Between Amens — Expert teachers of the faith

Dr. Karen Shadle

A while ago, I was waiting around at the airport when someone nearby suddenly dropped to the ground with a health emergency. A few people rushed to her side, and someone called out, “Is there a doctor around?” Thankfully, there was. Two physicians quickly helped to stabilize the situation while they waited for more help to arrive.

Today when we hear the term doctor, we usually think of medical professionals, but this is a very recent designation. In past centuries, a doctor was a teacher, from the Latin word docere, meaning “to teach.” As systems of education developed, doctorates were awarded to expert teachers. These were people who advanced knowledge in their field and were responsible for inscribing this learning so that it could be passed on.

Around the 13th century, the Catholic Church began to bestow the title “Doctor of the Church” on certain saints. These are people who have contributed significantly to our understanding and insight about sacred Scripture, theology and church doctrine, usually through a significant body of writing or oratory.

Their works are scrutinized by the Vatican for theological soundness. Once the title of “doctor of the church” is given, those written works form part of the magisterium — the authentic, authoritative teaching of the church. These saints are the expert teachers of the faith.

Currently, the church recognizes 36 doctors of the church, and four of them are women:

St. Teresa of Avila, Carmelite nun and mystic, penned many contemplative writings, such as “The Interior Castle,” that helped to model a deeply personal and intimate relationship with God.

St. Catherine of Siena, a laywoman, wrote political treatises that were instrumental in ending the Avignon papacy and reuniting the church in Rome.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux, another Carmelite, wrote a famous spiritual autobiography championing the “Little Way” of simple, practical religiosity.

Finally, St. Hildegard of Bingen, a Benedictine abbess, produced a large number of creative works, including mystical narratives, sacred poetry and musical compositions.

We celebrate the feast days of two of these women in October — St. Thérèse on Oct. 1 and St. Teresa on Oct. 15.

As a woman in ministry, who also has one of those old kinds of doctorates in philosophy, I carry a special devotion to these four remarkable saints. I encourage anyone who would like to learn more about their lives and legacies to read “Four Women Doctors of the Church” by Mary T. Malone.

When someone calls out for a doctor, they are usually seeking medical help. When we call upon the doctors of the church, we seek spiritual wisdom, clarity and understanding.

These are saints by whose intercession we grow closer to God. Through their writings and teachings, we receive guidance and inspiration. May these intelligent, gifted, humble and pious women continue to enlighten and challenge us along the path to holiness.

St. Teresa of Avila, pray for us!
St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us!
St. Thérèse of Lisieux, pray for us!
St. Hildegard of Bingen, pray for us!

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