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[back to laughing matters 3: the bible gal]

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st kate

THE HYMN TO SAINT CATHERINE

O sing, my soul, Saint Cath’rine’s praises
who for Christ did live and die
The student’s saint our Church proclaims her
and exalts her name on high.

Dear Saint Catherine, guard our college,
bless us all where e’er we roam
Saint seraphic, hear our pleading
Watch our ways and guide us home.

School song of the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota.
A vocal arrangement by a Dr. Dale McGowan is still regularly performed
by the St. Catherine Women’s Choir.

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In my final year on the faculty of the College of Saint Catherine, I made a discovery both startling and embarrassing – that Saint Catherine of Alexandria, the person after whom the college is named, apparently never existed.

Why embarrassing? Because this seemingly enormous fact had eluded me for fifteen years. I’d never heard it even suggested that the college was named for a fictional character. To the contrary, the details of her biography were painstakingly woven into college lore and song and symbolism, right down to the wheel on which her martyrdom was first attempted.

catherine
“St. Catherine of Alexandria”

Though I didn’t buy the various miraculous details of her life and martyrdom, I’d assumed that she, like St. Thomas Aquinas and hundreds of other verifiables, had at least been an actual person. Apparently not. Catherine was one of 200 saints removed from the calendar of saints by the Catholic Church back in 1969 due to (are we ready?) “insufficient evidence of historicity”— a Catholese phrase meaning “she was pretend.” Catherine was one of 46 saints on the list whose existence was further declared “seriously doubtful.” Others included St. Christopher and St. Valentine.

The church at the highest level had done the right thing, ridding itself of a few false beliefs. I was impressed. But there was little felt need to see it through. Colleges and cathedrals named for beings now acknowledged (at the top, anyway) as imaginary continued to act as if nothing had changed. Millions upon millions continued to venerate and pray to the characters, like someone praying to Tiny Tim or Scarlett O’Hara.

church
Interior of the Church of the Sacred Heart
and St. Catherine of Alexandria in Droitwich Spa, UK —
considered by many to be among the most beautiful churches in Britain

I asked about a dozen faculty colleagues if they had any idea St. Catherine had been declared pretend. It was absolute news to all but two. Neither of the two thought it was of any big deal that a known fiction continued to be presented to the masses as true. And both of them, by the most astonishing coincidence, were Catholic.

You may now stop wondering why the place drove me to satire.

st kate

It gets much worse. Catherine’s story has the noble Christian woman steadfastly defending her beliefs, then being tortured and executed on a wheel by the pagan king for not embracing the pagan religion. But current scholarship indicates that “Catherine’s” biography was filched from the actual philosopher, mathematician and astronomer Hypatia of Alexandria, who, according to Socrates Scholasticus, “made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time.”1

hypatia
Hypatia of Alexandria (actual human person)

So why didn’t the early church just make Hypatia a saint? Because of a sore spot in her resume: Hypatia was not a Christian.

Ick.

So an imaginary double was created in her stead, christened Catherine, and martyred dramatically, if ironically, for the one attribute the real person did not possess: Christian faith.

The irony goes deeper still: Scholasticus reports that Hypatia was murdered by a group of Christian monks, an assassination later applauded in the Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiû for “destroy[ing] the last remains of idolatry in the city.” I mention this not to brand all Christianity with charges of intolerant homicide, but to underline the demented irony of the subsequent theft of her identity: a pagan woman murdered by Christians for her beliefs was transformed into a Christian woman murdered by pagans for her beliefs. The perpetrators thereby became the victims, accomplishing a hideous slander in the process.

Imagining an all-white college in the future searching for a namesake. They learn of this amazing man named Martin Luther King. Ah, but he won’t do, for obvious reasons. So they borrow his life story — right down to “I Have a Dream,” “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and the march in Selma — then rename him “Steve” and make him a white man who was gunned down by a black man.

The theft of Hypatia’s identity is precisely that grotesque.

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A pagan woman murdered by Christians for her beliefs
was transformed into a Christian woman murdered by pagans
for her beliefs. The perpetrators thereby became the victims,
accomplishing a hideous slander in the process.

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I simply couldn’t sit on it. So when the time came to teach the final section of the critical thinking course I’d come to love, I included this question on the list of topic choices for the group research project: Did Saint Catherine of Alexandria exist?

The students were puzzled by the question. Not one had ever heard there was any possibility that their college was named for a nonexistent person. One group took the bait and dug in.

It took very little time for them to find out, Hypatia and all. In the process, they learned something I hadn’t known—that “Saint Catherine” was returned to the church calendar in 2002, not as a result of new evidence, but in recognition of her “usefulness as a symbol,” an iconic figure to emulate and to admire.

In the Q&A after the presentation, the class, to their considerable credit, erupted.

If it were openly acknowledged that the college is named for a fictional character, one student said – if we were all gathered together behind the wizard’s curtain – that would be different. Instead we are asked to invoke her concretely and call down her guardianship on our college, her blessings on us all, “where e’er we roam.”

And what does it say about humanity, another asked, that we have to create fictional characters to admire? Is it even good to require perfection, virginity and martyrdom before we can admire someone?

At the root of the discussion was a queasy feeling that either blithe incuriosity or willful patronizing was at work here, that the love of these stories had at some level mattered more than the truth. The truth certainly mattered to this roomful of minds – not whether something was “culturally true,” or “that-which-is-true-but-never-happened,” or any of the other good and valuable concepts of this type that ought to go find themselves another word, one that isn’t already busy defining something else. These students wanted to know the truth, definition 1, about the namesake of their college.

Finally, someone asked: “And what about Hypatia?”

Ah yes. What about Hypatia? What does fiction do to the reality it supplants? What about this actual flesh-and-blood woman of actual accomplishments, this three-dimensional heroine cast aside in favor of a cardboard cutout? Isn’t there something undeniably vile and anti-feminist about what the mythic Saint Catherine does to the no-kidding woman of substance Hypatia?

It was without a doubt my favorite moment as a professor, and bittersweet, since it was among my last.

But why include this story in a series on humor? Because of what I did next. My students’ enthusiasm for the truth and outrage at being patronized by the Catherine myth gave me an idea for a last satirical hurrah at the college that had made me a satirist.
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1Ecclesiastical History, Socrates Scholasticus, Christian historian (4th c.)

[onward to laughing matters 5: the last crusade]

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.