Saturday, October 15, 2016

Doctor of the Church

Writing late in his life about the contributions of women in the life of the Church, Servant of God Isaac Hecker (1819-1888) said of Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582, canonized 1622), whose feast the Church celebrates today: "St. Teresa is represented as an authorized teacher, with a pen in hand, and with a doctor’s cap" (The Church and the Age, 1887). Doctor's "cap" or not, no woman had ever been declared a Doctor of the Church in Hecker's time. Nor, for that matter, had any martyr - then or now. Martyrdom is, of course, the ultimate and highest form of witness. So such great ancient teachers of the faith as Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, Saint Ignatius of Antioch, and Saint Cyprian of Carthage are honored and liturgically celebrated exclusively as martyrs. 

But the case of a woman as Doctor was different - or, at any rate, has been treated differently. And so, on September 27,1970, Blessed Pope Paul VI declared Saint Teresa a Doctor of the Church, the first woman saint to receive that title. A week later, he did the same for Saint Catherine of Siena. Then, in 1997, Pope Saint John Paul II declared Saint Therese of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church. Finally, on October 7, 2012, at a ceremony at which I was privileged to be present, Pope Benedict XVI added Saint Hildegard of Bingen to the Church's roster of Doctors.

This continued declaration of saints as Doctors is a good sign - and not just because of the belated inclusion of women as Doctors. (At the same ceremony at which he made Hildegard of Bingen a Doctor, Pope Benedict XVI also so designated Saint John of Avila. And Pope Francis in 2015 added Saint Gregory of Narek to the list of the Church's Doctors.) In an era in which religion has widely become largely about sentimentality and therapy, the continued proclamation of Doctors of the Church attests to a recognition that religion must be about truth and our understanding of and appropriation of truth in our lives. Since the liturgical recognition of the four great Latin Doctors in 1298, the presence of officially designated Doctors among the company of saints on the Church's calendar has attested to this reality. May the Church long continue to raise up scholars and teachers of the truth and so keep adding to her 36 Doctors of the Church!

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