In the wake of so many clerical sex abuse scandals, to many people the Catholic Church appears hypocritical and bankrupt morally and spiritually. In the midst of such trying times, how can Catholics justify remaining in the Church? The words and deeds of St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), Dominican Mantelatta—or penitential woman—who lived during an earlier crisis, can offer us some guidance and hope.
Catherine lived in worse times than our own because it was not only the Church that seemed to be collapsing, but larger society and even the world itself. The Black Death, or bubonic plague—one of the deadliest pandemics in human history—reached Sicily via Genoese trading ships from the Black Sea the year Catherine was born. It is said that four-fifths of the population of Siena died from the plague the following year. There would be several successive waves of the disease during Catherine’s lifetime. One anonymous chronicler in Siena at the time wrote: “And no bells tolled, and nobody wept no matter what his loss because almost everyone expected death…. And people said and believed, ‘This is the end of the world.’”
At the time, Italy was a conglomeration of feuding monarchies, communes, and republics with factions such as the Guelphs, who supported the papacy, and the Ghibellines, who supported the northern Italian rulers. The Italian peninsula was beset by foreign mercenaries, the most famous of which was the Englishman John Hawkwood, to whom Catherine directed one of her 381 letters. Outside of Italy, the Hundred Years War between England and France was raging, and there was the additional threat of militant Islam as seen in the advance of the Turks twice to Vienna.
Catherine lived during a time of pessimism and cynicism. Barbara Tuchman, in her historical narrative A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, described the period as “a time of turmoil, diminished expectations, loss of confidence in institutions, and feelings of helplessness at forces beyond human control.” The popes lived in exile in Avignon between 1309 and 1377, only returning to Rome after Catherine went personally to the papal court and pleaded with Gregory XI. Monasteries and convents in Europe were decimated by the Plague, and in order to re-populate them unsuitable candidates were often accepted. The secular literature at the time described clerical celibacy as a joke. By the time Catherine died in 1380, the Church was in schism with the election of an anti-pope, Clement VII.
Three years before her death, Catherine (who was illiterate for most of her life) began dictating, while in a mystical state, “il libro,” or the compendium of her spiritual teaching which we know today as the Dialogue. The work is God’s answer to four requests made by Catherine, the first of which pertained to enlightenment regarding the situation of the Church and its moral and spiritual reform. The eternal Father’s reply is found mostly in chapters 110-134, a major portion of the book. It is here that Catherine manifests great respect and love for priests who, the eternal Father tells her, are his “christs,” sent “like fragrant flowers into the mystic body of the Holy Church.” Notwithstanding, Catherine was fearless in exposing and criticizing the failures of priests and bishops. In fact, she is so indelicate in her criticism that portions of the Dialogue—such as chapter 121, on homosexuality among the clergy—have been excised from various editions of the work.
Catherine’s theological vocabulary is full of homey imagery, and was constantly evolving. One image of the Church was a wine cellar in which is kept the life-giving Blood of Christ, received in the Eucharist. The pope is the cellar-master commissioned by Christ to administer the Blood and to delegate others—priests—to assist him. The fundamental necessity of the Church is found in the fact that it alone is the repository of the Blood of Christ, which gives life to all. Catherine saw clearly that the good of the Church was the good of humanity. Therefore, anyone who opposes the Church is his or her own enemy. The Church is the hope of the world.
Catherine was a contemplative whose love of the Church grew in the course of her lifetime, despite the corruption of some of its members. The biographer Johannes Jorgensen said of her spiritual life: “Her love of Jesus expands, grows insatiable, infinite, is transformed into love of His Mystical Body, of the all-comprehensive, all-embracing Holy Catholic Church.” Like other saints and mystics, her contemplation brought her into the heart of the mystery of the Church. What Jacques Philippe says of St. Thérèse of Lisieux could equally be said of Catherine: “[T]he more she centered her being on the love of Jesus, the more her heart grew in love for the Church. […] Indeed, this is the only real way to understand the Church. Anyone who does not have a spousal relationship with God in prayer will never perceive the deepest truth of the Church’s identity.”
We should not forget the dying words of another great mystic, St. Teresa of Avila: “I am a daughter of the Church.”
For Catherine, the Church is Christ and the pope is the “sweet Christ on earth.” However, when Catherine speaks of the sinfulness of the Church, so much present during her lifetime, she most often uses the image of the Church as the Bride of Christ, which St. Paul alluded to in Ephesians 5:25. Here Catherine imagines the Church as a beautiful maiden whose face has been pelted and besmirched by the sins of the Church’s mortal members. Catherine often speaks of sin as leprosy on the face of the Church. It would never have occurred to her to leave the Bride of Christ because of the sins of humanity. For her, the Church is infinitely more than a mere human institution.
Among various causes of the Church’s sinfulness, Catherine identifies one in particular: a love for the “outer rind” instead of the marrow, i.e., a preoccupation with surface instead of inner realities. Learned people, particularly the clergy, may know much about God, the Church, and Scripture, and yet not be in a love-union with God. The eternal Father tells her that such people “neither see nor understand anything but the outer crust, the letter of Scripture. They receive it without relish” and “approach this Bride [the Church] merely for her outer shell, that is, for her temporal substance, while she is quite empty of any who seek her marrow.” Bad priests “never understood learning because the horns of pride kept them from tasting its sweet marrow.” Knowledge of Christ is not enough; we must be in communion with him.
The Catherinian scholar Mary O’Driscoll has pointed out that Catherine saw her own lack of holiness as part of the sinful situation of the Church and acknowledged her part in it. In her 26 prayers she frequently bemoans her own sinfulness. Although her sins would no doubt appear to us as the most miniscule of venial sins, she was extremely sensitive to them. As Jesus stood in solidarity with sinners at his baptism, so Catherine takes her place among sinful humanity. For her, the much longed-for reform of the Church was not a matter of institutional or disciplinary change, such as the abolition of celibacy, but rather a matter of conversion, the interior reform of the individual, beginning with the pope himself, as seen in one of her letters to Urban VI: “Most Holy Father, it is time to detest sin in yourself, in your subjects, and in the ministers of holy Church.”
Catherine’s love for the Church was certainly not confined to the sanctuary. Her long journeys to Avignon, Florence, and Rome and her letters to virtually all the leaders of Europe attest to the practicality of her love. About two years before her death, the Lord commanded her to “wash the face of my Bride, holy Church” with her prayers, sweat, and tears. Every day she would drag her frail body to St. Peter’s Basilica, where she would pray for hours on behalf of the Church. Her final act of self-offering to God occurred in another mystical experience exactly three months before her death, in which she cries out to God: “What can I do, inestimable Fire?” He answers: “Offer your life once more, and never let yourself rest. This was the task I set you, and now set you again, you and all who follow you.” Catherine replies: “O eternal God, receive the sacrifice of my life into this mystical body of holy Church. I have nothing to give except what you have given me, so take my heart and squeeze it out over the face of the Bride.” Catherine recounts that God then removed her heart (which, in a previous vision years earlier, he had mystically exchanged with his own) and squeezed out every drop of blood over the face of the Church, washing it clean of all impurity. Like St. Paul, to whom she was a devoted pupil and kindred spirit, Catherine was willing to complete “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body…the Church” (Col 1:24).
Humanly speaking, Catherine had more reasons for abandoning the Church than we do today, and yet there is not the slightest indication in her writings that she ever considered doing so. What was the basis of her hope? Undoubtedly, her belief in the human and divine dimensions of the Church undergirded her hope that one day it would be what God intended it to be. In addition, Catherine reported to her confessor and friend Raymond of Capua that the Lord had assured her several times that the Church’s “beauty will be restored.” In April 1376, she reported to Raymond a remarkable mystical experience in which the Lord “explained and made clear to me every aspect of the mystery of the persecution the Church is now undergoing and of the renewal and exaltation that is to come. He told me that what is happening now is permitted in order to make the Church once more what she should be.”
In one of one of her most unusual mystical experiences, Catherine is told by the Lord that the reform of the Church will happen with the appointment of new bishops “and other zealous ones.” Her disciple Caffarini recounts another of Catherine’s visions, which occurred on Christmas night, in which the Blessed Virgin hands her Child to Catherine, who then
takes him in her arms; then, as she had seen the Mother do, she puts her cheek on that of his. The Newborn had on his breast and from his side a vine full of mature grapes. Big dogs came and bit them off with their teeth and brought them to some puppies who ate all the grapes and were full. [Catherine] meanwhile prayed unceasingly for herself, for her spiritual father, for the reform of the Church, for all sinners, and she bathed the body of the holy Child in her tears. The Lord revealed to her with that vision the reform she desired, showing her that the big dogs represented the new members of the Church, that is to say the good prelates and other zealous ones appointed to renew it.
We see another glimpse of Catherine’s hopefulness in the midst of so many troubles when she awakens from a mystical experience, in which the Lord had entrusted to her a cross and olive branch to bring to the ends of the earth. Catherine reported to Raymond: “Then I was marvelously happy. I was so confident about the future that it seemed I was already possessing and enjoying it.”
(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted on April 27, 2012.)
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