Oswald John Nira, Spiritual Life

January 7, 2022

“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.”

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