Friday, October 08, 2021

The Doctors of the Church in the Liturgy

Yesterday, it was announced that Pope Francis will soon declare St Irenaeus of Lyon to be a Doctor of the Church, raising the total number of Doctors to thirty-seven. The Pope also stated that he will be called “Doctor Unitatis – Doctor of Unity”, a fitting recognition that there can be no unity in the Church apart from truth, since the Saint’s greatest contribution to the Church’s unity was his ferocious refutation of Gnosticism in the treatise Against the Heresies. But it must not be forgotten that Irenaeus also traveled to Rome to remonstrate with Pope St Victor I when the latter wished to suppress the tradition of those churches in Asia Minor that used a different system than Rome for the dating of Easter. “He fittingly admonished Victor that he should not cut off whole churches of God which observed the tradition of an ancient custom ... Thus Irenaeus, who truly was well named (i.e., because his name is derived from the Greek word for “peace”), became a peacemaker in this matter, exhorting and negotiating in this way in behalf of the peace of the churches.” (Eusebius of Caesarea, Hist. Eccl. V. 24, 11 and 18)

A banner with an image of St Hildegard of Bingen, here called a prophetess, suspended from the façade of St Peter’s for the ceremony in which she was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.
It is often stated that the first four Doctors of the Church, Saints Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great, were proclaimed as such by Pope Boniface VIII in 1298. It would be more accurate to say that the Pope formalized a long-established custom by ordering that their feasts be celebrated throughout the Latin Church with the same liturgical rank as those of the Apostles and Evangelists. Already in the 8th century, the Venerable Bede cites the four of them as “most outstanding” among the Fathers of the Church, and the “most worthy” sources for his commentary on the Gospel of St Luke, an assessment shared by many other writers in the following centuries. In art they are often associated with the four Evangelists; the medieval fondness for numerical symbolism in theology also tended to designate each one of them as the principal expounder of one of the four senses of the Sacred Scriptures. (See the introduction to the first volume of Henri Card. De Lubac’s Medieval Exegesis, pp. 4-7.)

In the liturgical tradition of the Roman Rite, the four Doctors are also associated with the four Evangelists in the collections of homilies read at Matins, in which each appears as the principal (but by no means sole) commentator on one of the four Gospels. Broadly speaking, St Jerome’s Commentary on Matthew, St Ambrose’s Exposition of the Gospel according to Luke, and St Augustine’s Treatises on the Gospel of John are commonly read in all Uses of the Divine Office. St Mark rarely appears in the traditional Mass-lectionary of the Roman Rite, but does provide the Gospel on the greatest feast of the year, Easter, and on the Ascension; on both of these days, the homily at Matins in most Uses is taken from St Gregory. Therefore, the first sense in which a Father might be called a Doctor was the frequent use of his writings in the Church’s public worship.
St Mark the Evangelist, with his traditional symbol, a winged lion, on the left, and on the right, St Gregory the Great and a book of his sermons. From the ceiling of the church of Sant’Agostino in Cremona, Italy, by Bonfazio Bembo, 1452.
Of course, many other Fathers are frequently read in the Office; outside the Use of Rome, St Bede is foremost among them in the medieval breviaries. As he himself notes in the prologue to the commentary mentioned above, he often borrows from the earlier Doctors; his gathering of the best passages from earlier writers makes his commentaries ideal for use in prayer services. So much of Bede’s writing is taken almost word for word from other works that the medieval copyists of liturgical manuscripts often confused his writings with his sources, and accidentally added passages from the latter back into his texts.

Also prominent in the public prayer of the Church are the writings of Saints Leo the Great, Hilary of Poitier (especially in France), and Maximus of Turin. Bede, Leo and Hilary have all subsequently been made Doctors themselves; St Maximus, on the other hand, has been the object of almost no liturgical devotion, although he is noted in the Martyrology as a man “most celebrated for his learning and sanctity.” Indeed, his writings often appear in breviaries under the name of some other saint, usually Augustine. In the 13th century, many of the writings of St John Chrysostom were translated into Latin, and began to find their way into the Office; in the Roman Breviary of 1529, sermons by him are read on three of the four Sundays of Lent.
The Four Doctors of the Church, by Pier Francesco Sacchi, ca. 1516. Note that each is accompanied by a symbol of one of the four Evangelists.
The terms of Pope Boniface’s decree were carried over into the liturgical books of the Tridentine reform, which also added five other Doctors. Four of these were early Fathers of the Eastern church: Ss Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nazianzen. (The third Cappadocian Father, Basil’s brother Gregory of Nyssa, has never been venerated liturgically by the Latin Church.) All of them appear in various pre-Tridentine liturgical books, but the feasts of Basil and Gregory are extremely rare. In the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church was greatly concerned to assert that its teachings were those held “always, everywhere and by all”, and not medieval corruptions introduced by the “Romish Church”; the pairing of four Eastern Doctors with the traditional four Western Doctors therefore asserts the universality of the teachings held by Rome and defended by the Council of Trent. Three of them also have special connections to Rome and the Papacy. During the second of his five exiles, St Athanasius was a guest of Pope St Julius I, who defended him against the Arian heretics; relics of Ss John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nazianzen were saved from the iconoclasts in the 8th century and brought to Rome, later to be placed in St Peter’s Basilica.
The Chair of St Peter in the Vatican Basilica, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1655-61. The Doctors standing further from the chair and wearing mitres are Saints Ambrose and Augustine, those closer but without mitres are Saints Athanasius and John Chrysostom.
To this group, the Dominican Pope St Pius V added a new Doctor, his confrere St Thomas Aquinas. Like many great theologians of the medieval period, Thomas was frequently referred to as a Doctor both in liturgical contexts and elsewhere; thus we find the calendar of a 1477 Dominican Missal noting his feast day, “Thomas, Confessor and Doctor, of the Order of Preachers.” A famous story is told that during the process of his canonization, the devil’s advocate objected that he had worked no miracles, to which a cardinal replied “Tot miracula quot articula – there are as many miracles as there are articles (in the two Summas).” During the Council of Trent, his Summa Theologica was placed on the altar of the church alongside the Bible and the Decretals (the medieval canon law code, a copy of which was also burnt by Luther, along with his bull of excommunication.) Thus did the Council assert that its teachings, and those of the medieval tradition of both law and theology, were indeed in harmony with the teachings of Christ in the Gospel.

In 1588, Pope Sixtus V, a Franciscan and former vicar apostolic of his order, declared his confrere St Bonaventure, the contemporary of St Thomas, the tenth Doctor of the Church. Although another Franciscan, Duns Scotus, generally known as the “Subtle Doctor”, was far more influential at Trent, he had not been canonized; this emphasizes the fact that a Doctor of the Church in the formal sense must be recognized not only for his learning, but also for the sanctity of his life. Bonaventure had been canonized in 1472 by an earlier Franciscan Pope, Sixtus IV (more famously the builder of the Sistine Chapel), in whose honor Sixtus V had chosen his papal name. (Scotus was declared a Blessed in 1993.)

St Bonaventure shows the Saints to Dante, from Canto 12 of the Paradise of the Divine Comedy. The majority of figures pointed out in this passage are famous theologians: St Augustine, Hugh of St Victor, Peter Comestor, Chrysostom, Anselm, and Rabanus Maurus. (Manuscript illumination by Giovanni di Paolo, 1450)
In 1720, Pope Clement XI added a new Doctor of the Church, St Anselm of Canterbury. This may seem a strange choice, given the many more prominent Fathers of the Church such as Leo and Bede who had not yet received the title. The Catholic Encyclopedia points out that Anselm’s contribution to Scholastic theology is like the foundation of a building: hidden but necessary, and present to every part. It seems, however, that at the time, the creation of the first new Doctor in 140 years was not seen as a matter of any particular importance; it is not even mentioned in the official collection of Pope Clement’s acts, spanning a reign of over 20 years.

St Anselm was quickly followed by two other new Doctors; St Isidore of Seville, the great encyclopedist of the Middle Ages, was given the title in 1722 by Innocent XIII, and St Peter Chrysologus by Benedict XIII in 1729. After a break of 35 years, Benedict XIV, one of the Church’s greatest scholars of hagiography, bestowed the title on St Leo the Great, to whom more than any other of the Latin Fathers the honor was long overdue.

There then followed a pause of more than 70 years, until St Peter Damian was given the title in 1828 by Pope Leo XII; subsequently, almost every Pope has declared at least one Doctor. (The exceptions are Gregory XVI, St Pius X and the short-lived John Paul I.) Blessed Pius IX actually made three, including the first “modern”, St Alphonse Liguori (1696-1787), but the record is four each by Leo XIII and Pius XI. The former’s Doctors are all of the Patristic era (including another long overdue honor, to St Bede), while the latter recognized the fruits of the Counter-Reformation in two Jesuits, Ss Robert Bellarmine and Peter Canisius, balanced with a Dominican, St Albert the Great, the teacher of St Thomas.

Dante meets Ss Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great in Canto 10 of the Paradise, among the lovers of divine wisdom. Beneath them are Boethius, St Denis the Areopagite, Gratian, Peter Lombard, Paul Orosius, Solomon, St Isidore of Seville, the Venerable Bede, Richard of St Victor and Siger of Brabant. (Giovanni di Paolo, 1450. Note that Siger, the last figure on the right, who was regarded by many as a heretic, has been partly scratched out.)
The traditional Office of a Doctor is that of a Confessor Bishop or a simple Confessor, with a few proper features; namely, the readings of Matins, the responsory In medio Ecclesiae (borrowed from the Office of St John the Evangelist), and the antiphon of the Magnificat at both Vespers, O Doctor optime. The Missal of St Pius V contains a single Mass for Doctors, also called In medio Ecclesiae from its introit; but several of their feasts have their own propers or borrow them from other Masses. Many Saints have been informally recognized as Doctors within a particular place or religious order by the use of these texts on their feast days; In medio was sung by the Cistercians as the introit of St Bernard long before he was formally declared a Doctor in 1830, and several parts of the same Mass are used by the Dominicans on the feasts of St Dominic and the great canon lawyer St Raymond of Penyafort.
In his highly influential scholarly treatise On the Beatification of the Servants of God (1734-38), Cardinal Prospero Lambertini, the future Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58), noted that “Ss Ignatius, Irenaeus and Cyprian, although they have the requisites of Doctors, are not honored as Doctors, but as Martyrs, since the Office of a Doctor is never separate from that of a Confessor.” (Lib. IV, pars secunda, cap 12.9 post med.) Irenaeus will thus be the first person traditionally honored as a martyr to be given the title of Doctor as well, and this in turn may well pave the way for doing the same with Ignatius and Cyprian, especially given that the latter is by far the most influential on Western theology.
However, there are solid reasons for doubting whether Irenaeus was in fact a martyr. Eusebius of Caesarea mentions him more than forty times in his Church History, citing him as an authority on the true Christian faith and on various heresies, but says nothing about his death. This is particularly significant because Eusebius gives the full text of an account written by the church of Lyon of a spectacular martyrdom that took place there in the year 177, in which St Pothinus, Irenaeus’ predecessor in that see, was killed along with several other people. (Hist. Eccl. V.1) Arguments from silence vary in strength from case to case, but it seems very likely that if Irenaeus were a martyr, Eusebius would have known that, and mentioned the fact to bolster even further his authority as a witness to the orthodox Faith. St Gregory of Tours, writing in the later 6th century, does refer to him as a martyr, but on the other hand, there are liturgical books as late as the 12th century that call him a confessor. The post-Conciliar calendar reform was, for once, respectful of the tradition despite the reasonable doubts about it, and kept him as a martyr.
The crypt of the church of St Irenaeus at Lyon. In 1562, the church was severely damaged by the Huguenots, who also destroyed the Saint’s relics, and played a game of soccer with his skull. After more destruction in the revolution, it was rebuilt in 1824, and the crypt renovated in 1863. Despite these vicissitudes, the crypt may still be regarded as one of the oldest religious buildings in France; relics of certain local martyrs were venerated there already in the later part of the 5th century. The church was originally dedicated to St John the Baptist. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Xavier Caré.)
Over the last century, the title of Doctor has effectively been devalued by overuse, as it has been extended to several Saints whose writings have little or no relevance to the theological or liturgical tradition of the Roman church which has granted them the title, and do not acquire such relevance from the granting of it. The most recent Doctor before Irenaeus, St Gregory of Narek, was a perfect example of this: a figure of the highest importance to the church of his native Armenia, but almost totally unknown in the West. In the case of Irenaeus, however, we see something of a reversion to a more traditional understanding of what it actually means to be a Doctor, since several passages from Against the Heresies are included among the Patristic readings of the Liturgy of the Hours.
On the other hand, there are many Doctors who have informal nicknames, as it were, such as St Thomas, the “Doctor Angelicus”, and St Bonaventure, the “Doctor Seraphicus.” However, these nicknames have never been a formal part of the Church’s liturgical tradition; it remains to be seen whether the proposal to call Irenaeus “the Doctor of Unity” will somehow be so formalized. 

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: