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.


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Categories: Abuse of Power, Catholic Church, Female Saints, Feminism, Mariology, Power relations, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Scripture, U. S. Catholic Sisters, Vatican

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14 replies

  1. My favorite quote about Ratzinger was made by a man interviewed on the priest sex scandal by CNN. The papacy is a box, he said, and when you open the box, out jumps Ratzinger.

    Ratzinger’s position is clear, but no one should imagine that the previous pope did not agree with him. Ratzinger’s postion is the rule (which is why he got all the way to the top) not the exception.

    One can always hope…that change is possible–even if unlikely. I just had a similar conversation with someone about Greek politics. Hope must spring eternal, otherwise we are doomed.

  2. Thank you Cynthie for your valuable contribution exposing the “high powered” (in part powered by certain women identities) patriarchal and Vatican insecurities playing in Ratzinger’s move to canonize Hildegard of Bingen. I take your incisive discussion here as an invitation to share my grain of sand. Please forgive my English as a second language–sometimes prepositions eat me up.

    Here you open another opportunity for us to discuss and uncover the church’s intentions in their unrelenting, proactive stance to shape women’s “ideal” identity as submissive and weak. Vatican and the pope are desperate to keep feeding women’s weakness in their effort to breed the corruptible identities which support and lead to present male economic, political, military and religious power sociopathologies.
    In my humble opinion, these provocations to radical feminists point out to he need for women to redefine and reposition mothering and a new woman centered psychology of child development. Let me explain why, I believe that there is still much to be done in the area of deconstructing our internalized oppression. The questions leading to undoing our present epistemologies require that we simultaneously consider redefining mothering roles, especially our mothering the male child. How would I have loved to attend mothering courses to prepare me to raise my sons for an egalitarian society! As long as young mothers lack feminists educational support for raising the next generation of feminist men, present “homes” will continue breeding patriarchy.
    I believe that as long as Skinnerian, Freudian and other pathological schools of psychology keep informing our social norms and formative structures, the family, the home, education and early child development will continue being defined by a self-destructive patriarchy. I hope that more feminists view the urgent need for women to re-write courses on Early Child Development, Mothering for a Healthy Society and Parenting (co-parenting as well as joint parenting as in the environment of extended families). The complexities are endless and the rewards could be the fastest social restructuring ever seen.
    Women defining the vision of home, extended home, mothering, parenting and family relations will be ready to create a new boy child identity away from the dualistic dichotomies and oppositional prevalent constructs. This new epistemology needs to assert itself in the Academe. It is present to some extent in Women Studies Programs and in the two Women’s Spirituality MA and PhD Programs where women meet and engage in transformative conversations. But we still need Mothering and Parenting courses towards the creation of an egalitarian society in order to unlearn the ruthless modes of patriarchy that may have unconsciously seeped through our internalized oppression.
    Women’s Child Psychology, Developmental Psychology and Mothering courses would include a critique of media, film, sports, technological, nuclear, corporate, legislative and political influences and applications and how all other present expressions of these keep imposing their negative normative and formative values during the developmental years of the male child leading to power hungry male oppressors. With respect to Mothering, questions about redefining women’s concepts of love and yielding, building the other above herself… may need to be addressed. I still envision home as the best place to end the abuse of power. But worry that not enough importance has been given to creating such a home in academic studies. Political Science departments abound in universities, but what happens during the 18 plus years before the male child develops the will to pursue a career in public office or high profile leadership? Do we want more peacocks, narcissist actors and other insecure shallow and ruthless males in office in the future? We hear nothing about departments that teach subjects leading to the knowledge of how to tend and befriend, bond and nurture, and raise the future leaders of an egalitarian society.
    All this begins to take shape in our dreams, and I hope that our dreams are clear and persistent. The creation of Mother centered Child Development educational programs to end the conditions that feed the present abuse of power is urgent. In this sense I hope that radical feminists birth and nourish the knowledge needed to create educational programs to birth a future global egalitarian society.
    When you write that “The answer for women is to seek power,” immediately I see a problem with unconscious drives for retribution fueled by women’s internalized oppression (which has been a survival mechanism for some strong women to succeed in a “man’s world”). I suggest that we frequently evaluate our drives in conversations with women from present matrifocal traditions. The Minangkabau brought to us by Peggy Reeves Sanday, Culture Matriarcali by Heide Goettner-Abendroth, MIRCI and founding mother Elise Boulding are only a few examples that come to mind now. I would encourage us to questions the term power—which no woman lacks because power to bring forth life is a power biologically assigned by creation, whether we pursue it or not, whether it is able to manifest in every woman or not—in favor of a union of compassion, love-life drive, passion expression of a particular way of power. It may be too soon to preach power to our sisters lacking the necessary support to stop the sharp tool of power being turned against them by a military ruthless patriarchy to pierce our own soft bellies.
    When women mother the Woman loving and Women adoring men that deserve our and our daughters loving and adoring, we can talk about power in equal terms: power to create, improve, care and preserve. Poor power right now is too closely linked with the power to destroy. I wonder if we can say with full confidence that feminists today are completely free from internalized patriarchy. The question of how to extricate ourselves from the onslaught of normative, formative and present unconscious influences of internalized oppression keeps coming to my attention, and I am interested in listening to as many suggestions as possible. The formidable complexity of the many ways in which Patriarchy covertly operates from within us, makes me wonder that if some women we were to fully negate the male oppressor within, there would be nothing left of her. So a shift from a patriarchal informed identity to that of a woman in an egalitarian society, one where there is a balance of power, requires profound physical health, psychological health and spiritual health considerations.
    Then, the new Women’s Child Development Psychology, Mothering and Parenting courses will be oriented to influence women’s power of agency to emerge from their hiding quarters, from centuries of oppression, into the open for an emerging psychological and social revolution towards true justice and sustainability of all life forms.
    If instead of the romantic and weak metaphor of Bride/Bridegroom, surely a media attention catcher, we changed the imagery to that of Mother/Father, we are placed back in the arena of creating society right from home. This home, not limited to a nuclear family, needs to be the place where we envision shaping a society beneficial for all.
    To poor son Ratzinger I ask, where is “male power” when woman pushes life forth out of womb? That is Power! As well as women’s responsibility to raise the boy child to honor, love and adore her in all women during all his life.

  3. Sorry, forgot to mention standpoint: idealist. Remedy: to keep the ongoing very hard work!

  4. Hildegaard’s famous picture of herself receiving divine inspiration while seated in the center of the church with a cleric looking in from outside the center, perhaps speaks more of her view “male power in the church” than her words, which she knew would be scrutinized more carefully for heresy.

  5. As a an Episcopalian I didn’t realize Hildegard hadn’t been canonized in the Catholic Church. She is canonized in the Episcopal Church/Anglican Community, and we celebrate her feast day. I do agree with you on Benedict’s reasons for canonizing her. But for Hildegard’s part, I think a lot of her “oh I’m a poor female nothing but God has called me so I must obey” self-effacement to be tongue in cheek. She knew she was walking a thin line, so she would demur to her “weaker” sex to keep the male hierarchy from taking her community or ex-communicating her. Elizabeth I did much the same thing to get the Parliament to do what she wanted them to do during her reign: I maybe only a weak woman, but I have the heart of a king.

    I may be reading more of a modern reading back into these women, but they seemed to know when to play the “I’m a weak woman” card at instrumental times to keep their critics at bay while using the power they had to do what was best for their community or kingdom.

  6. Reblogged this on Adventures and Musings of a Hedgewitch and commented:
    Emperor Palpatine strikes again.

  7. Good for the pope! I’ve been a fan of Hildegard’s for a long time. This honor is about 700 years overdue. Compared to all the Innocents and Clements and Piuses–and when we look at the popes who bore those names, they’re nearly all oxymoronic–If the church had had “doctors” like her, perhaps the inquisition could have been avoided. Sigh.

  8. The church had a real champion of women’s rights in Pope John Paul the FIRST, who thought contraception & women priests were fine and, when a bishop, alone among bishops, had called police against child-molesting priests. He was also wary of the growing influence of cults like Opus Dei in the Curia. He died in very suspicious circumstances after only one month in office.

  9. Hey if he wants to make her a Doctor of the Church and saint that is fine. Hildegard will get more attention from women worldwide; she’s a very admirable lesbian who created an incredible women’s community. I look at these communities of nuns as powerful institutions of woman loving women worlds free of “traditional” family obligations that so consume women’s time.

    Like Sr. Juana de la Cruz of Mexico, both of these women create such a powerful testimony to divine feminine that it reaches out to us even today.

    Popes — we need to avoid pointing to their flawed characters, when we are really dealing with a patriarchal institution. So no matter what man “ascends” that throne of male supremacy, the end result is the same. Just as no matter what kind of “feminist” mother raises a “feminist” son, the patriarchy of the surrounding culture creates a Randall Terry. And I’d argue that the “sons” become the danger of the future. It’s very hard to keep the world or even some small event free of them. The culture raises a son to be a dominator, a feminist mother has no power over this process at all. A delusion, however noble, is still a delusion under the rule of the fathers.

    Women before the event of patriarchy created visionary communities worldwide. Women within patriarchy create what Gloria Andalzua called “boundery living.” Women lie to men all the time to survive. They lie about virgin births so they won’t be stoned to death. They lie about being a “poor humble woman” to placate pompous clueless male heads of churches. It’s the stock and trade of women who want to create, to bring women together, and to keep the male masters as far away as possible. In Hildegard’s case, what better way to do this than to move her community of women to a safe place, throw bones of flattery to the local bishops, and then go on her own eccstatic way.

    Her love for women was profound, and maybe I’m overreading my lesbian sister’s ntent from another time, but I am sure she and her sister nuns knew that it is better to have a far away patriarchal master, then to live in the same room with the master, trapped in the dicate of being forced (for food and shelter) to have sex with this man, forced to bear children, and in the Middle Ages, childbirth itself was a great danger to all women.

    If you could find a way to escape male sexual domination, and to create boundary living for sister women, well it was a strategy. The power of nuns is in their status as male free zones, their bodies kept out of the sexually aggressive grasp of the masters. No wonder the Vatican fears women religious in America today, because they still possess this power.

    The dumbpapacy is trying to co-opt women’s power, but really it will only make the spiritual genius of Hildegard more visible. Lesbians have been adept throughout patriarchal eras for inventing, for going beyond the confines of the male dominated home. To free women of all childbearing and sexual obligations to men is of supreme importance in the herstory of free women.

    And what’s even more amazing, is that Hildegard speaks to us today in the music she composed, and music is a transmitter of some other worldly delight…. intoxicating communion with the divine lesbian, the woman of genius eternally ahead of her time.

  10. I agree, Hildegard, along with other medieval women (Julian of Norwich, Theresa of Avila and Clare of Assisi to name a few) did use literary troupes of self-negation in order to calm the fears of clerics, which kinda gives you pause. Could these men really have been that easily redirected away from the authority and dynamic nature/lives of the women who relied on strategic resistance in order to live out their visions? Hopefully Pope Benedict appreciates the historical company he shares with former clerics who were too easily duped by these gifted and amazing women.

    It may also be anachronistic of me to place the burden of women’s ordination upon Hildegard given the manner in which she viewed her own authority and how her role as abbess elevated the lives of the women within her community.

  11. Of course these men were duped. They would have been easily outwitted by the most famous woman of the 14th century. Clerics and patriarchs are absolute suckers for the self-erasing language women spout to get them out of their works and convents. It just goes with the territory.

    Remember, the four things that preoccupy patriarchy are: accumulation of wealth (violence), sexual access to and exploitation of women, and institutional and interpersonal power. Women have other fish to fry, other work. So women of genius in times past knew this, they knew it was imperative to create women’s enclaves. This was the great work of medieval women.

    But the wiley men in weakness (Sonia Johnson said NEVER to call them the “men in power”), still try to control women with religious doctrines. The smartest women don’t believe in these tactics, but there are a lot of women trapped heart and soul within hetero-tribal ritualistic institutions known as churches. The traps of family, children, and ritual are set by the wiley oppressors.

    Sonia Johnson said that men aren’t very bright, but they are crafty. Each century of women develops unique tactics to outwit, outmanoeuver and outpace the oppressor class. Finding out how women of the past have done this is a great work; the definitive book on how feminists of hundreds of years ago really operated. I believe women like Hildgard have clues as to how to end male rule and male control of women’s bodies. In some ways, she really was so far ahead of even most hetero-tribal women of today.

  12. Cynthia, your “hermeneutics of suspicion” and feminist analysis on the intersection of Hildegard de Bingen’s proposed status as “Doctor” in the church parallel to the scrutiny being experienced by women religious in the U.S. is timely and appropriate. In my own research on Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, mentioned in an earlier reply, I had a revelatory moment in the past months with regards to her “non-status” in the roman catholic church. In my mind she would be a perfect link between her Sisters in Europe and the Americas. The revelation came when I realized that if the church elevated her to this status they would also be – indirectly – condoning her life witness that challenged patriarchal dichotomies between men and women, Spaniards and non-Spaniards, and human and non-human nature. Unlike Hildegard de Bingen, De La Cruz did “deviate doctrinally from the church.” In her times, her quill, pluma, was a prophetic medium for her to systematically reflect on the injustices in her world. Her renowned text “El Sueno” is a case in point. In it, she advocates for right relationships between humans and Earth, herself. In a similar vein, Hildegard de Bingen and her Sister Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz share this same value in common. De Bingen refers to it as a “greening” process, if, I am not mistaken. To date, foremost Brazilian theologian in Latin America, Ivone Gebara’s metaphor “mas alla” speaks to me personally with regards to the challenges of feminists past and present. In conversation, she asserted that daily she walks in liminal spaces where she strives to recreate a world beyond the temporal one that binds males and females and human and non-human nature [paraphrased]. Bingen and De La Cruz’s life echo for me this same sentiment. To conclude, it is my hope that each one of us will model their legacies in our daily lives.

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