St Catherine of Siena

St Catherine of Siena

Whilst I was browsing the theology shelves of a local bookstore a few weeks ago, a title in the feminist theology section caught my eye: The Feminine Genius of Catholic Theology by Matthew Levering. This is not a book calling for a feminist revolution in theology, but rather one acknowledging the substantial contribution that women have already made to Catholic theology – so substantial that what Levering has done, in this succinct and excellent book, is to explain the basic tenets of Catholic theology, using solely female saints and theologians for explanation and elaboration.

In such a worthwhile project, it is inevitable that St Catherine of Siena, one of the greatest saints of the Dominican Order, should loom large. Whilst we may often marvel at the biographical details of her life – and anyone who is the 24th child in a family and who bore the stigmata is going to be worth reading about – we should not forget that Pope Paul VI declared her a Doctor of the Church. Accordingly we have much to learn from her writings as well as from her personal sanctity.

One of the areas on which St Catherine reflected a great deal was Creation and Providence, and there was one passage in particular in Levering’s book on these topics which stood out to me as we approach the General Election and hear promises of increased prosperity from across the political spectrum.

Catherine’s words in her book The Dialogue are as relevant as ever when she warns against the “wind of prosperity” and its potential for carrying us away in a fatal desire for worldly goods. Although prosperity is not in itself evil, it can produce “the wind of slavish fear,” in which we live in constant fear of losing the temporal goods that we have. In such a condition we can have no peace because we have preferred the creature to the Creator. As a “gentle doctor,” God in due time allows us to lose temporal goods so as to defeat this slavish fear, but sometimes we refuse to release our grip on these temporal goods and we hate God because we have lost them. In such cases, Catherine heard God say to her, “What I have given for life [i.e. temporal goods] becomes death to the receivers, with grief in proportion to their selfishness.”

You’ll hear lots of promises over the next two weeks on the NHS, but you’ll certainly not hear the promise of such a “gentle doctor”, as the one Catherine describes, but that does not mean that for some of us, who are overly attached to our possessions, just such a doctor might be the one we need most.

Fr Toby Lees is assistant priest at Our Lady of the Rosary and St Dominic's, London, and Priest Director of Radio Maria England.