In case you missed it, early last month, Pope Benedict XVI named two new doctors of the Church.
Both of them—John of Avila and St. Hildegard of Bingen—were already saints. And while there are hundreds, if not a thousand or more saints, as doctors, they join a far smaller club of just 33 individuals that includes St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Therese of Lisieux. (Counting the two new doctors there are now 35 of them.)
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, someone is declared a Church doctor “on account of the great advantage the whole Church has derived from their doctrine.” Their teachings, it is safe to say, can be taken as an authoritative expression of Church doctrine, something that is not necessarily the case with every single saint.
Below is an overview of the two new doctors and their significance:
St. John of Avila: A priest, preacher, and theologian, St. John of Avila is a 16th century Spanish mystic who is known for his theological writings on the priesthood and his influence on the reforms at the Council of Trent. Though unknown to most Catholics today, John of Avila was highly regarded in his own time and won accolades from some of his contemporary saints. St. Francis de Sales called him “the learned and saintly preacher” and that other saint of Avila, St. Teresa, recognized him as the “Master of things spiritual.”
His most famous work is Audi Fili, commonly described as a “tract on Christian perfection.” The description on Amazon elaborates: “His spiritual masterpiece… is a guide to the spiritual life in which hearing the word of God in the Scriptures and contemplating the face of Christ, especially in his passion, leads to personal transformation in the communion of the Father and the Son.” The Sophia Institute Press also has come out with a new collection of his letters on a number of spiritual topics including the following, according to the official book description on the publisher’s site: the habits of an authentic Christian life, suffering, the nature of true beauty, the graces of the liturgical year, preparation for Mass, and other insights for daily Christian life.
St. Hildegard of Bingen: A Benedictine nun in Germany who preceded John of Avila by about four centuries, St. Hildegard of Bingen was by all accounts a Renaissance man before the term was invented (after the Renaissance, of course—and, yes, technically it’s Renaissance man). St. Hildegard was not only a mystic, abbess, and hymnist, she also was a poet, playwright, and author of a number of texts on botany and medicine. Her chief theological significance seems to consist in a series of visions which started in her childhood and lasted until her death.
An account of her visions, along with interpretations and other reflections, can be found in her major work, Scivias, which reportedly took a decade to produce and is listed by the Paulist Press as a classic of Western spirituality. Here’s more from the official book description on Amazon:
Scivias, her major religious work, consists of twenty-six visions, which are first set down literally as she saw them, and are then explained exegetically. A few of the topics covered in the visions are the charity of Christ, the nature of the universe, the kingdom of God, the fall of man, sanctification, and the end of the world. Special emphasis is given to the sacraments of marriage and the Eucharist, in response to the Cathar heresy. As a group the visions form a theological summa of Christian doctrine. At the end of the Scivias are hymns of praise and a short play, probably an early draft of Ordo virtutum, the first known morality play. Hildegard is remarkable for being able to unite “vision with doctrine, religion with science, charismatic jubilation with prophetic indignation, and longing for social order with quest for social justice.” This volume elucidates the life of medieval women, and is a striking example of a special form of Christian spirituality.