Posts Tagged ‘Mulieris Dignitatem’

Religious Freedom as the Fundamental Freedom; Mary’s Fiat as its Perfect Expression

Monday, November 7th, 2011

Religious freedom is the the “First Freedom” from which other forms of human freedom spring. I return to my essay, “Notre Dame’s Forgotten Freedom“:

Religious freedom is not only recognized by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, but it also was one of the first human freedoms, and is closely related to the First Commandment, to “not have other gods besides me” (Exodus 20: 3).

We forget that the Lord commanded Moses to tell Pharaoh to let his people go for a reason, “to worship me” (Exodus 7:26). Each day in the Liturgy of the Hours, Catholics pray the Benedictus of Zechariah (Luke 1: 70-75):

This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hand of our enemies,
free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.

For believers in the Abrahamic traditions, human freedom is inseparable from religious freedom.

Also, those who accept the commonplace belief that the invention of effective artificial birth control and the legalization of abortion established freedom for women are about two thousand years too late, and overlook freedom of both the body and soul for the sake of freedom of the body alone.

This striking truth is buried in the very familiar passage of Luke 1:27-38:

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” And the angel said to her in reply, “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

I am not the first to point out that Mary’s “fiat,” her “Let it be,” mirrored the first “fiat,” the first Word of creation, “Fiat lux–Let there be light” in Genesis 1, and is echoed in a third “fiat” spoken every day by millions, “Fiat voluntas tua–Thy will be done,” from the Our Father. Those who accept the Gospel and pray the Our Father implicitly speak a “fiat” that encompasses all these associated meanings.

Those who on the other hand attempt to hold to the Gospel while accepting abortion shatter the unity of Christian faith itself, the unity of one “fiat” of Creation, one “fiat” of Incarnation, one “fiat” of the Kingdom. They ultimately reject the profound meaning of Mary’s “genoito moi kata to ohma sou–be it done-be it created-to me according to your word.” The Word and all of creation are embodied–incarnated–perfectly in her succinct response.

In the Annunciation, God respected Mary’s freedom of body and of soul completely. Her whole, free, and complete acceptance of God’s will, “Idou h doulh Xuriou” in Greek, “Behold I am the slave (doula) of the Lord,” softened by the Latin “Ecce ancilla Domini–Behold the maidservant of the Lord” was a complete act of both spiritual and physical freedom, the fundamental and most influential such act in human existence. From Mary’s willing participation in the Incarnation, the Word becoming Flesh, the meaning of human freedom abounds.

One must reflect again and again on the Annunciation to fully reject the flat, limited, one-dimensionality of the post-modern feminist view. The path to rejecting abortion and accepting the Gospel of Life begins with the deepening acceptance of the Annunciation and the Incarnation, which is, in the very words of the angel, tied to the Kingdom.

For further reflections on Mary’s “fiat,” see John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem.

Mary’s “fiat” is the perfect expression of human freedom, and embodies her within both the unity of Creation and the same unity of the Kingdom. By rejecting life, little do people know they are also rejecting Mary’s “Let it be” and unity with the Incarnation of the Savior.

The Christian, by deepening understanding of the unity of the “fiat,” comes to view life and the world in a completely different light: the same first Light and Word of Creation, the same Light that “overshadowed” Mary. This is how those who reject Mary ultimately reject a critical meaning of the Christian message, the Gospel that speaks of Life and the Gospel that speaks of Light. Those who reject Mary’s full role in Salvation thereby walk in the shadows.

No wonder the post-modern mind hates Christmas and Mary’s part in it.

When one does not respect the freedom of the human conscience in religion, one inevitably limits other freedoms.

© Copyright 2009, 2011, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved

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Dan Savage’s Brief Shining Moment

Friday, September 30th, 2011

A few years ago I attended for a time one of the world’s best business schools, and there I confirmed in “granular” detail (a B-school word) something I already knew: that after people reach a certain age, hardly anybody drinks certain brands of beer.

I have fond memories of these brands, not because I drank them–they had a taste that I never bothered to acquire–but because of their charming old advertising jingles and logos, and because of a silly joke my late Dad taught me when I was a little boy: “Albert, does beer make you smart?” . . . “It made Bud wiser.”

From a great business professor I learned of the herculean marketing efforts necessary to get people to keep drinking these beers, with inevitably diminishing returns as people reach the age of functional maturity. Just as car insurance companies know from long-collected empirical evidence that young people cannot generally make wisely considered decisions behind the wheel until about the age of 25, the major beer companies know, based upon similar research, that young people generally stop drinking their brand of beer by the age of 29–perhaps because they have finally made a few wisely-considered decisions. Therefore the big beer companies live and die by the tiny demographic margin generated by their ads.

One might say that these beers have each been branded as: “The beer America is still dumb enough to drink.”

We’ve all seen the beer ads with young, slim, attractive people having all kinds of fun in something of a Never Neverland of youth, where beer neither makes you drunk nor fat, and where the mere choice of a brand of beer impresses buxom and scantily-clad–and recently, clever and engaging–young women. Then some day reality hits, like the actual beer party that occurred when the cast of TV’s Cheers retired from the show, and some of cast got sloppy drunk by actually downing the amount of real beer equivalent to the fake beer that they pretended to consume on TV.

I have very unpleasant memories of these beers as well, and they have to do not only with the homeless alcoholics I tried to assist for over two decades, but also with the amount of swill consumed in the late 1960s and early 1970s by my contemporaries and some priest faculty at the now defunct Niles College Seminary, the former college seminary of the Archdiocese of Chicago and my alma mater of unhappy memory. “Come for the priesthood, stay for the beer” seemed to have been the watchword at Niles College.

While the priests of my early youth “took the pledge” not to drink until they were thirty, the uncorked “spirits of Vatican II” changed all that. Niles College in my unhappy college years was a particular locus of alcohol consumption by students and faculty alike, and quite a shock to my, I suppose, naively pious expectations formed in the minor seminary. I recall one day when the liquor delivery truck arrived at the Niles College rectory, and unloaded what seemed to be dozens of crates and barrels of booze for a faculty soiree. This being the Archdiocese of Chicago, I then prayed for Eliot Ness, Rico, Lee, and Youngblood to pull up in their 1930s roadster and bust the place, but my prayers went in that respect unanswered. One of my proofs for the existence of God is that somehow a number of holy priests were ordained in Chicago despite everything they experienced at Niles College during that era.

Part of the “Niles Experience,” as we then called it, included the ribald, over-sexed, curse-laden, scatological, sometimes homosexual dorm humor that persists to some limited degree today among the clergy of the Archdiocese of Chicago of a certain age and outlook. This dorm humor is very similar to the dorm humor that has traversed colleges and barracks since time immemorial. This humor was also heard annually at Niles College around a beer party in the 1970s on the night of the feast of the Immaculate Conception in the quarters of a divine, a party that had a particularly defiling name for the Immaculate Conception that was finally squelched when John Patrick Cardinal Cody, several years into the recurrent celebration, got wind of it due to a dispute among the clergy when someone passed the word to him in retribution. This party for me, despite the abundance of drink, was a spiritual Dead Sea of the Archdiocese, from which sulphuric smoke followed for Chicago. What the seminary hath sometimes wrought! O tempora, O mores. . .

The seminary system of the Archdiocese of Chicago not long thereafter played a part for a year or so in the high school education of MTV personality and sex advice columnist Dan Savage, who later completed his apprenticeship in dorm speech at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (coincidentally, the alma mater of Hugh Hefner).

(Let me add a disclaimer here that the fine faculty of Quigley Preparatory Seminary North, as it was then called in the early 1980s, were a stellar group who wouldn’t dream of planting into Mr. Savage’s head some of the things which have issued therefrom since. Ditto for the faculty at UIUC.)

While every college dorm seems to have a guy like Mr. Savage, he has since brought dorm humor to the world in ways the world might not have imagined possible through the means of his sex advice column and television appearances. Mr. Savage writes the way some co-workers talk together privately on the job or some college students talk together in the dorm, in a coarse manner similar to the dialogue on the current popular cable TV show about New York firefighters, “Rescue Me.”

This mode of speech represents the underside of American Catholic culture. It is the way many Americans, and many American Catholics–to the shock of our Baptist and Evangelical brethren and “sisteren”–do talk informally, so it speaks to American youth in a particularly powerful way because they think that this is the way that grownups really talk, which is to a certain degree unfortunately true. In part to counter this cultural phenomenon years ago, the Holy Name Societies were founded. I’m expecting Archbishop Timothy Dolan any day now to enlist members of the NYFD to re-up in the Holy Name Society en masse for this very reason.

Mr. Savage differentiates himself from a marketing standpoint by including in this common mix of dorm speech his own variations in homosexual humor, which apparently help to keep the curious listening to him. He dispenses advice to the lovelorn by rather gleefully engaging in intimate sexual detail and pop pseudoscience, while also from time to time publicly hurling rather direct and violent threats and insults at those who anger him for various reasons.

Dan Savage’s sometimes violent writing persona is usually not that present in his public presentations to students, where he displays more honey and less vinegar, to use the celebrated distinction of St. Francis de Sales. One reviewer called Mr. Savage a “cool uncle” after his September, 2011 UIC MTV taping. His target demographic appears to be teens and young adults who still drink that certain brand of beer and who are still struggling to make wisely-considered decisions.

Mr. Savage’s knack for describing the same old sexual plumbing in hip, kaleidoscopic detail should not deceive: he is a sexual plumber who apparently loves his work, not an engineer who deeply understands it. Witness his dumb advice for couples to have affairs to spice up their relationships, trumpeted by the New York Times this past Summer of 2011 as if it was the first time human civilization had heard such a brilliant suggestion.

(Reserved for further extended comment at another time: Dan Savage’s understanding of heterosexual intimacy is almost completely blind to the experience of committed, long-term bonding as experienced by the female, and of the complex role that hormones like oxytocin and other physical and psychological processes play therein. The pictures Dan Savage draws of female-male committed love are clumsy, sad cartoons crushed down by pathetic, strained adolescent slapstick. Like the writers of “Sex and the City,” Dan Savage from time to time superimposes a gay male paradigm on the female.

If it’s any consolation, Mr. Savage is in good company. Michelangelo had a similar problem, in that, with the exception of masterpieces like the Pieta or the lovely image of Eve wrapped in the arm of the Creator in the Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel, many of the Master’s images of females appeared as “males with breasts.”)

Mr. Savage gives the lighthearted secular version of the “sex talk” previously administered in Catholic circles by physicians like my great aunt to Catholic high school girls in the 1940s, by straightforward Jesuits like Francis Filas, SJ in the 1950s and 1960s, and by Catholic couples in the 1960s and thereafter of his parents’ generation, who, like his parents, would participate in Marriage Encounter or other Catholic family activities. Mr. Savage thus represents in a way the secularized terminus of this tradition.

But Mr. Savage’s admirers or fellow activists rarely view Mr. Savage in a holistic, complete manner to the point of confronting the violence of his language. Dan Savage is on record for his scatological public threat in TV journalist Paula Zahn’s direction in 2006, and for his shared popularization of a new word for the refuse generated by anal intercourse rather spitefully assigned to former US Senator Rick Santorum in retribution for the Senator’s moral and political stances. This word is designed to appear prominently when the former Senator’s name is searched on the Internet. The Senator has been reported to be asking Google for relief from this prank, which has made Dan Savage a hero to those who can’t abide the former senator. Recently, Dan Savage stated in a televised appearance that he wanted to f___ the s____ out of Mr. Santorum. While it is possible to study anal intercourse in “granular” detail and speak as many words for offal as legend claims the Arctic clans possess for snow, such a feat buries itself in piles of its own insignificance.

Again, just about every big college dorm has, and probably always will, have its own Dan Savage.

After years of writing for newspapers handed away for free and appearing as an occasional TV talking head, Dan Savage reached national prominence and a White House invitation through his anti-bullying campaign designed also to assist LGBTQ youth, It Gets Better. I have already commented in an earlier blog on the incongruence of a writer with a history of violent language starting an anti-bullying campaign.

Dan Savage’s anti-bullying campaign has allowed him to cross over from speaking at predominantly LGBTQ events to a more general audience. Mr. Savage has thus found his way into national magazines, television, and of course the college speaking circuit where he is currently touring and taping for MTV appearances in which he dispenses sexual advice in a live-question format. His MTV taping appearance at the UIC campus in September, 2011 was not well subscribed, and staff reportedly had to rope in passers-by, but the campus newspaper gave him the obligatory puff treatment, citing merely his “sarcasm” directed at certain politicians, since after all, he is a celebrity who brought MTV to the campus. In general, the college press has been very kind to Mr. Savage, and has downplayed the violence that bursts out in his writing and occasionally on TV.

(The John Paul II Newman Center at UIC–not by any means asleep at the wheel–has like many other astute chaplaincies about the country caught on to Dan Savage. The JPII Center responded to Mr. Savage’s UIC campus appearance a few nights later with a talk to students by Dr. Ken Howell and JPII chaplains.)

Mr. Savage’s promotional photos show him in his T-shirt as the familiar “jock” who may have just stepped out of his dorm or basketball court. Born in 1964 in the last year of the Baby Boom, he is 47. Like Dick Clark and Richard Roeper earlier and many other journalist-entertainer personalities who maintained the puer aeternus mystique as long as they could, Dan Savage works the youth media circuit. For this reason I predict that some day Dan Savage will host the New York New Year’s Eve celebration, and lead the countdown from 10 to 1. Valuing authenticity, I do not expect Dan Savage to wear a wig.

I also predict that later in his career, when Dan Savage can bring only an ever smaller demographic to market, he may appear late at night squeezed in between Time-Life infomercials and old Dean Martin roast highlights, perhaps hawking his own Dan Savage brand of heaven knows what (ala Mel Brooks in the film “Spaceballs”: “Dan Savage, the lunch box. . . Dan Savage, the flamethrower”), with a cryogenic Hugh Hefner propped nearby leering his frozen endorsement from within a glass catafalque graced with frolicking images of girls he may have known, but not quite loved.

While Dan Savage has pronounced his atheism from time to time, has made a gross comment about Pope Benedict XVI’s derriere in 2009, and has criticized the Canadian Catholic Bishops for their advice against anal sex in January, 2011, Dan Savage appeared again on the Catholic radar in the Fall, 2011 when his name was associated with a series of symposia entitled “More than a Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church” scheduled for Fall, 2011 at Fordham, Yale, and Fairfield universities, as well as Union Theological Seminary, where Mr. Savage is anticipated to speak on or about October 1, 2011.

Former New York Times writer and former Commonweal Magazine editor Peter Steinfels, who happens to be Dan Savage’s first cousin once removed, was chosen to be the moderator of the 9/16/11 Fordham event, and shared his reflections on the first More than a Monologue symposium on the dotCommonweal blog. Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights president Bill Donohue issued a preemptive criticism of the symposia on 9/15/11, as did the Cardinal Newman Society a few days earlier.

Peter Steinfels and I swapped exchanges on his blog from 9/23-9/25/11 on the violent and threatening nature of some of Dan Savage’s statements.

Now that Mr. Savage has reached national prominence and a bigger MTV gig, his overriding fiduciary obligation will be to bring to MTV the demographic group both dumb enough to watch him and also dumb enough, perhaps, to drink the beer and purchase other products being advertised during his programs. Since human gestation continues to generate people under the age of 25 who haven’t yet learned to make considered decisions behind the wheel of life, and won’t switch away from the swill they’ve been drinking until they are about 29, his success in this regard is almost guaranteed. However, I said “almost,” because Mr. Savage appears to not be able to contain his clever and uproarious wit.

(Here is a representative video vignette from Dan Savage’s presentations, containing his short comments on coming out to his mother within a Catholic context. Notable in the story is that the local priest rushed to the Savage home to calm Mrs. Savage down, and announced that he the priest was gay as well.

The rest of the video clip branches to a discussion of a sex act not for younger or impressionable viewers. But the quick shift of topic and mood is revelatory. Seconds after a heartfelt comment about his mother and something of a plea for understanding from the Catholic side, Dan Savage breezily advises a young woman who cannot sustain satisfactory suction in a sex act for her boyfriend to enlist the help of a mechanical pump. While this may have been just another day at the office for “America’s leading sex advice columnist” Dan Savage, this rapid, sad segue from soulfulness to hedonism bespeaks spirits restless and lost.

So tell me: To hear such a conflicted message was worth the Catholic Fairfield University to bus its students from Connecticut to New York for Mr. Savage’s appearance on 10/1/11?)

Like the old joke about the University of Chicago of the 1950s, where once atheists and agnostics taught the Catholic philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas to Jewish students, Dan Savage’s MTV show features a homosexual giving sex advice to mostly heterosexuals so viewers will stay tuned and buy cars, beer, or consumer package goods, or CPGs (a B-school acronym). For this, Dan Savage will probably be handsomely paid, as long as he can keep the show going. He can then endow the charities and causes of his choice until his demographic dies off (or grows up) and his infomercials inhabit the late night hours into perpetuity.

When I taught at Chicago’s St. Ignatius College Prep in the early 1980s, I taught Dan Savage’s generation of young Catholics roughly at the time of the discovery of HIV. I told my homosexual students that they were especially loved children of God. But I also taught all my students the Church’s teaching that sexual intimacy belongs for believing Catholics within a lifelong, marital, heterosexual relationship. To my former students and advisees who trusted to me their homosexual identification, I conveyed love and affirmation of their intrinsic capability for caring creativity on behalf of their family, friends, and the common good. I deeply regret that I did not more vigorously warn more of the young people whom I knew years ago away from anal intercourse, and share with them a more detailed vision of chastity, since now unfortunately, a few of them are dead. Any intimate action that requires a series of precautions against disease and injury is inevitably subject to error, and therefore inevitably subject to disease and injury.

The message that the Catholic Church offers, that of a life of chastity, is seen by some, both heterosexual and homosexual alike, in the same spirit of the definitive poem on the subject of joy-killing clergy by the poet William Blake (1757-1827). This is the first document that I had my high school students read during sexual morality classes in the early 1980s:

The Garden of Love

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And `Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore,

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

A Catholic response to the sentiments expressed above can be based upon the knowledge that, to the Catholic, the Garden of Love is not simply the Garden of Sex, but a much more broadly defined Garden of Love in the divine image.

To some engaging in sexual love outside the bounds of Christian love, the Christian admonition to their sexual intimacy is: Stop, and find another way to love.

This admonition is consistent with John 8:11: “Neither do I condemn you. Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more.”

This admonition almost never goes over well initially, whether it is from John the Baptist telling Herod to stop sleeping with his brother’s wife (result, the Baptist dead), to St. John Fisher defending the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon (result, St. John Fisher dead), to a parent advising a child not to cohabit prior to marriage, to a parent advising a child, “I love you and will always love you, but what you are proposing to do appears to be a sin that will harm you, to that sin I cannot agree, and I will continue to pray that you stop and find another way.”

These are not easy words to either live by or to deliver.

A number of writers, including the psychiatrist Miriam Grossman, MD, who unlike Dan Savage actually treated well over 1,000 college students, have pointed out that the same developmental forces that militate against young adults making sound decisions behind the wheel, militate against their making sound decisions about sexual intimacy.

This means that parents and grandparents and other close relatives should continue to play a necessary role in the successful growth of young adults, contra to the 1960s existential ideal of the fully-equipped 18-year-old leaving home and substantive conversations with Mom and Dad forever. With this in mind, Dan Savage’s parting advice to a UIC student fell a little flat:

“Someone will come along,” he said. “So much of love and relationship is kismet and chance. Your moment, and you will have many of them over your life, hasn’t come.

“Just chill.”

The Catholic parent’s message and the Catholic Church’s message to a young person contemplating sexual intimacy outside of heterosexual marriage can be summed up as:

“I love you, but I cannot consent to the damage that sin may do to you. Please stop and reconsider.”

The Catholic call to conversion, heard long ago by St. Augustine when the little singsong voice called to him to tolle, lege, tolle, lege–take and read, take and read–has not changed in centuries:

And do this because you know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness [and] put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh. Romans 13:11-14

Romans 13:11-14 calls upon believers to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” and to leave the hedonism of orgies, drunkenness, promiscuity, licentiousness, rivalry, and jealousy–similar to the dorm lifestyle and dorm values prolonged in “alumni” singles districts in many major cities–for good.

But if one decides to stay in the virtual moral dorm, Dan Savage’s advice is right there online or down the street in a free newspaper to tell how to keep having lots of mindless fun.

The virtual moral dorm has important economic and political drivers with an interest in keeping young adults morally anesthetized and suspended without life commitments so they can remain ready, predictable consumers and contained within known and politically sure, manipulable boundaries.

For that reason, today’s young adult generation is the most heavily marketed and propagandized in human history. Little do young adults know the extent to which almost every consumer choice they face has been pre-selected from afar by sellers of clothing, entertainment, consumer goods, transportation, and housing. Similarly, political manipulators work to ensure that the strong peer orientation of teens be prolonged as far into the future life of the young adult as possible, since this trait enables easier generational manipulation by any number of Internet and media-enhanced political efforts. Likewise, this generation of young adults, with the exception of a rare TV show like “7th Heaven,” has almost never seen an intact, heterosexual family within a traditional marriage depicted on television on a continuing basis.

The humor that young adults consume has been infused with the presence of the unfortunate sitcom stereotype of the outrageous homosexual clown (which some day will be seen as inappropriate as the Stepin Fetchit character), who like the Shakespearean fool will say anything at any time to anybody. This generation of young adults has thus been carefully prepared to think that someone like Dan Savage, despite his lack of Shakespearean wit and artistry, is funny and entertaining. Because in his role as “America’s most popular sex advice columnist” Dan Savage brings together both consumer and political interests, his role as moral anesthetist and political agent temporarily has placed him in the cultural catbird seat–as long as those who like what he says don’t grow up.

Against these powerful forces of manipulation, the Catholic faith provides an invitation to grow into the fullness of human possibility through a life that values and honors procreation and the human beings who grow from it.

The Catholic message to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” does not include the incitement to violence, the permission to bully, or the rejection of personhood or integrity. It is a call to continue to grow and to love. It is in the highest sense a loving, parental duty. “To put on the Lord Jesus Christ” is the last thing postmodern parents are expected to say to their adult children, but it is in many cases both the true and right thing to say.

It is also right to oppose violence toward youth. As contradictory as Dan Savage’s own violent speech and his anti-bullying campaign might be to each other, his opposition to violence toward youth is a Motherhood issue.

But one cannot at the same time ignore the violent speech of Mr. Savage, proclaim it basically a joke with little consequence, and simultaneously assign to Catholic teaching the blame for violence against homosexual and transgendered individuals.

Despite his periodic rejections of Catholicism, Dan Savage is in many ways embedded in Catholic culture. While this may be his brief, shining, public moment in terms of notoriety and success, his obvious talents and the powerful grace of God may lead him in other positive directions.

There is an old Portuguese saying, in the Augustinian tradition, that God writes straight with crooked lines. Dan Savage’s violent speech may paradoxically and indirectly succeed now in revivifying the Holy Name Societies, provoke parents to teach their children that anal intercourse (whether for males or for females) is a bad thing, and cause a serious rejection of the work of Alfred Kinsey. But I also suspect that Dan Savage is capable of directly accomplishing a lot more good beyond the positive spin-offs of his anti-bullying efforts. This is worth a prayer or two.

(Left for another time will be a comment on how the definition of bullying is being ideologically expanded to proscribe religious objections to homosexual sex acts. Without mentioning Mr. Savage by name, President Obama referred to Dan Savage’s anti-bullying campaign during his 10/1/11 speech to the Human Rights Campaign, one of the leading LGBTQ rights organizations. If you do not think that the US is headed toward the proscription of religious objections to homosexual sex acts as the laws are enforced in parts of Canada, watch the President’s speech and think again).

Postscript:

Fairfield University provided transportation for its students from CT to travel to NYC on 10/1/11 to hear Mr. Savage say, according to the blogs:

“We have got to ignore the b___s___ in the Bible about gay people, just as we’ve learned to ignore what the b___s___ in the Bible have said about women, about polyester, about farming and about slavery. . . . ”

“They can’t see past our homosexuality to see our shared and common humanity, which is hugely ironic considering how many those priests behind those pulpits are gay. . . . ”

“For many LGBT people, faith is at once the affliction and the solution.”

Here’s an account of Mr. Savage’s 10/1/11 Union Theological presentation from the Fairfield Mirror. When a complete video or text appears, I will update the above information.

====

I hope that the “More than a Monologue” series does not become simply “Another Monologue” by those who disagree with the Catholic teaching on sexual intimacy. While some have noted that the Catholic ministry Courage is apparently missing from the symposia, I should add also that Chicago’s Emmaus Ministries (for male prostitutes) also is apparently not included. To those who claim that the Catholic Church ignores ministry to male prostitutes, it should be noted that Cardinal Francis George wrote the introduction to the book, Streetwalking with Jesus, by Emmaus Ministries founder Deacon John Green.

One of initiators of the “More than a Monologue” series is Prof. Paul Lakeland of Fairfield University, who has stated, “None of these conferences has as its agenda to attack the church’s teaching on homosexuality.” Prof. Lakeland is no longer a Jesuit, but is rather stern in his own way about certain teachings of Catholicism.

In a Huffington Post article on 5/10/11, Prof. Lakeland made very clear his own differences with Catholic teaching on homosexuality:

When the Church requires life-long celibacy of all people who are not heterosexual (the demand it makes of homosexuals who wish to participate fully in Church life), it imposes a sanction which is, in effect, the imposition of a life of less love and human relationship than is available to heterosexual Christians. A call to be less loving, body and soul, is a call to be less in the image and likeness of God.

Sed contra, Prof. Lakeland. A call to chastity is to be more faithfully committed and loving with one’s sexuality, and a call to celibacy is to be more like unto Our Lord Himself. Why must we be afraid to heed God’s call to such perfection? Are not all Christians invited to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48)?

To imply that one must be sexually active in order to be fully human denies the humanity of Christ himself, not to mention those who either have lived saintly celibate lives like the Little Flower, Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face (a saint who is herself a great help to the sexually afflicted), or those who have struggled alone with their sexuality through a long life like Michelangelo, but whose faith, art, and creativity transcended their suffering.

Perhaps Michelangelo himself should be given a chance to speak on this very subject:

At times, pure love may justly be equated
With fervent hope; nor need it be deceived
If by all human loves the heavens are grieved,
Then to what end was the whole world created?

If I indeed honor and love you, Lord,
And if I burn, it is a heavenly calm
That emanates from you and makes me warm;
Such peace is far removed from all discord.

True love is not a passion which can die,
Or which depends on beauty that must fade;
Nor is it subject to a changing face.

That love is true and holy which finds place
Within a modest heart, and which is made,
Far above earth, a pledge of love on high.

Sonnet LX(ii), from The Sonnets of Michelangelo, Translated by Elizabeth Jennings, 1970, Doubleday, NY, p. 97.

Prof. Lakeland’s apparent teaching that one must be sexually active in order to be fully human is what I have called the “gospel according to Molly,” after Molly Bloom of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. This is an old, mistaken idea which swept through Catholic seminaries in the 1960s.

Prof. Lakeland in 2008 on the H-Catholic listserv called Humanae Vitae and Mulieris Dignitatem “two of the most destructive of recent Catholic documents,” and cited the idea of “non-reception” of dogma, a recurrent theme in his work, which also invokes his own characteristic appeals to the sensus fidelium. In my response in July of 2008, I challenged his position.

Here is a the text of my first reply to Prof. Lakeland:

Editor’s Subject: H-Catholic: Reflections on Non-reception
Author’s Subject: Reflections on Non-reception
Date Written: Mon, July 7, 2008 7:44 pm
Date Posted: Tue, 07 Jul 2008 21:59:46 -0400

Colleague,

The theory of non-reception has long intrigued me when it is invoked to justify withholding unpopular Christian teaching.

If non-reception inevitably leads to “ecclesial irrelevance,” then what are we to make of–

* “Love your enemies, forgive those who hurt you, bless those who persecute you. . . ”

* “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. . . ”

* “Unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man, you shall have no life in you. . . ”

* “He who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. . . ”

* And the one that Peter initially “non-received,” which earned him the “Get behind me, Satan” comment from Christ:

“The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. . . ”

Each of these teachings has had a long history of non-reception among Christians and non-Christians alike. Does that make them “ecclesially irrelevant”? And if not, what is the difference between these controversial teachings above, and other controversial Church teachings?

As Garry Wills noted in his 1978 book _Inventing America_, the US Bill of Rights, when parsed into survey questions, is often rejected on key points by large percentages the US population. In light of this, I struggle to understand what makes the theological theory of non-reception a persuasive idea.

I have observed over the years arguments similar to Prof. Lakeland’s as transmitted to H-Catholic on 28 Jun 2008 07:59:48, “Better to let them [non-received teachings] die the death and make it easier for a future pope to unsay the damaging parts of them.” To argue in such a manner seems to counsel a norm of silence on unpopular Church teaching.

I submit that there has been indeed a norm of silence among certain Catholic leaders on Humanae Vitae for more than a generation. I have observed this silence especially among the cohort recently passed of leading “labor priests,” who prior to their deaths became much more outspoken on the abortion question, while expressing some degree of regret for their roughly two to three decades of silence on it. They were, to a degree, conforming to a norm of silence, and to a degree for a time shared agreement with Prof. Lakeland’s apparent proposed norm of silence on un-received teaching. This phenomenon I began to describe as “The Stealth Church,” which through systematic patterns of silence attempted to nullify unpopular Church teaching.

Two recent popes have now made Humanae Vitae a centerpiece of their teaching. It is being taught worldwide to tens of millions of persons through the new Catholic media. It will certainly remain a centerpiece of Catholic teaching beyond Prof. Lakeland’s generation. When I began teaching again in Catholic schools twenty-eight years ago, I re-read and accepted Humanae Vitae’s teaching, reflecting that if I were to teach in a Catholic school, I should teach the faith completely as it is officially taught, or not teach in a Catholic school. I stand by this teaching today.

Forthright rejection of certain teachings in Humanae Vitae, such as those rejections as direct as those of Garry Wills, are rare among Catholic scholars. The stealthy answers, standing behind surveys and theories of non-reception as proxies, seem to me much more likely.

. . . .

I’m actually tempted to submit a paper on community life and urban development to the Notre Dame conference. But alas, administrative duties will probably stand in the way. . .

Cordially, with All Rights Reserved,

Albert J. Schorsch, III
Chicago, IL

You can read the complete exchange over the period 7/8-7/10/08 at the H-Catholic log.

The current collision of Prof. Lakeland, Peter Steinfels, and the topic of Dan Savage in Commonweal Magazine Internet space may represent something else: that Dan Savage also may mark the logical cultural terminus of the “Commonweal Catholic,” who rejects many of the Church’s teachings on sexual morality, and who, based on social justice claims, attempts to inhabit a position of moral superiority and exceptionalism within a Catholic Church he or she in fundamental ways rejects.

====

Below, in case they are some day erased, are my side of the postings to the Peter Steinfels blog at dot.Commonweal:

Albert Schorsch, III 09/23/2011 – 3:04 am

Perhaps readers might consider the record of violent and threatening language invoked by Dan Savage before praising his wit. For some documentation, please see my post at–
http://sanityandsocialjustice.net/?p=4025

In Christ,
Albert Schorsch, III
Chicago, IL

Albert Schorsch, III 09/23/2011 – 10:39 am

Left out of the response above to Dan Savage’s statement “And I will personally track down and s_____ in the mouth of the next cable-news anchor” was his statement, “Consider yourself warned, Paula Zahn.—Dan.”

Understanding rage is one thing, but naming a specific individual in print after expressing the intent to track down and commit a very defiling form of battery upon another, is by any standard a violent threat. There are plenty of other examples of violent and threatening language directed at individuals in Mr. Savage’s statements, a few of which I documented in the blog previously referenced, including his recently broadcast statement that he wanted to “f___ the s___” out of a former US senator. This former senator BTW did not take it as a joke.

In Christ,

Albert Schorsch, III
Chicago, IL
All Rights Reserved

Albert Schorsch, III 09/24/2011 – 2:44 am

Agreed that LBGT voices must be heard in the Church. The academy, including the Catholic academy, is one place to listen and to share. No argument there. But there is no way to square the circle and urbanely bracket Dan Savage without confronting publicly and directly the violence of his language. This violence must be openly, clearly, and unequivocally repudiated if useful dialogue is to continue. This violent speech does not belong in the academy, nor in public discourse. This violent and outrageous speech may just be witty schtick now to Cousin Dan, but violent and threatening speech such as his is destructive also to the cause of LBGT. Mr. Savage might consider beginning his Retractations, and do a little 12 Step to get off the violent language thing. It would certainly help the credibility of his anti-bullying campaign. (I’ll reserve the rest of my comments to my own blog at another time.)

In Christ,

Albert Schorsch, III
Chicago, IL
All Rights Reserved

Albert Schorsch, III 09/25/2011 – 1:14 am

Peter,

Thank you for your thoughtful response. I want you to understand my intent, so I lay down my barbs, and regret the one directed to you above in the form of the words “Cousin Dan.”

I have contemplated long and hard and have also written about the Christian duty to “disarm the aggressor”: “The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm (CCC 2265).” While these words are written about the duty of the state, we each play a part in achieving this common good.

While Dan Savage your cousin has proclaimed his atheism from time to time, you know him personally, and I do not. I began to pray for him a few weeks ago, because his celebrity has catapulted him beyond the stage of a naughty niche sex advice columnist in newspapers handed out for free, and an occasional TV talking head, to a cultural figure known to tens of millions, whose every word–ever–would be scrutinized, and who very likely will be cauterized in the process because of his–at best–careless bandying of violent language. But this violent language must be opposed, and, if you will, actively “disarmed,” because of the threat that such language poses to the common good. Dan Savage, after all, speaks to millions of teens and young adults.

I have come to the position that each Christian has an immediate, positive duty to speak out and act against unjust aggression within our own frame of influence, sooner rather than later. I regret not taking a much firmer and public stand when I first read Dan Savage’s violent words several years ago. So I have recently been making others aware of Dan Savage’s violent and threatening language in the hope that this language would not enter the heart of our culture, but remain forever recognized as disrespectful to human dignity.

It is rather sad, that–like Reynold Hillenbrand, George Higgins, Ed Marciniak, John J. Egan, Commonweal’s James O’Gara, all the way to EWTN’s Mitch Pacwa, SJ–Dan Savage was for a time a “Quigley boy,” an attendee at Chicago’s now former minor seminary. What is sad is that if the wisdom of our Faith were embraced by Dan Savage, he would not say the violent things he continues to say.

You and I have most likely not had the pleasure of meeting, but I did meet your spouse Margaret a few decades ago in Chicago when she was promoting Commonweal. We share, I believe, Eugene Kennedy as a teacher. I have major differences on life and other issues with Commonweal, and I ceased for those reasons to support Commonweal as an institution long ago after years of regular readership. So we can thank the Internet, or perhaps more than the Internet, that I found your blog when I searched for “Dan Savage Catholic.”

“Dan Savage Catholic” is a rather good prayer, so I’ll leave it there.

(I’ll have more to say about this at my own blog when time permits.)

In Christ,

Albert Schorsch, III
Chicago, IL
All Rights Reserved

© Copyright 2008, 2011, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved

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The Sibyl of the Rhine

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

September 17 marks the date on which several places in the world recall Benedictine Abbess St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), one of the only medieval composers to win a Grammy award centuries later, in her case for the 1982 album (recorded in 1981) A Feather on the Breath of God.

Source: Public Domain, Miniatur aus dem Rupertsberger Codex des Liber Scivias.

But Hildegard was much more than a great composer of music of incomparable beauty. She stands among the most extraordinary polymaths, or universal geniuses, in human history. Hildegard served as a fountain-head of European music and drama, of gynecology, of psychology, and mystical theology.

“No woman previous to Hildegard revealed such a wide range of knowledge and creative thought. The extraordinary breadth of her writing skills, which ranged from music to drama, to scientific texts on the classification of stones and herbs, to theological speculation, to language games, to the philosophy of psychology, reveal a genius unparalleled by a woman and matched by very few men up to the twelfth century. The additional discovery that Hildegard was the first person to develop an original theory in support of the philosophy of sex complementarity makes her contribution to the history of the concept of woman in relation to man all the more significant.”

From Prudence Allen, The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution, 750 BC-AD 1250, 1985, Eden Press, p. 295.

“Among the countless ‘firsts’ and ‘onlies’ to her credit, Hildegard was the only woman of her age to be accepted as an authoritative voice on Christian doctrine; the first woman who received express permission from a pope to write theological books; the only medieval woman who preached openly, before mixed audiences of clergy and laity, with the full approval of church authorities; the author of the first known morality play and the only twelfth-century playwright who is not anonymous; the only composer of her era (not to mention the only medieval woman) known both by name and by a large corpus of surviving music; the first scientific writer to discuss sexuality and gynecology from a female perspective; and the first saint whose official biography includes a first-person memoir.”

From Barbara Newman, Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World, 1998, University of California, p. 1.

Prudence Allen described Hildegard’s pioneering work in medicine and psychology:

“Benedictine monasteries often had a hospice for pilgrims and for the sick. Hildegard worked as a nurse-physician in the hospice connected to her monastery. As a result of her acute powers of observation and organization of information, she wrote a scientific treatise classifying the curative powers of herbs. More germane to the question of sex identity, Hildegard also wrote a text in which she analysed the biological composition of men and women and the effects of these factors on personality and human interaction. In Causae et Curae, one of the earliest books on the psychology of personality written in the west, Hildegard produced numerous personal observations on human nature. In this way, she functions as a philosopher who supports her views with empirical evidence. Therefore, although Hildegard claims to have received her knowledge directly from God, when the texts she wrote are examined in some detail, they reveal a sophisticated philosophical mind generating fresh and original hypotheses in new areas of thought.”

Prudence Allen, Ibid.

But Hildegard was also a visionary, as can be seen from her parable of the feather:

“A strong king sat in his hall, high pillars before him covered in gold bands and adorned with pearls and precious stones. And the king chose to touch a tiny feather, so that it soared up marvelously, and strong wind bore it up so that it did not fall. . . .

Listen now: a king sat on his throne, high pillars before him splendidly adorned and set on pediments of ivory. They showed the king’s vestments in great honor everywhere. then the king chose to lift a small feather from the ground, and he commanded it to fly just as the king himself wished. But a feather does not fly of its own accord; it is borne up by the air. So too I am not imbued with human doctrine or strong powers. Nor do I desire good bodily health. Rather, I depend entirely on God’s help.”

From Mark Atherton, Hildegard of Bingen: Selected Writings, 2001, Penguin, p. xxvi.

In her book Scivias, (Scire or vias Domini, or vias lucis, to know the ways of the Lord, or of light), Hildegard views the human person within both a theological and anthropological perspective:

“A human being contains three paths: namely, soul, body and senses. On these three paths, human life runs its course. The soul fills the body with life and brings forth the senses; for its part the body attracts the soul to it and opens up the senses; in turn the senses touch the body and draw the soul to them. The soul provides the body with life like fire flooding the darkness with light; it has two major powers like two arms: the understanding and the will. Not that the soul has these limbs to move herself about; rather she reveals herself in these two powers like the sun manifesting itself in the splendour of its light. Therefore human being, you are not a bundle of veins; pay attention to the knowledge of the scriptures.”

Atherton, Ibid., p. 7.

Hildegard possessed great insight into human behavior. She generated a typology of both male and female personalities. According to Prudence Allen, Hildegard “developed a unique theory of the complementarity of woman and man both within the internal structure of their personal identity as well as in the external dynamics of their interaction in either married or celibate relationships.” Hildegard deeply understood the role of friendship in successful relationships between women and men, whether these relationships were physically intimate or celibate.

Hildegard also considered the physical effects of celibacy on men and women. She concluded that some types of men and some types of women needed an intimate relationship with a member of the opposite sex to that point that these suffered in terms of their health and happiness without it. She also held that social, non-intimate relations between men and women contributed to their general health and happiness, and that of a certain personality group of women, “when they do avoid the company of men, they are quite difficult and unbearable in their manners.”

One fiery type of man was to be avoided by women:

“[These] love coition with women and are anxious to get out of other men’s way and to avoid them, for they are more inclined to women than to men. . . . As soon as they get sight of a woman, hear of one or simply fancy one in thought, their blood is burning with a blaze. Their eyes are kept fixed on the object of their love like arrows as soon as they catch sight of it.”

Prudence Allen, Ibid., p. 305

Hildegard considered another type of man as being hateful of women. But she regarded a second, more balanced personality type of man who:

“tames the fiery power within themselves. . . That is why one refers to them as a golden edifice of sexual embrace. . . With women they can have an honorable and fruitful relationship. The eyes of such men can meet squarely with those of the women, much in contrast to those other men’s eyes that were fixed on them like arrows.”

Prudence Allen, Ibid.

There is so much more to Hildegard of Bingen than the short excerpts above. I highly recommend Prof. Barbara Newman’s edited volume herein mentioned, Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World. Of Sr. Prudence Allen, RSM’s multi-volume work, The Concept of Woman, the several pages (292-315) of the first volume devoted to Hildegard of Bingen provide an essential summary of Hildegard’s views on sexual complementarity and personality.

I might add that Sr. Allen’s magisterial multi-volume work, the Concept of Woman, provides a critical resource for insight into human society and ideas, and is too often the intellectual road not taken by those who begin their expositions on “race, class, and gender” without sufficient study or reflection.

I must in addition emphatically state that Professor Barbara Newman is a stupendous scholar who has opened up new views of the medieval world. Her earlier book on St. Hildegard, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine, merits close study and reflection.

The following resources also provide useful introductions to the significance of Hildegard of Bingen–

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07351a.htm


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hildegard_of_Bingen

One partial online edition of: Scivias.

Atherton’s edited: Hildegard of Bingen: Selected Writings.

Benedict XVI recently spoke about St. Hildegard during his 9/1/10 General Audience and his 9/8/10 General Audience. Multilingual videos of these audiences are also available:

9/1/10 audience video

9/8/10 audience video

In his 9/8/10 General Audience, Benedict XVI referred in several ways to St. Hildegard as an example for today’s Christian faith, witness, and for church reform. I think it better to combine the entire 9/1/10 and 9/8/10 audience statements below to keep these reflections in context:

Saint Hildegard of Bingen

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In 1988, on the occasion of the Marian Year, Venerable John Paul II wrote an Apostolic Letter entitled Mulieris Dignitatem on the precious role that women have played and play in the life of the Church. “The Church”, one reads in it, “gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine “genius’ which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms that the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: she gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness” (n. 31).

Various female figures stand out for the holiness of their lives and the wealth of their teaching even in those centuries of history that we usually call the Middle Ages. Today I would like to begin to present one of them to you: St Hildegard of Bingen, who lived in Germany in the 12th century. She was born in 1098, probably at Bermersheim, Rhineland, not far from Alzey, and died in 1179 at the age of 81, in spite of having always been in poor health. Hildegard belonged to a large noble family and her parents dedicated her to God from birth for his service. At the age of eight she was offered for the religious state (in accordance with the Rule of St Benedict, chapter 59), and, to ensure that she received an appropriate human and Christian formation, she was entrusted to the care of the consecrated widow Uda of Gölklheim and then to Jutta of Spanheim who had taken the veil at the Benedictine Monastery of St Disibodenberg. A small cloistered women’s monastery was developing there that followed the Rule of St Benedict. Hildegard was clothed by Bishop Otto of Bamberg and in 1136, upon the death of Mother Jutta who had become the community magistra (Prioress), the sisters chose Hildegard to succeed her. She fulfilled this office making the most of her gifts as a woman of culture and of lofty spirituality, capable of dealing competently with the organizational aspects of cloistered life. A few years later, partly because of the increasing number of young women who were knocking at the monastery door, Hildegard broke away from the dominating male monastery of St Disibodenburg with her community, taking it to Bingen, calling it after St Rupert and here she spent the rest of her days. Her manner of exercising the ministry of authority is an example for every religious community: she inspired holy emulation in the practice of good to such an extent that, as time was to tell, both the mother and her daughters competed in mutual esteem and in serving each other.

During the years when she was superior of the Monastery of St Disibodenberg, Hildegard began to dictate the mystical visions that she had been receiving for some time to the monk Volmar, her spiritual director, and to Richardis di Strade, her secretary, a sister of whom she was very fond. As always happens in the life of true mystics, Hildegard too wanted to put herself under the authority of wise people to discern the origin of her visions, fearing that they were the product of illusions and did not come from God. She thus turned to a person who was most highly esteemed in the Church in those times: St Bernard of Clairvaux, of whom I have already spoken in several Catecheses. He calmed and encouraged Hildegard. However, in 1147 she received a further, very important approval. Pope Eugene iii, who was presiding at a Synod in Trier, read a text dictated by Hildegard presented to him by Archbishop Henry of Mainz. The Pope authorized the mystic to write down her visions and to speak in public. From that moment Hildegard’s spiritual prestige continued to grow so that her contemporaries called her the “Teutonic prophetess”. This, dear friends, is the seal of an authentic experience of the Holy Spirit, the source of every charism: the person endowed with supernatural gifts never boasts of them, never flaunts them and, above all, shows complete obedience to the ecclesial authority. Every gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit, is in fact intended for the edification of the Church and the Church, through her Pastors, recognizes its authenticity.

I shall speak again next Wednesday about this great woman, this “prophetess” who also speaks with great timeliness to us today, with her courageous ability to discern the signs of the times, her love for creation, her medicine, her poetry, her music, which today has been reconstructed, her love for Christ and for his Church which was suffering in that period too, wounded also in that time by the sins of both priests and lay people, and far better loved as the Body of Christ. Thus St Hildegard speaks to us; we shall speak of her again next Wednesday. Thank you for your attention.

BENEDICT XVI, GENERAL AUDIENCE, Papal Summer Residence, Castel Gandolfo
Wednesday, 1st September 2010

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today I would like to take up and continue my Reflection on St Hildegard of Bingen, an important female figure of the Middle Ages who was distinguished for her spiritual wisdom and the holiness of her life. Hildegard’s mystical visions resemble those of the Old Testament prophets: expressing herself in the cultural and religious categories of her time, she interpreted the Sacred Scriptures in the light of God, applying them to the various circumstances of life. Thus all those who heard her felt the need to live a consistent and committed Christian lifestyle. In a letter to St Bernard the mystic from the Rhineland confesses: “The vision fascinates my whole being: I do not see with the eyes of the body but it appears to me in the spirit of the mysteries…. I recognize the deep meaning of what is expounded on in the Psalter, in the Gospels and in other books, which have been shown to me in the vision. This vision burns like a flame in my breast and in my soul and teaches me to understand the text profoundly” (Epistolarium pars prima I-XC: CCCM 91).

Hildegard’s mystical visions have a rich theological content. They refer to the principal events of salvation history, and use a language for the most part poetic and symbolic. For example, in her best known work entitled Scivias, that is, “You know the ways” she sums up in 35 visions the events of the history of salvation from the creation of the world to the end of time. With the characteristic traits of feminine sensitivity, Hildegard develops at the very heart of her work the theme of the mysterious marriage between God and humanity that is brought about in the Incarnation. On the tree of the Cross take place the nuptials of the Son of God with the Church, his Bride, filled with grace and the ability to give new children to God, in the love of the Holy Spirit (cf. Visio tertia: PL 197, 453c).

From these brief references we already see that theology too can receive a special contribution from women because they are able to talk about God and the mysteries of faith using their own particular intelligence and sensitivity. I therefore encourage all those who carry out this service to do it with a profound ecclesial spirit, nourishing their own reflection with prayer and looking to the great riches, not yet fully explored, of the medieval mystic tradition, especially that represented by luminous models such as Hildegard of Bingen.

The Rhenish mystic is also the author of other writings, two of which are particularly important since, like Scivias, they record her mystical visions: they are the Liber vitae meritorum (Book of the merits of life) and the Liber divinorum operum (Book of the divine works), also called De operatione Dei. In the former she describes a unique and powerful vision of God who gives life to the cosmos with his power and his light. Hildegard stresses the deep relationship that exists between man and God and reminds us that the whole creation, of which man is the summit, receives life from the Trinity. The work is centred on the relationship between virtue and vice, which is why human beings must face the daily challenge of vice that distances them on their way towards God and of virtue that benefits them. The invitation is to distance themselves from evil in order to glorify God and, after a virtuous existence, enter the life that consists “wholly of joy”. In her second work that many consider her masterpiece she once again describes creation in its relationship with God and the centrality of the human being, expressing a strong Christo-centrism with a biblical-Patristic flavour. The Saint, who presents five visions inspired by the Prologue of the Gospel according to St John, cites the words of the Son to the Father: “The whole task that you wanted and entrusted to me I have carried out successfully, and so here I am in you and you in me and we are one” (Pars III, Visio X: PL 197, 1025a).

Finally, in other writings Hildegard manifests the versatility of interests and cultural vivacity of the female monasteries of the Middle Ages, in a manner contrary to the prejudices which still weighed on that period. Hildegard took an interest in medicine and in the natural sciences as well as in music, since she was endowed with artistic talent. Thus she composed hymns, antiphons and songs, gathered under the title: Symphonia Harmoniae Caelestium Revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Heavenly Revelations), that were performed joyously in her monasteries, spreading an atmosphere of tranquillity and that have also come down to us. For her, the entire creation is a symphony of the Holy Spirit who is in himself joy and jubilation.

The popularity that surrounded Hildegard impelled many people to seek her advice. It is for this reason that we have so many of her letters at our disposal. Many male and female monastic communities turned to her, as well as Bishops and Abbots. And many of her answers still apply for us. For instance, Hildegard wrote these words to a community of women religious: “The spiritual life must be tended with great dedication. At first the effort is burdensome because it demands the renunciation of caprices of the pleasures of the flesh and of other such things. But if she lets herself be enthralled by holiness a holy soul will find even contempt for the world sweet and lovable. All that is needed is to take care that the soul does not shrivel” (E. Gronau, Hildegard. Vita di una donna profetica alle origini dell’età moderna, Milan 1996, p. 402). And when the Emperor Frederic Barbarossa caused a schism in the Church by supporting at least three anti-popes against Alexander iii, the legitimate Pope, Hildegard did not hesitate, inspired by her visions, to remind him that even he, the Emperor, was subject to God’s judgement. With fearlessness, a feature of every prophet, she wrote to the Emperor these words as spoken by God: “You will be sorry for this wicked conduct of the godless who despise me! Listen, O King, if you wish to live! Otherwise my sword will pierce you!” (ibid., p. 412).

With the spiritual authority with which she was endowed, in the last years of her life Hildegard set out on journeys, despite her advanced age and the uncomfortable conditions of travel, in order to speak to the people of God. They all listened willingly, even when she spoke severely: they considered her a messenger sent by God. She called above all the monastic communities and the clergy to a life in conformity with their vocation. In a special way Hildegard countered the movement of German cátari (Cathars). They cátari means literally “pure” advocated a radical reform of the Church, especially to combat the abuses of the clergy. She harshly reprimanded them for seeking to subvert the very nature of the Church, reminding them that a true renewal of the ecclesial community is obtained with a sincere spirit of repentance and a demanding process of conversion, rather than with a change of structures. This is a message that we should never forget. Let us always invoke the Holy Spirit, so that he may inspire in the Church holy and courageous women, like St Hildegard of Bingen, who, developing the gifts they have received from God, make their own special and valuable contribution to the spiritual development of our communities and of the Church in our time.

BENEDICT XVI, GENERAL AUDIENCE, Paul VI Hall,
Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Let’s let St. Hildegarde speak in her own words:

O choruscans lux stellarum,
o splendidissima specialis forma
regalium nuptiarum,
o fulgens gemma,
tu es ornata in alta persona,
quae non habet maculatam rugam.

Tu es etiam socia Angelorum
et civis sanctorum.

Fuge, fuge speluncam antiqui perditoris,
et veniens veni in palatium Regis.

If you search the Web on any five or six consecutive words of text above, you will surely find a translation.

For Hildegard events and items of interest, consult the website of the International Society of Hildegard von Bingen Studies.

(The name Hildegard refers to a battle stronghold. I offer this post in honor of my great aunt, Hildegarde A. Schorsch, MD (1903-2000), a pioneering female physician in Chicago and faithful Catholic.)

© Copyright 2010, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved

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