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  • St. Hildegard, Doctor of the Church, and the Fate of Feminist Theology
  • Barbara Newman (bio)

Rome never hurries. Secure in the possession of eternity, why should she? So, when Pope Benedict XVI officially proclaimed Hildegard of Bingen a saint on May 10th and a Doctor of the Church on October 7th, 2012, he presented his acts as the culmination of a long, leisurely process.1 “Our predecessor Gregory IX,” he announced, received the first petition for her sainthood from the Rupertsberg nuns in 1228. He duly launched an inquiry, the results of which arrived at Rome in 1233. At that time the eminent theologian William of Auxerre, speaking for “the theological faculty of Paris,” pronounced that “Hildegard’s writings contain not human words, but divine.”2 Nevertheless, “because of a certain defect in the process,” the cause languished. A century later, in 1326, “our predecessor John XXII” issued an indulgence for pilgrims to the Rupertsberg on Hildegard’s feast day, providing evidence of immemorial cult. In 1940, Pius XII extended the observance of her feast throughout Germany, and in 1979, John Paul II “openly called her a saint” on the occasion of her eighth centennial. In the same year, as Pope Benedict revealed, John Paul received two new petitions, one from the conference of German bishops and the other from the nuns of Eibingen, both now requesting that Hildegard be declared a doctor of the Church. So her cause was reopened and this time took a mere thirty-three years—scarcely the blink of an eye—to reach its happy conclusion.

The other side of the story is told by Mother Clementia Killewald, superior of St. Hildegard’s Abbey, in a celebratory letter on the abbey website. Noting that it took seven campaigns and five popes to conclude St. Hildegard’s cause, she remarks that it also took “39 abbesses and 39 generations of sisters from the monasteries of Rupertsberg and Eibingen,” both founded by Hildegard, who “prayed for this and exerted themselves tirelessly up to our own days” to make it happen.3 Beyond the traditionally glacial pace of canonization, there is a kind of logic in the long delay. Hildegard certainly was—and was seen to be—an important teacher of the Church in her lifetime, given the ambitious scope of her writings and the vast reach of her correspondence. This has once again been the case since 1979, when John Paul II reopened her cause. But in the intervening centuries, though it now seems hard to fathom, she was largely [End Page 36]

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forgotten—even in the diocese of Mainz and the town of Bingen—except by her daughters.4 For the learned nuns did far more than petition the Vatican. Pope Benedict did not allow his intentions concerning Hildegard to be leaked to the world until December 2011. But he informed Mother Clementia in March of that year, because he would rely on a team of Hildegard experts at Eibingen to prepare her official biography, a bibliography, and an outline of twelve theological themes for his proclamation.5 In fact, the positio for her canonization was prepared by Sister Maura Zátonyi in collaboration with the Jesuit Rainer Berndt.6 All this work had to be done quickly, with the utmost discretion, and no one anywhere was in a better position to do it.

To honor Hildegard’s long-deferred elevation, I here examine two intertwined aspects of her reception. First, I highlight the achievements of her twentieth- and twenty-first-century scholar-nuns, which remain little known outside Germany. St. Hildegard’s Abbey today houses fifty-four nuns, and over the past century about two dozen have made significant contributions to Hildegard scholarship—as editors, translators, historians, and interpreters, not to mention artists and singers. In a true Hildegardian spirit, the sisters today also work as vintners, goldsmiths, and ceramic artists, as well as maintaining a workshop for the conservation and restoration of manuscripts. Thus do they fulfill the Benedictine tradition of ora et labora. But to my knowledge, their intense, long-standing engagement with the world of scholarship is...


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