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(Latin docere, to teach)

The title of an authorized teacher. In this general sense the term occurs in the O.T.; the "doctors" are mentioned with the "princes and ancients" (Deuteronomy 29:10; 31:28), and Azarias prophesies (2 Chronicles 15:3) that "many days shall pass in Israel, without the true God, and without a priest a teacher, and without the law" (absque sacerdote doctore, et absque lege). It was the duty of these doctors to expound the law, and this they performed at the time of Christ, who was found in the Temple "in the midst of the doctors" (Luke 2:46). Another meeting of Our Lord with the "doctors of the law" is recorded in Luke 5:17. The later Jewish teachers also received the title (doctor gemaricus, doctor mischnicus — see Talmud). Under the New Law the doctors are those who have received a special gift or charisma (see CHARISMATA) such as the "prophets and doctors" of the Church at Antioch (Acts 13:1), and of whom St. Paul says that "God indeed hath set some in the church; first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly doctors (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11). St. Paul speaks of himself as a doctor of the Gentiles in faith and truth (1 Timothy 2:7), and Doctor gentium is one of the titles given him in the liturgy. In the early Church, teachers in the catechetical schools were known as doctores audientium (Cyprian, Ep. xxix, ed. Hartel); and finally, in the course of time, some of the most illustrious theologians were designated as "Doctors of the Church".

The use of Doctor as an academic title dates from the founding of the medieval universities. Before these were regularly organized, any teacher who gathered about him a number of students was a doctor, dominus, or magister. During the first half of the twelfth century, the title Doctor acquired a more special significance, though it still implied personal excellence rather than official position. The "Four Doctors" who succeeded Irnerius at Bologna were the distinguished jurists, Martinus (died before 1166), Bulgarus (died 1166), Hugo (died 1168), and Jacobus (died 1178). But when the doctors formed a collegium they prescribed conditions on which other persons might become members of the teaching body, and thus laid the foundation of the system of academic degrees. The doctorate was first granted in civil law (doctores legum), later in canon law (doctores decretorum), and, during the thirteenth century, in medicine, grammar, logic, and philosophy. The doctorate in music was conferred at Oxford and Cambridge in the fifteenth century. For graduates in arts and theology, magister was more generally employed than doctor, but for a long time these titles were synonymous. The English universities, adopting the usage of Paris, at first designated teachers of law as doctors, and professors of theology as masters; but in the course of time the former title was given to all the superior faculties, and the latter was reserved for grammar and arts. In Germany, doctor and magister were interchangeable (Kaufmann, "Geschichte" etc., II, 268 sqq.), and though the mastership is no longer conferred as a separate degree, a trace of the medieval practice is still found in the diploma which styles its recipient "Doctor of Philosophy and Master of Arts".

Bologna at first conferred only the doctorate, but Paris and the English universities very soon introduced the preparatory degrees of baccalaureate and licentiate. Later, it is true, the licentiate was granted in the Italian university also at the first examination (privata); but this merely implied permission to proceed to the second, more formal, examination (publica) in which the licentia docendi was given. At Paris, the licentiate meant a real authorization to teach, besides being a pre-requisite for admission to the final examination (inceptio) at which the doctorate was conferred. There was a corresponding difference in the length of the course for the degree. Bologna required six years of study for the doctorate in canon law, and seven or eight for the doctorate in civil law; the student might begin his course at the age of fourteen and become a doctor at twenty or twenty-one. At Paris the statutes drawn up in 1215 by the Cardinal Legate Robert de Courçon provided that no one should lecture in theology as a master unless he was thirty-five years of age, had studied for eight years, and taken a five-years' course in theology. According to Denifle (Universitäten, 100-102), the eight years meant three years in arts and five years in theology. (Cf. Rashdall, "Universities", I, 462 sqq.) At Oxford, candidates who had already taken the M. A. degree were required to study theology seven years more for the licentiate. In medicine, M. A. candidates had a six-years' course for the doctorate. For the subjects required in these courses see UNIVERSITY. (Cf. Rasbdall, op. cit., II, 452 sq.)

In regard to examinations there seems to have been considerable leniency: at times they were reduced to mere formalities, at other times they were dispensed with. The degree was awarded by the chancellor on the advice of the regent masters of the faculty as to the candidate's fitness. The ceremony of inception was conducted by a regent; it consisted in the tradition of the book and ring, the imposition of the biretta, and the kiss of fellowship. At Paris, however, the degree in theology was conferred by the chancellor himself, who placed the biretta upon the candidate's head with the words, "Incipiatis in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen." Then followed a disputation (aulica) in which the chancellor, the masters, and one of the bachelors took part. It was customary also to hold, on the evening before inception, an elaborate disputation known as vesperiœ (see, for details, "Chartularium", II, App., p. 693).

Among the various doctorates, that in theology ranked first. It was no uncommon thing for those who had received the degree in the other faculties to take additional courses for the S. T. D. In the German universities, for instance, licentiates in law or medicine might become bachelors in theology after five years of theological study; they would then be obliged to pursue the course prescribed for the other candidates. Conversely, theologians were sometimes permitted to follow courses in civil law and medicine. This privilege was granted to Bologna by Clement V (10 March, 1310) for a period of ten years but it applied only to ecclesiastical persons other than priests, religious, and bishops elect. It was renewed twice by John XXII (1317 and 1330); but when the university (1343-44) petitioned for an indefinite extension of the privilege, Clement VI refused. Innocent VI, however, renewed it (30 June, 1360) for ten years (Denifle, op. cit., 209).

The chief significance of the doctorate lay in the fact that it authorized the recipient to teach everywhere without undergoing further examination — jus ubique docendi. This prerogative developed gradually out of the licentia docendi which the degree itself implied, i.e. the right to teach in the university which conferred the doctorate. But as the older universities, Bologna, Paris, and Oxford, grew in importance and attracted students from all parts, the idea naturally spread that their graduates had the right to teach everywhere. Subsequently, this authorization was expressly granted to newly founded universities: by Gregory IX to Toulouse (1233), and by Alexander IV to Salamanca (1255). It was long, however, before the universities came to a mutual recognition of their degrees. Paris held tenaciously to its rights; Oxford was more liberal, but would not permit a Parisian doctor to teach merely on the strength of his degree. The doctors themselves were not always anxious to exercise their prerogative; the teaching devolved in large measure upon the bachelors, and the masters were classified as regents (those who taught) and as nonregents, who were content with the prestige implied by their degree or were eager for other occupations.

The essential meaning of the doctorate as fixed by the medieval universities is preserved in modern academic usage; the degree implies a qualification to teach. It has, however, undergone various modifications which are due partly to the development of the sciences and partly to changes in educational theory and practice. The degree, Doctor of Laws, is often conferred as an honorary title. The doctorate in theology, or divinity, has been retained by Catholic institutions as a degree to be given either after a course of study and an examination or as a distinction (honoris causa); while the tendency among non-Catholic universities is to confer it only as an honorary degree. Of late the doctorate in philosophy has attained great importance, and its value has been enhanced as the result of stricter requirements. For this and for the other doctorates, research is now generally considered the principal qualification, and in consequence the candidate's work is becoming more specialized.

The influence of the Holy See, in regard to the doctorate, especially in theology, has been exerted in various ways, e.g. by authorizing universities to confer the degree, by prescribing through papal legates the conditions for obtaining it, and by correcting abuses, notably laxity of requirements, which crept in from time to time. The historical details will be found in the article UNIVERSITY. Legislation concerning the ecclesiastical side of the subject may be summarized as follows: —

  1. The power of creating doctors belongs to the pope; but he may, and often does, delegate it to universities, seminaries, and other institutions of learning. Charters granted by civil authority are valid; but to obtain canonical recognition, doctorates in theology and canon law must be conferred in virtue of pontifical authorization.
  2. The candidate for the degree must be a baptized Christian and must subscribe to the profession of faith formulated by Pius IV. As a rule, only priests receive the doctorate in theology and canon law. It is not, however, necessary that the recipient should be in Sacred orders. Laymen as well as priests are allowed to appear as advocates before the Roman tribunals (Rota, Signatura) and they are required to have the doctorate at least in Canon law (Const. "Sapienti consilio", 29 June, 1908).
  3. The doctoral biretta, or four-cornered cap, may be worn on academic occasions, but not in choir (Cong. of Rites, "In Venusina", 1844, and reply to the Archbishop of Santiago de Chile, 6 Sept., 1895); the ring may be worn at all times except at Mass and other ecclesiastical functions (Cong. of Rites, 12 Feb., 1892).
  4. The Council of Trent (Sess. XXII, c. ii, "de Ref.") decreed that a bishop must be either doctor or licentiate in theology or in canon law; if a religious, he should have proper testimonials from his superiors. It enacted the same requirement for the archdeacon (Sess. XXIV, c. xii, "de Ref."). Regarding the vicar capitular and, the pœnitentiarius, it prescribed that they should either have the degree or be otherwise well qualified. The Congregation of Studies recently decided (7 March, 1908) that the penitentiary and theologian of the cathedral chapter, if not already doctors, must receive the degree within a year. The Const. "Sapienti consilia" (29 June, 1908) prescribes the doctorate in theology and Canon law for the officials of the Rota and Signatura. It has been a matter of controversy whether the vicar-general is obliged to be a doctor and whether the Tridentine decree concerning the archdeacon is still in force. For the divergent opinions, see Card. Gennari, "Questioni Canoniche" (Rome, 1908), pp. 372, 292. The whole tenor of ecclesiastical legislation has been in favour of requirements which secure scientific qualifications in those who are appointed to official positions in the Church.


ERMAN-HORN, Bibliographie d. deutschen Universitäten (Leipzig, 1904), I, 252; DENIFLE, Die Universitäten des Mittelalters (Berlin, 1885); KAUFMANN, Die Gesch. d. deutschen Universitäten (Stuttgart, 1888); RASHDALL, The Universities of Europe, etc. (Oxford, 1895); LAURIE, The Rise and Early Constitution of Universities (New York, 1898); BATTANDIER, Annuaire Pontifical (Paris, 1906).

About this page

APA citation. Pace, E. (1909). Doctor. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Pace, Edward. "Doctor." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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