This essay originally appeared in The Catholic Answer magazine, published by Our Sunday Visitor. OSV also publishes four of my books on the Fathers (see the covers at left). Some material in this post is adapted from the newly expanded edition of my book The Fathers of the Church.
My dad was a quiet man. On the rare occasions he spoke about his past, I would scribble notes. My siblings noticed; and, about a week after Dad died, one by one they asked whether I might share my notes with them.
The words of our natural fathers are precious to us. Our fathers are key to a mystery we spend a lifetime trying to solve: ourselves. Their past is our own, given to us in so many silent ways as they guide our childhood steps. The paths we walk are paths to which they led us. Their words and deeds are critical details in the story of our own lives.
If all that is true of our natural fathers, how much more true of our fathers in Christian faith — the Fathers of the Church?
Who Are the Fathers?
The Fathers of the Church are a select group of early Christian teachers, usually numbered around a hundred. The Church has long revered them and given them a privileged place of doctrinal authority. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists the Fathers among its “principal sources,” immediately after the Bible and just before the liturgy (n. 11).
The age of the Fathers, sometimes called the Patristic Era, stretched from the middle of the first century until the middle of the eighth, at the death of St. John of Damascus. Some of the earliest Fathers lived during the lifetime of the Apostles, and the teaching of these men — called the Apostolic Fathers — has always received special veneration. The Apostolic Fathers are sometimes called the “first echo” of the Apostles.
But, even beyond the first echo, the Church considers the Patristic Era in general to be a time of extraordinary grace for the expression and development of Christian dogma.
The Catechism (n. 688) presents the Fathers as “always timely witnesses” to the Sacred Tradition that comes from Jesus Himself — the Gospel entrusted to the Church and handed on even before the gospels were written (see 2 Thess 2:14, 1 Tim 6:20 and 2 Tim 1:13). It is important for us to get this teaching right. The Fathers are witnesses to the Tradition, which predates them. They themselves are not the Tradition.
The Fathers provide us a crucial link. They bear witness to the authenticity of our liturgy, our priesthood, our canon of sacred Scriptures. They show us our Church’s unbroken continuity with the Church of the Apostles. We share the same Tradition, though we’ve grown and developed in our understanding and expression of that Tradition.
What Makes a Father?
The Church has always honored the doctrine of the Fathers. This was true even of the Fathers themselves. Like the rabbis of early Judaism, the early Christian teachers took care to demonstrate that their teaching was not their own, but rather stretched back to the beginning. We see this already in the generation after the Apostles. St. Clement of Rome (probably writing before 70 A.D.) shows that his pedigree comes from two Apostles, Peter and Paul. Papias of Hieropolis, writing a few decades later, also connects the dots from his own generation to Jesus’.
In the second century, we meet St. Irenaeus of Lyons (modern France), who learned the faith from Polycarp of Smyrna, who in turn learned from St. John the Apostle. St. Irenaeus shows how this succession has been institutionalized in the line of bishops in every Church. His list of the Popes is the earliest witness we have to the immediate successors of St. Peter.
As the generations passed, more teachers justified their doctrine by showing a catena (Latin for “chain”) of unbroken teaching stretching, from Father to Father, back to the Apostles. By the fifth century, this practice had become almost a requirement for theologians and teachers.
But, as disputes and heresies multiplied, it became necessary to designate which ancient teachings were authoritative and which were not. Thus, in the fifth century, we find, in a decree attributed to Pope Gelasius I, history’s first list of Church Fathers designated as such. In the same century, St. Vincent of Lerins sketched out the ground rules for the field known today as “patristics” or “patrology,” the study of the Church Fathers.
St. Vincent, who would himself eventually win recognition as a Father, ventured a definition. The Fathers, he wrote, are “those alone who, though in diverse times and places, yet persevering in the communion and faith of the one Catholic Church, have been approved teachers.”
He spelled out four criteria, which would stand ever after as the measure:
1. sound doctrine;
2. holy life;
3. Church approval; and
Those ancient Christians who don’t meet all these criteria are often described as “ecclesiastical writers” rather than Church Fathers.
Still, there is no official list of the Fathers, no process of canonization similar to a cause for sainthood. The ancient list attributed to Pope Gelasius is of uncertain origin; and, in any event, it was drawn up while the age of the Fathers was still in progress.
Theologians throughout history have ventured their own lists, varying in length and differing significantly from one another. For many centuries, Tertullian, a third-century African layman, was kept off many lists because he ventured into schism in his old age. Yet the Catechism of the Catholic Church cites him often and even names him among “the Fathers of the Church” (see n. 1446). Another controversial teacher, Origen of Alexandria (third century), taught some doctrines that were later (after his death) condemned by the Church. His defenders quote his oft-expressed wish never to teach anything contrary to the Catholic faith. Nevertheless, he has been kept off the lists through most of history. Yet, in the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, he has often been cited as an authority in official Church documents.
It’s important for us to keep in mind that the works of the Fathers, unlike the books of the Bible, are neither inspired nor inerrant; and, unlike the popes, the Fathers do not teach infallibly. In fact, they often disagree with one another, and some of them didn’t get along very well. St. Jerome argued against St. John Chrysostom; St. Jerome argued with St. Augustine; St. Jerome argued with almost everyone.
When, however, there is a “consensus of the Fathers” on a particular doctrine or interpretation of Scripture, then the position of the Fathers must be held as true.
Are Origen and Tertullian “Church Fathers” or “ecclesiastical writers”? Patristic scholars will likely be duking that one out for centuries to come.
How the Fathers Fathered
The history of the early Church is more than just a succession of creeds, councils, persecutions, and heresies. It is the story of a family, and of how the Fathers of that family strove to keep their household together, to preserve the family’s patrimony, to teach and discipline their children, and to protect the family from danger. Only when we understand them as fathers can we truly understand the Church Fathers.
In the New Testament, the Apostles clearly see themselves as fathers to the newborn Church. St. Paul reminded the Christians of Corinth that he was their “father in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor 4:15), and he addressed both Timothy and Titus as his true children (1 Tim 1:2; Ti 1:4). St. John also greeted his flock as “my little children” (1 Jn 2:1). St. Peter explicitly referred to Christians of his own generation as “the fathers” (2 Pt 3:4).
The custom of calling bishops “Father” continued with the passing of the Apostles’ generation. The word “pope” comes from Latin and Greek words meaning “father,” and in the early centuries was applied to diocesan bishops as well as the bishop of Rome. Eventually, common usage extended the application of the title “Father” to priests and monks, too, as is today the custom in English-speaking countries.
Any list of the Fathers of the Church, however, includes lay people as well — the philosopher Justin Martyr, for example, and his contemporary Hermas, who was a farmer. In what sense were they Fathers?
Quite simply, their teaching shows a real paternal care for the Church, a care they shared with their bishops. Nowhere is this expressed more vividly than when Tertullian vigorously confronts heretics as poachers on his family’s estate, trespassers who threatened his patrimony: “Who are you . . . Marcion, by what right do you chop my wood? By whose permission, Valentinus, are you diverting my streams? By what power, Apelles, are you removing my landmarks? This is my property. . . . I hold sure title-deeds from the original owners themselves, to whom the estate belonged. I am the heir of the Apostles.”
What About the Mothers?
Were there “Mothers of the Church”? Well, yes and no.
We possess very few writings by women from the ancient world. Christian women are probably slightly better represented than their pagan counterparts. The many collections of “Sayings of the Desert Fathers” actually include proverbs by women ascetics, who are called “Amma,” or “Mother.”
St. John Chrysostom (fifth century) carried on extensive correspondence with an abbess named Olympias, but her letters have not survived. His contemporary St. Jerome corresponded with many holy and scholarly women; but, again, we have mostly Jerome’s end of the conversation. Tertullian has preserved the words of the martyrs Perpetua and Felicity. In the late fourth century, St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote a profoundly moving biography of his sister St. Macrina.
Their contemporaries honored these women as maternal figures. The Church has always honored them as saints. There is no custom of calling them “Mothers of the Church,” but there is no reason why individual Christians might not revere them as such.
Sooner or later, every thinking Christian discovers the duty to study the Church Fathers. It presents itself as a matter of religious literacy, if not a debt of ancestral honor.
They preached the faith in a way that won over the pagan world. During the first three centuries, the Church grew at a rate of forty percent per decade! We should at least learn from our Fathers.
What’s more, they gave their lives for us. Many of the Fathers died as witnesses to the faith. And their blood was the “seed” from which our Church grew and grew. We should at least honor their memory.