Cross? Men heap false accusations on me; yet I know that through ill report and good report we win the kingdom of heaven.” 4
5. St. Augustine (354-430)
“Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!” 5
6. St. Leo the Great (400-461)
Even though this guy was a pope and wrote a lot of great theology, he’s still better known for being part of the expedition that stopped Attila the Hun from invading Italy.
“No one, however weak, is denied a share in the victory of the cross. No one is beyond the help of the prayer of Christ. His prayer brought benefit to the multitude that raged against him. How much more does it bring to those who turn to him in repentance?” 6
7. St. Gregory the Great (540-604)
Both a great pope and a great theologian, Gregory was one of the first four saints to be given the title “Doctor of the Church.”
“For, indeed, nothing is more fugitive than the heart, which deserts us as often as it slips away through bad thoughts.” 7
8. St. Gregory of Narek (951-1003)
St. Greg is the most recently named Doctor of the Church, proclaimed by Pope Francis in 2015. Born and raised in Armenia, this guy is known for composing some of the greatest poetry ever written in the Armenian language.
“Cut me loose with your victorious sword of life, the Cross, and release me from the nets that have snared me, nets that assail me on all sides as the captive of death.” 8
9. St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)
St. Bernard founded the Cistercians (an order of monks) and worked on reforming the monastic life, calling it back to its original spirit of poverty, prayer, and work.
“Of all the movements, sensations and feelings of the soul, love is the only one in which the creature can respond to the Creator and make some sort of similar return however unequal though it be.” 9
10. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)
Born to a wealthy family, his parents locked him in a tower to keep him from joining the Dominicans, an order of priests. He escaped, took on a life of poverty and study, and produced some of the greatest works of theology ever written, including the massive 3000-page Summa Theologica.
“Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence.” 10
11. St. Bonaventure (1221-1274)
A lesser-known contemporary of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure was a great teacher and writer as well as Minister General of the Franciscan Order.
“No one can be made happy unless he rise above himself, not by an ascent of the body, but of the heart. But we cannot rise above ourselves unless a higher power lifts us up. And divine aid is available to those who seek it from their hearts, humbly and devoutly.” 11
12. St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380)
St. Catherine of Siena was quite possibly even sassier than St. Jerome. She wrote a series of letters to the pope criticizing him for refusing to live in Rome.
“Do not be satisfied with little things, because God wants great things!” 12
13. St. John of the Cross (1542-1591)
St. John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic, wrote many great books and poems about his experiences of God. Along with St. Teresa of Avila, he helped to found the Discalced Carmelites, an order devoted to prayer and contemplation of God.
“We must then dig deeply in Christ. He is like a rich mine with many pockets containing treasures: however deep we dig we will never find their end or their limit. Indeed, in every pocket new seams of fresh riches are discovered on all sides.” 13
14. St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)
Another Spanish mystic and co-founder of the Discalced Carmelites, St. Teresa’s spiritual autobiography helped to convert another great saint to Catholicism: Edith Stein, who was martyred in Auschwitz during World War II.
“Let nothing disturb you. Let nothing frighten you. All things are passing passing away. God never changes.” 14
15. St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897)
St. Therese is the youngest Doctor of the Church. Though she died at the age of 24, she inspired many through the holiness of her life and through her famous spiritual autobiography, Story of a Soul.
“Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, nor even at their difficulty, as at the love with which we do them.” 15
Interested in learning more about the Doctors of the Church? Here are some more resources:
- On the Incarnation 54.3, CCC 460
- On Psalm 118, Sermon 13, quoted in Exam. of Council of Trent, Part III, pp. 349-50
- Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homily 85
- Epist. ad Asellam, 45, 1, 6.
- Confessions X.38
- Sermon 15, De Passione Domine
- Book of Pastoral Rule, Ch. 14
- Prayer 40
- Sermon 83:4-6
- ST I-II 3.8
- The Soul’s Journey into God, Ch.1
- Letter T127
- Red. B, str. 36-37
- “Nada te turbe”
- From a letter to her sister Celine, Oct. 1888