(March is Women’s History Month. Acton will be highlighting a number of women who have contributed significantly to the issue of liberty during this month.)
“This strange child” is how Hildegard was once described. Born in 1098, she was known to have visions, but kept them private for many years. Her family sent her at the age of 8 for religious education. It was not until the age of 42 that she realized the full extent of her visions and her understanding of religious texts. She sought the advice of St. Bernard and then Pope Eugenius so that her visions would never be seen as anything outside of or against Church teaching.
Hildegard’s work was some of the most prolific and wide-ranging in church history. She wrote music, plays, theology, and natural history. She also left behind massive correspondence. Besides writing to those who sought prayerful and private advice, she took to task men like Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, the archbishop of Main, and King Henry II of England. She was known to openly approach medical subjects (such as menstruation) and political and religious topics even some men would not discuss.
The 12th century was one of schisms and religious turmoil, and Hildegard was openly critical of those who spoke against the Church. However, the practice of burning heretics, popular at this time, was one Hildegard eschewed: “Do not kill them, for they are God’s image.”
Some feminist theologians of the 20th century have found Hildegard to be “feminist-friendly“, focusing on her apparent disobedience of a local bishop when relocating her convent. However, nothing suggests that Hildegard was anything but a true scholar, a student of science, reason and theology, who sought to work within the Church’s tradition of intellectual endeavor. In 2012, now-Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI declared Hildegard of Bingen a “Doctor of the Church”: a title given to certain saints known for their work that leads to new understandings of the Catholic Church’s Faith. It is in the realm of faith, reason, and intellect that Hildegard can be regarded a woman of liberty.