Ask Father: August 2019

Why is St. Augustine called the greatest of the doctors? – Jeanne from Colorado Springs

Augustine has been called the greatest by various authors, e.g., Pope Benedict referred to him as “the greatest father of the Latin Church”[1] and The Catholic Encyclopedia even has a sub-entry under the Augustine entry titled, “the greatest of the Doctors.”[2] I share their opinion but the case must be proved.

To propose a value statement as a matter of fact is a tricky thing. Arguments would undoubtedly grow and opinions fly while the inquiry is made. I can already hear someone objecting, “What about St. Thomas?” Who is the best athlete, actor, scientist or saint? The broader your category, the more difficult the task. Moreover, when adjectives are employed, one mustn’t overlook the latent subjectivity. Who is the most beautiful? One needs facts to argue the case.

If one makes a value statement and wants it to stick, he must specify criteria and then give objective information. Since our current inquiry is on “the greatest of the doctors,” let us first consider whether we can’t narrow this a bit. The doctors of the Church have a long history within the Church, yet they did not all become doctors in quite the same way. Today there are thirty-six declared doctors of the Church, but at the beginning (1298) only four: Sts. Gregory the Great, Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome.

Nor did appreciation for these four suddenly arise in the thirteenth century; rather, the faithful for over half a millennium had recognized them as preeminent teachers. How could they not? These four were inescapable in any serious discourse concerning Christianity. If one pauses to consider how much of the Church’s culture flows through these individuals, he would be astonished: Gregory—preservation of chant, ecclesiastical administration, codification of liturgical texts; Jerome—the Latin Bible which was the norm in the Church until the twentieth century; Augustine—the philosophic thought which guided the Latin Church for almost 800 years, his Confessions (he invented the autobiography), City of God and On Christian Doctrine, just to name a very few of his works. Ambrose, a great writer on his own (Concerning the Mysteries, On Virginity, etc.), seems less domineering than the previous three, yet he also converted Augustine. Before any official proclamation of the Church, these four were already singled out by popular piety. Moreover, their influence didn’t diminish with time—it grew. Consider the decree of Boniface VIII, officially granting the title of doctor to them for the first time, almost 700 years after the death of Gregory:

These doctors’ clear and helpful instruction has illumined the Church, beautified her with virtues, and formed her with character . . . By their fruitful eloquence, heavenly grace has flowed and watered the Church, uncovered the mysteries of the Scriptures, unloosed knots, explained the obscure and answered doubts; the vast architecture of the very Church glows with their deep and beautiful sermons, like with shining jewels, and sparkles most gloriously with the singular and refined elegance of their words.[3]

Their writings influence all western clergy to some extent. For the clergy who recite the older Divine Office, as in the time of Boniface, the vast majority of scripture commentary is culled from the sermons of these authors. Boniface is referencing this fact when he says, “the vast architecture of the Church glows with their deep and beautiful sermons.” This alone gives them a formidable presence. They have passed away long ago into the night of the past age, yet their voices are still heard echoing in the darkened predawn hours of divine worship.

I fear there is some ambiguity with the title of doctor nowadays. It was once considered a closed class. Boniface enumerated them after the twelve apostles and four evangelists for a reason. The apostles, “the most glorious princes of the Christian faith,” built the Church, the evangelists “illumined the Church with their holy gospels,” and after the closing of the deposit of faith the four “extraordinary doctors” focused and reflected that light throughout the Church. The number four is intentional. Based on biblical symbolism, four represents the sufficiency for the entire earth, hence four major prophets anticipate Christ (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel), four evangelists record Christ, and—subsequently—four eminent doctors unwrap the teachings of Christ. Artistic representation has always appreciated this continuity. From stained glass windows to renaissance paintings the four evangelists are often accompanied by the four great doctors, even after new doctors were created.

250 years after the establishment of these four great doctors, six were added after the Council of Trent. Pope Pius V in 1567 assumed the “three holy hierarchs” of the east (Chrysostom, Basil and Gregory Nazianzus) along with Athanasius, in effect keeping the previous symbolism of four but branching it into a west and east division—Romans love symmetry. A real innovation had occurred the previous year, when he added Thomas Aquinas, an innovation which was continued by Sixtus V who made Bonaventure a doctor in 1588. These two “doctors” are of a different type from those previous, who were all from the patristic period. Moreover, they are dependent on the aforesaid doctors, and build upon them. They are scholastics and write distilled summaries of Church teaching in a highly organized fashion. One can detect a little politics here as well: Pius V, a Dominican, enrolled Thomas and Sixtus V, a Franciscan, enrolled Bonaventure. Many have been added in the modern age—four in the eighteenth century, nine in the nineteenth, ten in the twentieth and already three in the first quarter of the twenty-first. This new class of doctors, though their works may be impressive, are of a noticeably different order. A different criteria forms election, i.e. “eminent doctrine, outstanding holiness of life, and a declaration passed by the supreme pontiff.” Neither the essentialness of their doctrine to orthodoxy nor the breadth of their work is a factor (Francis de Sales, Bede, Peter Damien, Anthony of Padua, Peter Canisius, Lawrence of Brindisi don’t merit a citation in the new catechism, but the four great doctors are heavily cited, with Augustine claiming the most at eighty-seven). One can study theology for a decade and never find a John of Avila or Gregory of Narek in a footnote. On the other hand, it is impossible to read anything, be it in dogmatic, moral or mystical theology, and not run across Augustine. Most importantly, the Church’s own historic and lived experience dictated which doctors stood out above the rest, whereas the modern approach is much more top down. Boniface’s concern was one of proper piety and justice: the great western doctors were “raised up in the universal Church with tribute of more profound honor so that just as they enlightened the Church more than others, they
may know that they are all the more honored by her.” If we are unfamiliar with these great doctors, it is not because they are now irrelevant, rather, we have become ignorant. We do an injustice to place all doctors on a level field. St. Thomas is singular, I would admit that. He is a universal teacher and the most endorsed theologian of the Roman Church. He should have a class set apart—a class which stands upon the shoulders of the great four. If that holds for St. Thomas, a fortiori for all who follow. Therefore, if I am measuring the greatest doctor of the Church the contestants must be Gregory, Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome. Anything else is an equivocation. +

Next month, Part Two.

  1. General Audience, January 9, 2008.
  2. Charles Herbermann, ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 2 (New York: Encyclopedia Press, 1913), 115.
  3. Boniface VIII, Gloriosus Deus in Sextus Decretalium Liberorum, title 22.

August 15, 2019