What is a Doctor of the Church? 

Before we dive into this series on four amazing female saints, it is worth examining the question: what is a Doctor of the Church?

Doctor comes from the Latin word “docere” meaning “to teach.” A Doctor of the Church is someone recognized by the Church who has three main qualities: 1) holiness that sets them apart, even from the other Saints, 2) depth of insight in doctrine, and 3) an extensive body of work which upholds and contributes to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Doctors of the Church understood what it means to live a truly Christian life and contributed to the theology and philosophy of the Church. The canonized saint’s writings are first investigated in depth by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. When the truth and theological soundness of the saint is verified, the cause is recommended to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. This congregation then presents the possible cases for the title of Doctor to the Pope. Then the Pope bestows the title “Doctor of the Church.”

There are currently 36 Doctors of the Church. To put that in context, there are well over 10,000 recognized and canonized saints. So, these 36 saints are being emphasized especially by the Church for our veneration, study, and intercession. Of these 36, there are currently 4 women Doctors of the Church.

St. Hildegard of Bingen

The first of our four women Doctors of the Church is St. Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard was born in 1098 A.D. and died at the age of 81 in 1179 A.D. She was a subject of the Holy Roman Empire in the Rhine region, in present day Germany. She was a Benedictine and even became an abbess, which means that she was in charge of an abbey of nuns.

Among other talents, she was a writer, composer, philosopher, mystic, visionary, and an expert in multiple fields of study. She was very bright and very holy. Hildegard is also regarded, even by non-Catholics, as the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.

Though she was celebrated widely as a saint for centuries, she was officially canonized on the 10th of May in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI and named a Doctor of the Church on the 7th of October 2012.

Sybil of the Rhine

One of the nicknames that Hildegard had was the “Sybil of the Rhine.” A sybil is someone who receives visions or prophecies. Of course, this is not to be taken in a New Age sort of way. Hildegard was not looking into crystal balls or trying to conquest the future or reading palms or tea leaves. No, she was contemplating God.

She speaks of it this way in a letter to St. Bernard, ” The vision fascinates my whole being: I do not see with the eyes of the body but it appears to me in the spirit of the mysteries…. I recognize the deep meaning of what is expounded on in the Psalter, in the Gospels and in other books, which have been shown to me in the vision. This vision burns like a flame in my breast and in my soul and teaches me to understand the text profoundly.”

Over the course of 35 visions, Hildegard summarized the events of salvation history, from the creation of the world until the end of time.  Pope Benedict XVI, two years before Hildegard’s canonization, wrote of her work in this way,

“With the characteristic traits of feminine sensitivity, Hildegard develops at the very heart of her work the theme of the mysterious marriage between God and humanity that is brought about in the Incarnation. On the tree of the Cross take place the nuptials of the Son of God with the Church, his Bride, filled with grace and the ability to give new children to God, in the love of the Holy Spirit… From these brief references we already see that theology too can receive a special contribution from women because they are able to talk about God and the mysteries of faith using their own particular intelligence and sensitivity.”

In other words, men and women are different. They way that we think, even how we see certain things, can vary.

Female Monasteries

Far from being oppressive against women, the Church, especially in female monasteries of the 11th Century, were a lively place for Hildegard and others to study anything they would like. Many other monasteries, male or female, as well as Abbots and Bishops, turned to her for advice and guidance. Her wisdom, based in her holiness, was well sought after. She said this to her community of women religious, but words echo true for us as well:

“The spiritual life must be tended with great dedication. At first the effort is burdensome because it demands the renunciation of caprices of the pleasures of the flesh and of other such things. But if she lets herself be enthralled by holiness a holy soul will find even contempt for the world sweet and lovable. All that is needed is to take care that the soul does not shrivel.”

Strength of Soul

At the time, the Emperor Frederic Barbarossa caused schism in the Church by supporting at least three anti-popes against the legitimate Pope, Alexander III.  Inspired by her visions and the strength of God, Hildegard reminded the Emperor himself that he too was subject to the judgment of God. She wrote to the Emperor saying, “You will be sorry for this wicked conduct of the godless who despise me! Listen, O King, if you wish to live! Otherwise my sword will pierce you!”

This prophetess had a spiritual authority, due to her acumen and her holiness. She went all over the place, even in uncomfortable conditions and advanced age, to preach the Gospel to the people of God. 

To summarize this great saint, I will again quote from Benedict XVI as he describes her conflict with the Cathars:

“In a special way Hildegard countered the movement of German cátari (Cathars). They cátari means literally “pure” advocated a radical reform of the Church, especially to combat the abuses of the clergy. She harshly reprimanded them for seeking to subvert the very nature of the Church, reminding them that a true renewal of the ecclesial community is obtained with a sincere spirit of repentance and a demanding process of conversion, rather than with a change of structures. This is a message that we should never forget. Let us always invoke the Holy Spirit, so that he may inspire in the Church holy and courageous women, like St Hildegard of Bingen, who, developing the gifts they have received from God, make their own special and valuable contribution to the spiritual development of our communities and of the Church in our time.”

Image: Gerda Arendt / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

More Women Doctors Of The Church

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