St. Irenaeus, the Doctor of Unity

EDITORIAL: Ecclesial conflict wasn’t foreign to this second-century martyr.

Saint Irenaeus (c. 130-202), Bishop of Lyon.
Saint Irenaeus (c. 130-202), Bishop of Lyon. (photo: Public domain)

On Oct. 7, Pope Francis announced his intention to declare St. Irenaeus of Lyon a doctor of the Church in the near future, under the title of Doctor Unitatis (“Doctor of Unity”). 

The title is especially apt for the great second-century martyr, theologian and bishop who fought for the unity of the Christian faith in the face of persecution by the Roman Empire and the heretical teachings of the Gnostics. He is best known for his work Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies). 

Irenaeus thus stands as a powerful example for Catholics today, who are beset by confusion and bitter theological disputes within the Church, as well as divisions between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches that have kept them apart for nearly 1,000 years. 

Speaking to the St. Irenaeus Joint Orthodox-Catholic Working Group, a gathering of Catholic and Orthodox theologians founded in 2004 to study the many challenges in the ecumenical outreach between the Churches, Pope Francis declared, “Your patron, St. Irenaeus of Lyons — whom soon I will willingly declare a doctor of the Church with the title Doctor Unitatis — came from the East, exercised his episcopal ministry in the West, and was a great spiritual and theological bridge between Eastern and Western Christians.”

Irenaeus will become the 37th doctor of the Church and the second named by Pope Francis. In 2015, the Holy Father declared the relatively obscure 10th-century Armenian monk St. Gregory of Narek the 36th doctor. Irenaeus will also be the first doctor who is also traditionally considered a martyr for the faith, dying around 202.

He was a native of Smyrna, in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), and was a student of St. Polycarp, who was himself a disciple of the apostle John. At some point, he journeyed from Asia Minor to Gaul (modern France) and by 177 was serving as a priest in the growing Christian community of Lyon. 

Sent on a mission to Rome by the elderly Bishop Pothinus of Lyon, he was spared the brutal persecution of the Church in Gaul by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius that claimed the lives of almost 50 martyrs, including Pothinus. Irenaeus became his successor and served with immense distinction. 

By virtue of his proclamation, Pope Francis wants St. Irenaeus to be an important bridge between East and West. The great saint had come from the Greek-speaking East to the West and learned not only Latin but the languages of the tribes of Germania and Gaul. He calls to us today to strive for unity. 

“His name, Irenaeus,” Pope Francis told the working group, “contains the word ‘peace.’ We know that the Lord’s peace is not a ‘negotiated’ peace, the fruit of agreements meant to safeguard interests, but a peace that reconciles, that brings together in unity. That is the peace of Jesus. For, as the apostle Paul writes, Christ ‘is our peace; who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility’ (Ephesians 2:14). Dear friends, with the help of God, you too are working to break down dividing walls and to build bridges of communion.” 

The U.S. bishops in 2019 voted unanimously at their fall assembly to support the French bishops in calling for Irenaeus to be declared a doctor of the Church. In proposing the vote by his brother bishops, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, the chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, stressed that Irenaeus “consistently upheld the unity of God in three Persons, the unity of salvation and the unity of the Church.” 

This is especially important today, when ancient heresies are reemerging, calling into question the very divinity of Christ and questioning even what it means to be human. 

During one of his weekly general audiences in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI — who named Sts. John of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen as doctors of the Church in 2012 — described Irenaeus as “a man of faith and a pastor” who sought to teach the faith clearly and to defend the Church from the attacks of heresy, especially the Gnostics, who claimed “that the faith taught in the Church was merely a symbolism for the simple who were unable to grasp difficult concepts; instead, the initiates, the intellectuals — Gnostics, they were called — claimed to understand what was behind these symbols and thus formed an elitist and intellectualist Christianity. Obviously, this intellectual Christianity became increasingly fragmented, splitting into different currents with ideas that were often bizarre and extravagant, yet attractive to many.” 

In the face of divisive error, Irenaeus taught with immense clarity the sound teaching proclaimed by Christ and handed down by the apostles. The Church believes these teachings, Irenaeus wrote in Adversus Haereses, “just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them and hands them down with perfect harmony as if she possessed only one mouth.” 

With the Pope’s declaration of a new Doctor of Unity, Catholics can look to Irenaeus as a champion of a united, orthodox and courageous faith in the face of heresies and error that divide and confuse the faithful. He is especially valuable in casting a stark light on the pervasive, erroneous teachings on human sexuality, authority in the Church, the sanctity of life and the sacramental priesthood. 

Irenaeus reminds us that heresy cloaks itself in appealing guise, something we see today that is all too common. 

“Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity,” he wrote, “lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced more true than truth itself.”

Irenaeus also shows us the way — the authentic transmission of the faith to a world beset by error, division and confusion. Pope Benedict summed up Irenaeus’ value: “This doctrine is like a ‘high road’ in order to discern together with all people of goodwill the object and boundaries of the dialogue of values, and to give an ever new impetus to the Church’s missionary action, to the force of the truth which is the source of all true values in the world.”

St. Irenaeus, doctor of the Church, pray for us!