ASK FATHER: St. Irenaeus… Doctor of the Church?

From a reader…


Pope Francis has said that he is going to name St. Irenaeus of Lyon a “Doctor of the Church”. Is it possible that too many doctors, like too many pope saints, waters down the whole thing?

I am reminded of the line in the movie The Incredibles.

Too many “pope saints”….  Right.  Yes, I think that the causes of recent pope saints should have been shelved until more time had passed.   Just because the Congregations procedure for a cause is followed diligently doesn’t mean that it is the prudent thing to pass along with great speed.  I was at the press conference for the Beatification of the founder of Opus Dei.  It was one of the first causes that went through very swiftly after the death of the servant of God.   The question was asked about that speed.  The answer was, “Opus Dei is very well organized.”   They had people and resources to throw at the cause like no one had before.  They followed the procedure and got all the work done.  The cause moved quickly and the Pope wanted it.  Bada bing.  That is not to say that quick causes (Mother Teresa, Padre Pio) are undeserving.  I just think it is a good idea to slow down.

John XIII?  Paul VI?  John Paul II?  Now, they say, John Paul I?   Really?

It starts looking like a canonization of something else.

Back to Doctors of the Church.

Who are Doctors?

Doctors are saints (therefore holiness of life) whose lives and writings (greatness of learning) manifest something special about Holy Church as Magistra, Teacher.  They make a profound contribution to her theology or spiritual life, beyond that of normal theologians and divines.  The Church has, over time, designated three conditions for being declared a “Doctor”.  The candidate must be, eminens doctrina, insignis vitae sanctitas, Ecclesiae declaratio … or eminent in learning, with a eminent degree of sanctity, and through declaration by the Church.

The Vatican News story points out Irenaeus will be called “Doctor Unitatis… Doctor of Unity”.  Doctors get nicknames.  For example, St. Thomas Aquinas is Doctor Angelicus, Angelic Doctor, John of the Cross is Doctor Mysticus, Mystical Doctor.  Doctor Who is still just Doctor Who.  If Karl Rahner were made a Doctor… and these days I wouldn’t rule it out… as one commentator here quipped he would be Doctor Equivocus, Equivocal Doctor.

Apparently it is thought that Irenaeus, through his striving against heresy of Gnosticism, helped to preserve the unity of the Church.  That’s surely correct.  Benedict XVI waxed eloquent about Irenaeus, and rightly so, in his Wednesday audience series on Fathers of the Church, a title Irenaeus truly merits.

Should Irenaeus be declared Doctor of the Church?

Look at it this way.   At the request of Benedict XVI the question of whether Irenaeus should be named Doctor was given the Patristic Institute “Augustinianum” (my school – across the way from the Palazzo del Sant’Uffizio where the CDF is housed).  The CDF entrusted very important tasks to the “Augustinianum”, such as the verification and proofing of all the references in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  As a matter of fact, I was asked to deliver the final copy to Ratzinger’s office.  I digress.

At the request of Card. Ratzinger, the “Augustinianum” studied the question of Irenaeus as Doctor and concluded, “No.”   Why?  Because no Father before Nicea can really be a Doctor of the Church because they all lack a developed orthodox understanding of the Trinity.

That might have disappointed Card. Ratzinger a little, I don’t know.  But, when he could have, Papa Ratzinger didn’t make Irenaeus a Doctor.   He must have found it a) convincing because of the ante-Nicean angle or b) it wasn’t timely.

As far as “watering down the whole thing” goes, I am not sure that having more Doctors waters down their prestige… after all, the pool to draw on is pretty small.  Some people were a little surprised, and not in a good way, about St. Therese.  I think they have gotten over that.  I am still asking, in the regard to St. Gregory of Narek… Who?  Maybe that’s our Doctor… Who?

There is no question that Irenaeus is a great Father of the Church who made important contributions that echo to our own day.  No question.

I guess we who celebrate the Vetus Ordo will have to figure out how to work with his Feast Day.  Irenaeus feast was celebrated in Lyon on 28 June, which in the Church’s universal calendar is the Vigil of Sts. Peter and Paul.  Benedict XV confirmed Irenaeus feast as 28 June.  However, in 1960 Irenaeus was moved to 3 July, thus bumping poor St. Leo II – quite the saint – into the liturgical shadows.  But because there were lots of vigils – “bad” in the eyes of the reformers – for the Novus Ordo the Vigil of Peter and Paul was suppressed and Irenaeus was transferred back to 28 June!  That way St. Thomas the Apostle could be transfered from 21 December to 3 July which is the anniversary of the translation of his relics.  One gets the impression of a calendrical pinball machine.  Ping… boing… snak… ding ding… snak… boing.

I say, let’s slow down.

There weren’t a lot of liturgical changes between 1570 and the 20th century.  Then the 20th hit and BAMMO!  Things started to change really fast, both in the world outside and inside the Church.

Both in the outside world and within the Church.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Well, there’s an inside take here. Our Lady, Untier of Knots, makes her first literary appearance in Against Heresies, and the miraculous picture of her under that title was supposed to be an illustration of St. Irenaeus’ comments.

    And Pope Francis is a big promoter of devotion to Our Lady, Untier of Knots.

    So yeah, it’s a lot like canonizing Argentinian saints. But it’s a lot less harmful than other favoritism things, so I’m not going to get angry.

    The main problems are probably chiliasm as well as “not quite understanding the Trinity yet,” although St. I is pretty darned good. And comes in handy in apologetics against Islam.

  2. Chrisc says:

    The canonization of modern popes may be almost necessitated after Vatican I and II. Earlier, popes were given very little theological gravitas. The position meant they were higher in governance, but not necessarily in Wisdom. The two may have coincided, but most likely not through history. With the development of a Magisterium ™, which is defined and codified by popes as THE way to interpret the Tradition, the Church now rises and falls with every word spoken by each pope (even if it contradicts). Thus for the church to have validity, it seems to depend on Reason but upon the popes’ personal holiness. (Btw, there should be lots of self finger pointing at this. All are tempted far too easily to say Rome locuta when we like certain popes.)

    The pope holds the keys to the tradition, but he is not the divine incarnation of it. Some, like at Where Peter Is?, seem profoundly confused about this.

    We ought to be able to imagine popes who aren’t all gifted theologians, who aren’t all formationally perfect, and yet who still are perfectly legitimate and maybe even holy popes. We ought also to imagine gifted popes who aren’t necessarily that holy. But we have now conflated authority with holiness.

    To hold Pope Francis’ pontificate is true and thus his speech as being as true as Leo I is silly and frankly unjust to Francis. His papal legitimacy is not a function of his holiness, or did we learn nothing from Church history? Only now we have Inverted Donatists – you are holy because you have authority. Francis should be as holy a pope as Pope Francis can be. This judgment, includes for us, I am sure, of not reading each of his statements as if looking for the same clarity or precision or soundness as we might expect of the Angelic Doctor.

    To canonize every pope because he is pope is a really problematic position that sets us up poorly for when one of them will end up being not that bright or theologically clumsy or an inveterate liar or fornicator.

  3. The Astronomer says:

    John XIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, with John Paul I to follow, sounds like an effort to canonize Vatican Two and the heterodox hermeneutic of rupture.

    Pope Pius XII is very much deserving, but it’s been made abundantly clear his cause is on ice until….well, you get the idea. Someplace very hot will have to freeze over first.

  4. Kathleen10 says:

    It is political, and all political, and there is nothing done now that is not political.

  5. Chad the Great says:

    St. Iraneus was a heroic shepherd, as far as I have read (not a lot). I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be a believer during the first 300 years, with all of the hostility the world showed them from the beginning.

    He also spoke up stridently against Pope Victor’s excommunication of a group of prelates in Asia Minor, during the Quartodeciman Controversy. The excommunication was nipped in the bud, as a result of his criticism. That contributed to
    Unity, though ironically, that unity came from the saint and bishop (not some ordinary layperson like us!) checking the Roman Pontiff.

    St. Paul VI; he is the most mysterious Pope of all time, to me at least. I don’t understand some of the things he says. All of the reforms that happened, he seemed to oppose at first, but yet he didn’t really do anything to check the reformers. Also, nothing is ever said about anything he did outside of Vatican II, and Humanae Vitae.

    I don’t know the ins and outs of the theology or details on the circumstances, but Humanae Vitae seems super heroic to me. Amazingly heroic, given the reaction of so many. I’m actually in awe of it.

    I don’t understand why he acquiesced to so much, except the thing that earned him the most enemies.

    What a mysterious man.

    Being a priest must be like having night vision goggles on; we can’t see clearly in the dark, yet there is so much going on there.

    I do know this with certainty; Trying to get rid of the priesthood is impossible, and also suicidal. Doesn’t matter what any Synod says.

  6. ex seaxe says:

    By the Apostolic Letter Divini Amoris Scientia (The Science of Divine Love) of 19 October 1997, Pope John Paul II declared St Thérèse of Lisieux the thirty-third Doctor of the Church – and there have been more since!

  7. Fr. Reader says:

    Often I feel that we have a great treasure in the Church that we are ignoring: the saints. We have so many saints in history, forgotten saints, hidden saints, ignored saints.
    I like reading about saints, reading their biographies and stories. It is true that from time to time we find strange saints that are difficult to imitate, or that some biographies tend to be a bit to hagiographical, or to show a person that is too perfect. But for anyone who has been trying to be a disciple of Christ for years, it is easy to read between the lines, to discover the real struggle of these saints in these stories and biographies. Even if of many saints we have very little information, they are saints, and so they are in heaven.
    I often ask in my classes: how many saints do you know? what do you know about them? and it is quite surprising that an average Catholic knows so little about saints. Sometimes they don’t even mention the names of the apostles.
    I suppose it is good to promote new causes of canonization (or to have more doctors of the Church), but not at the expense of forgetting all that is there in history. Among other reasons, because big part of our identity is there.
    Recently I talked about a Father of the Church during a lesson, and a lady decided to baptize her child with the name of that saint. It was encouraging.

    In my effort to talk about saints I found this card game, and I found it very useful. [] (I am not affiliated with them or receive any commission, it is just that it is very well done and I really like it.)

  8. boredoftheworld says:

    We’re running out of deck chairs to rearrange.

    I don’t worry about the person who believes he doesn’t exist if he’s not stirring things up, I worry about the person who thinks we don’t exist if he’s not stirring things up. It seems to me that we should be worried.

    We’re now living in the old joke where the aide runs into the Holy Father’s office shouting “Our Lord just walked through the gates what should we do?” to which the pope replies “look busy”.

  9. Not says:

    Bring back the Devil’s Advocate! The Church was highly critical of bestowing the title of Saint. Once again Vatican II spreads it’s liberalism. (oops, I shouldn’t say that, I might be banned for not fully accepting.) Devil’s Advocate worked both ways. St Athanasius, was excommunicated when he died and was then made a Saint years later.

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  12. TonyO says:

    Another aspect of this: Irenaeus is a Father of the Church, and one of the “Early Fathers” at that. But that is, in a sense, a different role in the Church than that of a “Doctor”. The Fathers carried down to us what the Apostles taught, and expounded on that so that we had the Apostles taught in an expansive form. The most critical decisions made in Ecumenical Councils were always based on what we received from the Apostles, and what all have taught since then”. To be one of the Early Fathers of the Church, then, was to be one of the great authentic transmitters of the faith received from the Apostles.

    It is not intrinsically impossible for a Father of the Church to also be a Doctor of the Church…if you are one of the late Fathers. To be so as one of the Early Fathers? That’s kind of an odd-duck marriage of roles.

    It is, also, a bit like piling up unnecessary honors. You don’t give a man the Congressional Medal of Honor, and then give him the Navy Cross for the very same action.

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