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Why is St. Thomas Aquinas called the “Angelic Doctor”?

Thomas Aquinas

Lawrence OP | Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Philip Kosloski - published on 01/28/22

This saintly nickname tells us a lot about Aquinas' holy life and gifted work.

One of the most highly regarded saints of the Catholic Church is St. Thomas Aquinas, often referred to as the “Angelic Doctor.”

Why is he called a “doctor”?

First of all, in the Catholic Church, besides naming certain individuals as saints, recognizing their extraordinary practice of virtue, popes over the centuries have singled out specific saints as Doctors of the Church.

These men and women are seen as exemplary teachers in various theological or spiritual topics. The official title of doctor stems from the Latin root word docere, meaning “to teach.”

Aquinas wrote extensively during his lifetime, producing one of the most foundational texts for Catholic theology, called the Summa Theologiae. In it, he answers a variety of questions that were raised in his time, and his responses continue to be used today in defense of Catholic doctrine.

What about “angelic”?

It’s not entirely certain why St. Thomas became known as the “Angelic Doctor.” There are a variety of possibilities, including one explanation given by Pope Benedict XVI in a general audience in 2010.

He was also called the Doctor Angelicus [Angelic Doctor], perhaps because of his virtues and, in particular, the sublimity of his thought and the purity of his life.

The Catholic Encyclopedia offers a similar explanation.

Purity of mind and body contributes in no small degree to clearness of vision. By the gift of purity, miraculously granted at the time of the mystic girdling, God made Thomas’s life angelic; the perspicacity and depth of his intellect, Divine grace aiding, made him the “Angelic Doctor.”

This entry refers to a story from St. Thomas’ life, recounted in his canonization records.

Two angels came to him from heaven and bound a cord around his waist, saying, “On God’s behalf, we gird you with the girdle of chastity, a girdle which no attack will ever destroy …” The angels’ gift preserved Saint Thomas from sexual temptation and bestowed upon him an enduring purity that ennobled all his thoughts and actions.

St. Thomas also wrote extensively about angels, and his theology on angels is one of the most comprehensive in all of Church history.

For all these reasons, St. Thomas Aquinas is known as the “Angelic Doctor.”

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