About Me

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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. My translation of Hildegard's Book of Divine Works is available from Catholic University of America Press here. 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.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Pope and the Prophetess: Benedict XVI, Hildegard of Bingen, and the Reform of the Church (Part 2)

Liber Divinorum Operum III.5,
from the Lucca MS.

Update: A much expanded and revised version of this essay appeared in 2019 in the journal postmedieval, accessible online here.

Part 1 of this post can be found here.

There are two aspects of Joseph Ratzinger’s reformist vision of the Church that find particularly striking parallels in Hildegard of Bingen’s thought: the political relationship between Church and Empire (or secular world), and the renewal of the Church as a purified but dramatically reduced institution.  Although Hildegard’s own reformist thought must be situated within the legacy of the Gregorian reform of the eleventh century, what is most striking are the ways in which she departs—sometimes radically—from a Hildebrandian vision of the Church; and in those departures, Ratzinger follows her, as much as that might be to the chagrin of traditionalists today.

The Gregorian reform initiated by the popes of the latter half of the eleventh century started with the purpose of internally purifying and reforming the Church, principally be eradicating simony and clerical marriage, both seen as pervasive corruptions of worldliness.  But under the influence of the reform’s namesake and most strident and visionary partisan, Hildebrand, who reigned as Pope Gregory VII from 1073 to 1085, it came to espouse a wider vision of reforming the very place of the Church and its sacerdotium (the priestly office and, by extension, the realm of spiritual authority of the Church) in Christendom.  For Gregory, the Church—and he, the pope, at its head—were the highest leaders of Christian society, and the regnum / imperium (the realm of secular, royal, and imperial authority) was subservient to it.  In battling the future Emperor Henry IV over the rights of episcopal and abbatial investiture, Gregory put forth a vision of liberating the Church from the clutches of secular authority so that it would be the Church who invests the secular ruler with his power, not the other way around.  One need only glance through the celebrated Dictatus Papae to see Gregory’s (or rather, the canonist’s whom Gregory followed) complete identification of both spiritual and political power in what came to be not just the Vicar of St. Peter but, by Hildegard’s later years, the Vicar of Christ.[1]

Hildegard represents one of the more strident proponents of moral reform of the Church in the generations after Gregory, but also one of the more ambivalent when it came to the relationship between imperium and sacerdotium.  Her ambivalence towards both sources of institutional authority—Empire and Papacy—grew out of an increasing frustration at the moral failures of both.  When Pope Anastasius IV came to the papal throne in 1153-54, his failures to continue the programs of reform earned Hildegard’s harsh disapprobation;[2] so too did Emperor Frederick Barbarossa’s perpetuation of the papal schism that erupted in 1159 and lasted until 1177—though Barbarossa’s fault seems not to be instigating the schism but failing to heal it.[3]

Hildegard of Bingen, Illumination for
Scivias III.11 in the Rupertsberg MS.

It is precisely that schism that deepened Hildegard’s pessimism over the state of the Church in her time.  All institutions of Christianity seemed hopelessly corrupt; but it was the corruption of the Church’s own ministers that particularly disturbed her.  The roots of her reformist concern for the internal state of the Church can already be found before the schism in her first great work of visionary theology, the Scivias, written between 1142 and 1151.  In the eleventh vision of the Scivias’ third book, Hildegard quite famously envisioned the Antichrist as a mass of excrement, a monstrous head born of “the place that denotes the female” in the image of Mother Church.  This was not an Antichrist persecuting the Church from without; it was an Antichrist born of the Church’s own internal corruption, her own ministers raping and defiling her.[4]

But the vision of the “five ages” to come from Hildegard’s time to that of the Antichrist remains, in Scivias III.11, vague and undefined.  The cycles between corruption and holiness that became Hildegard’s hallmark are there in nuce; but she still seems optimistic that reform can be effective.  Thus, when she writes in admonition to the German King Conrad around 1152, even the pessimism of the corruption she prophesies is tempered by the hope that the King will be “manly” enough to lead the people of God to holiness:

Hear this: You have turned aside in some ways from God, and the times in which you live are frivolous like a woman, inclining to a perverse injustice that seeks to destroy justice in the vineyard of the Lord (cf. Matt. 21:33ff). Later, worse times will come, when the true Israelites will be scourged, and the Catholic throne [i.e. the papacy] will be shaken by heresy. And the last times will be times of blasphemy, dead as a corpse. The grief of these times blacks up the Lord’s vineyard like smoke. (…) Then, other times will come when the riches of the churches will be scattered and, as a result, the spiritual people will be torn asunder as if by wolves, and expelled from their monasteries and their country. Many of them will then go into the desert, leading a life of poverty in great contrition of heart, and thus will serve God humbly.

With reference to God’s justice, these first times are squalid, and those that follow are absolutely lethargic with respect to that justice. But those that succeed them will awaken a bit to justice, but later will rise up like a bear, scattering everything, and wickedly taking all the riches for themselves. The distinctive characteristic of the times that follow will be manly fortitude, so that even all the bishops will run to the first dawn of justice with fear and shame and wisdom, and the princes of the world will be in complete accord with on another, for, like a “man of war” (Is. 42:13), they will raise up the banner of concord against the erring times of terrible heresies. God will utterly destroy all these heresies, in His own good time and pleasure.[5]

Over the course of the next two decades, as papacy and empire alike appeared to her more and more corrupt, the consequences for that corruption grew, in Hildedgard’s visionary denunciations of it, ever sharper.  Yet, as her pessimism grew over the current state of the world—the tempus muliebre, “womanly age”, as she would call it, purposely employing every misogynistic connotation the phrase could conjure—it was translated into an ever brighter optimism about periods of renewal awaiting the Church in the future.  The most extraordinary aspect of those periods of renewal and holiness, however, is that they would involve the radical confiscation of clerical wealth and the disestablishment of the Church’s claims to institutional authority in the world.  It is in these images of the future of the Church that Hildegard’s visions are so strikingly similar to those of Joseph Ratzinger.

The proving-grounds for Hildegard’s visions of reform of the Church were the great preaching tours she undertook in the 1160’s.  The sermons she preached in public to the clergy of cities throughout the Rhineland were tours-de-force of fiery rhetoric and sharp castigation of clerical turpitude.  The most famous of these—to the clergy at Cologne and Trier and recorded in the epistolary record—would enter the collections of apocalyptic prophecy that made Hildegard’s a familiar name in the later Middle Ages.

When she comes before the clergy at Trier on the Feast of Pentecost, 1160, her disgust for their corruption erupts with far more force than the more restrained words with which she wrote to Conrad.  With Emperor Frederick Barbarossa seemingly intent on forcing his way into the Church with his antipope, Hildegard’s hope that the current secular leader might bring reform is fading.  Furthermore, her disgust at clerical corruption has sharpened her warnings against it, and her certainty that disendowment is the only sure and just way forward to a holier Church is growing:

I saw that Trier at first was adorned among the faithful with the new fire that appeared to the disciples in tongues of fire (cf. Acts 2:1-4), so that in its golden faith all its streets were spread with miracles. But now it is hedged in by unstable, squalid morals and with weariness as if it did not know God, and it has been polluted with many other evils. It has been worn out with weariness and no longer enjoys the joy and beauty of its original, honorable institutions. It has become heedless of its many sins. Therefore, fiery vengeance will come upon it from enemies, unless those sins are wiped out by penitence, as happened in the case of Jonah (cf. Jonah 2-3).

Now, the law is neglected by spiritual people, who disdain to teach and do good works. Both the teachers and the prelates are asleep: they have abandoned justice. Therefore, I heard this voice from heaven, saying: O daughter of Sion, your crown will fall from your head, your cloak of increasing riches will shrink, your numbers will be forcibly reduced, and you will be banished from one place to another. Many cities and monasteries will be wrenched away by powerful individuals, and princes will say, “Let us take away from them that iniquity which, through them, is overwhelming the whole world.” And I saw and heard that all these dangers and griefs will befall regions and monasteries because they have turned aside from obedience and other precepts of the law. And I saw that even amidst sins of this kind there are some who will cling to God and will sigh unto Him, just as in the time of Elijah (cf. I Kings 18:18ff). (…)

Afterward, the justice and judgment of God will arise, and the people will know the discipline and fear of God. There will also be good and just individuals among the spiritual people, who, nevertheless, will remain few in numbers because of their humility, but who, like the hermits, will turn back to the first dawn. And they will do this out of fear for times past that, they will understand, had been pernicious to them. (…) Then, courageous men will arise and prophesy, and they will gather together all things old and new from the Scriptures and all that has been uttered through the Holy Spirit, and they will adorn their understanding of these things as if with a necklace set with precious jewels.  Through their influence and that of other wise people, many of the laity will become virtuous and will live saintly lives.[6]

Here we see the dominant themes of Hildegard’s vision for Church reform: a deep pessimism about the current state of the Church; an equally optimistic vision of prophetic renewal in the future; the confiscation of ecclesiastical property as a prelude to that renewal; and the foundations of that renewal in a small, central band of saints, returning the Church to her ideal state at the time of the apostles, the “first dawn” of justice.

These themes would find their most extensive and dramatic treatment in Hildegard’s magnum opus, her last and grandest visionary work, the Liber Divinorum Operum (Book of Divine Works), completed in 1174.  As Pope Benedict himself has said, in it, “[Hildegard] once again describes creation in its relationship with God and the centrality of the human being, expressing a strong Christo-centrism with a biblical-Patristic flavour.” The ten visions that make up its structure are the most complex of Hildegard’s corpus: grand female images personifying a variety of divine attributes dominate, each revealing different aspects of the Divine Work, i.e. salvation history.[7]  In the last vision of the work (III.5), the recapitulations of that salvation history, a wheel held in the hands of Divine Love (Caritas)—as illustrated in the Lucca manuscript (early thirteenth century) in the image at the opening of this essay—reach in their cosmic breadth from the very beginnings of creation to its very ending.

Freed from the constraints of the preacher’s sermon, this last vision explodes with prophetic power into Hildegard’s final and most detailed treatment of the “times to come” (futurorum temporum, as her redactor, Gebeno von Eberbach, would call them half-a-century later).  The cycles between pessimistic corruption and optimistic reform grow sharper and more radical—the crises deeper, the renewals more holy.  The key to understanding these cycles lies in Hildegard’s symbolist mode of thinking: the history of the Church after Christ recapitulates not just thematically but sacramentally, as it were, the history of the Church, Israel, the people of God, as told in Scripture.  Thus, “the dialectical triad of building up, falling away, and restoration” is a key historical principal, not only foreshadowed but foreordained, as it were, in the process of Creation, Fall, and Redemption at the heart of salvation history.[8]

This schema is to be found in the history of the Church: Creation corresponds to the foundation of the apostolic Church, while the Fall of original sin can be seen in the “womanly time” of corruption Hildegard sees all around her.  In the Augustinian conception of salvation history, this triadic schema in the time of the Church takes place in each individual soul as it journeys, a pilgrim in this world, towards the restoration of its true home in the Heavenly City.  Hildegard’s innovation is to see this triad reflected in the macrocosmic history of the world, as well.  Although the final, complete restoration—the conclusion of the triadic cycles—will only come at the end of the world, in the Parousia and New Jerusalem, there is nevertheless the possibility for this process of establishment, crisis, and resolution to be repeated and renewed in the course of history.  These cycles are the most prominent feature of Hildegard’s vision of the end times, intricately developed and refined in the Liber Divinorum Operum from the vague and simple periodization of “five ages” in Scivias III.11.

While a complete analysis of Hildegard’s program cannot be offered here,[9] we can examine a few examples of her vision of the Chuch to come to see the similarities (and notable differences) from that sketched by Joseph Ratzinger four decades ago.  In contrast with the almost constant evil that characterizes the five ages in Scivias III.11 (with the exception of the last), Hildegard’s later program of history to come is permeated by both the crises of human evil and the restoration of justice.  An illuminating example can be found in one of the cyclic periods of crisis Hildegard elaborates out of the age of the pale horse (the third age in Scivias III.11), described in Liber Divinorum Operum (LDO) III.5.21-26.[10]  This period, as with others before it, begins with a time of peace and prosperity in Christendom.  But it lasts only a short time before the two great world powers of the Middle Ages are destroyed:

Yet in these days, the Emperors of the Roman office shall fall from the strength by which they once vigorously held the Roman Empire, and they shall become weak in their own glory, so that the imperial power entrusted to their hands for a time by divine judgment shall decrease and fail. For they shall be morally filthy and lukewarm and servile and repulsive, and useless in all things. Though they wish to be honored by the people, they shall not seek the people’s prosperity; and so none will be able to honor or revere them. Wherefore the kings and princes of many peoples, who were at one time subject to the Roman Empire, shall remove themselves from it and suffer no longer to be subject to it. And so the Roman imperial power shall be scattered in weakness. For each nation and every people shall establish then their own king to obey, saying that the spread of Roman imperial power had become more of a burden to them than an honor. But after the imperial scepter has been broken up in this way and is unable to be repaired, then also the mitre of the apostolic office [i.e. the papacy] shall be broken. For because neither princes nor any other men of either the spiritual or the secular order shall then find any good religion in the apostolic title, the dignity of that title shall diminish. They shall prefer other masters and archbishops under other titles and in other areas, so that after it has been diminished by the adjournment of its original dignity, the apostolic see shall in that time maintain only Rome and a few nearby places that still lie under its mitre. These things, moreover, shall come to pass in part because of invasions and warfare; and in part they shall be perfected by the common counsel and consensus of both the spiritual and the secular peoples. These shall declare that each prince ought to defend his kingdom and rule his people, and that each archbishop or other spiritual master ought to constrain those under his supervision to uprightness of discipline, lest they be afflicted thereafter by those evils they had suffered previously by the divine will. (LDO III.10.25)
Although the destruction of both imperial and papal power could have been seen as a sign of the Antichrist’s coming, it is remarkable that here, Hildegard includes it as just one of the many crises that would come before the end times.  For shortly after the reduction of the papacy to simply another bishopric, “justice shall stand for a time in her uprightness, so that the humans of those days shall convert themselves with integrity to the ancient customs and hold and observe the disciplines of ancient [Christians].” This return to the simple life of the golden age of the early Church is also reflected in the renewal of creation: “The air also at that time shall again grow sweet and the fruit of the earth useful, and humanity shall be healthy and strong” (LDO III.10.26).  Finally, that time will be marked by new signs of holiness:
In those days many also shall prophesy and many more shall be wise, so that the secrets of the prophets and the mysteries of the other scriptures in their fullness shall lie open to the wise.  Their sons and daughters shall prophesy, just as was foretold many ages before….  They shall also prophesy in the same spirit by which the prophets of old announced the mysteries of God, and in the likeness of the apostles’ teaching, which excelled all human understanding.

The rhetoric of reform as a return to the “apostolic Church” is not novel.  St. Boniface used it in the Anglo-Saxon missions to Germany in the eight century; it was a regular feature of Gregorian rhetoric in the eleventh and twelfth centuries; it was foundational to the vision of St. Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century; and the model of the “early Church” informed Protestants from the start and Roman Catholic efforts at reform since, especially in the Second Vatican Council half-a-century ago.  What is extraordinary about Hildegard’s portrait of that reforming, renewing return is her distrust of institutional authority in carrying it out—that a golden age of reform grounded on the ideal of the apostolic Church could come after the fall of the papacy is simply astounding.  Such antipathy toward the institutional Church is often seen as a hallmark not of medieval or Roman Catholic thinking, but of the Protestant Reformation.  Indeed, when such rhetoric is found today in the Roman Catholic Church, it is often thought to be from the “liberals” of the Church, against whom Pope Benedict XVI is so often seen as an adversary.

When Benedict came to discuss Hildegard, however, over the course of two general audiences in 2010 (Sept.1 and Sept. 8), it was not on her distrust of institutional authority that he focused.  Despite the radical possibilities offered both by Hildegard’s pessimistic vision of Church corruption and by her optimistic hope for the prophetic renewal of the Church—possibilities the younger Joseph Ratzinger may not have dismissed out of hand—the current Pope Benedict seems to have glossed over this prophecy that might shake his own papal office.

Hewing rather to Hildegard’s numerous other confirmations of obedience to ecclesial authority (even if they extend not to Rome but only to one’s direct superior), he sees in her a model for reform within rather than without that structure.  It is in her condemnations of the Cathars in the very same sermons to the clergy at Cologne and Trier whose disendowment prophecies were quoted above that he finds this admonition, “that a true renewal of the ecclesial community is obtained with a sincere spirit of repentance and a demanding process of conversion, rather than with a change of structures.”

But one is left to wonder: had Ratzinger not climbed the ladder of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, might his vision of Church reform be less conformist and more radical?

[1] Standard works on the Gregorian Reform and the Investiture contest remain those of Gerd Tellenbach: Church, State, and Christian Society at the Time of the Investiture Contest (Oxford: Blackwell, 1940) and The Church in Western Europe from the Tenth to the Early Twelfth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); see also John Gilchrist, The Collection in Seventy-Four Titles: A Canon Law Manual of the Gregorian Reform (Toronto, 1980). 
[2] See Hildegard’s Ep. 8 to Pope Anastasius, in Epistolarium I, CCCM 91, ed. L. Van Acker (Turnhout: Brepols, 1991), pp. 19-22; trans. Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman, in The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, Vol. I (Oxford, 1994), pp. 41-43. 
[3] See Hildegard’s Ep. 313 and 315, in Epistolarium III, CCCM 91b, ed. L. Van Acker & M. Klaes-Hachmöller (Turnhout: Brepols, 2001), pp. 74-75; trans. Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman, in The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, Vol. III (Oxford, 2004), pp. 113-114.  For an analysis of this correspondence, see Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987), p. 13. 
[4] See Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans. Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (The Classics of Western Spirituality; Paulist Press: New York, 1990), pp. 491-511.  For an analysis of this image, see Bernard McGinn, Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil (San Francisco, 1994), pp. 128-132; Kerby-Fulton, “Prophet and Reformer”, p. 83; and R. K. Emmerson, “The Representation of Antichrist in Hildegard of Bingen's Scivias: Image, Word, Commentary, and Visionary Experience,” Gesta, Vol. 41, No. 2, (2002), pp. 95-110. 
[5] Ep. 311r, in Epistolarium III, pp. 72-73; The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, Vol. III, pp. 110-111. 
[6] Ep. 223r, in Epistolarium II, CCCM 91a, ed. L. Van Acker (Turnhout: Brepols, 1993), pp. 490-96; The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, Vol. III, pp. 18-23. 
[7] The best treatment in English remains Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987). 
[8] See  H. D. Rauh, Das Bild des Antichrist im Mittelalter; von Tyconius zum deutschen Symbolismus (Münster: Aschendorff, 1973), 510-11.  The second and third step of each triad—crisis and resolution—are classic hallmarks of the apocalyptic mode of thought: see Bernard McGinn, Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Traditions in the Middle Ages (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979 and 1998), 10-11. 
[9] For an analysis of the entire program, see Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Reformist Apocalypticism and Piers Plowman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 47-50. 
[10] Liber Divinorum Operum, ed. A. Derolez and P. Dronke, in CCCM 92 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1996). 


Banshee said...

Recapping the Apocalypse and Bible history tons of times before the end is pretty standard Tyconius-brand interpretation. St. Beatus of Liebana was into that, and so were tons of others leading up to St. Hildegard's time.

Which isn't to say it's not true, because human nature is always leading to a lot of repetition of historical patterns. :)

Re: more radical, I'd say no. He might have expressed himself more plainly as a prof, because he admits that Italy has taught him prudence and patience, whereas his natural bent is to have a temper like his dad.

But he less "climbed" the hierarchical ladder than was "pushed up it by force". The man wanted to be a prof all his life, and he keeps being frustrated in his true ambitions. :)

Nathaniel M. Campbell said...

To Banshee:

While the interpretative method of historical concordance does have roots in Tyconian/Augustinian exegesis, there are two factors that mark the twelfth-century school of "symbolists" as different:

1. Tyconius and Augustine emphasized the concordances in the Apocalypse as primarily operating at the level of the individual soul: the concordance of salvation history is in the pilgrimage of each soul back to its homeland in the Heavenly City. The "symbolists", by contrast, explored ever more concretized visions of these concordances operating at the macro level of history--the history of nations and institutions, not just the history of each soul.

2. Augustine's worldview was highly pessimistic: the mundus senescens (a world grown old and tired) was in the sixth and last age of history, slowly dwindling down to the end. What makes Hildegard's visions (as those of other 12th-century theologians such as Rupert of Deutz, Honorius Augustodunensis, Gerhoch of Reichersberg, and Anselm of Havelberg, and yes, even Joachim) so remarkable is their optimistic enthusiasm for the possibilities of Church renewal: "a return to the first dawn of justice", as Hildegard puts it, a new time of apostolic holiness. This is not a world grown old but a world awakened from weakness to the strength of justice.

Finally, as to Ratzinger's rise from professor to pope: I agree that it is probably better described as "pushed up by force" than actively sought. His life-long desire always has been to be an academic. On the other hand, I think that, had he remained an academic theologian, his reformist views would be more stringent--i.e. he might not gloss over so simply Hildegard's prophecy of the disestablishment of the papacy followed by a time of apostolic renewal.

Ryan said...


In addition to mentioning St. Hildegard in his audiences, Pope Benedict also used her image of a tattered bride in describing the torn state of the Church to the curia in his end of the year address for 2010. (http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2010/december/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20101220_curia-auguri_en.html)

In this speech, we can begin to see Benedict invoking Hildegard's call of the institutional Church to constantly examine and renew itself. I think that sometimes individual believers, as well as omniscient theologians, can sometimes rail against the inescapable "institution" of the Church. However, Pope Benedict in sync with Hildegard I think, proffers the notion that institutional conversion can only occur in sync with individual conversion.

Thank you for your musings on the Sibyl of the Rhine. There are many of us who admire her and your refections have provided much insight.

Mary Sharratt said...

Great essay. Thanks so much for this!