Q. Why is St. Thomas Aquinas called “the Angelic Doctor”?
A. In the traditional designation “Doctor of the Church,” the term “doctor” refers, not to a physician (which is an historically recent meaning of that term), but to a teacher (the older meaning, derived from the Latin, as reflected in the title Ph.D., “Doctor of Philosophy”). Many of the outstanding Catholic teachers throughout Church history who have been named as “Doctors” (thirty-five of them) carry a special designation with reference to the content of their teaching or to their personal virtue.
St. Augustine, for example, is known as the “Doctor of Grace” because he was instrumental in developing the Church’s theology of grace. St. Albert, who wrote on nearly every subject—even the natural sciences—is known as the “Universal Doctor.” St. Bernard of Clairvaux is called the “Mellifluous Doctor” because of his eloquence, and St. Anthony of Padua is the “Evangelical Doctor” because of his burning desire to win souls for God. St. John of the Cross is called the “Mystical Doctor” because his work teaches about how to attain mystical union with God.
St. Thomas Aquinas (feast day, January 28th), is known as the “Angelic Doctor” (Latin, Doctor Angelicus), the “Angelic Thomas,” and the “Angel of the Schools.” According to Pope Benedict XVI, he was “called the Doctor Angelicus, perhaps because of his virtues, in particular the loftiness of his thought and purity of life.” In this light, Thomas and his teaching can be considered “angelic” in several regards.
First, as our guardian angels guide us to God, so Thomas’s theology leads us to God.
Second, Thomas’s wisdom is like that of the angels, seeing the whole of God’s truth as one in a single, unified vision.
Third, piety and purity are characteristic especially of angels, and Thomas was known for his personal piety and purity of heart.
Fourth, Thomas wrote more about the angels than any other Doctor.
Finally, we should note that St. Thomas is also called the “Common Doctor,” because his remarkable breadth and depth of learning made him the Doctor, not only of one specific field of theology, but of every field of theology.