In Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, certain saints have been given the title of “doctor of the church” due to their widespread and lasting influence over the church as a whole. The word doctor (related to doctrine and stemming from the Latin word for “teach”) in this case means “teacher.” To be named a doctor of the church is to be seen as having contributed significantly to the doctrine of the church.
The first doctors of the church were selected during the Middle Ages. The Western (Roman) Church conferred the title upon Ambrose, Augustine, Pope Gregory the Great, and Jerome. These men are often called the Four Latin Doctors. In some Catholic liturgies, the four original doctors of the church are associated with the four writers of the New Testament Gospels: Jerome with Matthew, Gregory the Great with Mark, Ambrose with Luke, and Augustine with John. In the Vatican Basilica, there is a relic called the Chair of Peter—an ancient, ornate chair with its own feast day (February 22). Sculptures around the chair feature the Four Latin Doctors.
In the Eastern (Greek) Church, the first doctors of the church were Athanasius and the Three Holy Hierarchs: Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom. In artwork, the doctors of the church are often portrayed as holding or reading a book.
Bestowing the title of doctor of the church requires two things of the individual under consideration: eminent learning and a high degree of sanctity. The title is only conferred by an official proclamation by the church. Interestingly, not everything a doctor of the church wrote had to agree with official church doctrine. They could stray in some minor points yet still be honored for the depth and universal application of their theological teachings.
Through the years more and more doctors of the church have been added to the list. Starting in 1970, the Catholic Church began adding some women to the roll, and today there are four female doctors of the church: Teresa of Ávila, Catherine of Siena, Thérèse de Lisieux, and Hildegard of Bingen. There are now thirty-three doctors of the church, eight in the Eastern Orthodox Church and twenty-four in the Roman Catholic Church. Some of the other doctors of the church are Thomas Aquinas, the Venerable Bede, John of Damascus, Anselm, and Cyril of Jerusalem. Many of the same individuals honored in Catholicism as doctors of the church are also honored in Anglicanism, although Anglicans usually call them “Teachers of the Faith.”
As with all those venerated by the Catholic and Orthodox faiths, the doctors of the church have been exalted to such an extent that their memorials compete with the true worship of the Lord Jesus Christ. The doctors of the church are all celebrated with their own feast day; they all have images to kneel before and icons to kiss. How different from Paul, who “resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). How different from John the Baptist, who said concerning Jesus, “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30).