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Interview of Bishop Guy Gaucher

St Thérèse of Lisieux is the third woman, after St Catherine of Sienna and St Thérèse of Avila, to be proclaimed Doctor of the Church. Monseigneur Guy Gaucher, Auxiliary Bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux, explains the importance of this proclamation.

First of all, could you specify for us what is a Doctor of the Church ?

Monseigneur Guy Gaucher : You need to fill three conditions to become a Doctor of the Church.

  • Firstly : to be a canonised saint.
  • The second one, the most important and the most precise one : to have brought to the Church a doctrine which is said to be eminent, that is to say that it is worthy and is useful to the universal Church. It does not mean something completely new, because the fact is that there is nothing new to bring the word of God. But the Church is in History. It is about bringing something to a moment in the Church, that is recognised as a very important theological and spiritual contribution.

This doctrine is then proposed in a file (a « positio ») which is there to justify the application for a Doctorate.

This « positio » is examined by four instances : the theologians from the Congregation of Faith, the theologians from the Congregation of Saints, and the cardinals from both Congregations. Once these four « examinations » are carried out, the affair is brought to the Holy Father.

  • And the third thing it the declaration of the Doctorate by the Holy Father in the name of the Church.

How did the question of the Doctorate come about for Thérèse ?

Mgr G. : The story of the Doctorate for Thérèse is an old one. We could say, to a certain extent, that it goes back to the time of Thérèse herself, as she had wished to be a doctor. « I feel the vocation of the warrior, the priest, the apostle, the doctor, the martyr… Ah ! In spite of my littleness, I would like to enlighten souls as did the prophets and the Doctors. » (B2°v-3r°)

In the Church the question came up practically just after her canonisation. Right from 1926-27, came about from nearly everywhere in the world, and from further than France, laypeople, priests, abbots, bishops, who said that they wanted Saint Thérèse to be proclaimed Doctor of the Church.

In 1932, during a Congress that was held in Lisieux for the inauguration of the Crypt, Father Desbuquois, a famous Jesuit, wished, during a conference that Thérèse would be Doctor of the Church, and he justified this wish. The following day, his request was echoed in the paper La Croix.

A file was sent to Pope Pius XI. This Pope loved Thérèse and he had beatified her, canonised Thérèse, and declared her « Patroness of the Missions ». But for the Doctorate he said « no » because she was a woman. He had already refused the Doctorate for Thérèse of Avila for the same reason. Maybe it was to premature ?

In 1970, an event of vital importance took place : Paul VI declared two women Doctors, Thérèse of Avila and Catherine of Sienna. The door was opened.

Cardinal Garonne, Archbishop of Toulouse and member of the Curia gave a conference on Thérèse for the centenary of her birth, where he stated that he could very well see Thérèse Doctor. Then in 1981, Cardinal Etchegaray, president of the Episcopal Conference of France, asked Rome that Thérèse be declared doctor in the name of the French Bishops. The Carmelites were given responsibility for this question to the postulator of the causes of the saints.

You yourself, did you have a particular role to play ?

Mgr G : In 1989, having worked for a long time on the team editing the works of Thérèse and finding myself auxiliary bishop to Mgr. Pican in Lisieux, he gave me a letter holding a mission in which he asked me to take over the file for the doctorate, in liaison with the Carmelites.

Their General Chapter, in 1991, voted to request the Doctorate from the Holy Father.

The question then was put to the Bishops of France, in Lourdes in 1991 : they voted for the doctorate.

Then another fifty Episcopal Conferences voted.

There were also laity, priests, nuns, who did could vote but addressed the « petitions » to Rome.

Rapidly, in early 1997, we presented a « positio » to the Congregation for the cause of saints. Everything was positive and was sent to the Holy Father.

It should be noted that this was not only a ’franco-french’ affair, nor just a Carmelite one either. It was an affair for the universal Church.

So it was on 19th October 1997, Sunday for the Missions, at Saint Peter’s Square in Rome that John Paul II proclaimed Thérèse of Lisieux Doctor of the Church.

In your opinion, was it particularly meaningful that Thérèse, who is a woman, should become Doctor of the Church ?

Mgr G : The message from Thérèse, the spirituality of Thérèse are particularly well adapted to our era.

It is particularly important in the debate on the place of women in the Church. It is indeed a debate on the doctorate. Certain people say that they love her and her saintliness but not having written any theological treaties, she could not be a doctor.

With this point of view, for nineteen centuries there couldn’t be women Doctors. Indeed, education and studies were reserved only for men. Already, in 1973, Father Urs von Balthasar, one of the great theologians of the XX century asked, in Notre-Dame in Paris, for the centenary of Thérèse, that the masculine corporation of theologians incorporate the works of some great mystical women of the Church. He quoted Hildegarde, Catherine of Sienna, Thérèse of Avila, etc.

When will one integrate Thérèse in the Theology, which has remained a speculative and masculine theology ? Now women study, but up to this point, they were not able to. For example, Catherine of Sienna, in the XIV century, who died at the age of thirty-three, was illiterate. We have an illiterate Doctor of the Church. She was suspected, she was mystical. She was supported by Raymond de Capoue, Dominican, who was her spiritual father and General of the Order. He saw that this woman had something to say, and that Theology is not just something speculative but it is also symbolical, intuitive and narrative.

Saint Thomas of Aquine shows us that there are two ways to talk of God : the speculative way, which he used, but also the metaphorical, symbolical way. For different reasons women more often use that way. Thérèse of Avila, two centuries later, said that she knew nothing. She was even threatened by the Inquisition. She was saved by the Dominicans, the Jesuits, who showed that she was not crazy and that she had a deep experience of Christ. There were very anti-feminine prejudiced ideas. Women were considered as « ignorant » and did not have the right to speak. Joan of Arc was subjected to the consequences…

But there is another way, than the speculative one, to speak of Christ, and to bring an understanding of God, as Bathasar would say, light and intuition that often men did not have. He particularly insisted on the fact that in the discovery of the Mercy of God, which is at the heart of the mystery of God, women went much further than men.

It is true that the saints are theologians because they experienced Christ, and as Julien Green used to say « they took that road ». Even if they believed they were stammering, because God is God, and they don’t know how to talk about him. Having said this, of course we need speculative theologians.

That means that Thérèse is considered as a theologian ?

Mgr G. : Cardinal Poupard, at the 1990 synod on the preparation of priests, declared that in the course of theological studies for seminarians it is impossible not to one way or another, encounter Thérèse of Lisieux, whether it be studying Christology, ecclesiastic studies, … , studies on Mary, or in spirituality.

I have personally given may lessons from Thérèse in the seminaries and I know they mean a lot to the young priests.

Thérèse had an understanding of the Trinity, of the Incarnation, the connection between the Father and the Son. She found the Church to be a place to of communion and of love where the Holy-Spirit came first. She opened a way to saintliness for all, even if they were poor, if they had confidence in God. Because Hope is a fundamental virtue in our world. She lived and experienced a dedication to Mary prior to that of Vatican II.

At the Council of Vatican II, Thérèse was never mentioned, no more than Thérèse of Avila. Modern saints were not mentioned, but rather the Fathers of the Church. That is how a Council works. But Thérèse was there. Articles were written that show the main axes of Thérèse’s theology were there in Vatican II.

But in the « Catechism of the Catholic Church » (1992) she is quoted six times and always at strategic points. We find there Thérèse of Avila, Catherine of Sienna and others, but she is the most quoted of all the women. It is a strong sign and one that is full of hope.

To be convinced one must read John Paul II’s apostolic letter : The Science of the Divine Love.

  • Angelus. Sunday, 24 August, 1997, Hippodrome of Longchamp, Mass for the close of the JMJ.
  • Apostolic Letter of John Paul II, for the Proclamation of the St Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face « Doctor of the Universal Church »