Church and state power intertwined
The above geographical description is important, because in the 14th century the church—this was before the Reformation so there was only one Western Christian church—was as much a temporal as a pastoral power. The church was like a country today, with interest in preserving land and borders, with the task of making alliances or war, as well as the task of ruling the persons living on this land. The pope and representatives of the pope—cardinals, bishops, papal legates–had both civil and pastoral authority and power over large sections of Italy. In other words, these men were involved in managing territories and the people who lived there. In fact, civil and pastoral authority and power were intertwined in ways that seem unbelievable and scandalous to us today.
This is important because whenever Catherine became involved in a matter she viewed as pastoral, or for the good of the church, she was in fact also getting involved in ecclesiastical (church) politics; and church politics were also Italian and European politics, so Catherine was involved in European wide church politics. It was not her intention to get involved in territorial or power struggles for their own sake; her goal was always pastoral, acting for the salvation/conversion of persons. Her spirituality guided these involvements, and it is this spirituality that I will describe here. However, to understand this spirituality well, it is important to have a few historical facts on hand.
The Christian Church as civil authority
The Church began to formally acquire territories and become a temporal power after it was recognized as a valid institution by Constantine in the Fourth century. At the end of the 10th century with the Fall of the Carolingian Empire and the attacks of vandals from the North, Rome and territory belonging to the church fell into the hands of secular nobility, some of whom became cardinals in order to wield ecclesiastical as well as temporal power. [It wasn’t necessary to be a priest in order to be a cardinal] These developments, where many church authorities such as cardinals, were really lords with ecclesiastical titles, and therefore, persons interested in power rather than pastoral service, began a long period in history, that included Catherine’s late 14th century, where Italian and French nobles became cardinals and members of the papal curia in order to wield temporal power. When Catherine spoke about corruption and sin in the church, she was in great part referring to the scandal of persons with the trappings, power and lifestyle of nobility also holding pastoral leadership.
There were those who followed this path from nobility to church leadership who were sincerely interested in the good of the church. Pope Gregory XI with whom Catherine corresponded extensively was one of these.
Popes, even those who took their pastoral leadership seriously, such as Gregory XI, saw themselves as temporal rulers and mixed what today we would see as spiritual/pastoral authority with temporal political authority. For instance, popes excommunicated adversaries in power struggles for control of territory or prohibited the administration of the sacraments to subjugate a whole city to their rule. In what might seem contradictory today, Catherine became involved on the side of Pope Gregory XI’s interdict, or prohibition of the administration of the sacraments to the citizens of Florence. I discuss this in my article on Catherine of Siena Controversial Discernments. Also see tab “Discernment<limitations of Catherine’s wisdom.”
Popes During Catherine’s public years
Catherine lived during a time when the popes and the central government of the church were located in Avignon, France (1309 and 1377), and during the beginning of the Great Schism of the papacy (1378-1417)—a time when two popes were elected at the same time, one living in Rome, the other in Avignon. Four of Catherine’s politically active years were lived under Gregory XI; and two under the competing papacies of Urban VI in Rome and Clement VII (sometimes called the anti-pope) in Avignon. Gregory XI, a Frenchman, had been made a cardinal in 1348, long before being ordained a priest in 1371 so that he could become pope. [A cardinal in the Middle Ages did not need to be an ordained priest or have a pastoral career.] Urban VI, an Italian, was elected following Gregory’s death in 1378.
Catherine Chosen to engage in papal politics
Catherine’s involvement in papal policies, especially regarding the crusade, has been interpreted as fruit of her mystical gifts. The implication is that her closeness to God led her to come up with this policy and take the initiative of trying to get Gregory XI to implement the policy. This view of Catherine’s role is not supported by history. See below.
Rather, Catherine was intentionally chosen by church authorities to become engaged in papal politics. She was elected to fulfil a role often ascribed to female mystics in the Middle Ages, when women with reputations for holiness and for mystical gifts were held in high esteem. Church leaders consulted them believing they would have special insight because of their closeness to God. Most often leaders wanted reassurance that God was, as it were, on their side, or they believed the woman’s prayers would help their goals. Did God think their policies would be successful? Could the woman pray for the leader and his policies? Or, they wanted a sort of oracle: could the woman foresee what should be done about a particular issue?
Pope Gregory XI had been advised by saint Birgitta of Sweden who as a widow settled in Rome and advised several popes. When she died, Gregory sought a replacement. It is thought that Gregory XI’s search for a new woman mystic to counsel him led to the assignment of Raymond of Capua as Catherine’s spiritual director and advisor so that he might guide her to support papal policies.
Historical documents show that Raymond himself wrote that he had been assigned to Catherine “for the saving of souls, the crusade, and other business of the Holy Roman Church.” We also know through historical research that the pro-Papal League leaders in Florence together with Raymond planned Catherine’s trip to Avignon in order to advocate for a peace treaty between Florence and the Papal States, and that this was planned with the belief that the pope was more likely to listen to this female mystic (as opposed to a politically involved man). It was during this trip that Catherine also encouraged the pope to further pursue his crusade policy.
Three of Catherine’s letters (131, 133, 144) tell us that Raymond received a letter from Pope Gregory XI requesting help for the crusade and it was after this that Catherine’s most intense advocacy for this cause took place. Catherine, then, was coached by Raymond regarding this mission. He accompanied her on all her travels, and he was the contact with the highly placed dignitaries with whom she stayed and to whom she spoke. As well, Raymond and other authorities undoubtedly advised Catherine regarding persons to whom she should write.
These historical facts tell us that Catherine did not initiate the idea of a crusade and Gregory XI did not need to be persuaded. Catherine did not come up with the idea of going to Avignon to see Gregory. The main goal of this trip was not advocating for the crusade, though Catherine did encourage Gregory to pursue this goal. As to Gregory XI’s return to Rome, history tells us this was a goal he had from early in his papacy so that Catherine had little influence on him in this regard.
Raymond’s historically inaccurate narrative
The narrative that Catherine had the idea of pursuing a crusade and it was she who persuaded the pope was started through legend, most likely promoted if not started by Raymond, who wrote in his hagiography:
“Catherine always desired that the crusade take place and she worked very hard to accomplish this desire. Indeed, this was the main reason that she went to Avignon to see Pope Gregory XI. She wanted to persuade him to order the crusade, a goal she accomplished. I am a witness, I was present and I saw and heard all the effort made to accomplish this.’ (Raymond of Capua 1980:section 291) [my translation of Italian edition]
Raymond took liberties with history for the greater goal, from his perspective, of presenting Catherine as extraordinarily endowed by God’s grace and therefore worthy of canonization. It’s an example of how hagiography can rearrange history. In this process, Raymond’s hagiography has influenced the way Catherine’s life and spirituality have been understood and interpreted to this day.
However, history contradicts Raymond’s hagiography, not just because we know Catherine was coached by Raymond regarding this involvement, but because of the historical record regarding Gregory and the crusade. Gregory XI had tried to get a crusade underway since he was elected pope but had run into many stumbling blocks from other European and church leaders who did not support his initiative. The crusades which had started in the 12th century were no longer politically viable in the 14th century. In fact, Gregory’s efforts ultimately failed; the few men sent on crusade towards the end of his life were defeated as soon as they arrived in the Balkans where they were expected to defend against the Turkish incursion.
The crusade and Catherine’s spirituality
If Catherine’s involvement in papal politics was not the result of her mystical gifts, then what do these involvements tell us about her spirituality? First, I will discuss what we learn by examining her involvement in the crusade, and secondly, I will discuss what we learn from her letters to Gregory XI.
Once asked to get involved, the crusades became for Catherine a passionate pursuit. This is clear from her many letters on this subject. She wrote fourteen letters to Gregory XI, two to Urban VI, and over 30 more to Kings, Queens, leaders of city states and knights, as well as a few to her own followers advocating pursuing the crusade declared by Gregory XI. From these letters one can glean Catherine’s own crusade spirituality and from this spirituality we see the reason that this cause was so dear to her heart. (See my article, Catherine of Siena’s Crusade Letters: Spirituality and Political Context.)
Catherine was drawn to the ideals of a spirituality of crusade from listening to readings on feast days and during the recitation of the Hours (today the Breviary recited by priests); as well these ideals would have emerged in popular stories about heroic acts on behalf of the faith. Crusade spirituality—developed in the 12th century—described a penitential pilgrimage. Knights and any accompanying them on a crusade pilgrimage were expected to practice prayer, fasting and almsgiving; communal fasting and prayer often preceded engagement in battle. The Holy Land was revered as a shrine that belonged to Christianity and the fact that non-Christians were taking over these sacred places was considered an attack on the faith and the faith must be defended. Doing so was an opportunity to give of oneself to God for the good of Christianity.
For Catherine the spirituality of a holy pilgrimage to save the sacred places melded with a spirituality of martyrdom which also formed part of popular piety in the Middle Ages. This spirituality highlighted a desire for martyrdom as an ultimate expression of love for God in the willingness to imitate Jesus and surrender one’s life. Catherine was attracted to this heroic expression of love for God since her adolescent days of solitude at home, seeing the crusade as a possibility for martyrdom. See Letter 144.
Working towards the salvation and transformation of persons so that love of God and neighbor could more and more become the center of their lives was Catherine’s central life mission. Thus, for Catherine a crusade offered the possibility of transformation and giving of oneself to God in service of the church; it was an opportunity for the conversion of non-Christians and a crusade pilgrimage offered the possibility of the ultimate giving of self to God, that is, martyrdom. The crusade was such a passionate cause for Catherine because of this spirituality. She longed to go on crusade herself and end her life as a martyr for the faith. Letters to her followers—and amazingly to authorities hardly known for the practice of the faith—urged this spiritual and life goal. See letter 143.
Catherine envisaged the crusade as a possibility for the transformation and salvation of many across Italy and Europe. Since she believed all the Europeans fighting among themselves were sinning through such fighting among “brothers,” a crusade would lead knights away from such sinful activity directing fighting instead to liberation of the Holy Land. Crusaders and any other pilgrims joining them would be transformed through the pilgrimage and would as well have the possibility of offering their lives to Christ as martyrs for the rescue of the Holy Land. A crusade would make peace possible among European factions, allowing the pope to focus on reforming church leaders and clergy, fostering the salvation of corrupt pastors. Finally, the recovery of the Holy Land would offer the possibility of salvation to those ‘unbelievers’ who could be converted.
Catherine’s crusade letters reveal several themes of her spirituality:
- The salvation of persons was her greatest desire for her closeness to God revealed God’s love and mercy and God’s desire to offer this love and mercy for the conversion of persons. Catherine saw her vocation as being a facilitator so that God could accomplish this.
- This passionate desire and clarity of mission—to be facilitator of salvation–led Catherine to advocate for those causes that she saw as mediating this goal. She saw the crusade as a particularly powerful event for the transformation of many. Unfortunately, the crusade never materialized, and Catherine’s vision of a crusade spirituality was never viable. However, her crusade spirituality shows us her single-minded concern for the salvation/transformation of persons.
- Her crusade spirituality also shows us that Catherine considered the cultural/political context relevant to the journey of transformation. For instance, she felt that engagement in crusade would enable warriors to stop fighting each other and instead participate in a pilgrimage; through a crusade there would be greater peace in Europe and the pope could then better perform his function of reform of the church, which Catherine saw as essential for the transformation of many. In other words, Catherine’s spirituality was not just about a relationship to God; it was not just about working for the direct transformation of persons. Her spirituality also included working towards a change in historical reality so that this reality would support and help transformation.
- Catherine’s crusade letters confirm her attraction to martyr spirituality; including her desire to personally die a martyr.
- The broad range of persons to whom Catherine wrote reveals her blind faith in God’s power to work in the hearts of persons no matter how distant they were from pursuing a committed Christian path. For instance, she invited the Queen of Naples to consider martyrdom when this woman was known for her worldly and sinful life.
- The crusade letters, as did all her letters, reveal her wisdom about the spiritual journey. This wisdom will be spelled out in detail in other sections of this website.