The Sainthood of Hildegard von Bingen by a Feminist-Friendly Pope? by Cynthia Garrity-Bond
While I celebrate the rise in status of Hildegard to official saint and soon to be Doctor of the Church, I cannot help but be suspicious of the Vatican’s motivations. One only has to take in the last two months behavior of the CDF, sanctioned by Pope Benedict, to see the real intentions of this papacy—the continued subjugation of all women to clerical authority.
The past month or so has been a very busy time for the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith or CDF and their examination of women. First they (and this includes Pope Benedict XVI) decided American nuns are guilty of the sin of silence by not speaking out on abortion & homosexuality. Their “radical feminist” ideology of standing with the poor and disenfranchised, while good, is not good enough for the CDF. The firestorm of solidarity coming from both laity and religious surely caught the Vatican off guard. Right? Well, not quite. This past week the CDF began its investigation of the Girl Scouts for their purported association with the likes of Planned Parenthood and Oxfam. While both address the needs of the poor, it is the latter and its troubling advocacy for safe sex via condom use that initiated the inquiry. Keep in mine that in 2010 Pope Benedict retracted from his earlier position and bane on condoms, seeing instead their use as a “lesser evil” in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The CDF angst is that the message of condom use might be too much sex-talk for impressionable young women. And now the real conundrum, Pope Benedict officially declared Hildegard von Bingen a saint and will soon declare her the fourth female Doctor of the Church along with Catherine of Sienna, Theresa of Avila & Teresa of Lisieux. News articles credited the pope as feminist-friendly and minded by his endorsement of Hildegard. It is stated that Pope Benedict turned to the writings of the 12th century visionary with her sharp critique of clergy and the church during her own 12th century milieu as a contemporary diagnosis for the sins of its priest in the global sex scandal. So what is it that attracts Pope Benedict to Hildegard?
On the one hand, Hildegard von Bingen presents herself as the obedient daughter of the Church speaking through divine revelation, “I am but a poor female creature (paupercula feminea forma) and a fragile vessel; yet what I speak to you comes not from me but from the clear light,” [see Barbara Newman, Sister Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (1-41)]. Yet on the other, the lived experience of Hildegard is a far cry from the self-negation and humble creature she seeks to project. This is a woman who defied her local bishop by moving her entire community across the Rhine. Her inner authority and conscience dictated her life as abbess and leader, calling out popes, emperors, or any other male-lead institution that got between her and the vision she held for her community. In other words, she openly defied ecclesial authority in order to get what she wanted. So again, I ask the question, why does our current pope hold her up as a proto-feminist and visionary for today?
My suspicion is that while Hildegard openly resisted authority, she did not deviate doctrinally from the church, and to a degree, affirms Pope Benedict’s own ideology of gender complementarity. This is affirmed in Hildegard’s hierarchical social order between the sexes in which, according to Rosemary Ruether, Hildegard’s complementarity, at least within the social order (her cosmic order expands the role of the feminine) has “women as wives obey[ing] their husbands.” These natural roles are continued in the church through the exclusion of women as priests (Scivias 1, vision 2, sections 11-12). Bingo! In order to fully grasp Pope Benedict’s strong stance on gender complementarity, one only has to turn to his 2004 writing (as then Cardinal Ratzinger and head of the CDF) Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and the World. In this letter, Ratzinger begins by affirming the Church is the “expert in humanity,” on all matters that concern men and women, translate the latter as feminism. In fact he goes to great lengths to warn of the wrong kind of feminism, where women “in order to be themselves, must make themselves the adversaries of men. Faced with the abuse of power, the answer for women is to seek power” (I, 1). In so doing, they risk the blurring of gender specific lines to which they are created, read further as biological determinism. Through the next 17 sections, Ratzinger, through the use of Scripture and Mariology, lays out the essential role to which women are to serve the greater global community: motherhood and the care for others. Like Mary, women are able to demonstrate her remarkable attributes with her “dispositions of listening, welcoming, humility, faithfulness, praise and waiting,” (IV, 16) instead of practicing a distorted feminism that seeks to share male power. Which is not to say women cannot nor should not seek employment and opportunities outside the home, in fact Ratzinger states, “[w]omen should be present in the world of work and in the organization of society, and that women should have access to positions of responsibility which allow them to inspire the policies of nations and to promote innovative solutions to economic and social problems,” (III.13). This is where you can see Ratzinger’s paradoxical endorsement of Hildegard as both proto-feminist and faithful church daughter. This both/and nature of Hildegard serves to pacify Ratzinger’s need for sexual complementarity both in and out of the church. He writes, “In this perspective one understands how the reservation of priestly ordination solely to men, does not hamper in any way women’s access to the heart of Christian life. Women are called to be unique examples and witnesses for all Christians of how the Bride is to respond in love to the love of the Bridegroom,” (IV. 14).
While I celebrate the rise in status of Hildegard to official saint and soon to be Doctor of the Church, I cannot help but be suspicious of the Vatican’s motivations. One only has to take in the last two months behavior of the CDF, sanctioned by Pope Benedict, to see the real intentions of this papacy—the continued subjugation of all women to clerical authority. Surely the CDF and Pope cannot possible believe that the nature of women as “dispositions of listening, welcoming, humility, faithfulness, praise and waiting” will quietly acquiesce to their demands? It did not work for Hildegard, I doubt American women will be any different.
Cynthia Garrity-Bond: Feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate at Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion, with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. For the past two years Cynthie has been teaching in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University where she completed both her BA and MA in Theology. Her research interests includes feminist sexual theology, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, agency and resistance to ecclesial authority, embodiment, Mariology and transnational feminisms. Having recently returned from Southern Africa, Cynthie is researching the decriminalization of prostitution from a theological perspective.