Reading the Church Fathers and Doctors

In Culture and Anarchy, Matthew Arnold famously spoke of the importance of acquainting oneself with “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” In the early 1900s, Harvard President Charles W. Eliot gushed about the classics of Western literature – a group of texts that could, he indicated, fit on a three-foot shelf. A publisher challenged Eliot, and he compiled a fifty-one-volume anthology called “The Harvard Classics.” But the original “three-foot shelf” had become (as the popular name implied): “Dr. Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf.” In the 1920s and 30s, Prof. John Erskine of Columbia University helped spark a conversation among prominent American educators about returning our higher education system to its roots in the so-called “Great Books of Western Civilization.” Erskine and his contemporaries – men such as Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Stringfellow Barr, and Alexander Meiklejohn – founded or inspired a host of Great Books programs. Certainly much of their effort was admirable, and helped counteract the tendency toward pragmatism and increasing specialization in American higher education.

Yet, if you examine “Great Books” list, you’ll notice something missing. Confucius is there, the Buddha too, as are selections from the Koran and the Bhagavad-Gita (and these in lists from 1909!). But look a little closer, and you’ll find that, between the death of Ovid in 18 AD and Thomas Aquinas’ birth in 1225, only the New Testament and St. Augustine make the list. It’s as though almost nothing of intellectual importance emerged in Europe from the end of the Roman Empire until the beginning of the Renaissance, except for the work of two men whose genius is undeniable even to such “enlightened” list-makers: Augustine and Aquinas. What’s missing, in other words, are nearly all the early Church Fathers and Doctors: St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, and St. Gregory the Great, St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory of Nazianzen, and St. Athanasius. You’ll look in vain for any of the other early “doctors of the Church” either (other than Aquinas): no Leo the Great, no John Damascene, no Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventure, Catherine of Siena, or John of the Cross. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

But if our goal is to read “the best that has been thought and said in the world,” we simply mustn’t leave them out. For Catholics, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church are our Great Books. They should be for Catholics what reading the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers should be for American citizens: indispensable guides to our founding principles.

But there’s more. It’s not merely that works such as Athanasius’ On the Incarnation and The Life of Anthony are infinitely more intelligent (and indeed more influential) than anything written by, say, Marcus Aurelius (a dedicated and pious Roman, yes, but his Meditations are pretty thin gruel). The Fathers and Doctors are also truer. They were often better philosophers than their contemporaries, with a better grasp of the fundamental realities: human nature, the nature of society, the world, and God. Nearly the only people still interested in someone like the pagan philosopher Plotinus are those who feel they need to be familiar with his thought in order to better understand Christian writers like Origen, Basil, Gregory, and Augustine. In other words, only Christians still read pagan philosophers such as Plotinus with real interest.

In Joseph Ratzinger’s 1969 book Introduction to Christianity, the future pope asked: “Wherein, then, lies the permanent value, the indispensability, of the Fathers of the Church?” He gave four reasons. First, the canon of Scripture can be traced back to them. It is through their efforts that those books we call the “New Testament” were chosen from among a multitude of other available literary texts. Second, the Church Fathers were responsible for giving birth to the fundamental symbola (the creeds and baptismal oaths) of all Christendom. Third, the Fathers helped to create the fundamental forms of the Christian liturgical service. And finally, by constructing the original marriage between Christian revelation and Greek philosophy, the Fathers set forth a model for later generations of the necessary dialogue between faith and reason.

The Fathers “acknowledged their rational responsibility for the faith,” announces Ratzinger, “and thus created theology as we understand it today.” “This was the precondition for the survival of Christendom in the West,” he says, as it is also the “precondition for the survival of the Christian way of life today and tomorrow.”

In a 1990 instruction, the Congregation for Catholic Education stated that, “theological reflection has always been clearly aware that there is something in the fathers which is unique, irreplaceable, and perennially valid, as relevant as ever.” And as Pope John Paul II has said: “The Church still lives today by the life received from her fathers, and on the foundation erected by her first constructors she is still being built today in the joy and sorrow of her journeying and daily toil.”

Try looking into them. You will find heights of philosophical speculation that many on the standard list of “Greats,” with their relatively limited scope, never reach. And you will plumb depths of understanding of the human condition – both of the infinite good of which man is capable, having been made in the image of God, as well as the depths of evil into which his soul can tragically fall – of which only true pastors of the human soul are fully aware. These are the kind of wise guides for life’s journey so desperately needed today – a generation, as Walker Percy once described as, “lost in the cosmos.”

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.