Catherine of Siena

So I was reading Edmund Gardner’s early 20th century biography of Catherine of Siena the other day, in preparation for this semester’s History of Christianity class (yes, I change the readings each time I teach it, so I don’t get bored!).  Anyway, I found myself struck again by something that has impinged on my awareness before this, but never with as much force:  these medieval women mystics wielded an incredible amount of influence for their time, social situation, and gender.  And among this elite group Catherine stands out, acknowledged as a Doctor of the Church, an honor accorded to very few women.

Catherine of Siena was embroiled in the greatest disturbances of her time, which centered around the papal court’s presence in Avignon, the grief this caused in Italy, and the Great Schism that grew out of it.  What interests me is the letters she writes to the powerful and generally quite immoral men who were the major players in these affairs.  To the papal legate, Cardinal d’Estaing, she writes that she hopes to see him “a virile and brave man, so that you may manfully serve the Spouse of Christ,” and to “beware of servile fear.”   She goes on to write:

Strive manfully, to the utmost of your power, to bring about peace and union to the whole country [Italy]. And if, for this holy work, it proves necessary to give your life, you should give it a thousand times over.  Where all faithful Christians should be preparing to make war on the infidels, false Christians are waging it against each other, and the demons are rejoicing because they see what they want to see.  I am certain you will do this manfully, if you are clothed with the new man, Christ Jesus, and stripped of the old.  Peace, peace, peace!  Dearest father, make the Holy Father consider the loss of souls more than that of cities; for God demands souls more than cities.

You have to wonder how a 14th century nobleman felt about a woman who was repeatedly telling him to “man up” and get on with God’s work.  And did you see the note for the pope, that he ought to remember where his priorities are?  Heheh.   But you don’t have to wonder how they dealt with it, because Catherine was so powerful that no one, not even the pope, seems to have dared to defy her!

Why was this so?  I am quite sure I don’t have all the answers — I don’t know near enough about 14th century politics.  But one thing does come through: Catherine of Siena walked the walked.  That is, she was what the 14th century thought a Holy Person ought to be like, and so she had enormous reserves of what we might call “moral authority.”  To my students she is a strange and different creature, one they find harder to understand as they learn more about her.   In the end, I think it will be this idea of moral authority that they will be able to grasp.  We shall see, though.

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Mormon Archipelago

January 2010
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