In this day of confusion and false prophets where shall we look to find the Truth which will set us free, the sure teachings of the Faith? Who will teach us Christ?
As in past ages the true Christian will turn to his Holy Mother Church for guidance in the field of education, that he may not, through his own pride, stray into what St. Cyril of Alexandria called the “poisonous pastures of heresy.” The Church appointed by God Himself to be the only guide of all men in the way of salvation is aware of her duty. With characteristic care for her subjects she has chosen as teachers, by the infallible decisions of the Holy Fathers and of the Councils, the best of her canonized theologians. She has designated, under God, twenty-nine Doctors who, because of their two-fold crown of eminent sanctity and great learning in sacred matters, may safely teach the whole Church the “sound doctrine” of “Jesus Christ and Him Crucified.”
By reference to the liturgical celebrations of their feast-days we will see the great honor in which the Church holds the office of Doctor of the Church. She hails each one as “O best of teachers,” and orders read the Nicene Creed, which each so ably taught and defended. In the Epistle of the Mass St. Paul tells his disciple, St. Timothy, of the duties of a Doctor:
Dearly beloved, I charge thee, before God and Jesus Christ, who shall judge the living and the dead, by His coming and His kingdom: preach the word: be instant in season, out of season: reprove, entreat, rebuke in all patience and doctrine. For there shall be a time when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires they will heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears, and will indeed turn away their hearing from the truth, but will be turned unto fables. But be thou vigilant, labour in all things, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill thy ministry. Be sober. For I am even now ready to be sacrificed, and the time of my dissolution is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course. I have kept the faith. As to the rest, there is laid up for me a crown of justice, which the Lord, the just Judge, will render to me in that day: and not only to me, but to them also that love his coming.
In the Gospel the Doctors are called “the salt of the Earth” and the “light of the world.” It is to them that not only the individual Christian but the whole Church turns to learn of those matters which should concern a pilgrim who has in this world no lasting city. The interests of the Doctors indicate those things which are valuable for this life and the next. We cannot ignore or minimize the values which these “lights of the Holy Church” have demonstrated.
To be a Doctor of the Universal Church is to be a “lover of the divine law,” “a minister of eternal salvation,” and “a teacher of life.” “In the midst of the Church the Lord opened his mouth and filled him with the spirit of wisdom and understanding.” “He will pour forth the words of his wisdom as showers, and in his prayer he will confess to the Lord: and He shall direct his counsel, and his knowledge, and in his secrets shall he meditate. He shall show forth the discipline he hath learned, and shall glory in the law of the covenant of the Lord.”
To be a Doctor is to mirror Jesus Christ teaching, It is to “preach the word;” to be “instant in season, out of season;” to “reprove, entreat, rebuke in all patience and doctrine;” to “be vigilant;” to “labor in all things;” to “do the work of an evangelist;” and to “fulfill the ministry.” His mouth must “meditate wisdom and his tongue speak justice.”
The Doctor is the great teacher of Christ’s Truth. As did Our Lord, he must often present this Truth in a fight with the Pharisees and Sadducees of his own day. (At the time of Christ the Pharisees were the separatist and hypocritical orthodox Jews and the Sadducees were the heretics among the Jews.) The vehemence of the Doctors in denouncing schism, heresy, and allied evils recalls the vehemence of Jesus in his denunciation of the hypocrisy, heresy, and blindness of the unbelieving Jews. This denunciation of error came from hearts and minds full of the treasures of the love of Jesus Christ and His doctrines. To heretics and liberal Catholics, who know not the love of Jesus Christ and His doctrines, this warmth, this vehemence is repugnant. They turn from these “other Christs” as they have turned from both the Christ of the Gospel and the Gospel of Christ.
As the Truth they teach, the Love they hymn is not of this world, the Doctors are persecuted for His Name’s sake. The mediocre attack them, put them away, and try to ignore them. Their Master had prayed to the Father at the Last Supper and prophesied such persecution when he said: “I have given them Thy word and the world hath hated them because they are not of the world as I am not of this world.”
Most of the Doctors were bishops. In many of their works they teach from the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders. All, however, were men whose minds were of the finest natural quality. They were fed from the green pastures of Holy Scripture. They were refreshed by the river of living water, the voice of Tradition in the Church. Their hymns and poems, even more than their commentaries and treatises, show their human and unrestrained love of Jesus Christ. All held the principle of St. Bernard who said “The reason for loving God is God Himself; the way is to love Him beyond measure.”
The first accomplishment of the Doctors was that of teaching sound doctrine and protecting their flocks against heresy. In the two periods of two hundred and fifty years during which no Doctors taught, the two strongest attacks of the Devil were effected, i.e., the Greek schism and the Protestant heresy. Although the Doctors were in combat with many different heresies, there are several control points that they all stress.
The first and transcendent privilege accorded to the Doctors in their defense of Holy Faith is the duty of all creation, namely, to give “glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be world without end.” All else is second to this and is ordered by it.
In the order of those who have been given “the power to become sons of God; to them that believe in His Name. . . . as many as received Him,” in the order of those who were “made partakers of His Divinity who vouchsafed to become partakers of our Humanity,”
there are four signs, four touchstones of orthodoxy. The Doctors not only defend these four personal loyalties but they hurl them as challenges in the face of the scoffing unbeliever, be he schismatic, heretic, or pagan.
The first loyalty is to Jesus Christ, True God and True Man, who redeemed us from our sins by his death on the Cross. This is the basic challenge of the Faith.
The second loyalty is to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Every heresy is crushed under the heel of Holy Mary, the Mother of God. The humble homage paid by these learned men to the Queen of Heaven is their strongest weapon against her enemies.
The third loyalty that the Doctors explain and exult in is the great mystery of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. That “hard doctrine,” which turned the proud Jews away from the Truth and evoked the confession of St. Peter, is the joy and the strength of the Doctors.
The fourth loyalty is to the person of the Holy Father. For the Doctors this is a sign of adherence to the Church and to the Faith which they defended.
Because they lived and taught the Catholic Faith in accordance with these personal loyalties, the Doctors won the twofold crown of sanctity and sacred learning. Although most of them lived the life of warriors, constantly battling heresy and error, all had the peace of Christ a hundredfold in this life and life everlasting. Our Holy Father Pius XII, gloriously reigning, in his encyclical Divino Affiante Spiritu quotes St. Jerome as follows: “To live amidst these things, to meditate these things, to know nothing else, to seek nothing else, does it not seem to you already here below a foretaste of the Heavenly Kingdom.” If we will but follow these chosen guides, we too may share in their rewards. Since every Catholic must grow in holiness and the knowledge of his Faith, Holy Church gives us as teachers these twenty-nine saintly theologians. In order to follow them we should first know the Book, which is the source of their knowledge and love. The Holy Fathers in many of their least read encyclicals indicate that a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures is the basis of a Christian life. The Holy Father Leo XIII in his encyclical Providentissimus Deus quotes the Biblical scholar St. Jerome (Doctor Maximus) who said that while “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ,” “he who is fortified with the testimonies of Holy Writ is a bulwark of the Church.” Again, the saint tells us, “Love the Bible and wisdom will love you; love it and it will preserve you; honor it and it will embrace you.” All the Doctors urge the Catholic to make the Bible his Book. They call it the richest treasure of heavenly doctrine (St. John Chrysostom); the eternal fountains of salvation (St. Athanasius); fertile meadows and delicious gardens wherein the flock of the Lord is admirably refreshed and delighted (St. Augustine and St. Ambrose). St. Jerome and St. Gregory the Great prescribed that those in Holy Orders should always be studying the Sacred Scriptures.
With a foundational knowledge of Holy Scripture and especially of the Holy Gospels we should turn to the writings of the Doctors in order to understand Holy Scripture according to the mind of the Church, for St. Jerome tells us that no one can find his way through the obscurities of many of the passages without a sure guide. We will be instructed and enlightened as to the truths and beauties of the Christian life by the Scriptural commentaries and the philosophical, ascetical, mystical, theological and poetical works of the twenty-nine Doctors, from St. Athanasius to St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori.
Who are these Doctors? They are a group of clerics ranging from deacon to bishop, from monk to pope. The Orders represented are Carmelite, Basilian, Augustinian, Benedictine, Camaldolese, Cistercian, Franciscan, Dominican, Jesuit, and Redemptorist. They come from Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Africa, Italy, Spain, France, England, Germany, and Portugal.
The first Doctor was St. Athanasius (296-373), Patriarch of Alexandria, “the father of Orthodoxy.” He was five times banished from his See by the Arian heretics, the Unitarians of his day, who had won the support of the civil authorities and of many of the bishops. Also exiled, St. Hilary (300-368), Bishop of Poitiers, “The Athanasius of the West,” was the chief supporter of the Holy Father St. Liberius and St. Athanasius in their fight against the Arian bishops.
St. Ephraem (306-373), “the Harp of the Holy Ghost,” the only Doctor who remained a deacon, wrote most of his works in his native Syrian language. St. John Chrysostom (347-407), Bishop of Constantinople, the best known of the Greek Fathers, was banished from his See because of his courage in attacking laxity and heresy among the clergy and the laity.
St. Ambrose (304-397), Archbishop of Milan, opposed the Arian state in its interference in Church affairs. His most famous disciple, St. Augustine, (354-430) Bishop of Hippo, started the intellectual life of the Middle Ages by his defense of the Church against the Donatists and the Pelagians.
From the Monastery of Our Lady on Mount Carmel came the two St. Cyrils. St. Cyril (315-386), Bishop of Jerusalem, was three times driven from his See by the persecution of heretics. St. Cyril of Alexandria (376-444), continuing the tradition of St. Athanasius, zealously defended the Mother of God against the attacks of the Nestorian heretics.
St. Basil (329-379), Bishop of Caesarea, and St. Gregory Nazianzen (330-389), Patriarch of Constantinople, were schoolmates and fellow warriors against the Arian and Apollonarist heresies. St. Basil is known as the father of religious life because of his famous Monastic Rule which St. Benedict called “an instrument of virtue of zealous and obedient monks.” St.Gregory was forced from his See by the Arian heretics after he reformed Constantinople. It was from St. Gregory that St. Jerome (340-420) learned his theology and at whose direction he became a student of Holy Scripture. In 382 St. Jerome, by the direction of the Holy Father St. Damasus I, began the translation of the Bible into Latin, known as the Vulgate.
The Holy Father St. Sixtus, obeying St. Peter who appeared to him in a dream, appointed St. Peter Chrysologus (406450) as Bishop of Ravenna. The young metropolitan was a strong opponent of all heretics, especially of the Monophysites.
The two popes who are honored as Doctors of the Church are St. Leo the Great (390-461) and St. Gregory the Great (528-604). The Council of Chalcedon, speaking of the dogmatic letter of St. Leo on the Incarnation said, “Peter has spoken by the mouth of Leo.” St. Gregory was the spiritual son of the Holy Abbot Benedict and a close follower of St. Augustine. His friend St. Leander of Seville was a brother and predecessor of St. Isidore (560-636), Archbishop of Seville, who fought the lingering Arianism in Spain.
In the eighth century there were two doctors who summarized the works of their predecessors in dogmatic matters: the Benedictine monk, St. Bede, (672-735) and the Greek priest, St. John Damascene (676-759).
There were no Doctors during the ninth and tenth centuries.
To meet the challenge of the devil in the Greek schism, which denied the supremacy of the pope, the Holy Spirit raised up three sons of St. Benedict, especially devoted to the Holy See: St. Peter Damian (1007-1072), a Camaldolese monk who was made Cardinal Bishop of Ostia by the Holy Father, reformed the monks and clergy. St. Anselm (1033-1109), Archbishop of Canterbury, a devoted client of Our Lady, systematized Catholic philosophy. Following his own principle “I do not try to understand in order to believe but I believe in order to understand,” he became, as the Holy Father Urban II declared, “a hero for doctrine and virtue” who “was equally intrepid in fighting for the faith.” Doctor Mellifluus, the great St. Bernard (1090-1153), Abbot of Clairvaux, is said to have carried the whole Church on his shoulders in his century. He traveled over Europe to heal the schism of Anti-Pope Anacletus II, to fight the Albigensian heresy, and to preach the Second Crusade.
The new Orders founded by St. Francis and St. Dominic sent out four Doctors in the thirteenth century. The Franciscans were St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) who, by his study of Holy Scripture and his sermons, gained the title of Hammer of Heretics and Ark of the Covenant; and St. Bonaventure (1221-1274), Cardinal Bishop and General of the Franciscans, who is called the Seraphic Doctor and the prince of mystics. The sons of St. Dominic who became Doctors were St. Albertus Magnus (1206-1280), Bishop of Ratisbon, the Universal Doctor, and his pupil St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the Angelic Doctor. Both wrote against the Arabian Averroists of their day and against the French intellectuals who despised the Mendicants.
After two centuries without a Doctor, God graced the Church with three at the time of the Protestant heresy. Two were members of the Society of Jesus, founded by St. Jgnatius Loyola. St. Peter Canisius (1521-1597) was a Dutch missionary against the Lutheran and Calvinist heresies. He has been called the Apostle of Germany, the Hammer of Heretics, the Jerome and Augustine of his century, and the defender of the Church against the gates of hell. St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), Archibishop of Capua, the second Jesuit Doctor, was made cardinal by the Holy. Father Clement VIII because “his equal in learning is not at this time to be found in the Church.” His controversial books on dogma (de Controversiis), law, and history were great blows against Protestantism, for he had courage as well as learning.
St. John of the Cross (1542-1605), a Carmelite friar, was the co-worker of St. Teresa of Avila in the reform of the Carmelite Order. His Spanish soul, enlightened by true doctrine and flooded with divine love, set forth very clearly the experiences of mystical theology.
A friend of St. Robert Bellarmine, St Francis de Sales, (1567-1622), Bishop of Geneva, was a zealous missionary who, by love and incredible labors, brought back over seventy thousand souls from the heresy of Calvinism.
The Doctor of the Church nearest our own time is the devout client of Our Lady, St. Alphonsus Maria de Ligouri (1696-1787), Bishop of St. Agatha of the Goths. From his thorough knowledge of Holy Scripture and of the other Doctors of the Church he constructs his works like perfect mosaics pointing the way to Jesus and Mary.
A glance at the dates shows that the Doctors lived at the times when heresies were most strongly attacking the Church. To understand the background and the need for their writings, a third item suggests itself for study by one who would be a real Catholic, namely, a loving study of the history of Holy Mother Church. The first subject for study by a Catholic should be Holy Scripture, which the Holy Fathers and the Doctors would have read in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. The commentaries of the Doctors should be used so that the full and orthodox interpretation of difficult passages may be seen.
The second subject of study should be the Incarnational Philosophy of Christ as explained by those whom St. Ignatius Loyola calls the Scholastic Doctors. St. Thomas, the prince of theologians, whom the Holy Father Leo XIII designated as patron of Catholic Schools, is hardly ever read in these schools. He called his Summa Theologica milk for babes, but its clear explanations are ignored for the commentaries of mediocre interpreters.
Finally, the study of the life of Holy Mother Church should proceed from a loving heart, not from one whose main interest is in apologetics designed to placate sincere heretics. Any further studies which might grow from these major interests would group themselves fittingly, for these are the words of Eternal Truth: “Seek ye therefore first the Kingdom of God and His justice and all these things shall be added unto you.”
As Catholics in non-Catholic fields of study are daily weakening in their Faith, there would seem to be danger that in a comparatively short time the Liberal Catholics will strive to be in control of the Church in America. The only way to restore all things in Christ is to return to a study of Jesus Christ and the things of God. Too long have we placed all our concern in rendering all things to Caesar. Holy Mother Church, the Guide of all Christ’s brethren, has given us these twenty-nine saints to guide us back to Christ. If we learn from them our duty to give Glory to the Most Adorable Trinity, if we follow their challenges in personal loyalty to Jesus, Mary, the Holy Eucharist, and the Holy Father, we will share in their rewards and will help to bring all Americans, liberal Catholics, Protestants and pagans alike, to the feet of their true King and Queen, Jesus Christ and Mary Immaculate.
(This article was originally published in From the Housetops, Volume III, No.1, September, 1948.)