Thursday, April 29, 2010

St. Catherine of Siena and Gregory XI

Today is the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena, one of the greatest Doctors of the Church. Catherine was the 23rd child out of a family of 25 and turned aside from marriage to pursue a life of consecrated service to our Lord, to whom she was mystically wedded. Throughout her life she was involved in many worldly affairs as a mediator, even in matters of great importance such as territorial disputes between the pope and the other Italian cities. One of the things she is most remembered for is her role in ending the Avignon papacy by admonishing Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome.

It is well attested in history that Pope Gregory XI ultimately chose to move the papal seat from Avignon back to Rome because of the prayers and petitions of St. Catherine (1376). This is interesting, because here we have an example of a saint disagreeing with the pope's management of the affairs of the Church; she clearly thought the residence of the Successor of St. Peter in the French city of Avignon was a bad thing for the Church, and that even if Gregory XI thought otherwise, she still thought it prudent, even meritorious, to charitably yet firmly insist that the pontiff bring about a drastic change of affairs. One thing she certainly did not do is sit back and accept the idea of a pope at Avignon under the idea that popes can't make prudential errors. On the contrary, she saw Gregory XI making a prudential error by residing in Avignon and thought it fitting to charitably correct him. She did not assume that every prudential judgment the pope made was of the Holy Spirit, otherwise she would not have corrected him.

It is interesting to note that if St. Catherine disapproved of Gregory XI's residency at Avignon, she must have implicitly disapproved of the entire course the Church had been following for the previous seventy years, since the papal residency at Avignon had been a reality since Clement V (1309). She disagreed not only with the actions of a single pontiff but with something that had become an entrenched ecclesiastical policy. Yet the fact that she was going against seventy years of precedent didn't stop her; perhaps some tried to tell her that her efforts were fruitless, that this was "the way of the future." Yet this made no difference to her.

Many of you can see where I am going with this - if one of our greatest saints and doctors of the Church can admonish a pope that his prudential judgment in governing the Church is errant, and be praised for it, why is there a stigma attached to questioning prudential judgments of the popes today in their governance of the Church?

At this point, some will immediately jump in and say, "How arrogant! You are not a saint! You are not Catherine of Siena! St. Catherine may have corrected the pope, but she was a saint and a very holy woman. You Traditionalists, on the other hand, are just a bunch of nobody bloggers and nit-pickers with no authority whatsoever."

This is true - we are not saints, nor are we Catherine of Siena. Nor do we have any "authority" (yet neither did St. Catherine, a lay person who was illiterate). Even so, I don't think this argument carries a lot of weight. It is true that sometimes saints do things that the rest of us would not normally be bold enough to do. But on the other hand, when looking at what St. Catherine did, we ought not to think, "She can do that because she is a saint" but rather ask ourselves what St. Catherine's justification for doing so at the time would be.

What I mean is this: If we were to time travel back to 1376 and ask St. Catherine, "Why did you think it was acceptable for a layperson such as yourself (remember, she was only a Dominican tertiary) to question the pope's governance of the Church and even admonish him?" Do you think she would say to us, "Well, it's okay for me to do it because I am a saint." Do saints talk like that? Do saints give as justification for their own actions the fact that they are holy? Of course not! Anybody who has read any lives of the saints knows that saints, even though they do eccentric things, never do them for the reason that "they are a saint." Saints don't know they are saints; they honestly don't believe they are saints, and this is never a justification in their own mind for their actions. Can you imagine Catherine saying, "I'm a saint, so I can admonish the pope; but you? No, you can't because you are not holy like me." Saints think of themselves as lower than others and would be more likely to excuse somebody else doing something rather than justify themselves for doing it. St. Catherine, in her humility, never would have accepted an interpretation of her actions that said, "She can do that because she's a saint and we're not."

So what would she answer if we put the question to her? She would certainly say, "I did it because it was the right thing to do," or something along those lines. And acting out of a care for what is right and good is precisely what goes into the making of a saint. St. Catherine told Gregory XI to go back to Rome because it was right and just for her to do so, because it was right for the pope to reside in Rome, not Avignon. And she would have been happy if anyone else would have done so as well; in fact, she might have preferred someone else do it. Saints typically see themselves as the least worthy to undertake any meritorious deed, especially the weighty sort of political affairs Catherine was enmeshed in throughout her life.

One other point to consider about this affair - isn't one reason saints are made saints is so that we might imitate their conduct? Saints are role models. Now does it make any sense to say, "Yes, St. Catherine is an exemplary role model. If you follow her path, you will attain sanctity; oh, except, there's this one thing she did that you must never do." One could ask, "If I want to be a saint, and she is a model, why should I not imitate her in this one thing?" They might respond, "Because she is a saint and you are not." Hmm...but isn't imitating the saints the way to become a saint??? One cannot simultaneously advocate imitating a saintly person while at the same time forbidding their imitation on the grounds that they are saintly and you are not. It makes  very little sense.

Okay, so I'm not saying we ought to all jump out of our chairs and start sending the pope a list of things we think he ought to do. I am saying that we need to examine our own history and tradition and see how saints and holy persons of old acted when they were convinced that the ecclesiastical authorities were making prudential decisions that they thought harmful to the Church. If we do so, I think we will see that not infrequently in Church history we come across saints admonishing and even rebuking popes and authorities when they make bad choices. Furthermore, we ought not to treat these examples as exceptions that were right for the saints but somehow wrong for us. One reason the saints are saints because their conduct is praiseworthy, and if their conduct is praiseworthy then it is worthy of imitation. Given this example, and others like it, no Catholic should have any excuse for questioning the orthodoxy or loyalty of any other Catholic who sincerely thinks the hierarchy or the pope may have made a prudential error in his governance of the Church or accuse such Catholics of arrogance, as if it's arrogant for one class of persons but praiseworthy for St. Catherine.

Therefore, when we do find these examples from history of saints admonishing or correcting popes, I don't think we need to be cowed into silence by those who would accuse us of arrogance by saying, "You're not a saint!" I certainly don't claim to be a saint, but I do know that St. Catherine, when she was petitioning the pope to change his judgment, wasn't doing it "because she was a saint"; she was doing it because it was right to do, and one never has to be ashamed of doing what is right so long as it is done in charity and sincerity.

1 comment:

Geremia said...

I love Santa Caterina di Siena! When she was little and ascending the staircase in her home, she would kneel on each step and say a prayer! Evidently, she was called to be a saint even at such a young age.

Your assessment of her correcting Pope Gregory XI is very relevant amidst talk of Pope John Paul II becoming canonized or labeled "The Great." Many Catholics think, like St. Catherine might have, that Pope John Paul II made prudential errors by kissing the Koran and holding the two Assisi interfaith peace conferences. These are what a "devil's advocate" might argue against the pope's canonization, but it is up to the Church to decide this.