Lawrence S. Cunningham, Commonwealth Magazine

January 7, 2022

“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.”

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