Rorate Caeli

St. Catherine of Alexandria — broken on the Consilium's wheel

As one who has spent many years of my life studying and teaching philosophy, I have always felt a special devotion to St. Catherine of Alexandria -- or at least, ever since I first learned of her existence and patronage.

Under November 25th, my old St. Andrew's Daily Missal confidently transmits to me the basic story of her life and death as it was accepted by all Christians for centuries:

St. Catherine was born at Alexandria and martyred under Maximinus Daia c. 310. Ancient accounts related that when she was eighteen years old, as well instructed in philosophy as in religion, the emperor gathered together a group of philosophers to persuade her to deny Christ and worship idols. But instead, she convinced them of their error and converted them to Christianity. She was scourged and bound to wheels on which knives were fixed, but the instrument of torture broke. Finally she was beheaded. This story was a great source of inspiration for medieval iconography in pictures of the saint. St. Catherine is honoured as patron of Christian philosophers, and is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers.

Her collect in the traditional Roman Missal is a magnificent oration that refers to the miraculous translation of her body to the monastery of Mt. Sinai:

O God, who on the top of Mount Sinai didst give the law to Moses, and in wondrous wise by means of Thy holy angels didst place there the body of blessed Catherine, Thy virgin and martyr: grant that, through her merits and prayers, we may come to the true mountain which is Christ. Who with Thee liveth and reigneth in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God world without end. Amen.

As we saw earlier this week in looking at the old collect for the Presentation, this prayer, too, is admirable for its inner harmony and density of content. It beautifully connects the holy mountain on which Moses was given the Law to the mountain which is Christ Himself, the very origin, meaning, and end of the Law. The famous Christian monastery (implied, as the resting place where Catherine's body was placed) then becomes a kind of middle term, linking our current condition of pilgrimage and discipleship with our future glory in heaven. The monastery, one might say, is the fulfillment of the old Law and the symbol of the new Law. Moreover, the collect bears witness to the intervention of angels in human affairs; it underlines the reality of miracles, which God performs through and on behalf of His saints; and it goes beyond the mention of Catherine's intercession to acknowledge those merits of hers that establish her as a helper in time of need. Lastly, it is always beneficial to be reminded -- today, more than ever -- that the Old Law had its origin in God "who didst give the law to Moses," and that, in its universal moral content, it remains binding on all mankind. (This includes the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, about which a number of our contemporaries seem to be having so many doubts.)

The traditional Roman Martyrology mentions the same miraculous event of the transferral of Catherine's relics to the Egyptian monastery:

The birthday of St. Catharine, virgin and martyr, under the emperor Maximinus. For the confession of the Christian faith, she was cast into prison at Alexandria, and afterwards endured a long scourging with whips garnished with metal, and finally ended her martyrdom by decapitation. Her body was miraculously conveyed by angels to Mount Sinai, where pious veneration is paid to it by a great concourse of Christians. 

In spite of the universal and centuries-old devotion to St. Catherine "by a great concourse of Christians" in both East and West, the liturgical reforms of the 1960s, restrained by no sense of piety, humility, cultural deference, or common sense, felt free to remove her feastday altogether from the general calendar. Not enough historical veracity, apparently, behind her story or even her existence -- leaving aside the problematic fact that St. Catherine is one of the saints who appeared to St. Joan of Arc and gave her counsel. The excision did not reach as far as the revised Martyrology, but needless to say, the new Martyrologium (not a well known text, since it exists only in Latin, as far as I know), carefully removes mention of historical context or miraculous details.

Nevertheless, this excision could not last under the reign of a Polish philosopher-poet, Karol Wojtyla, who (whatever his flaws may have been) appreciated the realm of reasoning as well as the role of culture and the fine arts. In 2002, the patroness of philosophers was quietly re-inserted into the Novus Ordo missal as an "optional memorial" on the same date as before, November 25. But, at least until Pope Leo XIV or Benedict XVII is elected Sovereign Pontiff, postconciliar restorationism has its limits. The collect printed for this optional memorial is a mere shadow of its former glory. We have moved from a unique prayer based in centuries of devotion to a generic prayer that might be applied to a couple of dozen episcopal or papal saints:

Almighty ever-living God, who gave Saint Catherine of Alexandria to your people as a Virgin and an invincible Martyr, grant that through her intercession we may be strengthened in faith and constancy and spend ourselves without reserve for the unity of the Church.

As I argued earlier this month concerning the collects of St. Albert the Great, there is almost nothing specific to Catherine in this new collect, as opposed to the old, which was custom-fitted like a tailor-made suit, or like any one of the dozens of unique Gothic cathedrals in France.

It has been said that "every error in theology begins with an error in philosophy"; or, that "bad theology is the fruit of bad philosophy." This has certainly been borne out again and again in the last half century. We see the same dynamic at work in the liturgical reform, too: its major decisions or tendencies are rooted in assumed and unexamined premises of nominalism, voluntarism, liberalism, rationalism, and naturalism. For this reason, it is perhaps a perfect picture of irony that St. Catherine of Alexandria, patroness of philosophers, was among the saints who suffered a kind of textual martyrdom at the hands of the Consilium and the executors of its legacy. 

May St. Catherine pray for us, and  obtain for us the grace to recover the traditional religion for which she herself suffered and died.