St. Irenaeus, the Church’s New Doctor: What’s His Significance Today, and Who’s Next?

ROUNDTABLE: The Register speaks with theologians Tracey Rowland, Father Thomas Joseph White, John Cavadini, and Matthew Bunson for their thoughts on St. Irenaeus of Lyon being declared a Doctor of the Church.

L to R: St. Augustine of Hippo, window in Southwark Cathedral, London, photo by Vassil; St. Hildegard of Bingen, photo by Wolfgang Sauber; St. Irenaeus of Lyons, window crafted by Lucien Bégule, photo by Gérald Gambier.
L to R: St. Augustine of Hippo, window in Southwark Cathedral, London, photo by Vassil; St. Hildegard of Bingen, photo by Wolfgang Sauber; St. Irenaeus of Lyons, window crafted by Lucien Bégule, photo by Gérald Gambier. (photo: Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Gerd Altmann / Pixabay / LunaPic)

Last week, Pope Francis made it official: Over 1800 years after his death, St. Irenaeus of Lyon is now a Doctor of the Church.

With Irenaeus’ inclusion, the Catholic Church has now officially designated 37 Doctors of the Church. The 2nd-century bishop joins the ranks of illustrious Church theologians like Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, but also lesser-known luminaries like St. Gregory of Narek and St. Hildegard of Bingen.

The practice of declaring someone a Doctor of the Church formally began in the Middle Ages, and is a way for the Church to point to holy men and women who have made significant contributions to the life of the Church through their teaching and theology.

Pope Francis has given Irenaeus, a native of Asia Minor who led a diocese in present-day France, the title “Doctor of Unity.”

“May the doctrine of such a great Master encourage more and more the path of all the Lord’s disciples towards full communion,” wrote the Holy Father in a decree signed on Jan. 21.

To gain a better understanding of the significance of St. Irenaeus being declared a Doctor of the Church, the practice more generally, and who might be next to be added to the Church’s “academic honor board,” the Register spoke with four notable theological minds of our own day: Tracey Rowland, the St. John Paul II Chair of Theology at the University of Notre Dame in Australia, and the 2020 recipient of the Ratzinger Prize for theology; Father Thomas Joseph White, a Dominican theologian and rector magnificus of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome; John Cavadini, professor of theology and director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame; and Matthew Bunson, executive editor of EWTN News and creator of the ongoing EWTN documentary series, The Doctors of the Church.

When a pope canonizes a saint or declares someone a doctor of the Church, it can be a both an affirmation of a life of sanctity and wisdom, but also a recognition of relevance to the present age. What’s the significance of declaring St. Irenaeus of Lyon a doctor, and specifically the Doctor of Unity, at this current moment in the life of the Church?

ROWLAND: I would not pretend to have any special insight into the mind of Pope Francis, but he has described St. Irenaeus as a spiritual bridge between the eastern and western branches of Christianity. Maybe he sees St. Irenaeus as a Doctor of Unity in this bridge-building sense.

St. Irenaeus also wrote against the heresies of his own time and, obviously, in this current moment there are many people who think that we humans can make up our own theological ideas, and that we don’t have to be guided by Scripture or Tradition or indeed anything other than our own feelings. We don’t have to be guided by Revelation. This mentality is a problem for which some Irenaean wisdom would be most appropriate.

FATHER WHITE: The basic fact is this: Irenaeus is the first theologian of the Catholic Church, and his theology is magistral. At the time of his writing the proponents of Gnosticism, like Basilides and Valentinus, were denying that the physical world was created by a good God. They thought that the body is alien to human identity. Irenaeus claimed that one can only be authentically human with a physical body, and that the physical world can be redeemed, in the Resurrection and in the use of sacramental matter. 

The Gnostics carved up the Bible, rejecting the Old Testament and selecting convenient parts of the New Testament that suited them. Irenaeus argued that the scriptures have to be received as a whole and read within the Apostolic Tradition as maintained by the universal Catholic Church centered in Rome. He centers the image of Catholic obedience in the person of the Virgin Mary and Eucharistic communion. This is around 180 A.D. In his work we see the first complete Catholic interpretation of Scripture and Tradition at the earliest strata of history. To read Irenaeus is to cease to be Protestant.

CAVADINI: Irenaeus did mediate a dispute between Pope Victor and the Christians from Asia Minor about the date of Easter. He persuaded Victor to let the Eastern Christians continue with the traditional system they had (which did not necessarily involve celebrating Easter on a Sunday), instead of forcing them to adopt the Roman system of always celebrating Easter on a Sunday, the nearest to the actual date as determined by the lunar year. So this bond of unity in difference, or the spirit of seeking such unity, could have obvious relevance for a time of extreme polarization. However, this was not Irenaeus's only achievement, far from it, and arguably his theological achievement is much more important.

BUNSON: Irenaeus offers several very important lessons for Catholics today. First, he was a powerful voice for the clarity of teaching at a time when there was great confusion among some of the faithful in the face of Gnosticism. We are confronted with similar confusion and the allure of secular materialism, militant relativism, and the toxic idea of being “spiritual but not religious.” He tells us that orthodoxy is essential to the Christian life, but he also gives us the unquestionable sources we need to refute heresy in our day — the same beautiful teachings he used in his. 

Second, Irenaeus is a reminder of the importance of unity, that East and West in the Church must be together in this moment of spiritual crisis for the world. 


Of course, “unity” isn’t the only lens through which to consider Irenaeus’ considerable theological contribution. Purely as a hypothetical, what’s an alternative doctorly designation Irenaeus could’ve received? 

ROWLAND: Doctor of Salvation History, because St. Irenaeus is famous for his doctrine of recapitulation. Narrowly this is the idea that Christ, the Second Adam, undoes the damage of the first Adam. More broadly it is the idea that there are typologies or “types” to be found in the Old Testament who are recapitulated in the New Testament. Included within this is the idea that historical events have a theological meaning. St. Irenaeus’s doctrine of recapitulation therefore offers a kind of “meta-history,” or key to interpreting the events of the New and Old Testaments within a theological framework.

FATHER WHITE: Doctor of Unity makes sense because he is a reference in time to the earliest strata of unity in the Christian faith, and the centrality for the whole Catholic Church of antecedent apostolic testimony. He is also a figure of unity because he is a Greek-speaking native of the East who taught in the Roman West, and his theology is received fully in eastern and western traditions. One might also call him a “Doctor of Primitive Catholicism.” Today both Catholics and Orthodox refer to him as a touchstone.

CAVADINI: Doctor of Creation? Irenaeus defended the faith of the Church against the claims of the Gnostics, who believed that the world was created by Satan (under the name Ialdabaoth) and therefore creation was evil and human nature insofar as it was created, was also inherently bad or meaningless. Irenaeus defended the biblical doctrine of creation. The Gnostics taught a doctrine of redemption from creation, while Irenaeus defended the biblical narrative of redemption of creation. Arguably, this is his most significant and most long-lasting theological achievement.

BUNSON: Doctor of Apostolic Authority, for his constant recourse to the apostolicity of Church teachings in refuting Gnostic heresies. 


St. Irenaeus is the first Church Father who lived prior to the Nicene Council to be declared a Doctor of the Church — something about which some have concerns. The argument goes that because Irenaeus didn’t define a doctrine that was authoritatively taught by the Church, he doesn’t meet the traditional criteria of Doctor, and the title risks being diluted with his inclusion. Additionally, Irenaeus was a martyr, and no martyr has previously been declared a doctor. These kinds of concerns aren’t new: For instance, some criticized St. Pope John Paul II’s declaration of St. Thérèse of Lisieux as a doctor in 1997. What’s your take on the contemporary and, perhaps, more expansive approach to declaring doctors of the Church?

ROWLAND: I accept the more expansive approach. I had to confront this issue when invited by Father Alexander Sherbrooke, the parish priest of St. Patrick’s Church in Soho, London, to deliver a lecture on St. Thérèse. His idea was to charge a fee for attendance at the lecture and then to use the money towards the cost of a new stained-glass window of St. Thérèse. I therefore started out trying to understand why St. John Paul II had declared St. Thérèse of Lisieux a Church Doctor, while he declared Edith Stein (St. Teresa-Benedicta of the Cross), a world-class philosopher, a Patron of Europe.

At first, I seriously wondered whether some ignorant Vatican bureaucrat had mixed up the press releases. Surely Stein should have been the Church Doctor and St. Thérèse the Patron of Europe? However, when I read the documentation, it seemed that St. John Paul II was saying that the spirituality of St. Thérèse is the antidote needed to fight contemporary nihilism and the will to power. As some commentators argued, St. Thérèse is the perfect foil to Friedrich Nietzsche. This means that a saint can offer the perfect solution to a spiritual and theological crisis without actually writing an academic treatise about it.

FATHER WHITE: Augustine first spoke of “Doctors of the Church,” in the early 5th century to refer to major figures before his time who are representatives of the great tradition of Christian teaching, that is to say, masters of theological reflection who are also known for personal holiness. Church doctors illustrate both by their theoretical teaching and their pastoral wisdom, telling us how the teaching of the apostles may be interpreted theologically and embodied practically. The Catholic magisterium first used this term in 1298 to refer to figures from the Patristic era, but it was very quickly expanded to include Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure (arguably a very transgressive innovation). In the 18th and 19th centuries modern doctors like Alphonsus Liguori and Francis De Sales were declared. The 19th century popes like Pius IX named “obscure” ancient eastern figures as doctors, like Ephrem the Syrian, who was a poet theologian.
So in this light, I don’t see [the contemporary approach] as particularly innovative. The decision to name Irenaeus a doctor makes complete sense on purely theological terms, since it illustrates the idea that even from the very beginning of Catholicism there are seminal figures in every age: saints, martyrs and doctors. Irenaeus is a most early example of something that continues in the world as long as Catholic teaching and witness continue. In him we perceive the unity of thought and holiness.

CAVADINI: The phrase "define a doctrine" is a contemporary phrase with relatively little bearing on the major accomplishments of individual theologians in the early Church worthy of the title “doctor.” Did Jerome “define a doctrine?” Or is his major contribution his massive erudition in Scriptural studies that produced the Vulgate, the principal Latin translation of the Scriptures throughout the Middle Ages and into the Catholic Reform. With Irenaeus, the diagnosis of gnosticism, and the creation of a compelling theological defense against it, is very hard to overestimate in its significance, and, further, his doctrine of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, and his teaching about Apostolic Succession, both developed in response to the gnostic claim to have private, elite teaching handed down secretly, independent of the authority structure of the Church, still persists today as the official teaching of the Church.

BUNSON: The span of doctors is across most of Church History. The Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. was an important moment, but it should not preclude choosing a doctor from an earlier era. The traditional criteria of sanctity and committing an eminent body of teachings to the Church are both fulfilled in Irenaeus, and the decision by the pope is rooted in the desire for the Church to celebrate, but also to learn from, this important figure. Martyrdom does not and should not preclude someone from being a doctor. We can see how expansive the possibilities are for naming doctors with St. Gregory of Narek, an Armenian monk, also designated by Pope Francis, and especially Thérèse of Lisieux by John Paul II.

There was, indeed, resistance to John Paul II naming Thérèse of Lisieux a Church Doctor, but a reading of his apostolic letter making the declaration, Divini Amoris Scientia, provides a profound theological foundation for defining doctors. He wrote: “In fact, whatever changes can be noted in the course of history and despite the repercussions they usually have on the life and thought of individuals in every age, we must never lose sight of the continuity which links the Doctors of the Church to each other: in every historical context they remain witnesses to the unchanging Gospel and, with the light and strength that come from the Holy Spirit, they become its messengers, returning to proclaim it in its purity to their contemporaries. Thérèse is a Teacher for our time, which thirsts for living and essential words, for heroic and credible acts of witness.”


St. Irenaeus has certainly received a good deal of attention for being declared a Church Doctor, but it’s also fair to say that the last few saints to be declared doctors have largely gone unheralded, at least in everyday Catholic discourse. Practically speaking, what impact does someone being declared a Doctor of the Church have?

ROWLAND: I think it doesn’t have a widespread impact. I once gave a public lecture on the topic and a professor of medicine turned up to the lecture because he thought I was going to be talking about great Catholic medical doctors. He had no idea of the concept of “Church Doctors.” 

However, this practice does raise the profile of the saint in the Catholic media, at least for a few weeks, and this often fosters academic research on the theology of the particular saint. This was the outcome of Pope Benedict XVI’s declaration of St. Hildegard of Bingen as a Church Doctor. Suddenly Hildegard was not simply a common name for a cat, but someone whose publications and musical compositions were worthy of academic attention.

I also think that the list of “Church Doctors” is something like the Church’s academic honor board. Just as in schools there are sometimes honor boards with the names of the dux [top pupil] of the school of each year painted in gold leaf, the list of Church Doctors is like an honor board of those who have come to the rescue and sorted out theological crises in the life of the Church. Its very existence highlights the importance of the intellectual apostolate. It affirms the vocations of theologians and other confessors of the faith like St. Thérèse. It says to the members of the Church at large that the Catholic faith is reasonable and cares about what the French philosopher Etienne Gilson called “the intelligence in the service of Christ the King.”

FATHER WHITE: Honestly, it depends on many factors. St. Catherine of Siena, St. John of the Cross, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux are universally influential everywhere, and probably would be even if they were not declared doctors. Albert the Great matters a great deal to scientists, and rightly so. Like Athanasius or Cyril of Alexandria, Irenaeus is a hugely important figure in historical theology and Christology, and deserves to be more widely read by the broader Catholic public. I can only rejoice that he is named a Doctor of the Church. People who care about the identity of Christ should care about the teaching of Irenaeus.

CAVADINI: It's a great honor but one with a rather low profile. What it really does is highlight the theological achievements of the one proclaimed doctor, and directs the attention of the Church to their continuing significance as a resource for our own times. In Irenaeus's case, we can say that gnosticism is alive and well, in covert forms such as what used to be called New Age Spirituality, and even in overt forms, so the refutation is a job for each generation and Irenaeus's arguments are definitive.

BUNSON: The declaration is an opportunity for the Church to reflect more fully on the lives and especially the eminent teachings of these remarkable women and men. It is up to our shepherds to offer deeper reflections, and it’s on us as Catholics to study and benefit from the Doctors’ collective and individual holy genius. 


Let’s end with a little thought experiment: You’re advising the Holy Father. Whom would you suggest should be our next Doctor of the Church?

ROWLAND: I think it is a contest between St. John Henry Newman and St. John Paul II. I would place them both on the Church’s academic honor board at the same time. Newman deserves it for his work on the development of doctrine and his defense of the Catholic Church as the Church established by Christ. St. John Paul II deserves it for his Catechesis on Human Love. 

I would call Newman “the Anglican Doctor” for four reasons. First, Anglican Doctor pairs well with Angelic Doctor (St. Thomas Aquinas). Second, there is something quintessentially English about Newman. He is as English as the game of cricket and tea and scones served in a meadow. Thirdly, of the many converts from the Church of England he is the most illustrious, and fourthly, and most significantly, his academic research is the most sustained defense of the principle that the Catholic Church is the one, true Church of Christ. He expressed this principle in his hymn Firmly I believe and Truly, “And I hold in veneration, for the love of him alone, Holy Church as his creation, and her teachings as his own.” This last fact may lead many more Anglicans to cross the Tiber in the future.

I would call St. John Paul II the “Doctor of Incarnate Love” because his Catechesis on Human Love is the much-needed antidote to the sexual revolution of the 1960s — the revolution that has caused so much social carnage, so many wrecked relationships, so much use and abuse of human life.

FATHER WHITE: There is a deep connection between John Henry Newman and Irenaeus. Newman was looking for a vision of primitive Christianity in antiquity and found it in figures like Irenaeus and Athanasius. He saw that the early life of the Church expressed in their work is the same as the life one finds in more mature fashion in the modern Catholic Church. Their “primitive Catholicism” is indicative of a living unified mystery that continues to grow and develop, always remaining essentially the same. The Church is like a tree or a human person, who becomes more mature over time. Irenaeus helps us therefore conserve the living tradition of the Catholic Church, and so does the thought of John Henry Newman.

BUNSON: Pope St. John Paul II as the Doctor of the Human Person in recognition of his immense and eminent teachings on theological anthropology and his witness to the defense of the human person in the face of modernity.


The opening day of the 15th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops is seen in the Vatican Synod Hall on Oct. 3, 2018.

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