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Doctors of the Church

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(Latin Doctores Ecclesiae) — Certain ecclesiastical writers have received this title on account of the great advantage the whole Church has derived from their doctrine. In the Western church four eminent Fathers of the Church attained this honour in the early Middle Ages: St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome. The "four Doctors" became a commonplace among the Scholastics, and a decree of Boniface VIII (1298) ordering their feasts to be kept as doubles in the whole Church is contained in his sixth book of Decretals (cap. "Gloriosus", de relique. et vener. sanctorum, in Sexto, III, 22).

In the Eastern Church three Doctors were pre-eminent: St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil, and St. Gregory Nazianzen. The feasts of these three saints were made obligatory throughout the Eastern Empire by Leo VI, the Wise, the deposer of Photius. A common feast was later instituted in their honour on 30 January, called "the feast of the three Hierarchs". In the Menaea for that day it is related that the three Doctors appeared in a dream to John, Bishop of Euchaitae, and commanded him to institute a festival in their honour, in order to put a stop to the rivalries of their votaries and panegyrists. This was under Alexius Comnenus (1081-1118; see "Acta SS.", 14 June, under St. Basil, c. xxxviii). But sermons for the feast are attributed in manuscripts to Cosmas Vestitor, who flourished in the tenth century. The three are as common in Eastern art as the four are in Western. Durandus (i, 3) remarks that Doctors should be represented with books in their hands. In the West analogy led to the veneration of four Eastern Doctors, St. Athanasius being very properly added to the three hierarchs.

To these great names others have subsequently been added. The requisite conditions are enumerated as three: eminens doctrina, insignis vitae sanctitas, Ecclesiae declaratio (i.e. eminent learning, a high degree of sanctity, and proclamation by the Church). Benedict XIV explains the third as a declaration by the supreme pontiff or by a general council. But though general councils have acclaimed the writings of certain Doctors, no council has actually conferred the title of Doctor of the Church. In practice the procedure consists in extending to the universal church the use of the Office and Mass of a saint in which the title of doctor is applied to him. The decree is issued by the Congregation of Sacred Rites and approved by the pope, after a careful examination, if necessary, of the saint's writings. It is not in any way an ex cathedra decision, nor does it even amount to a declaration that no error is to be found in the teaching of the Doctor. It is, indeed, well known that the very greatest of them are not wholly immune from error. No martyr has ever been included in the list, since the Office and the Mass are for Confessors. Hence, as Benedict XIV points out, St. Ignatius, St. Irenæus, and St. Cyprian are not called Doctors of the Church.

The proper Mass of Doctors has the Introit "In medio", borrowed from that of the Theologus par excellence, St. John the Evangelist, together with special prayers and Gospel. The Credo is said. The principal peculiarity of the Office is the antiphon to the Magnificat at both Vespers, "O DOCTOR OPTIME", and it is rather by this antiphon than by the special mass that a saint is perceived to be a doctor (S.R.C., 7 Sept., 1754). In fact, St. John Damascene has a Mass of his own, while Athanasius, Basil, Leo, and Cyril of Jerusalem have not the Gospel of Doctors, and several have not the collect.

The feasts of the four Latin Doctors were not added to until the sixteenth century, when St. Thomas Aquinas was declared a Doctor by the Dominican St. Pius V in his new edition of the Breviary (1568), in which the feasts of the four Greek Doctors were also raised to the rank of doubles. The Franciscan Sixtus V (1588) added St. Bonaventure.

St. Anselm was added by Clement XI (1720), St. Isidore by Innocent XIII (1722), St. Peter Chrysologus by Benedict XIII (1729), St. Leo I (a well-deserved but belated honour) by Benedict XIV (1754), St. Peter Damian by Leo XII (1828), and St. Bernard by Pius VIII (1830). Pius IX gave the honour to St. Hilary (1851) and to two more modern saints, St. Alphonsus Liguori (1871) and St. Francis de Sales (1877). Leo XIII promoted (1883) the Easterns, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, and St. John Damascene, and the Venerable Bede (1899).

Leo XIII, when, in 1882, he introduced the simplification of double feasts, made an exception for Doctors, whose feasts are always to be transferred.


POHLE in Kirchliches Handlexikon (Munich, 1907). II, 384; FESSLER-JUNGMANN, Instit. Patrologiae (Innsbruck, 1890); BARDENHEWER, Patrology, tr. SHAHAN (Freiburg im Br., St. Louis, 1908), 2-3. On the early Latin Doctors see WEYMAN in Hist. Jahrbuch (1894), XV, 96; and in Rev. d'hist. et de litt. religieuses (1898) III, 562; for the Greek Doctors see NILLES in Zeitschrift f. kath. Theologie (1894), XVIII, 742. See also BOUVY, Les Peres de l'Église in Rev. Augustinienne (1904) 461-86, and PESCH Praelect. Dogmat. (Freiburg, 1903), 346 sqq.

About this page

APA citation. Chapman, J. (1909). Doctors of the Church. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Chapman, John. "Doctors of the Church." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Gerard Haffner.

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

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