Great Things in the 14th Century

A portrait of St. Catherine of Siena

One of the lessons of Women’s History Month is that women, like men, are capable of great things. This has always been true, moreover, even in centuries in which the expectation was that women’s lives would revolve in small domestic circles. Catherine of Siena provides a striking illustration of this principle.

The voices of the reformers that were raised during the 14th and 15th centuries, during the “Babylonian captivity of the papacy” (1309-1378) and the Western Schism (1378-1417), were the precursors to the protests that opened the 16th. One of those voices was that of Catherine of Siena, a charismatic and persuasive young woman from a modest background who exerted an improbable influence on the international affairs of her day. Her biographer and translator Suzanne Noffke has advanced the case that Catherine of Siena was a dedicated pastoral theologian. (“Her “pastoral genius expresses itself in writings that are at once theologically sound, faithful, and humanly sensitive.”) It might be fair to say that she also became a prominent public theologian of the 14th century, based on her activities:

  • Her life of service in Siena quickly attracted a local following of men as well as women eager to benefit from her teaching and personal guidance.
  • She was commissioned for a diplomatic mession by her city, to intercede with Pope Gregory XI in Avignon on behalf of Florence and its allies in 1376; this immediate mission failed in its aim, to have the papal interdict that affected the cities revoked and to achieve reconciliation between the Florentines and the Papal States. However, Catherine’s influence was an acknowledged factor in the Pope’s 1377 return to Rome.
  • She conducted, in effect, a preaching tour of Tuscany in 1377, urging clerical reforms and the reconciliation of ongoing political disputes, appealing to shared theological commitments for her persuasive power.
  • She engaged in a voluminous correspondence with international leaders of the day, further urging reforms and the resolution of the conflicts that beset the late 14th-century church, in addition to amendments of personal life.
  • Her book, The Dialogue of Divine Providence, written for the most part 1377-1378, articulated the imperative of the Christian life lived on the “two feet” of contemplation and the active love God through the active love of neighbor, thus advocating a life oriented towards the alleviation of social suffering. (“Whatever you do for the good of your neighbor is a real prayer.”)
  • She was called to the court of Urban VI in Rome in 1378, where she weighed in on Urban’s side in the ongoing dispute over the identity of the legitimate Pope, and using her rhetorical gifts to advance Urban’s cause and to promote a resolution of the dispute.

Her peacemaking activities won a considerable degree of support from the ecclesiastical and political hierarchy, despite the fact that a woman ambassador was unconventional, and a woman preacher frankly unorthodox. That support has been sustained over time, underwriting her canonization in 1461, and leading to her designation as the first woman doctor of the church (along with Teresa of Avila) in 1970.

Catherine was also a literary figure, in that her writings — The Dialogue of Divine Providence, her prayers, and her letters — undertaken in Tuscan Italian, constitute works of great power and beauty. Thus, Catherine’s life demonstrated that her well-known epigram, from one of her many letters, was a lesson from experience: “Do not be satisfied with little things, because God wants great things!”

For more about Catherine of Siena . . .

Suzanne Noffke, “Catherine of Siena, justly a doctor of the church?” Theology Today, April 2003

Other Women’s Voices on Catherine of Siena: links to writings, secondary sources

Drawn by Love, a site dedicated to Catherine of Siena

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About Ha_Qohelet

Ha_Qohelet is a transliteration of Hebrew definite article plus a feminine participle, all together meaning "the (feminine) one who assembles" or who calls together. Qohelet is the title of one of the books of the Hebrew Scripture, known in English as Ecclesiastes. The Women's Center at LPTS feels the epithet of Qohelet is a fitting one for what we do and are. The Women's Center is, indeed, a caller-together, a caller-to-wisdom, and an assembler -- of people, of ideas, of actions, and ultimately, we hope, of transformations in the world. In this context, Ha_Qohelet is the Director of the Women's Center, and Editor-in-Chief of Wimminwise.

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