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The Doctors of the Church
The great luminaries of Catholicism and how they influenced the faith
The Doctors of the Church
Thirty-Three Men and Women Who Shaped Christianity
Written by one of the world's top authorities on the history of Christianity, this user-friendly resource is an introduction to 33 remarkable individuals who shaped our understanding of the Catholic faith.
The “doctores ecclesiae,” are Catholicism's great teachers of spiritual wisdom. McGinn gives a history of the advent and development of this title and then plunges into a chronological study of the lives and teachings of the 33 individuals honored as doctors of the Church.
The accounts capture significant moments in the leaders' development and places them in their religious, historical, and political contexts. Each entry recommends the best translations of the doctor's writings, as well as further readings. McGinn closes by contemplating the role that the doctors of the Church will have in the third millennium, and includes some helpful appendices.
A fascinating look at the men and women who have made major contributions to Christianity, this work also tells the story of the development of Christian theology—one doctor at a time.
Reviews and endorsements
"In the entry on "Doctors of the Church" in The New Catholic Encyclopedia published in 1967, the author assured us that the likelihood of a woman being so honored was slight since women did not exercise the ministry of theological teaching. Three years later Paul VI named Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila doctors of the church. More recently, Pope John Paul II added the name of Thérèse of Lisieux.
It is the burden of McGinn's readable volume to describe how the honorific "doctor of the church" grew in the tradition, to provide brief biographies of the thirty-three persons who are called doctors, and, finally, to speculate on the future, and, more tantalizingly, on who could or should be on the list. McGinn points out that in the Middle Ages theologians preachers referred to the great patristic writers of the past as doctores (in the Christian East the reference was to "The Fathers"). The doctores had a certain eminence because of the weight assigned to their teaching. The names of Augustine, Gregory the Great, Ambrose, Jerome, as well as Eastemers like Gregory of Nyssa and Athanasius, were commonly cited as authoritative theological sources.
It was not until after the Council of Trent that popes began to add new doctors of the church at regular intervals. A Dominican pope declared Thomas Aquinas a doctor of the church in 1568, so it was only natural that a Franciscan pope would name Saint Bonaventure a doctor two decades later. Over a hundred years would pass until a new name (Anselm of Canterbury) would be included in the list. From then the list would grow apace.
One way to assess the importance of the doctors is to look at how frequently they are cited in official teachings. McGinn supplies a handy appendix indicating such citation in the document of Vatican II and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The variations are enormous: Thomas Aquinas leads with nearly eight hundred citations, while Augustine is a close second. Alphonsus Liguori is never cited in the documents of Vatican II, although he is cited once in the catechism. Robert Bellarmine gets twenty-nine citations in Vatican II but none in the catechism. Anselm of Canterbury gets but a single citation.
What person will make the list? (This is rather like handicapping the Nobel Prize!) John Henry Newman is cited nearly thirty times in Vatican II and four times in the Catechism, which puts him ahead, by my count, of fourteen of the official doctors. McGinn suggests a number of people for possible inclusion. We think of the teaching of doctrine in a more expansive fashion today, so one might include Francis of Assisi or the monastic witness of John Cassian (also suggested by McGinn). I definitely do not think that Louis de Montfort should make the cut because of the oddly rococo Mariology that he espoused, but McGínn likes him. McGinn further resists the notion of an ecumenical "doctor of the church" because, he argues, doctores should teach the fullness of the Catholic faith. (I have a soft spot in my heart for John Wesley.)
This is an engagingly written book on a topic little studied. One could learn a good deal about the history of theology from it while finding clues for further reading in McGinn's fine bibliographies. The final chapter also permits one to enter the guessing game with the rules he supplies and, for me, that was great fun."
—Lawrence S. Cunningham, Commonwealth Magazine
"Education, instruction, learning—these are concerns and issues important at the beginning of the twenty-first century, evidenced not only by polls and political party platforms but also by the prodigious time and investment directed to private and public school systems throughout this country. Such an emphasis on education is necessary in order for civilization to perdure. In like manner, just as instruction is a vital ingredient to the construction and maintenance of culture, so is doctrine vital to the Roman Catholic Church. The thirty-three men and women Bernard McGinn introduces to us in this brief book offers an indication of the impact the doctores ecclesiae (doctors of the Church) had and continue to have on the way the Christian life is lived and considered today. As McGinn makes clear, the doctors of the Church are individuals who are inspired by the Holy Spirit. As inspired, they not only teach the community of faith how to live in light of God’s redemptive and salvific love but also lead the faithful into a fuller consideration of the object of their spiritual desire.
McGinn’s portrayal of each doctor is rich, as the brief life narrative of each doctor sketches out the interplay between inspiration, institution, and context that each doctor within him- or herself. It is the product of this interplay that becomes the means through which the doctors relate to God and their world and institution. The information McGinn imparts about the doctors is understandably succinct yet substantive, teasing the reader to plunge more fully in the doctor’s life and thought. For those readers who seek brief 'pearls of wisdom,' book delivers, liberally quoting from their writings, whether they are tomes, treatises, sermons, or letters. For readers seeking insight into how heroic individuals managed issues and problems, McGinn briefly contextualizes each of the doctors, as noted earlier, providing a portrait of their time and the manner in which they related to secular and episcopal entities. For those 'constructing' their spirituality, McGinn’s book can be a first step into a treasure of wisdom inspired by the Holy Spirit and tested through time.
The book is divided into three parts. The first part consists of a brief analysis (twenty pages) of the concept doctor ecclesiae in its institutional and charismatic dimensions. This is an important consideration, one that McGinn again treats succinctly yet substantively, raising interesting questions into the relationship between the individual and his or her social environs. Situated before the sketches of the thirty-three doctors, the part of' the hook sets the stage for contemporary considerations of doctors, especially as to their definition and value. It also hints at a trajectory in the growth of the designation, stemming from a safeguard against heresies and a definer of the authentic faith (e.g., Athanasius and Augustine) and developing into the care of souls and evangelical love (e.g., Francis de Sales and Thérèse of Lisieux).
The second part is divided into three sections that divide the doctors temporally, beginning with the patristic period and continuing through the medieval and modern periods. The doctors who span these eras are covered in 150 pages, making this section the largest. It reads quickly as four pages on the average are allotted to each doctor. McGinn includes the feast day of the doctor, according to the Roman liturgical calendar, at the beginning of each narrative, and illustrations by Br. Michael O'Neill McGrath accompany each of these. Particularly helpful to the interested reader are two features that conclude each narrative. The first guides the reader to the best translation of the doctor’s work, or to his or her representative work from among the writings produced. The second feature lists valuable secondary sources, accompanied by one or two line characterizations by McGinn. As an additional feature, I would have liked to see, along with the doctor’s feast day, the year the doctor was declared and the pope who issued the declaration. Such additions, however, might be considered contrary to McGinn’s assertion that 'the popes do not create doctors; they recognize what the Holy Spirit alone can give and has given to many men and women in the history of the church' (34).
The third part, brief in only eight pages, considers the role of doctors as Christianity enters the twenty-first millennium. McGinn notes the emphases the doctors, on the whole, give to love of God and neighbor and their emphasis on teaching, preaching, and writing. He also considers other prominent individuals in the Christian faith who could be (ought to be?) considered for the office of doctor. McGinn offers some likely choices, such as Gregory of Nyssa, Hildegard of Bingen, Hugh of St. Victor, and Thomas More. Provocatively, McGinn muses about the possibility of Martin Luther and Karl Barth, among others not Within the communion of the Catholic Church, being declared doctor, noting that Catholic tradition teaches that no doctor represents 'the fullness of truth found in the church as a whole' (241).
McGinn pushes this consideration: 'From the perspective of the fullness of "orthodox Catholicism" or "catholic Orthodoxy" no individual doctor can ever express the totality of the truth that the Holy Spirit gives to the church, a church that is essentially one despite its historical divisions. Perhaps a growing awareness of this inner unity may one day mean that the august list of the doctores ecclesiae will include those who have expressed important aspects of the truth of belief in all the Christian churches' (241-242). Nonetheless, McGinn’s considerations lack boldness, tethered largely to the canon of Roman Saints, European in origin. Also, McGinn stresses the writing and Leaching facets found within doctors already named. In our postmodern age, it would have been interesting to read McGinn’s musings on potential doctors not given to such craft, e.g., Saint Martín de Porres, whose life was not only exemplary but instructional, remaining so for many faithful in this time.
The book concludes with three helpful appendixes. The first briefly defines the various heresies to which the doctors responded. These heresies were determining factors in the shaping of doctrines. The second appendix lists all the ecumenical councils and the important roles some of the doctors played in them. The third and most interesting appendix lists the use of the doctor’s instruction in the documents of Vatican II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. A helpful topical index of doctrines and themes closes the book.
The book is valuable as an introduction to the thought of the Catholic Church’s revered teachers and as a survey of their rich and sometimes variegated teachings. Understandably, it just whets the appetite, recalling for this reader the breadth of Catholic thought and the necessity for deeper reading and reflection, not only into the thought of individual doctors but also into each one’s particular history. Emerging from my reading of this book is an emboldened faith and renewed confidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit within our time."
—Oswald John Nira, Spiritual Life