Article: St. Hildegard, Doctor of the Church, and the Fate of Feminist Theology, by Barbara Newman

This article appears in the latest issue of Spiritus (Spring 2013) on pages 36-55;  Here is an excerpt:

“To honor Hildegard’s long-deferred elevation [to sainthood], 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 unparalleled among women’s monasteries. I want especially to look at the pioneering work of Sister Maura Böckeler in the first half of the last century.

“The writings of that formidable nun lead to my second agenda. Hildegard is well-known today for her “theology of the feminine,” as I called it in the subtitle of my 1987 book, Sister of Wisdom. But I was not the first to systematically explore the abbess’s reflections on women and the feminine. That honor belongs to Maura Böckeler’s 1941 volume, Das große Zeichen: Die Frau als Symbol göttlicher Wirklichkeit (The Great Sign: Woman as Symbol of Divine Reality). If that book had been more widely read, there would have been little need for mine—but, given the exigencies of World War II, Böckeler’s contribution made scarcely a ripple. In Das große Zeichen she develops her own, Hildegardian take on a style of gendered theology that is out of favor at present, but enjoyed wide sway in the early twentieth century. Such theologies begin with the axiom that a polarity of Masculine and Feminine governs all life in the universe, being rooted in the androgynous nature of the Divine. The vogue for theologies of the feminine went hand in hand with First Wave feminism, so they differ from later feminist theologies much as the First Wave differed from the Third. This kind of thinking would now be branded essentialist and roundly condemned. But as I will show, it played a fragile yet important role in the Catholic resistance to Nazism, a backdrop that lends Böckeler’s work a special poignancy. In the second part of this essay, therefore, I will explore the changing political and intellectual contexts for theologies of the feminine such as Hildegard’s—first in Germany during the Third Reich, then in America during the Third Wave.”

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