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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Pope and the Prophetess: Benedict XVI, Hildegard of Bingen, and the Reform of the Church (Part 1)

Portrait of Hildegard of Bingen.
From the Rupertsberg Scivias, fol. 1r.

Part 2 of this essay can be found here.

Today, Pope Benedict XVI formally authorized the liturgical commemoration of St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and inscribed her name in the catalogue of the saints—effectively concluding the cause for her canonization started 800 years ago.  Later this year he will declare her a Doctor of the Church—an extraordinary honor for a woman whose name was practically unknown (at least in Anglo-American circles) until the latter part of the twentieth century.  Yet, her meteoric rise to superstardom in these last few decades—propelled, first by her music, and then by her talents in other areas of art, natural medicine, feminism, and mysticism—is really only a rebirth.  For most of the centuries between her death in 1179 and the latter twentieth century, Hildegard was known primarily as a visionary prophet of the end times.

Indeed, when she does appear in English-language scholarship before the 1970’s, it is in the guise of visionary and reformer.  Thus, in Lina Eckenstein’s broad and (for its time—1896) groundbreaking study, Woman Under Monasticism, Hildegard (and her fellow Rhineland visionary Elisabeth of Schönau) appear in a chapter in part on “prophecy.”  Drawing on such writings of these women as had appeared by the end of the nineteenth century in Migne’s Patrologia, her portrait of Hildegard reflects in many ways not the image we have today of the renaissance holy woman but rather that of a visionary, prophetic reformer engaged in the battles between Papacy and Empire.[1]

While English-speaking scholars rarely noticed Hildegard in those days, German scholarship worked much harder to embrace the prophetissa teutonica (German prophetess).  But even amongst the Germans, Hildegard’s primary role in the first half of the twentieth century was much as it had been for the previous seven.  We could, of course, make notice of the important and still little-noticed work in the 1930’s on her role in the production of the visual images in the Rupertsberg Scivias manuscript; but the most important work on Hildegard was still theological and intellectual.[2]

It is in that tradition, of Hildegard as a visionary theologian of salvation history, that Joseph Ratzinger would have been trained in the universities of Munich and Freising.  It is that Hildegard, the prophetess of a bold and enigmatic future full of hope and corruption in the Church, that the future Pope Benedict XVI most certainly came to know as he completed his Habilitationsschrift (second dissertation) on The Theology of History of St. Bonaventure in 1957.  Indeed, the entire third chapter, on the “Historical Context of St. Bonaventure’s Theology of History”, focuses on the school of “German symbolists” (a term coined by the idiosyncratic, early twentieth-century German idealist, Alois Dempf, and perfected by the yet unsurpassed 1973 study of Horst Dieter Rauh) of the twelfth century: Rupert of Deutz, Honorius Augustodunensis, and Anselm of Havelberg—although the absence of Hildegard from Ratzinger's treatment suggests the reticence of fifty years ago to acknowledge her as a theologian.[3]

The approach of these “symbolist” thinkers is rather more poetic than intellectual, structured around what Rauh describes as “three pillars”: symbolism, history, and monasticism.  These three pillars interact to produce a “leisurely, richly digressive, meditative approach” to the Scriptures and their revelation of history.  As Kathryn Kerby-Fulton explains:

Theologically, the Symbolists worked from a conviction that there were inherent correspondences, or “concordances”, between the Old and New Testaments, the key to which lay in symbolic similarities that, properly understood, revealed important parallels between pre-Christian and Christian history. Since pre-Christian history was complete, its symbolism could be used, they believed, to predict (by extrapolation) the course of Christian history still to come.[4]
While this might seem a distant mode of thought from that of today’s pontiff, its currents formed a significant portion of his post-graduate study.  Ratzinger’s focus turned on Hildegard’s slightly later contemporary, Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135-1202), whose far more intricate patterns of exegetically driven salvation history loomed large in the thought of the Franciscans like Bonaventure.  Joachim was in many ways the ultimate heir of these Symbolist thinkers, next to whom Hildegard stands (in Rauh’s estimation, at least) at the culmination of the intellectual movements of reformist apocalyptic thought of the twelfth century.

Awareness of the impact of all of these threads of twelfth- and thirteenth-century theologies of history is essential in understanding Ratzinger’s own theological vision for Church reform.  Much ballyhooed today is the so-called “Reform of the Reform” that seems to be the philosophy behind much of his work as pope; and certainly, the “hermeneutic of continuity” has played a major role in his attempts to rein in some of the more dramatic interpretations of the Second Vatican Council as a break from tradition.  Yet, if we turn to Ratzinger’s thought before his ascension to the Throne of St. Peter, we find that his vision for Church reform coming out of the Council was seemingly far more radical than his pontificate would imply.

In the winter of 1969-1970, shortly after moving to the University of Regensburg—the place where he, as an intellectual, would always remain the most comfortable—Ratzinger delivered a series of five radio addresses that he later collected together into a book under the theme and title, “Glaube und Zukunft,” “Faith and the Future.”  In the final chapter of the book (originally delivered for Christmas, 1969), Ratzinger offered a vision of “What Will the Church Look Like in 2000?”[5]  The professor-pope’s approach, though certainly more amenable to rationalist logic than the poetic symbolisms favored by his twelfth-century forbears, nevertheless shares with them a methodology fundamentally directed toward understanding the theology of history:

It is precisely in times of vehement historical upheaval, when all the past seems to dissolve, and completely new things seem to emerge, that men need to reflect upon history, which enables them to see the unreal exaggeration of the moment in time perspective, and integrates them again into a happening that never repeats itself, but, on the other hand, never loses its unity and its context. (…) I maintain that reflection upon history, properly understood, embraces both looking back into the past and, with that as starting-point, reflecting on the possibilities and tasks of the future, which can only become clear if we survey a fairly long stretch of the road and do not naively shut ourselves up in the present. (Faith and the Future, pp. 90-1)
This, of course, enunciates precisely the “hermeneutic of continuity” that seems so wondrous to traditionalists and fearful (as a ruse) to progressives.  I am not going to quibble one way or the other on this point, for the Church politics of today are precisely what this exercise in historical reflection is meant to transcend, or at minimum, contextualize.

After laying out this historical methodology, Ratzinger proposes two points in the past to examine for clues as to how to move forward: “first, that of so-called Modernism about the turn of the [twentieth] century, and then the end of the rococo period which marked the decisive emergence of the modern period, with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution” (Faith and the Future, p. 92)

Because this is a Church trying to find its way in a secularized world, it is perfectly reasonable to look to these two periods of paradigm shift for guidance.  But through the analysis, an interesting feature emerges.  When, for example, Ratzinger compares “the lifeless progressivism” of Matthias Fingerlos at the turn from the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries with “the richness and depth” of Johan Michael Sailer’s blend of romanticism and rationalism, the key to Sailer’s fertile thought lies in his “profound grasp of the theological and mystical tradition of the Middle Ages” (Faith and the Future, pp. 96-99).  I think this is very much a nod to Ratzinger’s own theological pedigree, steeped as he was in those very same medieval traditions.

Finally, when he comes to paint his portrait of where the future of the pilgrim Church on earth might lie, we can see distinctly the influence of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century theologians of history whom he had studied:

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. It will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. It will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices it built in its palmy days. As the number of its adherents diminishes, so will it lose many of its social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of its individual members. Undoubtedly it will discover new forms of ministry, and will ordain to the priesthood approved Christians who pursue some profession. In many smaller congregations or in self-contained social groups, pastoral care will normally be provided in this fashion. Alongside this, the full-time ministry of the priesthood will be indispensable as formerly. But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find its essence afresh and with all conviction in that which was always at its center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the spirit until the end of the world. (…)

The Church will be a more spiritualized Church, not presuming upon a political mantle, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost it much valuable energy. It will make it poor and cause it to become the Church of the meek. The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed. One may predict that all of this will take time. The process will be long and wearisome (…). But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. People in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.

And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already (…), but the Church of faith. It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that it was until recently; but it will enjoy a fresh blossoming, and be seen as humanity’s home where they will find life and hope beyond death. (Faith and the Future, pp. 103-106)

While his talk of a “spiritualized” Church will immediately ring bells for any who are familiar with the “Spiritual” Franciscans (the richest heirs of the legacy of the Joachim of Fiore), in part two of this essay, I focus on the echoes of the “blossoming” of reform rhetoric in Hildegard of Bingen.  Just as Ratzinger offers a complicated mixture of pessimistic crisis and optimistic renewal, so the enigmatic tension between those poles is a defining feature of Hildegard’s own reformist and apocalyptic tendencies.  Indeed, it is precisely the difficulty of reconciling her sometimes radical and disturbing apocalyptic prophecies with her more optimistic tendencies that have kept studies into her reformist apocalypticism frustratingly incipient.

Part 2 of this essay can be found here.

Notes
[1] Lina Eckenstein, Woman Under Monasticism. Chapters on Saint-Lore and Convent Life Between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1500 (New York: Russell and Russell, 1896, reissued, 1963), pp. 256-285. 
[2] Hiltgart L.Keller, Mittelrheinische Buchmalereien in Handschriften aus dem Kreise der Hiltgart von Bingen (Stuttgart: Surkamp, 1933) and Josef Schomer, Die Illustrationen zu den Visionen der hl. Hildegard als künstlerische Neuschöpfung: das Verhältnis der Illustrationen zueinander und zum Texte (Bonn: Stodieck, 1937).  The single most important study of Hildegard intellectualy from this time period, and still a fundamental work, is Hans Liebeschütz, Das allegorische Weltbild der Heiligen Hildegard von Bingen (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1930); and of less importance, but still indicative of the lines of interest, is Bertha Widmer, Heilsordnung und Zeitgeschehen in der Mystik Hildegards von Bingen (Basel and Stuttgart: Helbing & Lichtenhahn, 1955). 
[3] Joseph Ratzinger, Die Geschichtstheologie des heiligen Bonaventura (Zürich-München: Schnell & Steiner, 1959); issued in English, trans. Zachary Hayes, The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1971, 1989).  On the “German Symbolists”, see Alois Dempf, Sacrum Imperium. Geschichts- und Staatsphilosophie des Mittelalters und der politischen Renaissance (München & Berlin: R. Oldenbourg, 1929), and H. D. Rauh, Das Bild des Antichrist im Mittelalter; von Tyconius zum deutschen Symbolismus (Münster: Aschendorff, 1973). William Patenaude recently offered an intriguing analysis of the influence of Ratzginer's work on Joachim's theology of history on the Pope's evangelization efforts: "St. Bonaventure, Benedict XVI, and the New Evangelization", The Catholic World Report, May 09, 2012. 
[4] See Rauh, Das Bild des Antichrist, pp. 174-177; and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, “Prophet and Reformer: ‘Smoke in the Vineyard’,” in Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and her World, ed. Barbara Newman (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1998), pp. 70-90, esp. 76.  Next to Rauh’s chapter on Hildegard (see note 3), Kerby-Fulton’s work has been the most important to examine Hildegard’s reformist apocalypticism: “A Return to ‘the First Dawn of Justice’: Hildegard’s Visions of Clerical Reform and the Eremitical Life,” American Benedictine Review 40 (1989), pp. 383-407; Reformist Apocalypticism and Piers Plowman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), Chs. 1 and 2; and “Hildegard and the Male Reader”, in Prophets Abroad: The Reception of Continental Holy Women in Late-Medieval England, ed. Rosalynn Voaden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 1-18. 
[5] The book, Glaube und Zukunf, was originally published in 1970 by Kösel Verlag, München.  It has, of course, been reprinted numerous times since his election to the papacy; likewise, the English translation, issued in 1971 by Franciscan Herald Press, has since been reissued by Ignatius Press (2009) as Faith and the Future

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