Women Doctors of the Church

Lately, women have begun to make strides in many areas of secular culture. With films ranging from Wonder Woman to Hidden Figures, women and men in our society have more opportunities to see women as exceptional heroes and polymaths. Jane Austen now graces bank notes across the pond. Last year, the U.S. Treasury announced that American currency would circulate with the likeness of Harriet Tubman. The 13th Time Lord on the BBC’s Doctor Who is a woman.

A similar phenomenon has been happening in Catholic circles. In his 1995 letter to women at the Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing, Pope John Paul II reminded us that extraordinary women have appeared throughout history:

In this vast domain of service, the church’s 2,000-year history, for all its historical conditioning, has truly experienced the “genius of woman”; from the heart of the church there have emerged women of the highest caliber who have left an impressive and beneficial mark in history. I think of the great line of woman martyrs, saints and famous mystics. In a particular way I think of St. Catherine of Siena and of St. Teresa of Avila, whom Pope Paul VI of happy memory granted the title of doctors of the church.

By naming Pope Paul VI as the pontiff who included women among the doctors of the church, Pope John Paul II underscored the inspired nature of this teaching of the Church. Moreover, Pope John Paul II’s reference to “historical conditioning” suggests that the male domination of the past two millennia is a matter of history and not faith. The pope insisted that women feature among the greatest example of the Catholic faith: martyrs, saints, and mystics.

The persistence of recent popes in citing women as doctors has been significant for doctrine and liturgy. Prior to 1970, there were no women among church doctors, though women were recognized in many intellectual pursuits related to Christian theology. Women catechists such as Mary Anne Sadlier were recognized by popes and Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal for myriad decades. Catholic women entered biblical scholarship alongside Catholic men. However, there were no women among the tradition of doctors of the church that traced back to the Venerable Bede. When made official by Pope Boniface VIII at the end of the thirteenth century, the list still included no women.

In autumn of 1970, Pope Paul VI added Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila to the formerly all-male list of doctors of the church. In 1997, Pope John Paul II named Thérèse of Lisieux as a doctor of the church. He said Thérèse served as a “reference point” for the future of the church as much as she represented received tradition. For Pope John Paul II, Thérèse indicated that ongoing nature of revelation in the Catholic Church. She “sheds new light on the mysteries of the faith.”

With an apostolic letter, Pope Benedict XVI declared Hildegard von Bingen a doctor of the church. Quoting Pope John Paul II, Benedict called Hildegard a “light for her people and her time.” Hildegard’s example is not limited to her own time. It also gives contemporary Christians an example.

Women doctors changed their own moments in history. They have a continuing impact in the development of the Christian faith. They are not only role models for women. Women doctors show everyone how to live a virtuous life in the face of opposing currents. Although it took several years for women to feature on the list of church doctors, recent popes have made clear that their place there is valued.