Spring 1989, Vol.41 No. 1, pp. 4-17.

Suzanne Noffke O.P.:
      Catherine of Siena and Ecclesial Obedience

The ecclesial spirituality of Catherine of Siena provides theological principles as relevant today as in her time for dealing with issues of authority in the Church.

Suzanne Noffke, O.P., is visiting scholar at the University of Chicago. Her most recent work is the first volume of the Letters of St. Catherine of Siena (1988), which is being funded by a grant from NEH. Previous works include The Prayers of St. Catherine of Siena (1983) and The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena (1980).

"Among the Thorns I Smell the Fragrance of the Rose About to Open"

THERE are two chief disservices we can do to a person such as Catherine of Siena whom we can approach only across centuries.

On the side of zeal we might stretch our interpretations (deliberately or otherwise) to enlist her support for our own causes -- especially in an area such as church, where so many tensions are at stake for us. Particularly where she seems to come close to our own convictions we easily begin to read into her life and writings answers to questions her own time and place would never have raised for her. This is unfair and dishonest. What is legitimate and even helpful, however, is to attempt to read out of her life and writings the principles that formed her thought, the principles out of which she responded to her own questions and out of which she would respond to today's questions if she were living today and had not changed her basic mind-set. To do this it is essential that we avoid a second trap.

And the second trap is this: through superficiality or caution we might mistake the categories and vocabulary Catherine inherited and of course used as more fully an indicator of her thought than they in fact are. This too would be a disservice to her and to ourselves. Often the convictions that move a person most effectively go far beyond the terminology and categories he or she has inherited and continues very naturally to employ. Again we must look to the totality of Catherine's life and writings to learn the patterns and principles that flow beneath the surface of her language.

People live in different ways with the traditions and assumptions and linguistic categories they inherit -- whether these are the carriers of ethics or logic or faith or etiquette. There are the conformists who seem to fit into the shape of whatever they happen to inherit without resistance and without having any effect on its further evolution. There are the rebels who refuse to accept any preordained shape, who must find or make their own shape, at least in given areas of life. And there are those who live with a certain creative freedom with their heritage, able to be comfortable in some aspects of it, reshaping others to their own insights and purposes. But none of us escapes dealing with the traditions and assumptions and expressions we inherit, and in today's Church we are particularly sensitive to certain of these.

In her convictions and life within the church was Catherine of Siena conformist or rebel or free -- or all three? Was she hopeful for her season of the Church? And does she offer us any inspiration for living creatively and hopefully in our season of the Church?

What we will touch here is not the whole of Catherine's ecclesial spirituality (which would need to encompass the whole of her spirituality) but quite specifically her relationship with the authority and structures of the Church, since within these lie in large part our hope or discouragement for our future within that Church. And I shall try in my use of the data to avoid the two traps referred to above: neither stretching the evidence nor assuming that Catherine's inherited assumptions and vocabulary necessarily represent the limits of her convictions.

We have one distinct advantage with Catherine of Siena which bears stressing in this context. Her education was not from the schools, and she wrote out of her own experiencing and integration of all that she so ravenously devoured from life. Her knowledge was a knowledge of persuasion developed through cycle after cycle of personal struggle to discern and be faithful to what she eventually called "the Truth that is Love" -- God. Her writings mirror her person, and what we know of her life supports her writings. They are inseparable. Both provide the data we need to know Catherine's truest mind, and we can trust their integration.


Catherine (1347-1380) lived in an age when the Church's authority and credibility were being questioned and severely challenged particularly where political power was concerned. The Church had a definite political identity, political territory and power, and nations and republics then growing into awareness of their own identity and power felt justified in resisting what were truly trespasses on their sovereignty. The feet of ecclesiastical politicians were too obviously clay to be easily kissed! But beneath all this ferment the structures and authority of the Church as a religious institution were quite universally accepted as a given even by those who were restive under the personalities and politics involved. The Protestant Reformation had not yet blossomed. Nor had the theory of separation of church and state.

Still, the distinctions between church as religious institution and church as political entity were not always so simply drawn within actual situations. Catherine clearly had a sense of the distinctions, and even insisted that it was not politics she was about.(1) But even while she could underscore the relativity of any temporal authority or personality, with just about everyone else of her era she considered religious ecclesiastical authority inviolable. She spoke of the pope as "Christ on earth, whom you are all obliged to obey even to the point of death. Whoever refuses to obey him is ... living in damnation."(2) Even if that vicar were a devil incarnate, I must not defy him."(3) "Every faithful Christian is obligated to be faithful and to serve holy church, each according to his or her situation."(4) Nor might civil authority presume to legislate for or prosecute the clergy, even in clearly civil matters.(5)


Passages such as those just cited, especially since they come from the periods of Catherine's struggles first with the anti-papal league of Milan and Florence and then with the schism centering on the person of Pope Urban VI, may seem rigidly conformist, indeed, almost simplistically so. But there is a key distinction to be noted which is very clear from her writings: the respect and obedience due the pope and other church authorities is founded for her completely on their role as ministers of the Word and of the Blood (the revelation in Jesus of the Truth and Love that is God). Ultimately it is with them that we must be obedient to all that entry into the person and mission of Jesus demands of us. And this is the context in which they themselves must see and hold and be accountable for their authority. So she writes to Messer Pietro, priest of Semignano:

Have respect for your own dignity -- for God in his mercy has appointed you to such a marvelous task as to have you administer the fire of divine charity, the body and blood of Christ crucified .... Realize that God has put his word in the vessel of your soul.(6)
And to Cardinal Pedro de Luna:
Oh dearest father, fall in love with this truth so that you may be a pillar in the mystic body of holy church, where this truth must be administered. For truth is in her, and because truth is in her it must be administered by truthful persons, persons who are in love with truth and enlightened by it -- not persons who are insensitive to and ignorant of it.(7)
Luigia Tincani(8) points out the significant fact that Catherine always uses the term minister rather than teacher of truth in referring to pastors, as if to stress that they are only servants of truth: Christ alone is the true teacher or master of truth.

To Pope Gregory XI himself she writes:

Since [Christ] has given you authority and you have accepted it, you ought to be using the power and strength that is yours. If you don't intend to use it, it would be better and more to God's honor and the good of your soul to resign .... If I were in your place I would be afraid of incurring divine judgment. And so with all my heart I am begging you in the name of Christ crucified to be obedient to God's will (for I know you neither desire nor want to do anything but God's will) -- so as not to bring upon yourself that harsh rebuke, "Cursed be you, for time and power were entrusted to you and you did not use them!"(9)
Yet she writes to him on another occasion:
I long to see you arrive at peace -- you yourself at peace and your children at peace with you. God is asking this peace of you and wants you to do about it whatever you can.

Ah me! It does not seem he wants us paying so much attention to temporal authority and possessions that we lose sight of the great slaughter of souls and dishonor to God that come from war! No, it seems God wants you to open your mind's eye to the beauty of souls and to the blood of his Son in which he washed our soul's face. And you are minister of this blood.(10)

It is this ministry of the Word and the Blood that Catherine respects and obeys and invariably salutes as the authority in the priesthood and hierarchy. Obedience on the ecclesial plane is for the ordained as for all Christians an entry into the mystery of the Word and the Blood.(11) There is a clear sense of this mystery, this sacramentality, in the foundation Catherine lays for her discussion of obedience in the Dialogue. God the Father is speaking:
When I saw that humankind, whom I so loved, were not returning to me their end, my infinite goodness constrained me to put the key of obedience into the hand of the gentle loving Word, my Truth, and he like a doorman unlocked heaven's gate. Without this key and this doorman, my Truth, no one can enter .... When he rose beyond human companionship through his ascension to return triumphantly to me in heaven, he left you this sweet key of obedience ....

What was the source of this Word's obedience? His love for my honor and your salvation. And what was the source of this love? The light of his soul's clear vision of the divine Essence and eternal Trinity .... This vision effected most perfectly in him that fidelity which the light of most holy faith effects imperfectly in you ....

The Word's obedience was so superb that all of you draw grace from it, just as you had drawn death from disobedience. But it would not be enough for it to be in him alone and not be exercised by you here and now. I have already told you that his obedience is a key that unlocked heaven, a key that he put into the hands of his vicar.. This vicar puts it into the hands of each of you when you receive holy baptism .... So each of you individually has it, the very Word's key. (12)

Obedience for Catherine, then, is a conformity, but a conformity only to Truth in Jesus Christ. It is a selling of our freedom only to discover that it has become more perfectly ours than before we had surrendered it. She asks:
What is this thing that is ours, given us by God, that neither the devil nor anyone else can take from us? It is our will. To whom shall we sell this treasure, our will? To Christ crucified. (13)

It is no shame to serve God, for to serve God is not to be a servant but to reign. And the more perfect our service and the more we submit ourselves to him, the more free we are and the more we become masters of ourselves rather than being controlled by sin, the thing that has no being. For we cannot bring a greater wretchedness on ourselves than to become the servants and slaves of sin, since we thereby lose the being that is grace and serve nothingness and become nothings. (14)

The obedient, those whose only conformity is to Truth in Jesus Christ, are the freest of the free, for their only ultimate rule is the Spirit of Jesus and, as the Father warns Catherine in the Dialogue, it is stupidity to try to impose rules on the Holy Spirit.(15)
O obedience!... Your authority is so great that no one can have authority over you, because you have left behind the deadly servitude of selfish sensuality that had deprived your of your dignity. Once this enemy was slain by contempt for doing your own will, you regained your freedom.(16)
It is obvious, then, that Catherine's theoretical notion of obedience within the Church is not conformist in any rigid or legalistic sense. She sings of it as free with the demanding freedom that sees nothing as absolute but God and God's truth and love, the freedom that compelled Jesus to "run to the cross as one madly in love."(17) Yes, let us be clear about it: the freedom of which she speaks is no easy or self-serving freedom. But freedom it is.

Theorizing tends to be far neater than life, however. How did Catherine integrate her thinking into the actual shape of her own living within the not-at-all-neat structures of the Church and in relation to its established authority and laws?


Even to begin to appreciate the integrity and integration of Catherine's lived interpretation of obedience, we must recognize her underlying sense of the relativity of everything to God and to God's opening of eternity to us in and through Jesus Christ. That relativity -- assumed at least in theory by most believers was for her so felt a reality that it was invariably the context of her response to any practical issue. The material state of the Church, the wealth or poverty of individuals or families or nations, her own personal loves and those of others, the circumstances of life and lifestyle: all of these were to be judged only in light of their bearing on our entry, individually and as the whole human and ecclesial community, into God and God's eternity in and through Jesus, and by what we are doing about them in that light. So she could, without any sadistic or masochistic contempt for the physical, earthy side of life, speak of loving people's souls more than their bodies even while she contended that "things are only as temporal as we make them. "(18) She could be relentless in her ascetical demands on herself (though she did with the years learn some gentleness in this), and just as relentless in insisting that each person must live by the leading of the Spirit, and that asceticism is never to be mistaken for more than the very relative means that it is.(19) There seem to have been only two ultimate questions for Catherine in matters of practical discernment: "Is it true?" and "Is it loving?". Integrity for her demanded that the answer to both questions be yes before she could be satisfied with the rightness of any given course of action. (20)

In the determination of her personal lifestyle, in the development of her ministry, and in her public relationship with the bearers of authority in the Church, Catherine's mode of obedience was uncompromising where the absoluteness of God's Love-and-Truth was concerned. And it was unafraid of paying the price of being an integral part of the larger picture which is the "Church always in need of reform." It was free to pursue the most effective ways to that relativity and integration even if these might seem different or absurd to others.

As Catherine grew into the lifestyle that was to be hers, her eye was set almost stubbornly on that group of Sienese Dominican tertiaries known as the Mantellate, women who pledged their remaining years (they were, until Catherine, all widows) and their resources to the service of the sick and the poor under the authority of a prioress and ultimately of the Dominican friar appointed as their chaplain. From the beginning there is no doubting the importance Catherine placed on obedience (though the Mantellate did not make religious vows) and on the structures of the Church. Nevertheless, her sole determination after she had argued her way into the Mantellate was apparently to live in contemplative solitude, a pattern which would have been thought much more suited in terms of custom and policy to the cloister than to the group she had joined! She was different, and her differentness was clearly not attributed to sanctity by all of her contemporaries.

The proof of the honesty with which she pursued this way so independent and apparently outside the normal course of obedience is, I believe, in the integrity with which she grew beyond what her very prayer in solitude eventually revealed to her was a "one-footed, one-winged" attempt at the journey into God. (21) She had to wrestle with that imperative to break her solitude in order to integrate her love for God with active concern for others, but break it she did. And interestingly, it was the very patterns that were the normal way of her sisters in the Mantellate that schooled her at first in the integration.

But growth was not to settle in here either for Catherine. The amazingly motley band of disciples who soon began to cluster around her in her increasingly itinerant ministry called for a lifestyle and piety that neither the existing cloisters nor the Mantellate could provide. It was these persons' needs as well as the works for which they joined her company that would dictate, stage by stage, the way she lived with them and they with her. When it was a cloister she thought some of them needed she did found one, wholly within the existing ecclesiastical structures for such.(22) But for herself and for the rest who travelled with her she had constantly to devise her own patterns. Sometimes she would explicitly seek to be dispensed from the law where the law was too narrow for her expanding vision, as when she obtained Pope Gregory's permission to have her own chaplains and to have mass celebrated for her company whenever and wherever convenient, "even before dawn." And sometimes she simply trusted and implemented the new forms inspiration led her to. The most striking instance of the latter is the communal lifestyle she established for herself and the forty-some disciples who accompanied or followed her to Rome in 1378. Not long after her death curial eyebrows were raised as some of those disciples continued in the same patterns, and, apparently lacking the sure insight and freedom of their "Mamma," they lock-stepped into conformity with structures already sanctioned and moved either back into their previous lifestyles or into the cloister. One has only to read Chapters 154 to 165 of the Dialogue to recognize Catherine's genuine appreciation for established forms of religious life and the role of obedience within them. Yet one cannot but wonder whether she would have taken so passively this challenge to her tested vision ....

Catherine's obedience within the church was one with her ministry, and that, precisely because it was an explicitly ecclesial ministry, was directed ultimately only by the Spirit of Truth, for whom one "does not lay down rules." Its whole meaning was in conformity with Jesus, whose mission was the healing of the world in his own person and through the Church.

True [she prayed], your Son is not about to come again, except in majesty, to judge .... But, as I see it, you are calling your servants christs, and through them you want to relieve the world of death and restore it to life. How? You want these servants of yours to walk courageously along the Word's way, with concern and blazing desire, working for your honor and the salvation of souls, and for this patiently enduring pain, torments, disgrace, blame -- from whatever source these may come. For these finite sufferings, joined with their infinite desire, you want to refresh them -- I mean, you want to listen to their prayers and grant their desires .... O best of remedy-givers! Give us then these christs, who will live in continual watching and tears and prayers for the world's salvation. You call them your christs because they are conformed to your only-begotten Son. Ah, eternal Father! Grant that we may not be foolish, blind, or cold, or see so darkly that we do not see ourselves, but give us the gift of knowing your will.(23)
Catherine did take on roles many of her contemporaries must have seen as presumptuous and bold for a non-cleric and especially for a woman. She was recognized and recognized herself as spiritual director for many of her disciples, including her own directors.(24) She entered the world of civil/ ecclesiastical politics as a mediator, convinced she was called to do there what she could, in spite of the limitations of competence she admitted and more than once stumbled over. She preached (though sometimes reluctantly when she was explicitly invited), even to those she considered her superiors, including the pope and cardinals. But always she saw herself as the instrument, the intercessor, and intermediary possessed by the Word and the Blood, a minister to the mission of Jesus as Son of God.
Know [she writes to a priest she has been instructing as a son] that of myself nothing can be seen or told except the utmost poverty. I am ignorant and not very insightful. Everything else is from supreme eternal Truth: give him the credit, not me.(25)
This is why and how Catherine could combine such warm loyalty with such searing criticism where the Church, the clergy, and the hierarchy were concerned. She saw the latter as most explicitly ministers, servants of the Word and the Blood, and so she shared with them an obedience to which they bore a very particular responsibility (and she, for that matter, another and no less particular responsibility). In so far as, through the Word and the Blood, they called her and others to take their parts in the total continuing mystery of salvation, she would support and obey them, as she put it so often, "even to the point of death." But she would never let them forget that their authority was essentially obedience, from the same source as her own and that of every other baptized Christian. She writes to the bishop-elect of Castellano in a theme frequently found in her writings:
The pastors of holy church, to whom God has entrusted the care of souls, ought to be true shepherds who follow the good holy Shepherd who laid down and gave his life for his little sheep.(26)
This kind of ministry, where all are ultimately dedicated to the one obedience of conformity with Christ in his mission of redemption, assumes the interdependence she speaks of in Chapter 7 of the Dialogue, and demands openness and exchange at every level. Not even the pope can afford to isolate his authority from this shared obedience. So she writes to Pope Urban VI, whose autocratic and even violent ways she often challenged:
Oh most holy father, be patient when people talk to you about these things. [She is referring to questions of appointments and the correction of abuses.] For they speak only for God's honor and your well-being, as children must do who tenderly love their father. They cannot bear anything being done that will harm or dishonor their father. No, they are in their concern always on the alert, since they are well aware that their father has a huge family to care for, yet has only one man's vision. So if his true-born children were not concerned enough to watch out for their father's honor and good, he would often make mistakes. And so it is with you, most holy father. You are father and lord of the whole body of Christianity; all of us are under your holiness' wings. So far as authority is concerned you can do everything, but in terms of vision you can see no more than any one person can. So it is essential that your children singleheartedly, without any slavish fear, look out for God's honor as well as your honor and welfare and that of the little sheep who are under your staff. And I know that your holiness wants helpers who will really help you -- but you have to be patient enough to listen to them.(27)
Catherine in her loving honesty and honest love would listen, but she expected those in authority to listen as well. And in this lay both her power and her hope for the reform of the Church. To the extent that all were this open there would be hope for her season of the Church, for it is only in obedience and conformity to Jesus Christ, and therefore in common search for the Truth and Love he reveals, that the Church can have hope.


Our season in the Church is no less a season of conflict and tension than was Catherine's. And no less does our reason for hope lie in those who are willing to be open to each other, no matter what their positions, in our common search for conformity to Truth and Love in Jesus Christ. It is not an easy way. Only witness those who have been willing both to speak their convictions and to maintain their love for and loyalty to the Church even in its limitedness and sinfulness (knowing that none of us is without sin). But if it is indeed the Truth and Love of God that we are about, the service of the Word and the Blood, we can continue the sometimes painful and always exciting search together even through our very conflicts and tensions, singing as Catherine sang in the midst of rebellion and schism and personal frustration: "My soul is jubilantly happy in this grief -- because among the thorns I smell the fragrance of the rose about to open!"(28)

  1. Cf. her Letter T123, to the Defenders of Siena. "T" indicates the numbering used by Niccolò Tommasò in his edition of Le Lettere di S. Caterina da Siena (Florence: Barbera, 1860). "DT" indicates the numbering introduced by Eugenio Dupré Theseider in his Epistolario di S. Caterina da Siena (Rome: Istituto Storico per il Medio Evo, 1940) and followed in Volume I of The Letters of St. Catherine of Siena, trans. by S. Noffke, O.P. (Binghamton: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1988).
  2. Dialogue 154, p. 328. All Dialogue citations are from S. Noffke, trans., (New York: Paulist Press, 1980).
  3. Letter DT17, to Bernabò Visconti, p. 69.
  4. Letter T191, to Tommaso d'Alviano.
  5. Cf. Dialogue 115, p. 215.
  6. Letter T59.
  7. Letter T284.
  8. Santa Caterina da Siena per la Chiesa a per il Papa (Rome: Edizioni Cateriniane, 1977), p. 43.
  9. Letter DT71, p. 222-23.
  10. Letter T209.
  11. Mystery" is a concept dear to Catherine, and the word clearly has for her a sense of sacramentality.
  12. Dialogue 154-55, passim.
  13. Letter DT59, to Bartolomea di Salvatico of Lucca, p. 184.
  14. Letter T254, to Pietro di Jacomo Attaghufi.
  15. Dialogue 68, p. 129; cf. also Letters T294, 123, 340.
  16. Dialogue 155, p. 332.
  17. This is a phrase that occurs again and again in Catherine's writings. One of her favorite images of Christ is that of the young man crazy and drunk with love.
  18. Letter DTl, to the Abbess and Suora Niccolosa of the Monastery of Santa Marta in Siena, p. 40.
  19. Cf. Dialogue 11, pp. 40-45; also, among others, Letters DTl to the Abbess and Suora Niccolosa of the Monastery of Santa Marta in Siena (p. 38), T99 to Alessa de' Saracini, and T174 and 300 to Agnesa di Francesco Pipino.
  20. Catherine does not anywhere in her writings formulate the questions in these exact words, but they do capture the heart of her approach to issues of discernment in her own life and in her advice to others. For just two examples, cf. Dialogue 100, pp. 187-95, and Letter DT74 to Pope Gregory XI, p. 231.
  21. The description is Catherine's, from her account of this turning point as reported by Raymond of Capua in his Legenda major, II,i (in Conleth Kearns' translation, The Life of Catherine of Siena by Raymond of Capua (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1980), p. 116.
  22. The cloister was Santa Maria degli Angeli at Belcaro, a few miles outside Siena, for which she obtained use of an abandoned fortress. Nothing seems to be known of its existence beyond its foundation and consecration in 1377, though the building still stands.
  23. Prayer 19, The Prayers of Catherine of Siena trans. by S. Noffke (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), pp. 178-79. The context makes it clear that by "christs" Catherine is referring here to all the baptized, not only to the ordained.
  24. One of the most practical sections of her Dialogue the section on "Tears," (pp. 161-83) grew out of the questions that she held before God about specific problems she had encountered in her ministry of directing others.
  25. Letter T2, to Andrea de' Vitroni.
  26. Letter T341, to Angelo Correr, Bishop-elect of Castellano.
  27. Letter T302.
  28. Letter DT45, to Matteo di Fazzio de' Cenni, p. 143.