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St. Catherine of Siena and leaving the Church

What can this 14th-century mystic teach us today about fidelity to Christ and to a Church in crisis?


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 (whose feast is celebrated on April 29th) 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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About Thomas McDermott, OP 1 Article
Thomas McDermott, OP is a Dominican of the Province of St. Albert the Great and pastor of the Catholic Center at Purdue University. He is author of several books on spirituality and Catherine of Siena, including Catherine of Siena: Spiritual Development in Her Life and Teaching (Paulist, 2008).


  1. “Catherine (whose feast is celebrated on April 29th) 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.”
    Millions of children are aborted every year. Many adults refuse to have any children and opt for long term contraception. Many adults (teens) can no longer have any due to “gender reassignment” surgery and are now castrated. Very few if any country has a replacement birth rate. A few have started actual population decline.
    Crime of all sorts is rampant in our major cities. The electrical grid (non-negotiable for the modern world) is in a highly precarious position. Not nearly enough folks know how to maintain our infrastructure.
    The world is in fact falling apart.

    • What you say is true to some extent in the West but not globally. Of course, we’re doing our best to export those destructive ideologies & demographic decline to the Global South. Hopefully they’ll persist in rejecting that.

    • It’s easy to be pessimistic. The glorification of sin, particularly abortion and criminality, routine lies and the corruption of the young, is easy to depress one. Reading many of the warnings and retributions in the Old Testament should cause many Catholics to think, “Ah! ‘signs of the times.’ Just as our Lord warned us! Fire and damnation! Plague! Prelates in league with the Devil! Just as we deserve! Lord have mercy!” With all of this, blasphemy was not a standard of communication once(no media) criminals rarely received mercy except from God; and rarely, very rarely indeed did a woman try to murder her child born or otherwise. There was unspeakable cruelty, of course. That is the human condition. But our Lord, through his prophets, has always warned. And the people of Israel seldom payed attention. And so, there was retribution. Sometimes the Israelites fell on their knees, admitted their sins, begged forgiveness, and were forgiven. The Western world now, however, barely acknowledges its Redeemer; disdains even the idea of sin, and slaughtering her infant is every woman’s right. These are almost cliches now. How many times have we heard them? Our culture is on the brink of the abyss and few seem to care. And yet, our leaders, both secular and “spiritual” are few in number who take the warnings seriously. Yes, panic with Covid, at least for the many who did not see it as a device to control. If worse comes, will we at last “see the writing on the wall?” Pray that we will be spared, worthy or not. Our sweet Savior did not die for nothing. He is so merciful. Thankfully, so very merciful! But we ought not to forget that He is also the mighty Judge who is not mocked. Pray for His mercy, and pray to His holy Mother to pray for us, that in spite of everything His great love will not be in vain!

    • The world isn’t falling apart. Same old, same old, since long before Christ. The only difference is, after Christ’s sacrifice, a few of us can choose to build a better world, so we try, and God will help us get to the ultimate goal, as evidenced by the huge increase of life-saving technology and knowledge as well as holiness — among the few, as it always was and always will be and is to be expected. You worry too much. Look to your own problems. This is God’s universe, not the devil’s.

      • 60,000,000 human lives destroyed by abortion in the USA alone and you think everything is peachy. What world do you inhabit?

  2. Where would we go? She needs us, we need Her – Where would we go?

    To me it is that simple – doesn’t it boil down to that?

    Where would we go?

        • I’m sorry, I meant Eastern Orthodox. That’s where I’ve seen some disappointed Catholics head off to lately. The Eastern Rite churches are still Catholic.

          I really admire the beauty of the Orthodox liturgy. I attended a Russian Orthodox Mass years ago & have visited Greek Orthodox churches.
          I suspect sometimes there’s more going on when Catholic folks go East. The Orthodox Church gives you three tries at marriage & has some other important differences.

    • Where would we go?
      Wherever there’s still a tabernacle: “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God'” (John 6:68-69).

      And, from the article we read: “[Catherine of Siena] most often uses the image of the Church as the Bride of Christ…”

      Perhaps in October 2023 the synodal (say what?) Cardinal Hollerich will concede that the homosexual agenda—which he signals he would legitimize by upending moral theology—is no less than to occupy and neutralize the perennial meaning of sacramental “marriage”—And, by osmosis, surely inadvertent, to effectively obsolesce Catherine’s very idea that the Church is the “Bride of Christ”! “Bride” (say what, as when “husband” and “wife” are content-free and interchangeable)?

      So, here, to reverse a common witticism, the horses’ asses are now inside the barn! Or, is that the whores’ “sass” (as in James Martin’s and Germania’s back talk)?

      Yes, Catherine of Siena could write of homosexual clerics of yesteryear, but she did not have to deal with their metastasized penetration today into the Church’s self-certified (!) “rabbit hole” (thank you Cardinal Cupich!) called a “synod on synodality.”

  3. The Church is not a club that you can join and, at some later date, decide to abandon. To be a member of the Body of Christ – the Church – is to become someone else, to take on a new identity as St. Paul tells us. So you can no more quit the Church than you can quit being a male if you are one or quit being a female if you were created as one (apologies to all the Woke Catholics out there).

    The author writes: “For Catherine, the Church is Christ and the pope is the ‘sweet Christ on earth’”. I can only imagine what would be in a letter Catherine would write to Pope Francis who has rejected the title of Vicar of Christ. We obviously are in dire need of a modern day Catherine of Siena.

  4. Saint Catherine of Siena. Author:- Alice Curtayne. All Saints suffer. I recommend this book, even though I’ve only recently started reading it. The detail is in the devil’s attack. Pray for us St. Catherine.

  5. To some, the world is always falling apart: change from one era to another seems to frighten them. When we can Trust the Divine more completely, we can see and experience that change, which is the only real constant in the universe, is the Divine facilitating Growth into New Worlds as Life is designed to do. Fearful criticism of the changes we witness is not necessary, although it is often prevalent in society. Pray and Love more, Blame and Criticize others less.

    • Adam and Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit caused a lot of change. So did the building of the golden calf. King Solomon’s listening to his foreign wives turned his heart from God that resulted in the change of the division of his kingdom. Israel’s faithlessness led to exile and the destruction of two Temples. Actions have consequences. One of the major roles that the prophets perform is the correction of defective faith practices, see Christ’s woes in Matthew 23 and Ezekiel 3:17-21. The deaths of Christ, St. John the Baptist, and St. Stephen proved the accuracy of Christ’s woes. A trifecta of prophetic death. St. Stephen’s prophetic witness before his death is in Acts 7. St. Catherine gave prophetic witness in her day. Not all change is for the better.

  6. Case closed. “Bad priests never understood learning because the horns of pride kept them from tasting its sweet marrow”, says it all for us priests. Catherine starkly juxtaposes pride with the Devil’s horns.
    Saint Catherine had that amazing charisma of being assertive, even strident in her criticisms of clergy and popes while showing great humility, much like the Apostle as indicated by Fr McDermott.

    • 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.
      For the people it is the “outer rind” that we see. The hypocrisies are obvious and most find the double standard of those who are supposed to lead and live better to be repulsive. The thinking is if the exterior is corrupt the inside is equally bad. So, they leave.
      There are clergy who push people away from GOD. There are those who pull people to GOD.
      Mary at Fatima warned us that the greatest enemies of GOD would be from within the church.

      • Barbara, a priest, is another Christ. As was Christ’s intention to act through him. You are right in alluding that too many have failed. All the more reason for laity to turn to a contemplative life as did Catherine, who was canonically a lay person permitted to wear the Dominican habit.
        She brought to the Church knowledge of the means to attaining a deeper, fulfilling relationship with the divinity. Much has to do with humility, willingness to suffer for others. We realize we are nothing in that he created us out of nothing – that all good flows from him. The entree is love. Her words in today’s breviary readings:
        “For you are a fire ever burning and never consumed, which consumes all my selfishness. And I know that you are beauty and wisdom itself. You are the garment that covers our nakedness, and in our hunger you are a satisfying food, for you are sweetness and in you there is no taste of bitterness, O Triune God!” (excerpts From the Dialogue On Divine Providence).

  7. In the Tabernacle Jesus is never hard of hearing, you notice it right away. It is because He unveils Himself. He can speak with a mere glance. He affirms His saints. He is animated about His Father’s Glory. He doesn’t make a big display. He has mercy for sinners, untold. Just by His Presence He shows what He hears, when He wants to. As quietly as you can whisper something or if you try not to mention, He will know it and will help you maintain silence on it. Should you have something that presses and disturbs, He can quell the difficulty by His Peace. Sometimes He dissolves the problem; and brings out its own lesson in goodness. However long it takes and whenever it concludes, what fills you is His teaching. Jesus is the Divine Teacher, it is His Divine grace that empowers. As God walks in Eternity, Jesus walks the earth to reveal Him to us.

8 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Jesus to St. Catherine: I will wash the face of my bride, Holy Church – Knights of The Holy Eucharist
  2. Catherine of Siena and Leaving the Church | Defenders of the Catholic Faith | Hosted by Stephen K. Ray
  3. Oh, What a Tangled Web of Electrons « Catholic Insight
  4. Catholic Exorcist: 'Gay Marriage' is an 'Abomination,' God Will 'Afflict Us in Some Manner' – LibertyWire
  5. Catholic Exorcist: ‘Gay Marriage’ is an ‘Abomination,’ God Will ‘Afflict Us in Some Manner’ – Christian Truth Radio Network News
  6. Catholic Exorcist: 'Gay Marriage' is an 'Abomination,' God Will 'Afflict Us in Some Manner' | CNSNews
  7. St. Catherine of Siena and leaving the Church – Via Nova
  8. St. Catherine of Siena and leaving the Church - Catholic World Report | The One Verses

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