Pope Benedict XVI: Doctor of the Church?

Benedict Pope Benedict XVI on May 13, 2010 | Mazur/www.thepapalvisit.org.uk

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.”

St. Thérèse’s tomb is a short walk from her childhood home in the Carmel of Lisieux. Photo credit: Courtney Mares
St. Thérèse’s tomb is a short walk from her childhood home in the Carmel of Lisieux. Photo credit: Courtney Mares

What about Benedict?

Considering these requirements, the question can be asked again: Is Pope Benedict XVI a worthy candidate, and will it happen?

Benedict himself understood deeply the requirements and the highly unusual nature of the Doctors. After all, he named two of them himself in 2012: the 12th-century abbess and mystic St. Hildegard of Bingen and the 16th-century priest St. John of Ávila.

On the issue of his qualifications to be a Doctor of the Church, then, the answer is that he is, arguably, one of the most eminently qualified candidates in Church history. Benedict XVI authored more than 60 books, memorable and important encyclicals, more than a thousand academic articles, countless speeches and commentaries, and even prayers. He is considered one of the greatest and most faithful theologians in the history of the Church, and his vast body of teachings only continued after his election as pope in 2005. The argument can be made that he stands alongside several Doctors of the Church for his learning, including St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Basil the Great, St. Leo I the Great, and even St. Bonaventure, of whom Pope Benedict was an expert.

Saint Francis de Sales giving Saint Jeanne de Chantal the rule of the order of the Visitation /. null
Saint Francis de Sales giving Saint Jeanne de Chantal the rule of the order of the Visitation /. null

In addition, like several Doctors of the Church, Benedict also had the remarkable ability to bring the most profound teachings of the faith down to the level that anyone can understand, a feat possible only when a teacher has absolute mastery of the subject. This places him in the great company of St. Francis de Sales, St. Ambrose, and St. John Chrysostom.

And then there is Benedict’s place as a teacher. A professor of theology whose sweep of knowledge included fundamental, dogmatic, biblical and spiritual theology, Pope Benedict was so gifted as a teacher that his doctoral students established what is called the Schülerkreis (Student Circle) to honor him and celebrate their experience. As a teacher, Benedict shares company with such Doctors of the Church as St. Albert the Great and even St. Thomas Aquinas.

Sainthood comes first

Clearly, Pope Benedict possesses the proper credentials of learned and faithful scholarship for the faith. The other requirement, of course, is that the candidate be a canonized saint. Certainly, at Benedict’s funeral there were signs proclaiming “Santo Subito!” as there were at John Paul II’s funeral. Only time will demonstrate whether such calls and such sentiments lead to a cause for canonization being opened.

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Typically, there is a requirement to wait at least five years before a cause can be opened, although this was waived — by Pope Benedict XVI — in the case of Pope John Paul II. A normal cause for canonization would take many years, even centuries. The towering figure of St. Albert the Great, who died in 1280, was only beatified in 1622 and only canonized in 1931, an event that cleared the way for him to be made a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI that same year.

Should Pope Benedict one day be canonized a saint and declared a Doctor of the Church, he would be only the third pontiff (as of today at least), with St. Leo I the Great and St. Gregory I the Great.

There are many obvious and important steps to be taken before Pope Benedict XVI could become a Doctor of the Church. For now, however, there is the opportunity for Catholics and all people seeking the truth to dedicate themselves to his teachings. His gifts to the Church and the knowledge and wisdom of humanity do not need the title of Doctor of the Church to be appreciated and cherished. That he might some day be granted the title would be only the final affirmation of what many have known and believed for a very long time.

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