St. John Henry Cardinal Newman once remarked that to know history is to cease to be a Protestant. The English prelate was of course referring to the Fathers and Doctors of the Church who in ancient times wrote of Scriptural, sacramental and sacerdotal issues that profoundly agree with the current teachings of today’s Roman Catholic Church. Within a couple of generations after the death and resurrection of Christ, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote of a church structured with bishops, priests, deacons and laity.
The hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church is no mere organizational tactic. Church offices date back to the era of Christ himself. Very early on, St. Justin Martyr outlined the early Christian community’s Sunday worship service in words that still broadly apply to the Catholic Mass today. He mentions the Sunday gathering, the Scripture readings, the presentation of gifts and the consecration of the Sacred Species. He logs a worthy vindication of the Real Presence and urges an earnest reception of Holy Communion. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in recommending the proper manner of receiving Holy Communion, leaves no doubt that what appears to be bread is truly Christ Himself: “Coming up to receive, therefore, do not approach with your wrists extended or your fingers splayed, but making your left hand a throne for the right (for it is about to receive a King) and cupping your palm, so receive the Body of Christ; and answer: Amen.”
The Catholic Church honors both Fathers of the Church and Doctors of the Church. Over 70 ancient church teachers are traditionally listed as Fathers of the Church. In the Roman Catholic Church four outstanding Fathers of the Church attained the honor of also being designated as Doctors on the Church in the early Middle Ages: St. Ambrose (A.D. 340–397), St. Jerome (347–420), St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) and St. Pope Gregory I (540–604). A decree of Boniface VIII (1298) ordered their memorials at Mass to be kept as feasts throughout the Latin Church. In the Byzantine Church, four Fathers were also honored as Doctors: St. Athanasius of Alexandria (298 – 373), St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329 – c. 390), St. Basil of Caesarea (c. 330 – 379) and St. John Chrysostom (347–407). These four Eastern doctors were ranked alongside the Western doctors and accorded appropriate feasts in 1568 by Pope Pius V.
While fathers of the Church are all ancient, doctors of the Church span all the centuries of church life and date from Saints Augustine and Jerome in the first millennium to St. Therese of Lisieux in the 19th century.
There are 37 official doctors of the Church, including four women: St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Hildegard of Bingen and St. Therese. The most recently named doctor, nominated by Pope Francis in 2022, is St. Irenaeus of Lyon, who, while an Eastern Christian himself, served in the Western Church in southern France.
The thinking and writings of the fathers of the Church were greatly formed by the challenge of the several heresies that they faced in their era. Arianism was the misguided belief that there was only one Person in God, namely, the Father. Jesus was not thought to be divine but simply a superlative creature – a superman, if you will. St. Athanasius of Alexandria fought this error with much zeal but little thanks.
Gnosticism was a teaching based on notions of a secret supernatural knowledge discerned by internal, intuitive means. Gnosticism relied on personal religious experience as its primary authority rather than the Scriptures and the official teachings of the Church. St. Irenaeus of Lyon studied 20 of the most influential Gnostic writers and then defined and criticized their beliefs. The Donatists were quite rigid believers who taught, among other things, that the efficacy of the sacraments depended on the sanctity of the priest. The writings of St. Cyril of Carthage contradicted this tendency toward severity and happily encouraged a much more empathetic Christianity.
Pelagianism was (and is) a Christian theological position that holds that original sin did not taint human nature and that humans by divine grace have free will to achieve their own perfection. St. Augustine, on the other hand, gave credit for all virtue and good works to God alone. To believe otherwise is shear arrogance and the foundation of sin he taught.
Over the remaining six weeks of Lent special attention will be given to some particular Fathers of the Church and their instructions and also to one Mother of the Church, St. Macrina, sister and spiritual guide to Ss. Basil, Gregory and Peter, her celebrated brothers.
The Roman Catholic Church experienced today is the result certainly of Christ’s teaching as found in Scripture but also as the fruit of apostolic tradition that was known, understood and practiced by the early Church community. Authentic Christianity was certainly founded by Christ but it has also been supported by earnest thinkers from ancient times.
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