St. Irenaeus — A Martyr, But Not Yet a Doctor of the Church

Martyrdom, the shedding of one’s blood in testimony to Christ, is the ultimate sign of the credibility of Divine Revelation.

Irenæus af Lyon, Carl Rohl Smith, 1883-84, Frederikskirken, København
Irenæus af Lyon, Carl Rohl Smith, 1883-84, Frederikskirken, København (photo: Orf3us/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, along went some other episcopal conferences around the world, called for the Church Father, Saint Irenaeus (A.D. 140-202) to be declared a Doctor of the Church. Bishop Kevin C. Rhodes of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend stated that this declaration was “perhaps a way to correct an oversight of history.”

Saint Irenaeus is certainly one of the greatest of the post-Apostolic Fathers of the Church and an understanding of his teachings can certainly help us combat some of the modern day Gnosticism we encounter in the 21st century. In these next few articles for the Register, I intend to introduce us to whom Saint Irenaeus was and what he taught, and then, from there, to discuss what the heresy of Gnosticism was, how it is still present in our world today, and finally, what we can do, as Catholic believers, using the thought of Saint Irenaeus, to counter these Gnostic tendencies in the world today.

But first, like a good theologian, as much I really like the proposal of having the Church declare Irenaeus a Doctor of the Church, I must add a serious “sed contra” to this idea of declaring Irenaeus as a Doctor of the Church: He is a martyr, and as such, he holds a higher position already than any Doctor of the Church. Irenaeus shed his blood as a witness to the Lord and his teachings. In the year A.D. 202, the Emperor Septimus Severus, by imperial decree, ordered the martyrdom of Christians in honor of the 10th anniversary of his ascent to the throne.

In the history of the Catholic Church, no one, even if they were great theologians and teachers of the faith, has ever been declared a Doctor of the Church if they were a martyr. Saint Cyprian of Carthage, a martyr and a great teacher of the Catholic faith, is not a declared Doctor of the Church. Saint Ignatius of Antioch, another martyr and a supreme teacher of the faith, is not a declared Doctor of the Church. Saint Justin, the very first true systematic theologian in the Church, is not a Doctor of the Church.

Why? We have two reasons. The first is part of our Catholic liturgical tradition and the second is the very nature of what it means to be a martyr. This discussion will lead us to a definition of what a Doctor of the Church really is.

Liturgically, those saints who were declared Doctors of the Church were listed in the Office and the Mass under the title of “Confessor.” Originally, these confessors were the great saints of the early Church who “confessed” — that is, proclaimed Christ as Lord, God and Savior despite danger, trial and persecution. However, these confessors were never martyred, which is the highest witness one could give to the faith. As time passes, the title of Confessor is given to those saints who lived holy and exemplary lives but were never martyred. The title of “Doctor of the Church” was very difficult to attain — certainly more than getting a doctorate in sacred theology!

And, as we know, the Doctors of the Church, both in the East and the West, were all males until 1970, at which time, Pope Saint Paul VI declared Saint Teresa of Avila as the first female Doctor of the Church. Since that time, Saint Teresa has been joined by several other female doctors of the Church, namely Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, and Saint Hildegard of Bingen. There are currently 36 declared saints declared as Doctors of the Church. Therefore, in the course of the history of our Church, the customs of declaring someone a Doctor of the Church has been changed. Therefore, perhaps it could be the case that one who is already a martyr could also be declared a Doctor of the Church. In many ways, the title of “Doctor of the Church” is actually lesser than that of a martyr.

With this in mind, let’s examine what it takes to be a named a Doctor of the Church. There are three conditions: eminens doctrinainsignis vitae sanctitasEcclesiae declaration, (eminent teaching, great holiness, and the declaration of the Church). Saint Irenaeus certainly has eminent teaching, thoughts that have stood the test of time and which still enrich our world today; Saint Irenaeus has great holiness, which still inspire us to this day. (His feast day is June 28, and personally, this was the day of my first Mass after my priestly ordination). All he needs is the declaration of the Holy Father, Pope Francis. However, not to put the proverbial fly in the ointment, but does he really need the title if he is a martyr?

Martyrdom, the shedding of one’s blood in testimony to Christ, is the ultimate sign of the credibility of Divine Revelation. It is the ultimate way of teaching, going far beyond words on a page written in ink, to the very message of the Word of Life, Jesus our Lord, allowing himself to write the truth of the Catholic faith in the indelible ink that is blood. Many great writers and theologians like Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein were also martyrs. Could both of these martyrs be declared Doctors of the Church? Certainly, yes — their theological, philosophical and spiritual writings will stand the test of time. However, more important than the works they produced was the witness of their lives. Martyrdom is the ultimate witness to the faith and gives the ultimate credibility to Divine Revelation.

Think back to 2015 to when the world learned that ISIS savagely murdered 20 Egyptian men and one Ghanaian man in January. They had the audacity to release the video Feb. 15, 2015, stating that “Rome is next,” but their plan backfired. Instead of provoking fear into the hearts of the Christian world, for those that believe, these 20 Coptic Christians and one Muslim (Matthew Ayariga, baptized by blood), convinced of the truth of the Christian faith due to the witness of his fellow workers. Matthew Ayariga declared, in the face of his oppressors, “Their God is my God. I will go with them,”  even when he could have been pardoned by his executioners.

The lessons taught by the witness of the lives of these martyrs are just as profound as the eminent teachings that can be studied in the hallowed halls of pontifical universities like the Angelicum and the Gregorian in Rome. Can Saint Irenaeus the Martyr be declared a Doctor of the Church? Certainly. The concept of Doctor of the Church has developed over the years. Is martyrdom, however, even more of a profound witness? Certainly, and no one can ever debate this fact. Does Saint Irenaeus the Martyr need to be declared a Doctor of Church? Not necessarily, and even Pope Benedict XVI in his catechesis had pointed out that the Doctors and the martyrs are different; however, if he is ever declared a Doctor, then it will have the benefit of drawing attention to a saint whom relatively few know about as well as to the real, ongoing danger of the heresies he fought.

In my next contribution, I hope to go into the life and work of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons and to demonstrate why this particular Church Father is so essential for us to understand in our world today.