Catherine: Scholar, Martyr, Virgin, Saint

NT; (c) Stourhead; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

In one of those ironies of God’s history, the patron saint of philosophers is a teenage virgin martyr from the fourth century, Catherine of Alexandria (+305), who dedicated herself to study ‘from a young age’, and who, as her disputed biography (written centuries after her death) relates, bested the best pagan philosophers of her time, in a contest arrange by the emperor Maxentius. Said emperor, when he perceived she could not be beaten by reason, attempted to win her over in his own clumsy way by the art, if you will, of love, with an impromptu proposal of marriage, which Catherine of course refused, being already wedded to Christ.  In his anger, Maxentius had her tied to a torture wheel to ‘break’ her, but the wheel broke instead; hence, Catherine was summarily beheaded.

Some revisionists claim that Catherine’s story is actually an inversion of the later death of the pagan philosopher Hypatia, who was lynched by a group of angry Christians, apparently by and large for political reasons (she was stirring up trouble between the governor and the bishop). Hypatia’s ‘martyrdom’ comprises one of those anti-Catholic tropes, hyperbolically exaggerated, along with Galileo, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and on it goes.

But Catherine’s historical veracity is attested by the consistent devotion of the faithful, who have always been attached to her intercession as one of the most popular of early saints, and it was Catherine who appeared to Joan of Arc to prompt her on her own mission in freeing France from English domination in the 15th century. Perhaps in response to such sensus fidelium, Catherine’s feast, removed in the sometimes too-hasty revisions after Vatican II, was put back into the universal calendar in 2002 under Saint John Paul II.  She is also the patron saint of unmarried women and students.

Besides her philosophical acumen, Catherine’s name means ‘always pure’, something we could use a lot more of in today’s all-too impure world.  As the Catechism declares, there is a deep connection between “charity; chastity or sexual rectitude; love of truth and orthodoxy of faith”, or, as it may be put “between purity of heart, of body and of faith” (cf., #2518).

This is a large part of the reason why the modern world cannot see truths which seem so obvious and clear. As I wrote recently, paraphrasing Saint Thomas, nothing so blinds the mind as lust and sexual deviance, which the world is now learning the long, long way around.

Pray to Saint Catherine, that we all may be given eyes to see and ears to hear