Catherine of Siena’s Medicinal Shaming of the Church

At the edge of the Castel Sant’Angelo near an entrance to the public park that at one time comprised the castle’s fortifications and near the beginning of the Via della Conciliazione that runs into St. Peter’s Square stands a statue of Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). Created between 1961 and 1962 by the Sicilian artist Francesco Messina, the work represents Catherine herself as well as illustrates important moments in her life, each linked to a specific organization that had supported the project, in a modest but monumental complex.[1] Messina shows Catherine as a woman of action in the process of moving. Inclined a little with her gaze focused off to her right, she seems sad or mournful. It is left to the viewer to imagine a reason.

Perhaps she is dismayed for having been pulled away from her contemplative prayer. Or, perhaps she is despondent at the hypocrisy and sin that continues to beset her beloved Church. Some claim that when seen in profile with St. Peter’s in the background, she appears to kiss the basilica’s famous dome, a sign not only of her love for the Church but also of her support for the papacy, involved as she was in its return from Avignon. However, one chooses to interpret her gaze, it cannot be denied that she is on her way, about her business compelled by her love of God and her love of neighbor.

This image stands in many respects in stark contrast to the statue of Catherine that was installed in an external portico on the apse side of St. Peter’s Basilica in the year 2000. This statue was fashioned by the Archdiocese of Siena to celebrate her status as co-patron of Europe, which had been officially declared by John Paul II the previous year. Here she stands serene and youthful. Her eyes are raised up as are her arms in an act of prayer and adoration. It is Catherine the mystic, rapt in love of her Bridegroom, hopeful.

Catherine looms large in the story of the medieval Church. Her work to return the papacy to Rome was just one part of her many activities. Conventionally described as unlettered but by no means uneducated (even if only modestly so), she produced, with the help of collaborators and amanuenses, an important literary corpus not only for the Christian archive of spirituality but also for the history of Italian literature. Indeed, her letters, written in her Tuscan dialect, are second in quantity only to Petrarch.[2]

It is a common enough literary trope for a person to claim that they did not wish to embark on a literary, political, or other type of active career, but there seems no reason to doubt that Catherine did not at all begin with the intention of becoming a famous author and activist. For years, despite her family’s opposition, she desired to be a solitary contemplative ascetic.

Only after her mystical encounters with Christ did she feel compelled to embark on the path for which she is so well known, putting into effect an idea that can be traced to the work of Gregory the Great but found concise expression at the hand of Thomas Aquinas: to hand on to others those things that she had contemplated. She was drawn to the spirituality and teaching of the Dominicans, which is reflected in her work, and became a member in their Third Order while remaining essentially an independent, lay woman. The example of her devout life quickly garnered people’s attention, and she was sought after for counsel and advice as a holy woman.

In his life of Catherine (Legenda maior), written in many ways to ensure the recognition of her orthodoxy and lay the foundation for her recognition as a saint, Raymond of Capua relates an important moment when Christ revealed to her that he wanted her to act for the reform of the Church.[3] He tells her that she is to be an effective and fruitful conduit for the diffusion of grace and the establishment of justice. He says that he wants her to be zealous for the salvation of souls and to do openly (that is to preach) what she once wanted to do secretly when she had imagined disguising herself as a man to join the Order of Friars Preacher.

Catherine’s immediate response to this revelation, as Raymond explicitly points out, echoes that of the Blessed Virgin Mary to the angel Gabriel: fiat. But unlike the Blessed Mother, Catherine has her doubts about this turn of events, which she subsequently expresses. “Let your will,” she says, “and not mine be done in all things, but I am darkness (tenebra) and you are light, I am not (ego non sum) and you are he who is (tu es ille qui sum), I am the most foolish (insipientissima) and you are the wisdom of God the Father (tu sapientia Dei patris).”[4] Catherine’s invocation of the Tetragrammaton from Exodus 3:14 deserves some comment.

If one holds, as Thomas Aquinas did, that being is predicated of God and creatures analogously, then Catherine’s response is a challenge, since her meaning is fairly clear that in comparison to God she has no being (and admittedly, this exchange is not meant as a declaration of a philosophical position). Rather, if one takes Catherine’s conception of the status of her “being” in relation to God in the sense of the “divine names” according to the thought of pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, then in light of the fullness of “being” which properly belongs to God, the “being” which characterizes humanity is as nothing. Certainly, if one steps away from these narrowly construed fine points of philosophy or theology, Catherine’s declaration is an expression of her humility and her recognition that in comparison to the Incarnate Word of God she is as naught.

Of greater interest is the next reason she gives for her unworthiness of the charge that Christ is placing upon her, as well as his reason for why she is the perfect candidate to do this. Catherine declares that such activity on her part would not be efficacious. She recognizes that as a woman, a member, as she says, of the weak and contemptible sex, it will be all too easy for her to be dismissed and judged irrelevant by members of contemporary society. Christ strongly reassures her (even to the point of rebuke) that such thinking is frankly wrong, that, as the Creator of all, he can do whatever he wills. In an echo of Galatians 3:28, Christ states that before him (apud me) there is no distinction between male and female. And therefore, she should have no qualms of embarking on this new charge solely on account of doubts resulting from her gender.

Christ continues in answer to her point and in assurance that she must do it, by explaining that it is precisely because she is a woman that he has asked her to accept this task. He thinks that it is necessary to humble the prideful and the arrogant. What better way to do this but through someone who is easily dismissed or on the margins of society, as we might say today? As the Scriptures tell, especially in the New Testament, God has often used those who were unlearned in human wisdom, the foolish and the weak, to preach virtue and divine wisdom. He recognizes that those who are prideful and arrogant need to be made aware of their faults and in this sense brought to shame. Catherine will therefore be “medicinal shame” (medicinalis confusio) to cure the ills that are plaguing the Christian community. She will be the means by which those ones will realize that things should be otherwise, most especially in their very person.

These passages from Raymond’s Life of Catherine were particularly important among Carthusian monks trying to reform the Church in the second half of the fifteenth century. Carthusians played an important role in the diffusion of Catherine’s life and writings in the north of Europe. Indeed, it was German Carthusians who spread knowledge of her and circulated Raymond’s Life.[5] In order to show two ways that the discussion between Christ and Catherine related above can be interpreted to promote the reform of the Church, I will now focus on the writings by two Carthusians from the middle of the fifteenth century. Both quote the exact same passage from Raymond’s life that describes Catherine as “medicinal shame” and both were active in reform movements.

The first is Vincent of Aggsbach (d. 1464), a monk of the Charterhouse in Aggsbach (Austria). A cantankerous character who was disciplined early in his monastic career on account of his acerbic tongue.[6] He is well-known to scholars on account of his instigation of a controversy surrounding Nicholas of Cusa and the nature of mystical contemplation. In a letter from the late 1450s, Vincent deploys the passages from Raymond’s Life of Catherine in a political, or at least ecclesiological, context. The problem confronting the Church, as he sees it, is that of leadership, marked by hypocrisy, pride, arrogance, and clericalism. He latches onto the idea, not discussed above, that if the Church’s leaders do not heed the salubrious, yet painful and difficult to be sure, message of such prophets and visionaries as Catherine of Siena, they will be brought to actual shame.

One can easily think of the looming Reformation that will divide Christendom and provoke bloody wars, but given the temporal context, writing a few years after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Vincent, like many others, foresaw the existential threat coming from the East and interpreted this historical occurrence that, if nothing was to change, the inevitable conquest of the West would be the execution of God’s righteous judgment. Vincent’s rhetorical strategy, therefore, was to underscore that external threats and conditions necessitated a realization among the ecclesiastical hierarchy to change course and start to work to make things otherwise than they currently were.

The other example comes from Vincent’s contemporary in the Charterhouse at Erfurt, Jacob of Paradies (d. 1465). Jacob was certainly much more well known in the fifteenth century than his confrère Vincent. Born in what is now Poland, he had first entered a Cistercian monastery (it is from this house, Paradyż, that scholars derive the name by which they refer to him). He was sent to study at the University of Krakow and became a professor of theology and a well-regarded preacher. Following his experiences at the Council of Basel, he decided to enter the Carthusian monastery at Erfurt. With his prolific younger confrère Johannes Hagen, also a monk at Erfurt, he made the Charterhouse an important intellectual center of reform activity, counseling other monastic foundations how to improve themselves, as well as communities associated with the Modern Devotion movement.

Among his many writings, Jacob composed a treatise on mystical theology, drawing inspiration not only from Pseudo-Dionysius but also Hugh of Balma and Jean Gerson.[7] Indeed, the text is in many ways a patchwork confection of quotations and paraphrases from these last two authors. As is traditional, the treatise is divided into two parts: theoretical and practical. However, between these sections, Jacob adduced the examples of several holy women who were particularly adept at this highest of theological pursuits, true authorities in mystical theology, of which he counted Catherine of Siena. He quotes extensively from Raymond’s Life of Catherine (precisely the same passages discussed above), as well as descriptions of holy women in the Low Countries that he discovered in Vincent of Beauvais’ copying of Jacques de Vitry’s texts, which were included in Vincent’s Speculum historiale.

Unlike Vincent, Jacob does not think of reform along political lines in this context, but he does emphasize Catherine’s function as “shaming medicine,” a role that he expands to include all of the holy women that he puts forward. Also, like Vincent, he repeats that the institutional Church is in need of reform, and if they do not heed the teaching and example of the holy woman that God has raised up, it will quite literally be put to shame. But the stress is different here.

In the context of writing a treatise on mystical theology, the audience is not concerned with the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the wealthy, and the powerful. It is, by contrast, the monk or other observant religious who is trying to grow in their devotion and love of God who are the object of Jacob’s writing. This is telling, on the one hand, because it goes to the point that the Church in the fifteenth century was perceived to need reform not only at the upper levels of its administration but also among religious communities, that is among the individual monks themselves.

On the other hand, it shows that for Jacob the most efficacious way to true reform was not by overhauling the theological or ecclesiological underpinnings of the Church. There was no need for more councils and more debate (remember, he had seen what would happen already at Basel). Rather, the path to true reform was within each individual. It was the commitment to adhere to the religious vocation or state in life to which one was called and to which one had vowed. The vowed religious should be the best example for the way of contemplative and mystical prayer. Because that was not the case, others had appeared who were holier and more adept than they, namely women, not all of whom belonged to religious communities as traditionally conceived.

As mentioned before, the statue of Catherine of Siena next to the Castel Sant’Angelo and on the outskirts of Vatican City appears sad, but perhaps her countenance would better be described as regretful. It would certainly have been appropriate to capture her in a moment of regret for the sins of the Church or for the Schism that erupted at the end of her lifetime, but still to capture her on the move and continuing to work to make things different and better than they are. In his recent book on regret, Paul Griffiths makes the distinction between those things we wish to be otherwise from the historical past and those things which more properly belong to an individual’s personal past.[8]

Coming to terms with these regrets and how to overcome them is difficult and complicated. The same might be said with the process of reform, which to be sure can provoke a certain amount of regret that things are not the way one thinks they should be. But perhaps Jacob of Paradies was correct in his interpretation inspired by Catherine of Siena, that the best way forward starts from within?

[1] G. Parsons, “A Neglected Sculpture: The Monument to Catherine of Siena at Castel Sant’Angelo,” in Papers of the British School at Rome 76 (2008), 257-276.

[2] S. Noffke, “Catherine of Siena,” in Medieval Holy Women in the Christian Tradition, c. 1100-c. 1500, ed. A. Minnis and R. Voaden (Brepols Essays in European Culture 1), Turnhout 2010, 601-622.

[3] Raimondo da Capua, Legenda maior, sive Legenda admirabilis virginis Catherine de Senis, ed. S. Nocentini (Edizione nazionale dei testi mediolatini d’Italia 31), Firenze 2013. The passages summarized here occur on pp. 204-205 of this edition.

[4] Raimondo da Capua, Legenda maior II.12, ed. Nocentini, p. 204.

[5] T. Brakmann, “The Transmission of the Upper German Life of Catherine of Siena,” in Catherine of Siena: The Creation of a Cult, ed. J.F. Hamburger and G. Signori (Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts 13), Turnhout 2013, 83-108.

[6] For this paragraph on Vincent of Aggsbach, I rely upon D.D. Martin, “Carthusians as Advocates of Women Visionary Reformers,” in Studies in Carthusian Monasticism in the Late Middle Ages, ed. J.M. Luxford (Medieval Church Studies 14), Turnhout 2008, 127-153, esp. 142-150.

[7] I have studied Jacob of Paradies in two articles: “How to Use a Well-Stocked Library: Erfurt Carthusians on the Industriae of Mystical Theology,” in Die Bibliothek - The Library - La Bibliothèque, ed. A. Speer and L. Rueke (Miscellanea Mediaevalia 41), Berlin-Boston 2020, 656-675, and “Medicinales Confusiones: The Role and Authority of Female Mystics in Jacobus de Paradiso’s De theologia mystica,” in Die Kartause als Text-Raum, ed. B. Nemes, forthcoming.

[8] P. Griffiths, Regret, Notre Dame 2021.