This Sunday, October 7, Pope Benedict will name Hildegard of Bingen a Doctor of the Church, having in early May extended her cult to the universal Church to remove all doubt about her status as a saint. Doctors of the Church are saints whose sanctity and doctrine have benefited the Church to great advantage. What might Benedict wish for us to learn from St. Hildegard, whom he has called “a true master of theology and a great scholar of the natural sciences and of music”?
St. Hildegard was a religious also sincerely loyal to the institutional, hierarchal Church, opposing the Gnostic Cathar heretics as well as would-be popemaker Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor. Benedict praised her for this in a catechetical talk, now published in a collection of his reflections titled Holy Women, saying that “the seal of an authentic experience of the Holy Spirit, the source of every charism” such as St. Hildegard received shows above all “complete obedience to the ecclesial authority,” something with which the Church has struggled in a particular way since the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and continues to struggle with under Benedict, whether challenges come from the left, or, in the case of the recalcitrance of the SSPX, the right.
Although an implacable enemy of heresy, St. Hildegard was also behind and ahead of her times regarding the punishment of heretics. Although the burning of heretics occurred in her own time and place—four men and a girl were burned in Cologne in August of 1163 precisely when she and Elisabeth of Schönau were teaming up to combat heresy through visionary treatises, among other things—St. Hildegard reprobated the practice. The historian Philip Schaff writes, “At a time when heretics were being burnt at Bonn and Cologne, [Hildegard] remonstrated against the death penalty for the heretic on the ground that in spite of his heresy he bore the image of God.” She hardly could have said so more plainly than in her plea, “Do not kill them, for they are God’s image.”
In this she drew on earlier Christian tradition. While St. Augustine may have called on the State to suppress the Donatists and supported its right to execute malefactors in principle, he also expressed grave discomfort with capital punishment and believed the State should exercise clemency. He did not in any way advocate the execution of heretics whatsoever, a practice that did not occur before the 11th century. St. Hildegard, then, stands as a voice of Christian mercy between St. Augustine and Benedict’s predecessor, the late Pope John Paul II, himself a dedicated opponent of capital punishment.
Benedict has sought to reassert reason’s role in reading nature as well as its harmony with faith, and here too Hildegard’s example shines. Not only did she receive revelation from heaven in her visions, but she also engaged in serious and sustained observation of nature, using what she learned in service of the healing arts. Indeed, hers are the only surviving medical treatises from the twelfth century.
Hildegard’s vision of the cosmos and man’s place therein is integral, seeing man as microcosm of the macrocosm, and so her prescriptions for various maladies often attempted to remedy imbalances caused by failure to live in harmony with nature. In this she is an antecedent of Pope Benedict’s repeated call for an “ecology of man” that seeks to understand and promote the location of the human person in his rightful place within the ecology of nature, from which modern man is so severely estranged.
One overlooked aspect of her work of which Benedict is certainly aware concerns her activity as an interpreter of Sacred Scripture. The oversight is as curious as it is lamentable. The reason for this neglect, I suspect, concerns her received status as a medieval “visionary” and modern conceptions of exegesis as a disciplined, purely rational historical exercise. St. Hildegard’s most popular work is the Scivias, her record of her divine intellectual visions, and it is easy to subtly write St. Hildegard off, I think, if we regard her only as a visionary (especially if we reduce her visions to neural epiphenomena generated by migraines).
St. Hildegard did much more with the Bible than impose her visions upon it: She prayed it as a Benedictine, exegeted it for her sisters as well as others, including monks and other males, and preached it in the chief cathedrals of Europe, such as those of Mainz, Cologne, and Trier. St. Hildegard models an approach to the theological exegesis of the Bible as sacred Scripture, not merely a historical artificact, having her nose in the details of the text with her mind and spirit fully engaged in the task while she reads in accord with the Church’s rule of faith.
For those interested in post-critical retrieval of the tradition, Hildegard models theological interpretation that assumes the harmony of faith and reason. Indeed, in this she is both medieval and modern, as the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, insists that “the study of the sacred page is, as it were, the soul of sacred theology.”
For all these reasons and more, then, Benedict is right to commend Hildegard to us at the opening of the Year of Faith, as he says that she, like St. John of Avila, was able “to experience profound understanding of divine revelation and intelligent dialogue with the world, two factors which represent the perennial goal of the life and activity of the Church,” as through their teaching “the Spirit of the risen Lord continues to make His voice heard and to illuminate the path which leads to the Truth, which is the only thing that can make us free and give full meaning to our lives.”
Leroy Huizenga is Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. His personal website is LeroyHuizenga.com. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Hildegard of Bingen: Saint of the Universal Church
St. John of Avila and St. Hildegard of Bingen to be Proclaimed Doctors of the Universal Church
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