Explanation: Pope Francis names Saint Irenaeus “Doctor of the Church”. What does it mean?

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Earlier this month, Pope Francis said he intended to declare Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, a 2nd-century theologian best known for his writings against Gnostic sects, a Doctor of the Church. The venerable saint will receive the title of “Doctor of Unity” for his work to bridge the gaps between Eastern and Western Christianity in the Mediterranean basin in the early church. He is the 37th person to be recognized as a Doctor of the Church.

What does it mean? Is he really a doctor or is he just playing one on TV? Is he rushing to help someone on a plane? Could he collaborate with Dr Dre?

The title of “Doctor of the Church” first appeared in the Western Church in the early Middle Ages (doctor comes from Latin for scholar). It is an honorary title reserved for those who are recognized as superlative sources of great wisdom and holiness, generally for having demonstrated three qualities:eminens doctrina), demonstrates a marked degree of holiness in life (insignis vitae sanctitas) and has been recognized for such qualities by a church statement (ecclesiastical declaration). In recent centuries, the Catholic Church has equated the third condition with the approval of a pope, although in the early Church (both Eastern and Western) someone could be appointed Doctor of Church by decree of a council or by popular acclamation.

Is Saint Irenaeus really a doctor, or is he just playing one on TV? Is he rushing to help someone on a plane? Could he collaborate with Dr Dre?

Saint Irenaeus joined 32 other men who were thus honored, as well as four women (all appointed since 1970). Besides being a man, the surest way to become a doctor of the church (in addition to holiness) is to have been a bishop (19 of them, including Saint Irenaeus), although he it is useful to also be from Europe (27). Eastern Christian churches still generally recognize all those who were honored as Doctors of the Church before the Great Schism between East and West in 1053, although Eastern churches tend not to use the title; individual churches sometimes have their own modern traditions of such figures.

Along with the dramatic increase in the canonization of saints in the 20th century, the appointment of doctors of the church has become somewhat more frequent in recent decades in the Roman Catholic Church: of the 37 now recognized (once Saint Irenaeus got the official green light), seven have been appointed since 1970, and 20 since the closure of Vatican I in 1870. For many centuries, the Church in the West has recognized only four Doctors of the Church ( Saints Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome and Gregory the Great) and the church to the east only three (Saints Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianze and John Chrysostom).

While traditionally great scholars and preachers have dominated the ranks of the doctors of the church, think of Sts. Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Bellarmine, Anselm and Canisius, in addition to the seven pillars mentioned above, a number of recent arrivals have been on the more mystical side of the fence, theologically speaking. Before Saint Irenaeus, the last six named were known as mystics or visionaries as well as teachers: Sts. Thérèse of Ávila, Catherine of Siena, Jean of Ávila, Thérèse of Lisieux, Hildegarde of Bingen and Gregory of Narek.

Saint Irenaeus, venerated in both the East and the West, can also be a powerful symbol of Christian unity.

Why Saint Irenaeus and why now? Like many other processes in the church (including canonizations), there can sometimes be a bit of ecclesial signaling when a pope appoints new doctors of the church. For example, Pope Paul VI was hardly the first to notice the holiness and wisdom of the saints. Thérèse of Ávila and Catherine of Siena; her recognition of them as the first two female doctors of the Church in 1970 was clearly motivated to some extent by the women’s rights movement and by the recognition by the Second Vatican Council of the universal call to holiness in Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, “Lumen Gentium. “They were joined by Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (to whom Pope John Paul II had great devotion) in 1997 and Saint Hildegard of Bingen in 2012.

Saint Irenaeus offers a little something for everyone. On the one hand, his fervent defenses of the traditional teachings of the Church transmitted by Jesus and his apostles through the bishops — his most famous work is called Against heresies– could make him a hero to Catholics alarmed by a perceived decline of orthodoxy in the modern church. On the other hand, in his affirmation of the universality of the possibility of salvation and of the inherent goodness of creation (against the Gnostic masters of the time), Saint Irenaeus offers in his teachings a profound defense of Vatican II as well as ‘a bit of a helping hand for environmentalists.

Pope Francis, however, seemed to have another goal in mind when he announced his plans to the Joint Orthodox-Catholic St. Irenaeus Working Group, an ecumenical effort to establish a space for dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox Christians. “Your patron saint, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, whom I will soon declare doctor of the Church with the title of doctor unitatis, came from the East, exercised his episcopal ministry in the West and was a great spiritual and theological bridge. between the Christians of the East and the West ”, he declared. In other words, Saint Irenaeus, venerated both in the East and in the West, can also be a powerful symbol of Christian unity.


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