Thursday, July 13, 2017

Liberating Marriage in an Age of Heresy: St. Hildegard of Bingen and Reform in the 12th Century

In the eleven hundredth year after the Incarnation of Christ, the teaching and fiery justice of the Apostles, which Christ had established among the Christians and spiritual people, began to slow down and to turn into hesitation. I was born in those times. —St. Hildegard

I cry, I cry, I cry again....The religion of Christ, the true faith, has fallen so low that it is an object of scorn not only to the devil, but to Jews and Saracens, and pagans....These keep their law, as they believe it, but we, intoxicated with the love of the world, have deserted our law....I have labored with all my might that the Holy Church, the Bride of God, our mistress and our mother, should recover her honor and remain chaste, and free, and Catholic. —Pope St. Gregory VII

Reid J. Turner's second book, Liberating Marriage in an Age of Heresy, examines the great twelfth century scholar and mystic St. Hildegard von Bingen, recently declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI. When a saint is declared a Doctor of the Church, it essentially means their writings are canonized. Now that St. Hildegard is acknowledged as a Doctor we may expect a continuing re-examination of her works within the context of modern scholarship. Reid Turner's books each reflect briefly but persuasively upon the prophetic and theological writings of the enigmatic German Benedictine abbess in the light of contemporary times. In Liberating Marriage Turner looks upon St. Hildegard's defense of marriage from the various and sundry medieval corruptions of the sacred institution, including child marriages, incest, and the general licentiousness spread by Catharism. St. Hildegard made it clear that people should not marry before reaching the age of fecundity. (p. 94) Furthermore, the strict consanguinity laws of the medieval Church were to protect young people, who often lived in close quarters with various relatives, from becoming victims of an incestuous union, by making it illicit for anything closer than fourth or fifth cousins to marry. (pp 53-57) In the Middle Ages, many Christians viewed fornication between single people as being a venial sin, in spite of the fact that the Church categorized it as mortally sinful. (p.66) The moral issues were not unlike those of our own times.

As for the Gnostic belief system known as Catharism, in which practitioners believed that there were two gods, a good and a bad, St. Hildegard denounced it in the strongest terms. The Cathars thought that the created, material world was evil, that the body was evil, and therefore all sexual activity, and especially conceiving a child, was sinful. They encouraged both contraception and sodomy. Some scholars today think that the Cathars were more favorable to women than Catholics but St. Hildegard did not see it that way and excoriated them in ways that today would get her accused of committing a hate crime. (pp 47-51)

On a positive note, the saint's magnificent words on the "holy love" of true matrimony are quoted extensively. The book is short but bursting with fascinating information about medieval views of love and sin. It became clear to me that the doctrines of the Church, as they continued to be clarified by reforming popes, were meant to protect women and children from the abuses of lust as well as those of material and political gain. As we know, the teachings were often ignored in the face of worldly expediency. Nevertheless, St. Hildegard's voice is one that is as relevant now as it was nine hundred years ago.

  (The book was sent to me by the author in exchange for my honest opinion.)


No comments: