Augustine, Ambrose, and Aquinas. John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and ThÈrËse of Lisieux. Along with 25 other saints, they make up the select group recognized by the Church as doctors.

How did they get the honor? Simply by illuminating the mysteries of the faith and offering timeless prescriptions for sick souls in need of divine medicine.

One of the great works of the baroque adorning St. Peter's Basilica in Rome is the Cattedra Petri, or Chair of St. Peter, designed and executed by Bernini to complement his magnificent baldachin over the main altar. Upon entering the nave, a visitor sees the Cattedra at a distance back in the apse, framed by the huge ornate pillars of the baldachin. Only after proceeding around the altar does the view open out onto the unique splendor of Bernini's vision for the Cattedra: the Holy Spirit in clouds of majesty hovering above the seat, which from below is supported by four imposing figures, each 16 feet high, four doctors of the Church.

Baroque art, as an instrument of the counter-Reformation, usually gets right to the point. The Chair of Peter of course represents the ongoing teaching office of the successors of Peter. The doctors of the Church are set as cornerstones to that office and seem also both to carry it along and to stand guard around it, with the Holy Spirit above providing illumination to the whole. The specific doctors represented in the work are: Augustine and Ambrose, John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen. The two doctors of the Western Church, Augustine and Ambrose, are wearing their episcopal miters; the two who represent the Eastern Church are not. (Therein is conveyed an unsubtle message about the primacy of the Western See, intended for the refractory Eastern Church.)

Marks of a Doctor

What goes into the making of these doctors of the Church? The article on them in the New Catholic Encyclopedia states that there are three basic requirements: “great sanctity, eminent learning, and proclamation as a doctor of the Church by a pope or ecumenical council.” Though one can safely assume that the latter condition is fulfilled largely in view of the two former, a deeper appreciation for the raison d'etre behind the doctors of the Church comes from a passage of the homily given recently by Pope John Paul II on the occasion of St. ThÈrËse of Lisieux's being named a doctor:

“When the Magisterium proclaims someone a doctor of the Church, it intends to point out to all the faithful, particularly to those who perform in the Church the fundamental service of preaching or who undertake the delicate task of theological teaching and research, that the doctrine professed and proclaimed by a certain person can be a reference point, not only because it conforms to revealed truth, but also because it sheds new light on the mysteries of the faith, a deeper understanding of Christ's mystery.…” Vatican II's Lumen Gentium, for its part, teaches us that God himself ‘speaks to us’ through his saints. “It is for this reason that the spiritual experience of the saints has a special value for deepening our knowledge of divine mysteries, which remain ever greater than our thoughts, and not by chance does the Church choose only saints to be distinguished with the title of doctor.”

Intellectual Fence Walking

In mentioning that the doctrine of the doctors can serve as a “reference point” for further studies, the Pope alludes also to one of the more important roles the doctors can play. For it is not only by their teaching, but also by the witness of their lives that the doctors provide a reference point on the delicate question of how to gauge the proper place for the intellect in the overall balance of a Christian scheme of life. As with so many aspects of the human situation, the Church has tried through the centuries to stay the middle course between anti-intellectualism on the one side, exemplified in ancient times by Tertullian's famous remark, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” and in later times by the anti-rationalism of some of the Protestant reformers, and on the other side in an intellectual elitism that was present early on as an element of gnosticism and is with us today in the dissent of professional theologians. The Church puts before us as examples men and women who used their intellects correctly, for the glory of Almighty God and in service to the Mystical Body. To what extent this right use of intellect is a cause or an effect of their sanctity is debatable but cannot be known by us here on earth.

Doctors of the Soul

The insistence that doctors be persons of great sanctity, whose testimony of spiritual experience—as in the case of St. ThÈrËse—can be more important than their having a major corpus of writings, highlights a fundamental difference in the approach to knowledge of the things of God and the things of this world. One could look at the considerable contrast between doctors of the Church, proclaimed by a pope, and secular doctors of philosophy, who more or less earn their titles by personal effort.

How is it that the great men of science and the influential thinkers today need only possess intellectual virtue and not great moral virtue? That in fact, one of the marks of scientific knowledge is that it is objective, or independent of the personal subject with all his or her moral qualities. This characteristic is especially manifest in the requirement that the results of scientific experiments be “repeatable,” that is, that anyone, regardless of moral character, could get the same data and arrive at the same conclusions.

It seems that in seeking knowledge of the things of this world, man's intellect probes and prods, so often rudely. We dissect hapless animals with razors and pins. We accelerate atoms to the near speed of light, steer them head-on into each other, so that the carnage of their collisions yields a feast of scientific data on subatomic particles. And in all these investigations, violent or not, man acts according to his nature, made in the image and likeness of God.

Just as part of God's great glory is the knowledge he has of himself, seen in the Word through which the world was created, so a part of the glory of man's nature is to use his intellect to unlock the secrets of this created world. Those who do this by profession are often called “doctors” and little is cared if they be proud, petty, or petulant. Occasionally, one of these doctors may even stumble into knowledge of the greatest secret of them all: that the things of this world contain hints about the God who made them. Though such knowledge is always open to the intellect unaided by grace, it is precisely here, in discerning the hidden meaning of it all, that man's moral weakness, his pride and prejudices, can veil the piercing gaze of his intellect.

Von Balthasar's ‘Catholica’

This great secret is the mystery of what Hans Urs von Balthasar called the “Catholica,” a term coined to express the universal totality of things as they stand in relation to God and to the mystery of the redemption won by Christ, something far broader than “religion,” broader still than “Catholic” (understood as one expression of religion among others). It captures our belief that under the surface of every natural reality there is a deeper meaning. An effort to extend and deepen knowledge of the “Catholica,” then, is what we find in the doctors of the Church.

The means of pursuing this appear quite different from those of worldly knowledge because we are speaking of a knowledge that is given in love by God as a self-revelation to those who love him. It is a knowledge of persons in a relationship who reveal more about themselves the more they come to trust each other in love. Our Lord said, “To every one who has will more be given; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Lk 19, 26).

The verse applies also to those who pursue knowledge of the things of God. The little they may have at the outset fosters a degree of love, which spawns a desire for more knowledge of the Beloved, which can be granted as the soul in love makes herself more conformable to further influx of divine knowledge. Thus love and knowledge seem as two climbers in a race for the peak, who in vying for the lead spur each other on to greater heights. It need hardly be said that the great lovers of God, those who have most striven to conform themselves to the divine model, are the persons the Church recognizes as “saints.” Perhaps this goes some way to explain why “eminent sanctity” is one of the requirements for being a doctor of the Church.

Accidental Theologians

Looking at a list of the doctors of the Church, one is struck by how few are actually theologians in the technical sense of the term, that is, persons who deliberately went about attempting to expand the body of theological knowledge. Of these, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas stand out, followed by Bonaventure, Albert the Great, Anselm, and perhaps a few more. Others seem more to be theologians by default, who happened to have had incumbent upon them the duty of clarifying doctrine, usually in the face of some heresy. Athanasius, Leo the Great, Basil, and Gregory Nazianzen fall into this category.

But the majority of the doctors' contributions to the “Catholica” are of a pastoral nature, for an understanding of whose breadth an ancient axiom may be invoked: “Whatever is received, is received according to the mode of the recipient” (so sonorous in the Latin that it begs restatement: Quidquid recipitur per modum recipientis recipitur), which here implies that a multiplicity of expressions are needed to communicate the “Catholica” to the variety of audiences in the diversity of their congenitally and culturally conditioned capacities.

Thus, doctors of Church often are writers of catechisms, as was Cyril of Jerusalem and Peter Canisius, who wrote three catechisms that were translated into 15 languages and went through more than 200 printings in the saint's lifetime. For a different audience, Gregory the Great wrote his Pastoral Care, a handbook for bishops. His Morals on the Book of Job was the seminal work for medieval monastic culture, as is noted by Jean Leclercq in his classic The Love of Learning and the Desire for God. Likewise, the writings of St. Francis de Sales are more pastoral than theological, opening to a lay audience the riches of the Devotio moderna spirituality. Finally, contributing by works of pure spirituality are the great Carmelites, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, now joined by their sister, ThÈrËse of Lisieux.

In touching upon the Carmelites, we may note that it seems serendipitous that in English the first thing we think of when we hear “doctor” is a medical doctor. For the meaning applies fittingly to doctors of the Church, especially in the case of those concerned primarily with spirituality, who as it were, write prescriptions to sick souls in need of divine medicine. The Little Way of ThÈrËse is a common-sense regimen for everybody, which when followed whole-heartedly leads certainly to spiritual health, possibly to great sanctity, and for this ThÈrËse certainly deserves her place in heaven and on earth in the splendid company of the doctors of the Church.

Brother Clement Kennedy, a Benedictine monk, writes from the Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, Calif.