Here in the United States, today is our national celebration of Thanksgiving Day, intended (originally) as an occasion to thank God for our blessings. In the Universal Church it is also the Optional Memorial for a very intriguing Saint, Saint Catherine of Alexandria.  There was a time when she was considered one of the Great Saints, but we hear of her much less today-  about which, more below, but first let’s take a look at her story.

St. Catherine of Alexandria

     For a full account, see here.  I’ll provide a brief sketch. Saint Catherine, we are told, was a beautiful princess born of pagan parents.  She was possessed of a superior intellect, and applied her talents in the study of the sciences and philosophy.  When she became a Christian, she betrothed herself to Christ in a Mystical Marriage, and used her formidable intellectual prowess in defense of His Church.  In this way she came to the attention of the Emperor Maxentius, who enlisted a small army of philosophers to refute Catherine’s arguments.  Not only did they fail, but some of them were converted by her.  The enraged emperor ordered the young woman to be imprisoned and tortured, in the midst of which she gained even more converts, including the emperor’s own wife.  After executing his wife (along with all the other converts) Maxentius tried to win over Catherine with an offer of marriage.  After she refused (already being married to the King of Kings), she was condemned to be tortured to death on a spiked wheel.  When this implement of torment was destroyed by the mere touch of the Saint, the emperor finally ordered Catherine beheaded.  He body was brought by angels to the monastery on Mt. Sinai that now bears her name.

     For a long time St. Catherine was one of the most well-known and honored Saints.  The story of her martyrdom was widely told, and she was popular as the patroness of single women; she was also one of the Saints who spoke to St. Joan of Arc.  Today, however, many Catholics have never heard of her.  Her feast day was removed from the Liturgical Calendar in 1969, although it has returned more recently as an Optional Memorial.

     There are no doubt a number of reasons for St. Catherine of Alexandria’s loss of prominence, but one of the more important (possibly the most important) is the fact that there is no historical record of her life until several centuries after the fact.  While we can’t deny, of course,  that some pious traditions and stories are clearly fantastic, to conclude that we must therefore reject anything handed down by our predecessors in the Faith that falls short of the sort of documentary evidence required by modern historiography is to concede too much to a materialistic worldview.  There is certainly no evidence that that St. Catherine is a fabrication, and in doubtful matters I’ll throw my support to Christian tradition.

     St. Catherine’s lower profile is also unfortunate because she has so much to say to women in our world today.  She is the embodiment of the sort of “Christian Feminism” that St. John Paul II described in his Apostolic letter Mulieris Dignatem and in other places: while she is able to equal accomplished men, she does not seek to supplant them, and she does not lose sight of her essential femininity.  Notice that she finds her fulfillment in her spousal relationship with Christ, and her miraculous deeds are a result of her absolute trust in Him.  Her later namesake Catherine of Siena, who was a diplomat and advisor to Popes, was also known for her Mystical Marriage to Christ, and was like her in that even when she went toe-to-toe with men on their turf, she didn’t pretend to be one of them.  

St. Joan of Arc

I find the connection to St. Joan of Arc instructive here as well.  I don’t see St. Joan as a precursor of modern feminism, as she is sometimes depicted.  She is really much more like the Old Testament Judge Deborah.  In Chapter 4 of the Book of Judges Deborah takes the reins of the army unwillingly, only after her general Barak tells her that he won’t lead their troops against their enemy Sisera without her.  “I will surely go with you”, she replies, “nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9).  As a result, not only does Deborah receive credit for the victory that should have been Barak’s, but Sisera himself dies at the hand of another woman, Jael, who drives a tent peg through his head as he sleeps.  Likewise, when Joan of Arc takes up the sword, it is not to assert that women should behave just like men; it is a rebuke to the men who have been failing to do that which they have been called to do.

     There’s a lesson here.  Today’s radical feminism is to a large degree an overreaction to a genuine failure to show due respect women and their appropriate role, but feminism has taken a cure that is worse than the original ailment: it denies the essential nature of women by attacking their maternal and nurturing mission.  At the same time, a major result of the so-called sexual revolution has been to reduce woman to a mere object of desire.   As a consequence, women are, in important ways, less respected than ever.  St. Catherine of Alexandria has a lot to say to such a world.  She puts her trust completely in Jesus Christ, and so she trusts in the gifts he has given her, including her femininity. Therefore, she can be as strong as any man, without surrendering her womanhood.  She is not deterred by threats, seduced by bribes, and can’t be broken by the worst this world has to offer, because the Lord is her spouse.  She commands the respect of men, and invites the emulation of women.  What more could we ask of a Great Saint?

Featured image top of page: The Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine of Alexandria, With Doge Francesco in Adoration, by Tintoretto, 1581-1584


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