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The Female Doctors of the Church

catholic doctor of the church woman

As I was writing this post, I told my husband what I was researching: how one becomes a Doctor of the Church, which Saints are considered Doctors of the Church, and so on. To which he responded, “That’s easy. Go to med school. Be Catholic. Be female.” To which I rolled my eyes and opened Google. Because in reality, one of the reasons I wanted to write about the female Doctors of the Church is because I was completely in the dark on this topic! I’ve heard this term a lot, but had no clue what it means or who it refers to.

So if you’re like me, and are curious about what exactly the term “Doctor of the Church” means, and especially which female Saints have been bestowed this title—read on!

What is a Doctor of the Church?

The term “Doctor of the Church” is a special and specific title bestowed on certain Saints who are deemed to have contributed significantly to the life of the Church, through understanding of Sacred Scripture and development of official Church doctrine.

The Church began doling out this title in the 13th century. The term “doctor” stems from the Latin word docere, meaning “to teach.”

Each Doctor of the Church exhibited inspiring personal holiness during their life, had a deep understanding of what it means to truly live the Christian life, and contributed to the theology and philosophy of the Church through their writings and teachings.

There are currently 36 Doctors of the Church. While no one knows exactly how many canonized Saints there are (estimates place the number at over 10,000), the fact that there are only 36 Doctors makes them especially significant and worthy of our study and intercession!

How One Becomes a Doctor of the Church

The process to become a Doctor of the Church is pretty straightforward. First of all, a person must be canonized a Saint, which is an entirely separate process from being deemed a Doctor of the Church.

Once a person is canonized a Saint, any of the faithful can recommend them to be recognized as a Doctor. First, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith determines the veracity and theological soundness of the Saint’s works.

This council is looking for three main qualities:

  1. Holiness that sets them apart, even from other Saints
  2. Depth of doctrinal insight
  3. An extensive body of work which upholds and contributes to Catholic Church teaching

If the above criteria are met, the Saint is recommended to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints that presents possible cases to the Pope. The Holy Father ultimately bestows the title of Doctor of the Church on the Saints deemed worthy of the title.

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Who are the Female Doctors of the Church?

Of the 36 current Doctors of the Church, four are female. These four women are considered some of the most influential women from the entire 2,000 year history of the Church. Known for their holiness, their writing, and the incredible impact they’ve had on the faithful around the world, these women are definitely on the Saints All-Star Team!

St. Teresa of Avila

Born in 1515 in Avila, Spain, Teresa eventually became a Carmelite nun. She worked alongside St. John of the Cross (another Doctor of the Church) to reform the Carmelite order and return it to a life dedicated to contemplative prayer. She received a lot of criticism and persecution from the Church for her reformation efforts, which was hard for her to bear.

She was also a mystic and contributed many spiritual writings that continue to inspire people today, including her most notable, The Interior Castle.

She was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970.

St. Catherine of Siena

Color me shocked to learn that this particular Doctor of the Church was, in fact, a layperson, not a religious sister! Catherine of Siena was born in Siena, Italy in 1343 and dedicated herself to God at a young age. She refused to get married, and lived with her parents in a cell-like room (similar to those occupied by nuns). As a “Third Order Dominican,” St. Catherine was dedicated to prayer but also active in the outside world (unlike nuns, who are cloistered).

St. Catherine is credited with convincing Pope Gregory XI to return the papacy to Rome from Avignon, where he lived.

She was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970.

St. Therese of Lisieux

Born in France in 1873, Therese is described by her mother as being a stubborn and feisty young girl. After a conversion at the age of 13, Therese became determined to enter the Carmelite order, but her bishop would not allow it. Undeterred, Therese petitioned Pope Leo XIII for permission. Her request was granted, and she entered life as a religious sister at age 15. Her life was dedicated to her “little way” of holiness – a way of serving Jesus by doing small acts of love.

Although she lived a life hidden from the world until her death at age 24, her spiritual autobiography Story of Soul became a bestseller after her death. She continues to inspires others to take on and live out her “little way.”

She was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1997.

St. Hildegard of Bingen

St. Hildegard was born in Germany in 1098. Experiencing mystical visions from a young age, she joined a Benedictine order and became a superior.

Described by Saint John Paul II as a “light for her people and her time,” her life and writings were highly influential to the church.

Pope Benedict XVI, who declared her a Doctor of the Church in 2015, outlined his reasons for bestowing the title in this letter.

The Female Doctors of the Church are Our Examples and Intercessors

When it comes to getting to know the Saints, these four women are a great place to start. By their title as Doctors of the Church, they are the highest examples of sainthood and personal holiness. Their writings and teachings continue to inspire the faithful, centuries after their lives and deaths. They are some of the most powerful intercessors we have in Heaven!

May these strong, smart, humble and holy women inspire us to pursue Christ above all, to dedicate ourselves to prayer and penance, to draw closer to our Father through total abandonment to His will.

St. Teresa of Avila, pray for us!

St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us!

St. Therese of Lisieux, pray for us!

St. Hildegard of Bingen, pray for us!

If you’d like more resources about these female Doctors of the Church, here’s a full list!

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Valerie Keinsley is a wife to a police officer and mama to two little ones living in central Indiana, where she and her husband are currently doing a massive renovation of their 116-year-old home. She loves WWII novels, decaf chai lattes, and trying to keep houseplants alive. She is striving to find and name beauty in the midst of the mundane, and loves to share her “good lists” on Instagram. You can find out more about her here.

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Melissa Mark
    June 25, 2019 at 8:12 am

    The women on the Abiding Together podcast did an AMAZING series on these four women last fall. I highly recommend listening to that series and to all of their podcasts.

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