Pope Benedict XVI: Doctor of the Church?
16 January 2023
Matthew Bunson
By Matthew Bunson
Rome, Italy, Jan 8, 2023 / 00:01 am

There are currently 37 Doctors of the Church, four women and 33 men, spanning the course of Church history, from Irenaeus of Lyon in the third century to Thérèse of Lisieux in the 19th century.

It is a classically Catholic pastime to speculate who might be named the next member of this extraordinary and extraordinarily exclusive club. Long before his passing, the name Pope Benedict XVI has been proposed as a worthy candidate to become a Doctor of the Church. What exactly would this entail, and is he, indeed, a suitable candidate?

It might be useful to ask first what, technically, is a Doctor of the Church?

Traditionally, the title of Doctor of the Church has been granted on the basis of three requirements: the manifest holiness of a candidate affirmed by his or her canonization as a saint; the person’s eminence in doctrine demonstrated by the leaving behind of a body of teachings that made significant and lasting contributions to the life of the Church; and a formal declaration by the Church, usually by a pope.

Every Doctor, then, is first and foremost a saint. That does not mean they are sinless, or impeccable. The lives of St. Augustine and even St. Teresa of Ávila would demonstrate rather clearly that some Doctors had powerful conversions from sin.

The Doctors are also required to have to show that they possessed profound knowledge and were superb teachers in some sense of the word. St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Albertus Magnus, and St. Robert Bellarmine are just three examples of brilliant teachers and writers. Nevertheless, there is no suggestion that their writings were completely free from mistakes, nor are they deemed infallible.

And then there is the requirement that a Doctor of the Church be proclaimed officially. This can come from an ecumenical council, but in Church history, every Doctor has been declared by a pope. The decision is normally accompanied by a letter from the pope explaining why the choice was made. This is important in giving the context to the decision. Such a letter was valuable in 1997 when Pope John Paul II named Thérèse of Lisieux and issued Divini Amoris Scientia (The Science of Divine Love) to explain how a saint who had died in a cloister and had authored only one tome could warrant being named a Doctor of the Church. As John Paul wrote, “During her life Thérèse discovered ‘new lights, hidden and mysterious meanings’ and received from the divine Teacher that ‘science of love’ which she then expressed with particular originality in her writings.”

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