Ask Father: September 2019

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

In the first part to this question, we narrowed the category of Doctor of the Church to those four principal doctors honored with that title by Boniface IV in 1298. In this second part, we shall establish the criteria on which we will determine who in fact is “the greatest.”

The title “doctor” gives the essential criteria on which we should primarily focus. According to popular usage, the title “doctor” means a medical practitioner with secondary entries in the dictionary defining the term as a person who holds a doctorate or is an eminent theologian. All these uses are derivative and miss the primary meaning of the name “doctor” which hails from the Latin doctor (teacher), the agent noun of the verb docere (to teach). The activity of “teaching” is the essential quality of a doctor, at least in its use in the title “Doctor of the Church.” It is from teaching that the title came into existence, and it is because of their teaching activity that certain Fathers were awarded the title.

The work of the original four Doctors of the Church was prodigious, yet all are a distant second to St. Augustine in scope and productivity. St. Jerome would possibly be close if one considered his translations, but even then, the totality of his work is dwarfed by St. Augustine’s. The sheer quantity of pages written have astounded Christians through the ages to the point of becoming a proverb: “He is a liar who confesses to have read the whole of Augustine’s works.”[1] St. Isidore of Seville (made a doctor in 1722) expressed this aptly: “He wrote of such a volume that it couldn’t even happen that a man working night and day could write all of his books let alone read them.”[2] His surviving works cover over one hundred individual titles from apologetics, dogmatic theology, political philosophy and Scripture commentary. Considering that what remains is only a part of his productivity (he even lost a book during his lifetime[3]) and that he wasn’t even a Christian until the age of thirty-one, he must have been a veritable genius.

To produce work is distinct from teaching. One may write copious amounts, and yet, if no one reads it, it remains “buried talent.”[4] Undoubtedly, St. Augustine produced work, but did he teach? He did, and more importantly, he has never stopped. In his own lifetime, he effectively taught against numerous heretics: Arians, Donatists, Manichaeans and Pelagians. He remains an effective antidote to these heresies, especially the latter two which have consistently plagued mankind throughout the centuries. His dogmatic works are fundamental texts often cited in magisterium documents, especially his On the Trinity, On Christian Doctrine, On Virginity and On the Good of Marriage.[5] His two most popular works, Confessions and City of God, have never been out of circulation since they were penned. For the sake of brevity, I omit his Scripture commentaries and sermons which are continually read throughout the year in the Divine Office. Beyond simply enumerating his important works, the strongest proof of St. Augustine’s continued teaching activity will be found in the most important teacher from the scholastic period—St. Thomas Aquinas.

St. Thomas is considered by many to be the greatest teacher. John XXII speaking of Thomas says, “He enlightened the church more than all the other doctors.” Many may object to my omitting of St. Thomas from the running of the greatest doctors. But I wonder how St. Thomas (“a master whose doctrine should be followed in a special way at all times”[6]) would consider my opinion? True, we cannot ask the Angelic Doctor, but we can get a reasonable indication of his opinion by consulting his texts. If St. Thomas is the greatest teacher, who taught the master? Let us consider St. Thomas’ greatest work, the Summa Theologiae, for our answer.

As stated in part one, the doctors of the sixteenth century (Sts. Thomas and Bonaventure) were a different sort of teacher than those from the patristic period. They organized and extended the accumulated teaching of the ancients. They were scholastics and their works were mainly derivative. St. Thomas never answers a single question in his Summa without quoting an authority (in the form of a Church Father, Scripture or Tradition) for support. He has no interest in standing alone as a teacher, rather he goes to great effort to demonstrate that he stands upon the shoulders of others. Consulting his citations reveals whose teachings he most relies upon and many may be astounded. The original four doctors are by far the most cited authorities: St. Gregory the Great is cited 761 times, Ambrose 284 and Jerome 377 times. These three doctors have a grand total of 1,422 citations. Though this number may seem high, it pales by comparison to St. Augustine, whom St. Thomas cites a total of 3,156 times, an average of five citations per question and more than twice as much as all the other doctors combined! Even Aristotle, who provided St. Thomas with his underlying philosophy is cited less (2,095 citations). Objectively, we can determine that St. Thomas held St. Augustine as a principal teacher. Moreover, one cannot study Aquinas without learning from St. Augustine; he is ubiquitous and his presence makes him a master to all who use Aquinas as their teacher.[7]

One cannot avoid detracting from the three by elevating one. According to different criteria perhaps another doctor would be superior; St. Gregory would be the greatest contributor to the artistic patrimony of the Church, Jerome was certainly the greatest translator, Ambrose arguably the most eloquent. Yet, according to teaching, none have instructed as many as St. Augustine. From council decrees and papal encyclicals to theology manuals, he is present and ever will remain. His reputation as a sage and a bulwark of orthodoxy spread well beyond his diocese during his lifetime and thereafter only expanded. The words of St. Jerome ring just as true today as when he wrote them in 418 to St. Augustine, the greatest of the Church doctors:

Go on and prosper! You are renowned throughout the whole world; Catholics revere and look up to you as the restorer of the ancient faith, and—which is a token of yet more illustrious glory—all heretics abhor you. +

Answered by:
Fr. Dominic Savoie, Assistant Pastor, FSSP Sacramento

  1. “mentitur qui te totam legisse factetur,” St. Isidore of Seville, PL 83.1109.
  2. St. Isidore, Etymologiarum, 4.7.
  3. St. Augustine, Confessions, 4.13.
  4. Matthew 25:14ff.
  5. St. Augustine is the only Church Father to write a book on how to interpret Scripture
    (On Christian Doctrine) and on the Good of Marriage, making him a singular teacher in
    these areas.
  6. Benedict XV.
  7. Code of Canon Law, Bk. 2, Title 3.2.3.

September 15, 2019