The four female Doctors of the Church formed and guided the Catholic Church. They still help us understand and grow closer to God today.

What is a Doctor of the Church?

The word “doctor” means “teacher” in Latin. This means a Doctor of the Church will be curing your heresy rather than your flu.

Triumph of St. Augustine by Claudio Coello (1664)
Triumph of St. Augustine by Claudio Coello (1664)

Beginning in 1298, Pope Boniface VIII honored St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome with double feasts to recognize their intellectual contributions1. In the Eastern Church, the three leading Doctors were St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil, and St. Gregory Nazianzen.

Through the centuries, the Catholic Church added to the list, including women.

How do you become a Doctor of the Church?

The three conditions to become a Doctor of the Church include:

  • Eminens doctrina (eminent learning)
  • Insignis vitae sanctitas (a high degree of sanctity)
  • Ecclesiae declaratio (proclamation by the Church, either by the Pope or by a general council)
St. Thomas Aquinas by Carlo Crivelli (1476)
St. Thomas Aquinas by Carlo Crivelli (1476)

This declaration does not mean the Doctor of the Church was completely free from error. Everyone makes mistakes! Regardless, their writings provided important contributions for the Catholic Church.

Who are the Four Female Doctors of the Church?

There are four female Doctors of the Church out of the 36. Their writings still shape and guide the Church today.

St. Hildegard of Bingen

St. Hildegard is the most recently declared female Doctor of the Church. Born around 1098, she was a German Benedictine nun. She even rose to the rank of abbess.

St. Hildegard of Bingen
St. Hildegard of Bingen

Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his 2012 proclamation:

“This great woman truly stands out crystal clear against the horizon of history for her holiness of life and the originality of her teaching.”

She founded two more monasteries, serving as the Abbess of both. St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Pope Eugene III both encouraged her to write and speak to the public.

She did many activities including writing, composing, and studying. She even experienced mystical visions. Many of her songs and poems survive today, including her own language called the Lingua Ignota.

St. Catherine of Siena

St. Catherine was both a mystic and a reformer. She was born in Siena, Italy in 1347 and wanted to devote herself to God, against the wishes of her parents. She became a Third Order Dominican, dedicated to prayer while remaining active in the world.

Saint Catherine of Siena - Santa Maria del Rosario in Prati, Rome
Saint Catherine of Siena – Santa Maria del Rosario in Prati, Rome

She was famous for her mysticism and played an important role in reforming the Church. She helped influence Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome from Avignon, France. After his move, the pope encouraged her to complete many missions for him.

Today, her spiritual writings The Dialogue of Divine Providence teach us about our relationship with God. She is the patron saint of Rome, Italy, and Europe.

St. Teresa of Ávila

Born in Spain in 1515, St. Teresa grew up in a devout family, entering the Carmelites at 18. She realized that her sisters were not strict enough in their spiritual duties. After meeting with St. Peter of Alcantara, she began reforming the Carmelites. Despite much opposition, she created her own convent.

St. Teresa of Ávila by Peter Paul Rubens (1615)
St. Teresa of Ávila by Peter Paul Rubens (1615)

She created a constitution that went back to the order’s original rule. Five years later, she began creating new convents across Spain. She had special help from her friend, St. John of the Cross. St. Teresa experienced many mystical experiences from God in prayer.

Her writings help explain the spiritual life, including The Interior Castle and The Way of Perfection. She is famous for her explanations on prayer, commonly known as the Doctor of Prayer.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Thérèse is one of the most popular saints in the history of the Catholic Church.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux
St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Born in France in 1873, she overcame many obstacles to become a Carmelite nun at the age of 15. She is famous for her “Little Way,” where one does everything out of great love. Thérèse describes herself as the “Little Flower” that sits back and lets Jesus love her. Her approach is simple and practical.

In 1997, St. John Paul II proclaimed her a “Doctor of the Church,” making her the youngest Doctor of the Church ever.

  1. Doctors of the Church – Catholic Encyclopedia