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The history of official recognition of doctors of the Universal Church begins with a quartet of saints. By the middle of the eighth century, “four figures had emerged as the Latin Church’s preeminent ‘doctors,’ namely, Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Jerome.”[i] However, it was not until the year 1298 that Pope Boniface VIII recognized them as “doctors” in a decretal letter entitled «Gloriosus Deus.»
I. 1298 PROCLAMATIONS
1. St. Gregory the Great, Pope (c. 540 - 604)
2. St. Ambrose, Bishop (c. 340 - 397)
3. St. Augustine, Bishop (354 - 430)
4. St. Jerome, Priest/monk (c. 347 - 420)
The average length of time for these four from date of death until their recognition as doctors in 1298 was 835 years, so from this first proclamation, there was no rush to judgment in proclaiming doctors. Boniface’s decretal facilitated the liturgical elevation of four already-recognized saints.[ii] These four were acknowledged because, Boniface explained, they had “revealed the mysteries of the Scriptures, untied knots [i.e., dissolved perplexities], clarified difficulties, and explained what was uncertain.”[iii]
For the next two and a half centuries, the roster of “doctors” remained static, and there were no new doctors named until 1567, when there was a flurry of additions made during a 21-year span:
II. 16TH CENTURY PROCLAMATIONS
5. St. Thomas Aquinas, Priest/theologian (1225 - 1274; recognized in 1567 by Pope Pius V)
10. St. Bonaventure, Cardinal/theologian (1221 - 1274; recognized in 1588 by Pope Sixtus V)
These six additions can be broken down into two major movements. The first was the addition of “Four Greek Fathers” to complement the “Four Latin Fathers” who had been enshrined in 1298. Thus, in 1568, Pope Pius V added the Three Holy Hierarchs of the East (John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nazianzus), plus Athanasius for balance (Four Eastern to Four Western Fathers).[iv]
The second dynamic involved an innovation: the recognition of Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure expanded the parameters beyond the ancient fathers to figures from the second millennium.
The average death-to-doctorate interval for the XVI Century proclamations increased to 888 years (mostly due to the fact the majority of doctors dated from the Patristic Era, and the lapse of time since). Of the doctors recognized in the XVI Century, all but one were bishops.
There were no new proclamations during the XVII Century and only four during the XVIII Century:
III. 18TH CENTURY PROCLAMATIONS
11. St. Anselm, Archbishop (1033 or 1034 - 1109; recognized in 1720 by Pope Clement XI)
12. St. Isidore of Seville, Archbishop (560 - 636; recognized in 1722 by Pope Innocent XIII)
13. St. Peter Chrysologus, Bishop (406 - 450; recognized in 1729 by Pope Benedict XIII)
14. St. Leo the Great, Pope (400 - 461; recognized in 1754 by Pope Benedict XIV)
By this time, the process of proclaiming doctors had been formalized and assigned to the Congregation of Rites.[v] Additionally, during the XVIII Century, the requirements for recognizing doctors were articulated in a treatise by Cardinal Prospero Lambertini (later Pope Benedict XIV):
To become a Doctor of the Church three things are necessary: namely, eminent doctrine, outstanding holiness of life…; and a declaration passed by the supreme pontiff or a legitimately assembled General Council.[vi]
Those same requirements remain in effect today.
As we can see, all of the doctors proclaimed during the XVIII Century were bishops (including one pope); three dated from the first millennium and one from the second millennium; the average death-to-doctorate interval soared to 1,067 years.
If the formal process was slow to produce results during the XVIII Century, this was about to change.
IV. 19TH CENTURY PROCLAMATIONS
15. St. Peter Damian, Cardinal (1007 - 1072; recognized in 1828 by Pope Leo XII)
16. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Priest (1090 - 1153; recognized in 1830 by Pope Pius VIII)
17. St. Hilary of Poitiers, Bishop (300 - 367; recognized in 1851 by Pope Pius IX)
18. St. Alphonsus Liguori, Bishop (1696 - 1787; recognized in 1871 by Pope Pius IX)
19. St. Francis de Sales, Bishop (1567 - 1622; recognized in 1877 by Pope Pius IX)
20. St. Cyril of Alexandria, Archbishop (376 - 444; recognized in 1883 by Pope Leo XIII)
21. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Archbishop (315 - 386; recognized in 1883 by Pope Leo XIII)
22. St. John Damascene, Priest/monk (676 - 749; recognized in 1890 by Pope Leo XIII)
23. St. Bede the Venerable, Priest/monk (672 - 735; recognized in 1899 by Pope Leo XIII)
Nine new doctors were recognized in the XIX Century—more than double what had been recognized the century before, and four of the new doctors were men of the second millennium. The average death-to-doctorate interval remained high at 944 years, buoyed by the growing gap between then and the Patristic Era from whence five of the new doctors originated. However, the celerity suggested by the XIX Century results is breathtaking: one case in particular, that of St. Alphonsus Liguori, resulted in a proclamation a mere 84 years after the saint’s death—a veritable blink of an eye in Church time!
Additionally, the great majority of the new doctors—seven of them—were recognized during one prodigious run involving just two popes, Pius IX and Leo XIII. Six of these doctors, beginning with Alphonsus, were recognized in the 30 years immediately following the First Vatican Council.
Then, the Church’s “doctor factory” took a twenty-year hiatus.
V. 20TH CENTURY PROCLAMATIONS
24. St. Ephrem, Deacon (306 - 373; recognized in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV)
25. St. Peter Canisius, Priest (1521 - 1597; recognized in 1925 by Pope Pius XI)
26. St. John of the Cross, Priest/mystic (1542 - 1591; recognized in 1926 by Pope Pius XI)
27. St. Robert Bellarmine, Archbishop (1542 - 1621; recognized in 1931 by Pope Pius XI)
28. St. Albertus Magnus, Bishop (1193 - 1280; recognized in 1931 by Pope Pius XI)
29. St. Anthony of Padua, Priest (1195 - 1231; recognized in 1946 by Pope Pius XII)
30. St. Lawrence of Brindisi, Priest/diplomat (1559 - 1619; recognized in 1959 by Pope John XXIII)
31. St. Teresa of Ávila, Mystic (1515 - 1582; recognized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI)
32. St. Catherine of Siena, Mystic (1347 - 1380; recognized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI)
33. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Nun (1873 - 1897; recognized in 1997 by Pope John Paul II)
Two things jump out from the XX Century proclamations. The first is the obvious innovation, following the Second Vatican Council: the welcome addition of women (St. Teresa of Ávila, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux). Only one of the XX Century doctors dated from the Patristic Era. Resultingly, the average death-to-doctorate interval shrank to 530 years—the lowest ever. Only two were bishops.
The second thing that stands out is how close the XX Century results hew to the XIX Century results in terms of numbers: only one more doctor during such a busy time. While John Paul II is said to have canonized more new saints than all his predecessors combined, he only created one new doctor. Most of the XX Century doctors date from the first half of the century and most of these were created by Pius XI. And, while Thérèse of Lisieux was recognized as a doctor in just one hundred years, this does not beat the XIX century record set for Alphonsus Liguori (84 years).
VI. 21ST CENTURY PROCLAMATIONS
34. St. John of Avila, Priest/mystic (1500 - 1569; recognized in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI)
35. St. Hildegard of Bingen, Abbess/theologian (1098 - 1179; recognized in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI)
36. St. Gregory of Narek, Monk/theologian (951 - 1003; recognized in 2015 by Pope Francis)
The XXI Century is still green and feels to most of us like an extension of the XX Century. The three proclamations so far do not distinguish this century from the last. In fact, all three harken back to the early to middle part of the second millennium. No new bishops. The future is unknown, but at least one indicator suggests that higher numbers may be achieved vis-à-vis earlier centuries: in no prior century were new doctors produced in the first twenty years and, here, we already have three!
Additionally, there still has not been a roll-out of doctors put forth as models of the aggiornamento of the Second Vatican Council, or suited to the aims of the New Evangelization heralded under the last three pontificates, or intended to recognize the Church’s Asian, African or American fathers.
Accordingly, we await with baited breath to see what revelations providence has in store for us.
[i] “Something Surprising,” Reflections on the Proclamation of St. Therese of Lisieux as “Doctor of the Universal Church,” Steven Payne, O.C.D., included in A Better Wine: Essays Celebrating Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., ICS Publications, 2006, pp. 197-230. See also, Saint Therese of Lisieux: Doctor of the Universal Church, Steven Payne, O.C.D., New York: St. Paul's, 2002. Fr. Payne also presented a report on the subject in relation to St. Oscar Romero at Notre Dame University in March 2018.
[ii] Fr. Payne, ibid.