I was edified to see that Bishop Kevin Rhodes of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, called for a recognition of the great Father of the Church, Saint Irenaeus (A.D. 130-202), as a “Doctor of the Church” at the November meeting of United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Bishop Rhodes described this declaration as “perhaps a way to correct an oversight of history.” The U.S. Bishops all supported this idea, which was begun by Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, France.
This plea from the U.S. Bishops Conference will then be communicated to the Vatican and, according to Bishop Rhodes, will have to follow this procedure:
If there is a desire to have the saint named a doctor of the church, the promoter of the cause must do further research and study and reach out to solicit broader consensus across nations that this would be a worthy pursuit. … The congregation has said that the support of entire episcopal conferences is very helpful in discerning these types of petitions.
What I find most interesting is that one of the main reasons that the bishops of the U.S. (along with other episcopal conferences around the world) are promoting this concept is that St. Irenaeus spent much of his ministry in preaching against a particular heresy, one known as Gnosticism. The bishops recognize that Gnosticism, one of the earliest heresies, is alive and well in the world.
In order to understand this, I think it is necessary for us to ask five questions: first, what is a heresy and who is a heretic? Second, what was this particular heresy of Gnosticism? Third, who was St. Irenaeus and what did he do to combat this heresy? Fourth, how is this heresy alive and well in the United States today? And fifth, how can we combat this Gnosticism in our lives and in our world? I hope to explore these themes over my next few articles.
First, what is a heresy and who is a heretic? Teaching first-year seminarians an Introduction to Theological Method seminar (one semester on fundamental theology and the other on dogmatic theology) is great fun for me as a professor. These are very bright, very faithful and very faith-filled young men who have just completed their studies in philosophy and are at the very beginning of their studies in theology. I assign a great deal of reading to them — selections from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the decrees of the councils and the popes, readings from the Tradition, and even selections from contemporary theologians like Tracey Rowland, Avery Cardinal Dulles and Bishop Robert Barron. It is fascinating to see how the seminarians make the transition from the study of philosophy to the study of theology. In my class, I always emphasize that theology is a sacred science, but it’s also about so much more than just the academic realm — it’s all about learning more and more about someone whom you have fallen in love with, Jesus Christ, and his Mystical Body the Church.
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