St. Catherine, Patroness of Modern Women
Tintoretto, The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine with Doge Francesco Donato in Adoration, 1581-4

St. Catherine of Alexandria

St. Catherine of Alexandria used to claim a place among the Great Saints. Catherine herself and the spiked wheel upon which she became a martyr appeared frequently in the work of medieval and Renaissance artists. A monastery in the Sinai bearing her name was a popular destination for pilgimages. In France, unmarried women between the ages of 25 and 30 took the title catherinettes, and wore a special St. Catherine’s bonnet. The instrument of her martyrdom even inspired the name of a pyrotechnic device, the Catherine wheel. It was a rare Catholic who wouldn’t be thoroughly familiar the St. Catherine’s name and story.

Santa Catalina de Alejandría by Caravaggio, c. 1598, with the spiked wheel of her martyrdom.


An Army of Philosophers

   It’s a story well worth revisiting today (November 25th) on the saint’s feast day.  Saint Catherine, we are told, was a beautiful princess born of pagan parents.  She possessed 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. She also 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 Maxentius’s philosophers fail, but she converted some of them.  The enraged emperor ordered prison and torture for the young woman. As it happened, in the midst of her punishment 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.  She refused, of course, having already married the King of Kings. As a result, the emperor condemned her to death by torture on a spiked wheel.  When the mere touch of the saint destroyed this implement of torment, the emperor finally ordered Catherine beheaded.  Angels bore her body to the monastery on Mt. Sinai that now bears her name.

A Most Honored Saint

St. Catherine, Sogliano
St. Catherine of Alexandria by Giovanni Antonio Sogliano. Here she holds a book representing learning.

     For a long time, as we noted above, St. Catherine was one of the best known and most honored Saints.  The story of her martyrdom was widely known, 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.  The Church removed her feast day 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. The most apparent is that there is no historical record of her life until several centuries after the fact.  We can’t deny, of course, that some pious traditions and stories are clearly fantastic. We shouldn’t for that reason reject anything handed down by our predecessors in the Faith that falls short of the sort of documentary evidence required by modern historiography. To do so is to concede too much to a materialistic worldview.  There is certainly no evidence that St. Catherine is a fabrication, and in doubtful matters I’m happy to throw my support to Christian tradition.

Patroness of Modern Women

St. Joan of Arc by Jean Pichore, 1506

     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. Accordingly, 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, also had a well known Mystical Marriage to Christ. She was also like the Alexandrian Catherine in that even when she went toe-to-toe with men on their turf, she didn’t pretend to be one of them.  

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, despite some modern depictions.  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 rather a rebuke to the men who have been failing to do that which they have been called to do.


What More Could We Ask?

    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?


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