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The Cult of Saint Catherine of Siena: A Study in Civil Religion.

The Cult of Saint Catherine of Siena: A Study in Civil Religion. By Gerald Parsons. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2008. xii + 185 pp. $99.95 cloth.

Catherine Benincasa (1347-1380) is renowned as the poor dyer's daughter from Siena who brought a pope to heel, or so the story goes. Or at least one story. Catherine's father may not have been quite so poor as he has been portrayed, and her work in getting Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome from Avignon may have had more to do with providing convenient cover than other compelling reasons. But cults are known for nothing if not their competing narratives, and it is in exploring theft dynamics that we see how saints respond to, shape, and are shaped by cultural forces during their lives and long after their deaths. Over the past few decades, studies of the cults of St. Jerome, St. Mary Magdalen, St. Joseph, and the "Holy Greyhound" St. Guinefort have illuminated this interplay of religious, political, social, and cultural forces over the longue duree from their own lives into the present. There is nothing quite so malleable as a saint, and the best of these studies have drawn their examples from art, theater, sermons, and literature to show how each generation recasts the saint to fit its own needs and preoccupations.

Gerald Parsons traces the expanding cult of St. Catherine from the early veneration to her canonization in 1461, her formal designation as one of the patron saints of Italy in 1939, and then her designation as one of the patron saints of Europe in 1999. At each stage, it was the hard work of advocates in local or state governments, in the Dominican Order (which she joined as a tertiary in the 1360s), and in the Catholic curia that won Catherine her promotion. Hers was a cult manufactured by parochial interests.

Parsons frames this as "a study in civil religion" that evolves from a Sienese, to an Italian, to a European scale and focus. The prospect is intriguing, yet the cult of St. Catherine as presented here seems distinctly un-civil. It is certainly civic, promoted vigorously by Sienese authorities both Catholic and Communist with a localist intensity that lends it a sometimes claustrophobic chauvinism (or campanilismo). It is also certainly clerical, with the Dominicans acting as the key cheerleaders and brokers, and a series of popes approving the promotions for reasons rooted largely in their own needs and preoccupations. And it is decidedly Catholic in a traditional and conservative sense which not only fails to engage Protestants, Jews, and Muslims, but quite deliberately leaves them on the sidelines.

And that is a problem. The factors critical to a civil religion, and largely lacking here, are a popular base and an ability to unite people of divergent confessions and creeds. Parsons offers descriptions of popular Catholic devotions, and mentions popular values, but these follow standard Catholic stereotypes, and it is not clear that many of them attach uniquely or necessarily to Catherine, or that they are rooted in much beyond clerical catechizing and promotion. Catherine herself remains largely abstract and distant; she is evoked without being broadly embraced in the way that the Magdalen, Joseph, and Jerome were, and so is more logo than logos. By contrast, civil religion in its classic formulations is understood as a deliberately non-denominational creed in which political values, invented traditions, and contemporary preoccupations are boiled together into an amalgam that can be potently parochial and patriotic, sometimes conservative but often radical, and evoked equally by populace and politicos toward often contradictory ends. Above all, it is picked up, utilized, and manipulated by various social groups because the core of common values intersects with the challenges of contemporary events. It is a dimension of civil society, and a factor in the generation of social capital. When push comes to shove, broad civil values and popular expression take priority over narrower parochial definitions. For all its multivalence, civil religion is fundamentally a popular creed and it both seeds and fertilizes a wide range of voluntary and participatory groups that are often spontaneous, uncontrolled, undisciplined and shot through with paradox.

By contrast, what Parsons presents here is less a civil religion than a civic cult. As it evolves over six centuries, the cult of St. Catherine is a highly controlled and orchestrated vehicle for extending ecclesiastical and political patronage, and there is little in its "popular" side that does not seem manufactured and manipulated by either clergy or political officials. There is little that is unscripted or disruptive in the cult of St. Catherine, in sharp contrast to the medieval cults of St. Jerome, not to mention that greyhound St. Guinefort. And there does not seem to be a flourishing lay-driven institutional subculture of confraternities, tracts, legends, and festivals that paint competing Catherines who may actually undermine the official catechism of the moment. This may be a methodological problem. Parsons works largely from official documents, sermons, speeches, and published accounts as he recounts the steps toward each of Catherine's promotions. As a result, this is less a cultural or anthropological study of how a devotion broadens and metamorphoses than it is a catalogue of expanding observances together with an administrative study in how to become a Renaissance saint, a patriotic national patron, and a postmodern European religious figurehead.

There are glimpses of broader cultural forces, and they tend to the dark side. Catherine's promotion as patron saint of Italy came as the culmination of a process that began with Italian unification, when she was recruited as a paragon of Roman values--that is, the values of a Church establishment locked in a culture war with anticlerical Italian national governments. The fascist regime proved more cynically flexible, and gladly supported the conservative campaign that saw Pius XI declare her the patron saint of Italy-that is, a national hero who had wrested the Papacy back from France and so validated the kind of heroic national destiny that was now sending fascist troops to Spain and Ethiopia. Similarly, the campaign to declare her a patron saint of Europe emphasized her ecumenical peacemaking activities, but was driven forward by a significant core who wanted her promotion to be a reassertion of Europe's Christian heritage and identity at a time when immigrants with other religions and other values were thought to be threatening that. Parsons duly notes these political manipulations, but only in passing. It is left to readers to see that, author's protests notwithstanding, what emerges here is not a broad and inclusive civil religion that is buoyed by an ecumenical popular movement, but a narrow and often reactionary ecclesiastical cult promoted largely by savvy clerics and politicians for often distinctly uncivil purposes.

Nicholas Terpstra

University of Toronto

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Author:Terpstra, Nicholas
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2011
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