The New Doctors of the Church

St. Hildegarde of Bingen and St. John of Avila were officially named Doctors of the Church this morning in Rome, at the beginning of a bishops’ synod there.

Yes, I was crazy enough to get up 3:30 in the morning to see the Pope read the proclamation.

You can watch the rerun today on EWTN, at the much saner hour of 3 PM EST.

Via Foxfier, we learn about Michael Flynn’s hilarious use of Dr. St. Hildegarde to perform a takedown of anti-Catholic ideas about the Middle Ages being a time when the Church persecuted women who were herbalists, had visions, spoke out, wrote books, composed music, and corrected men. Hee! (Unfortunately, the rest of the post is a very sad review of recent disturbing news.)

Other female Doctors of the Church include St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux, and St. Catherine of Siena.

Of course, the Church has always encouraged women to be teachers of Christian doctrine to the young. And when I say “always,” I point to Paul’s letter to young Bishop Timothy, which attributes his earliest Christian learning to his mother and grandmother, St. Eunice and St. Lois. And there have always been learned Christian women who were eager to learn Christian doctrine and theology, as shown by St. Mary of Bethany listening to Christ in full rabbi’s disciple mode. (And this was natural, because Judaism also included many learned women, including Paul’s teacher who also appears in the Bible, Gamaliel. His daughter is quoted in the Talmud.)

The truth of the matter is that, while some times and places have been restrictive for Catholic women in their practices or disciplines, the general principle has been that Catholic women can teach the Gospel any time that they’re not actually in church learning it, and that this has often gone to the extent of being given the okay for public layperson preaching. (Particularly in Italy, where there are several medieval woman preacher saints, including one who did it as a little girl prodigy.) Plenty of women wrote learned books of theology or visions or Christian plays or what have you, and we have multiple copies of many because they were passed all around Europe. Probably many books whose authors we don’t know are treatises by women religious, just as many anonymous books are by men religious who didn’t bother to sign their names. Nuns and canonesses focused on doing good works, but they were also supposed to spend most of their time somewhere on the spectrum between scholar and mystic. Study was generally a good thing, and Jesus and St. Jerome’s support of women religious throwing themselves into it was a powerful precedent. Plenty of literature and scholarly work resulted from such places, even if it has not all survived for us to read. You will note that Mother Angelica of EWTN is just another in a long line of great nun teachers of the public.

St. Hildegarde of Bingen also didn’t come out of nowhere. She came from the group of extremely learned, visionary, and skilled women religious who taught and trained her, and she taught and trained many such women herself. Most of her works were written primarily for her sister nuns in her own community, although she was unusually assiduous in spreading her books and talks to the rest of the world. The major thing that was unusual about her was that she was too sick all the time as a child to receive the same schooling as her sister nuns, and thus had to pick up a lot of things piecemeal.

She was unusually gifted, but she was different from her fellow nuns in degree of gifts, not in kind. All over the Christian world, East and West, from the beginning of Christianity on, there is always a corps of thousands of Christian women religious, whose vocation is praying and thinking as well as working. People who don’t remember that are missing a large part of the world. In her time, Chaucer’s Prioress was a bit too worldly and gadabout (English nuns of her time were constantly being told to work on holiness back in the monastery, not go on pilgrimages) and a bit too slack about holiness and study, but she had the right to have a career of community life, holiness, and study — no less than the Wife of Bath had a right to get married again to bad young men.

UPDATE: Here’s a nice story about a Hildegarde scholar at St. Xavier University in Chicago. She was in Rome today for the doctorization. 🙂

Rome Reports with a short story about St. H, including footage from a movie about her from a couple years back. (Haven’t seen the movie.)

One thing: movies are always making people who see visions look dazed and confused, and the clips on YouTube seem to bear this rule out. In real life, known visionaries usually look unusually peaceful and calm (often so calm that contemporaries think visionaries look like stupid happy cows,) and so joyful that their joy is resented by others who are less deeply happy (although other people are drawn to this because they want to be happy too). I don’t really see this being used by actors much, possibly because it’s much easier to look sad than to glow like a supernaturally sunlit window. Hildegard got migraines, which made her life a bit less fun, but the rest is kinda ridiculous.

Well, this sounds like a really stupid novel, although possibly it is ill-characterized by the reviewer. Mother Jutta was an excellent sort of person who obviously attracted people, given that she went from being an anchoress to having tons of little girls sent to her to be taught. Little Hildegard was more like the pet protegee than some kind of abused and imprisoned Protestant stereotype of nuns; she lived with Jutta in an anchor hold, not a prison; and in any case, she had so many childhood migraines that she had to rest in a dark, quiet room most days, which wasn’t something you could do back home in her parents’ sunlit rooms at their lord’s busy, noisy castle. This sort of overly dramatic stuff is just insane. If you want to write a novel about a mistreated and misunderstood nun, you can easily find historical precedents for that in bad convents. But usually nuns (and anchoresses) were getting in trouble for having too nice and non-ascetic a lifestyle, in St. H’s day. It was also perfectly normal for any busy administrator

We also see that, as with St. Teresa of Avila, she only began to be a mover and shaker in her forties. Many women think in their hearts that life is over when youth is over. It’s not true.

St. Hildegard was extremely creative and visionary in her expression of very orthodox ideas from God (well, of course they would be) and from books.


1 Comment

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One response to “The New Doctors of the Church

  1. Not even going to click on the stupid novel… it probably is, in the classic “Based on a true story (hey, we kept a couple of names!)” manner.

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