Four Women Doctors of the Church

by Mary T. Malone
Orbis Books, 2015

Reviewed by Ruth Hoppin

Four Women Doctors Of the Church book coverA Doctor of the Church is a saint renowned for his or her theological doctrine, doctrine that is part of the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, or magisterium. In 1970 Catherine of Siena, representing all laywomen, and Teresa of Ávila, representing all religious women, were the first women so honored. They were followed by Thérèse of Lisieux in 1997 and Hildegard of Bingen in 2012. The lives of these women span seven centuries: twelfth-century Hildegard, followed by Catherine of Siena (fourteenth century), Teresa of Ávila (sixteenth century), and Thérèse of Lisieux in the nineteenth century.

Hildegard was an unusual child with a heightened sense of spirituality. In her own words, she was aware of being in the “shadow of the Living Light,” but she was plagued by visions, voices, and poor health. At age 42, she felt called to write her vision for the reformation of the church. Her best-known work is the first part of her trilogy: Scivias (for Scito Vias Domini, or Know the Ways of the Lord.)

Voluminous correspondence with popes, emperors, and ordinary people characterized her life. Musically gifted, she wrote hymns and a musical drama. A strong supporter of the Gregorian Reform, she urged the return of influence from lay rulers to the clergy.

However, we need to understand the twelfth-century context of her thinking. For example, she accepted only wealthy women into her community, ostensibly to maintain harmony, and she believed that class differences were God’s will.

We remember Hildegard, the Benedictine nun, as the first woman to write reflectively about women’s place in God’s plan. She named God as Lady Wisdom, a female element of God. In fact, Sapientia, or Lady Wisdom, a female divine figure from Proverbs, was central to her theology. In this respect, she was way ahead of her time.

Catherine of Siena had a pivotal experience at the age of six. A vision of Jesus transformed her from a carefree child to one who was prayerful and reclusive. When she was 18, she joined the Mantellate, a group of women affiliated with the Dominican tradition. Her spirituality became outgoing, dedicated to serving those in need, a marked transition reminiscent of Hildegard’s spiritual odyssey. A primary goal was the restoration of the devout priesthood in a time when standards were low due to the loss of so many people to the Black Death. She was instrumental in restoring the papacy to Rome in 1377.

Her book, The Dialogue, written at age 31, explicates God’s plan of salvation through Jesus. On October 3, 1970, she was declared a Doctor of the Church, representing all laywomen, the same day as Teresa of Ávila, representing all religious women. Catherine of Siena was a mystic who taught that mysticism is for everyone. She taught that love of God and love of neighbor must be integrated into the spiritual life of each believer.

Like Hildegard and Catherine, Teresa of Ávila’s early years were marked by physical and spiritual turmoil. She was born in 1515; she was 12 years old her mother died. This event precipitated unexplained illnesses that were likely psychosomatic. Against her father’s wishes, she entered a Carmelite convent at age 22. Influenced by a book, The Third Spiritual Alphabet, she learned the art of passive—that is, non-vocal, prayer—or mysticism. Mysticism was considered suspect, as the church taught clerical mediation as the avenue to access God. It was female, not male, mystics who declared the path was open to all. Her crowning literary achievement, The Interior Castle, draws on striking imagery to convey this message.

All three women broke with female stereotypes, such as women being obedient and refraining from teaching. All were engaged in wide-ranging correspondence that extended their influence.

Thérèse of Lisieux is known as “The Little Flower,” a name she gave herself. Like her predecessor Teresa of Ávila, she mourned the death of her mother. Thérèse was only four years old when her mother died, and following this event she was long plagued by illness and grief. In 1883, at age ten, she found healing from a vision of a statue of Mary that momentarily animated and smiled at her.

After beseeching admission to Carmel she finally entered the order in 1888, only nine years before her death at age 24. A flu epidemic in December 1891 was a spiritual turning point. She discovered satisfaction in taking care of people and saw them as individuals, not merely aids to her own sanctity. She found God was to be encountered in everyday tasks and relationships.

In writing the story of her childhood, she describes the illness and despair she underwent. Thérèse found inspiration in the writings of St. John of the Cross, whom she quotes, as well as in scripture. Her writings were an instant success.

These four women taught by precept and example not only that mysticism, or direct communion with God, was for all believers. They also taught by example that Christian mysticism is anchored in the Church with its creeds and rituals.

Concise and attractively designed, this book skillfully presents an overlooked facet of church history.


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Ruth Hoppin
Ruth Hoppin is the author of Priscilla’s Letter: Finding the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews and Spinning the Arrow of Time. She is a contributor to the IVP Women’s Bible Commentary and A Feminist Companion to the Catholic Epistles and Hebrews (T&T Clark Intl). You can read more about Ruth’s work here. Ruth is a member of Contemplative Outreach of Northern California. (Photo © John Swanda 2008)


  1. Thank you, Ruth, for reviewing this important book. We all need to know these women, our forerunners. I want to remember them and make sure I can name the four women officially designated as “Doctors” (learned ones) by the Roman Catholic Church. (C & TA 1970, TL 1997, H 2012).

    It’s great to see your work–I remember you from Bay Area EWC and my days in Daly City. Best wishes to you! (You may remember me as Anne Eggebroten then.)


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