On August 28, we celebrated the feast of St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in Northern Africa and Doctor (Latin for “teacher”) of the Church. Augustine is a fascinating figure, whom we encounter most famously in his Confessions, which is the first autobiography ever written in the history of the world. A true Roman elite of immense rhetorical and intellectual capability, Augustine underwent a deeply honest and at times painful search for the Truth, finding Truth Himself finally, with the help of his mother St. Monica’s prayers, in the heart of the Church of Jesus Christ.
It is common in the writings of popes and theologians to modify with an appropriate adjective or genitive the canonical title of “Doctor of the Church.” This modifier usually describes the aspect of the Catholic faith on which the Doctor in question has shed the Light of Christ. The most famous instance of this is St. Thomas Aquinas, who is called the “Angelic Doctor” for his doctrine on the angels and the “Common Doctor” for his authority and expertise in every aspect of Catholic theology.
One might also point out other examples: St. Bonaventure is the “Seraphic Doctor” for the angelic heights of his wisdom; St. Albert the Great, who was a great scientist in addition to being a great theologian, is the “Universal Doctor” for the broad scope of his objects of study; St. Alphonsus Liguori is the “Doctor of Moral Theology” for his expertise in helping priests exercise the ministry of the Sacrament of Penance; and St. Francis de Sales is the “Doctor of the Catholic Press” for his ingenuity in publishing tracts in defense of the faith.
St. Augustine is called the “Doctor of Grace” because of his profound teaching on the absolute primacy of grace in the work of salvation, especially against the heresy of Pelagianism, which was so rampant in his time. The false doctrine of Pelagius was that we could save ourselves without receiving help from God over and above our natural powers. Pelagianism gave birth to a daughter heresy, semi-Pelagianism, which held that only the first act of receiving grace was not assisted by divine grace. Augustine labored mightily against these heresies with writings that contain a beauty and poignancy echoing to our own times. He is rightly called the Doctor of Grace.
However, it would be a mistake to reckon Augustine as merely one among the many Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Rather, he stands out on his own as a reference point for the doctrine and theology especially of the Latin-speaking Church, in such a way that he is as close to being a “common doctor” as we have among the Fathers of the Church. While only St. Thomas Aquinas truly merits the title of Common Doctor, St. Thomas would be the first to tout the irreplaceable importance of St. Augustine in the theology of the Church.
Whether we speak of the doctrine of grace or Trinitarian theology or the nature of Original Sin or the canon of Sacred Scripture or the basic structure of our moral life or the blessings of Christian marriage or so many other truths of Catholic doctrine, we are speaking of Apostolic teachings that have been given their conceptual shape and vocabulary largely by Augustine himself. Western theology owes such a debt of gratitude to Augustine that he can rightly be called the “Father of Western Theology.”
St. Thomas builds the edifice of his own genius on Augustine’s firm foundation, perfecting and elevating the concepts and language he has inherited from the Father of Western Theology. Therefore, while we do stop short of calling Augustine “common” to all areas of the life of faith, the Common Doctor himself bears witness with us of the truly universal scope of Augustine’s influence and genius.
Fr. Joseph Previtali, Assistant Chaplain