Some fifteen years ago, a gathering of the who’s who of Catholic feminism issued the Madeleva Manifesto: A Message of Hope and Courage to Women in the Church. The signatories included Charlie Curran’s defender Monika Hellwig and women’s ordination advocate Joan Chittister. Not by accident, they issued their declaration on April 29, the feast of Catherine of Siena.
It’s not difficult to understand why feminists wish to claim the patronage of St. Catherine. After all, a version of her life might go something like this: At seven years of age a girl determines never to marry. At age twelve, she is pressured by her parents to submit to an arranged marriage so she defiantly cuts off her hair and neglects her appearance.
Later, the young woman develops quite a following in her town. Men and women alike seek her counsel. Soon she is bringing influence to bear in political circles unknown to women. She arbitrates family feuds. She brokers peace within and between the city-states of Tuscany. Bankers, generals, princes, dukes, kings, and queens, as well as scholars and abbots, seek her counsel. Her admonitions inspire the pope to restore the papacy to Rome. She writes one of the greatest works of medieval literature. She accomplishes all of this in 33 years.
When, six centuries later, she is at last declared a Doctor of the Catholic Church, she is only the second woman at the time to receive the honor. A real glass-ceiling breaker, Catherine made it big in a man’s world.
Missing in this account are the young Tuscan maid’s motives, considerably different from those that inform feminism. Here’s a sample of Joan Chittister’s thought:
I celebrate myself, the poet Walt Whitman wrote. The thought is so delicious it is almost obscene. Imagine the joy that would come with celebrating the self—our achievements, our experiences, our existence. Imagine what it would be like to look into the mirror and say, as God taught us, “That’s good.”
In marked contrast, St. Catherine never understood herself as a pioneer for women’s rights, much less a model for narcissistic self-fulfillment. On the contrary, she put into practice the truth her holy Bridegroom revealed to her early in her mystical life: “I am that which is; you are that which is not.”
“I must decrease, that he may increase,” declared John the Baptist, and we can say that John the Baptist’s modus operandi was also St. Catherine’s: empty the soul of self to make room for the grace of the Savior. Insofar as we can do this, our Lord can work remarkable, magnificent, and indeed miraculous things through us, just as he did through the diminutive dyers’ daughter six and a half centuries ago.
Catherine was born on the feast of the Annunciation in 1347. Catherine and her twin, Giovanna, who died at birth, were the twenty-third and twenty-fourth children of Giacomo and Lapa Benincasa, father and mother of an established Sienese family. Within thirteen months of her birth, the Black Plague laid waste to Tuscany. The population of Florence fell from 120,000 to 30,000. Contemporary accounts describe men and women feeling in one moment the swelling of infection and in the next moment dropping dead, only to be thrown without ceremony into one of the many shallow mass graves that surrounded the city.
Catherine was spared but only to come of age in a world beset by other afflictions: plagues political and spiritual. The Church had lost much of the moral authority it had gained in the ages of Pope St. Gregory VII and the popes of the crusading era. Insofar as he ruled at all, the successor of Peter ruled not from the Eternal City but from the opulence and luxury of distant Avignon, where the papacy suffered its—as the Italians would have it—Babylonian captivity.
For the city where Peter and Paul gave their lives for Jesus Christ, the effect of the Avignon papacy was devastating. Brigandage was the rule rather than the exception, prompting Bridget of Sweden to lament, “O Rome, your walls are broken down, your gates are left unguarded. Your vessels are sold and your altars are desolate. The living sacrifice and morning incense are consumed in the outer courts and therefore the sweetest odor of sanctity no longer rises from the Holy of Holies.”
With the papacy so weakened, the whole of Christendom suffered. The king of Hungary waged war with both Venice and the Holy Roman Emperor. England began her series of unjust depredations on France that came to be known as the Hundred Years’ War. Indeed, the battle of Crecy, where English infantry bested the flower of French Cavalry, took place one year after Catherine’s birth.
During the intermittent truces of that terrible conflict, unemployed bands of English mercenaries rode south to Italy and found employment offering their brutality for hire to the highest bidder among the warring Tuscan republics. Bernabo Visconti, Duke of Milan, squared off against the pope, whose French legates ruled their Italian provinces like occupying foreigners rather than princes of the Church. Florence, Lucca, Pisa, and Siena fought each other, even as they shifted alliances on the world stage.
And within the Tuscan republics themselves, internal strife setting commoner against noble and papal loyalists against rebels made city life hazardous according to ever-changing political winds. Florence’s battle between Guelphs and Gibbellines is the most famous of these internecine wars, but Catherine’s Siena suffered internal strife every bit as severe. Plot, conspiracy, and revenge killing meant that government changed hands with such frequency that those in power one day would find themselves in the shambles the next. “The laws that the Sienese make in October are not valid in November,” wrote Dante.
Things had hardly improved a generation later. And yet, in the midst of this chaos and without separating itself from the world, the Benincasa household was an oasis of joyful family life, industry for the glory and honor of God, and sanctity. It was in this domestic Church that Catherine came of age.
Believers in the miracles that attach to the childhood of Catarina Benicasa would be ridiculed as credulous by our own age, but there is enough testimony of a miraculous adult life to suggest a childhood also marked by wonders. Visions of our Lord and his saints reinforced the girl’s piety made manifest in the severest of self-imposed privations: fasting, flagellation, and denial of sleep.
At an early age she vowed to give herself entirely to our Lord. When at last she declared her intentions to her family, her brothers threatened her, and her mother wailed. It was not merely a matter of obedience. The most reliable force against the political unrest of Siena was the relationships among extended families joined by marriages. Giacomo, however, intervened, declaring that Catherine had chosen a better Spouse than they could ever hope to find her.
Catherine’s mystical marriage to our Lord, attended by our Lady and St. John the Evangelist and sealed by a ring of pearls visible to only her, came on the night her fellow Sienese were in the throes of pre-Lenten revelry. Her mission clear, the little dyers’ daughter devoted her life to works of mercy. In time she received the mantel of the Dominican tertiaries and took up service of the wretched in the Siena’s hospital, Santa Maria della Scala. Catherine’s patients were those no other would take: aged courtesans and “superannuated prostitutes,” as Sigrid Undset describes them, who took perverse delight in scolding their saintly nurse and spreading vicious rumors about her. Catherine served them all the more devotedly, cleaning their fetid sores and bringing them back to God through her example of humility.
Catherine’s evident sanctity attracted countless souls seeking counsel. She turned philanderers away from their sins and converted hardened criminals on the way to the scaffold. She attracted the attention of theologians seeking to expose a hoax. A weeklong examination before Florence’s Dominicans found a devout young girl given abundant graces by God and with a remarkable command of both Catholic doctrine and Tuscan politics. There she met her biographer and spiritual director, Bl. Raymond of Capua, and was also assigned several priests who served as confessors to her growing flock, the Caterinati. And there, in Florence, she found herself drawn into the political disputes of fourteenth-century Christendom.
The political details of this age are bewildering. What Christians must take from the story is the consistent theme of Catherine’s political correspondence. We have today nearly 400 of Catherine’s letters, an archive of priceless value to medieval historians. The uneducated girl could not write, yet early in her public life she acquired a band of secretaries. All of them would testify that the saint could dictate three letters at once on different topics and not lose the thread of any of the letters.
On one occasion all three of her secretaries, having themselves lost the thread of their respective letters, copied the same sentence. They all paused to look at Catherine. For whom was the sentence intended? “For all of you,” she answered, “and you will see when we complete the letters how our Lord has ordered the words of each toward his perfect plan.”
To all of the nobility and politicians to whom Catherine wrote, she stressed that a good ruler must first be a good person. “Politics are never anything but the product of a person’s religious life,” she wrote. “Break the chains of sin; cleanse yourself by confession. Only then will you be real rulers. For who can really be master if he is not master of himself, if reason does not rule his passions?”
Catherine’s greatest political success was also a spiritual triumph—convincing Pope Gregory XI to return the papacy to Rome. Because she commanded the actions of the pope, it is doubtless this action which most excites feminists. Alas, they entirely miss the point. At no time ever in her correspondence with Gregory, which is indeed direct, does she question his authority. On the contrary, she tells him “Esto vir!” You are the man. Use your authority.
Catherine’s great spiritual contribution, beyond that of her daily example, is her Dialogue, dictated during a series of ecstasies in the summer of 1378 before her departure for Rome. Catherine called her Dialogue “the book in which I found some recreation.” When Pope Paul VI declared Catherine a Doctor of the Church in 1970, he described her theology as reflective of “the Angelic Doctor in a surprising degree.” The theme of the Dialogue is the soul’s journey to salvation through ever deeper union with the sufferings of Christ, from which flows all of his mercy. “She exalted,” Paul VI says, “the redeeming power of the adorable blood of the Son of God, shed on the wood of the cross in expanding love, for the salvation of all generations of mankind.”
After dictating her Dialogue, Catherine left for Rome. The year was 1378. Her Caterinati followed her to the eternal city and lived life much as they had in Siena before she had begun her political adventures. They cared for the poor and destitute, begged for their own needs, copied the saint’s letters, and listened to her counsel.
So severe had been her fasts, by 1380 Catherine could take no food or water at all. Each morning she struggled to walk to Mass at St. Peter’s and remained there all day in prayer at the tomb of the first pope for whose successors she had fought so hard. In her final eight days she was struck with a paralysis from the waist down. When Catherine, at the age of 33, was at last united with her Bridegroom, thousands and thousands of mourners came, and miracle after miracle was attributed to her intercession.
Canonized within a century by her fellow Sienese, Pope Pius II, St. Catherine’s body lies, appropriately, under the main altar in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome. We can say with confidence that it is nothing short of providential that the site of an ancient temple to the goddess of wisdom is now transformed in Christ as the resting place of one of his wisest saints.
Sigrid Undset’s life of Catherine of Siena, available from Ignatius Press, is Christopher Check’s favorite work of hagiography.