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Fathers and Doctors of the Church

Q. Are the Fathers of the Church and the Doctors of the Church the same people?

A. The two categories overlap, but they are not the same.

Those designated as Fathers of the Church are significant teachers from the early centuries of the Church. Their writings on Christian doctrine and morals are considered to have great weight and to be worthy of great respect (though the teaching of any particular Father is obviously not infallible). These men were also characterized by notable holiness.

Why call them “fathers”? In the New Testament, the term “father” is sometimes used to refer to someone who teaches the faith by word and by example (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 4:15–16). The first teachers of the Catholic faith were collectively spoken of as “the Fathers” (see 2 Peter 3:4). Those now designated as the Church Fathers played a critical role in nourishing the infant Church, through their teaching and personal holiness.

Most of those on the list are universally recognized as belonging there: St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, to name just a few. But scholars still debate about whether a few particular names should be included on the list.

Why the debate? In part, because scholars disagree about how late in Church history the designation should be allowed: Seventh century? Twelfth? Later? They also argue over whether we should include influential ancient teachers, such as Origen, who taught much that is praiseworthy but also taught some ideas that the Church has rejected; as well as those who ultimately ended up in schism, such as Tertullian.

As for the Doctors of the Church, the term comes from the Latin word doctor, which literally means “teacher.” It’s related to our English word doctrine, literally, “teaching.” This is why college professors often have Ph.D.s — an abbreviation for “Doctor” of Philosophy.” Unlike the case with Fathers of the Church, the Church maintains an official list of those she recognizes as Doctors of the Church. These men and women are noted for the greatness of their spiritual or theological learning and their holiness of life.

There are currently 35 saints (including five women) who are formally recognized in this way. All the Doctors of the Church are recognized as saints as well, and they come from all periods of Church history, including modern times. Not surprisingly, some of the great teachers of the Faith from the early centuries are both Doctors and Fathers of the Church, such as St. Jerome, St. Basil the Great, St. Ambrose, and others.

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