Saturday, November 3, 2012

Reflections on St. Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church

On October 7, 2012 Pope Benedict XVI declared St. Hildegard of Bingen a “Doctor of the Church”.  This is a title given by the pope to saints whose writings convey "eminent learning" and "great sanctity."  In addition to being saintly, they are considered the most important theological contributors throughout all church history.  Since only some popes are canonized saints and only a few of them have been declared Doctors of the Church, one can infer that Church Doctors’ writings carry higher weighting than most papal encyclicals.

I've been reading some of Hildegard of Bingen's writings.  Not only is she a Doctor of the Church, she was considered a doctor of her time.  I was surprised to see her writings describe several plants she used as emmenagogues and abortifacients: 
  • asarum/haselwurtz (emmenagogue and abortifacient)
  • farn (abortifacient)
  • tanacetum (emmenagogue and abortifacient)
  • feverfew (emmenagogue)
  • white hellebore (emmenagogue)
  • oleaster (abortifacient).

Emmenagogues regulate menstruation.  They are used to prevent conception, address hormonal disorders or abort an unborn fetus.    

It seems St. Hildegard, Doctor of the Church, advocated for if not facilitated contraception and abortion when it preserved the woman's health.  For example, she writes regarding asarum/haselwurtz, “A pregnant woman will eat it either on account she languishes or she aborts an infant which is a danger to her body, or if she has not had a menstrual period for a time period so that it hurts.”  Similarly she advises the use of oleaster for, “an abortion to a pregnant woman with a danger to her body.” 

Hildegard is a Doctor of the Church and Pope Paul VI, author of Humanae Vitae the papal encyclical on birth control, isn't.  Whose beliefs should be weighted more heavily?  She was a woman and Paul VI was a man.  Who has better insight into women's health?

In the United States we are nearing a presidential election in which the U.S. bishops have campaigned heavily - trying to impose their views of contraception and abortion upon others.  None of the U.S. bishops are canonized saints.  None are Doctors of the Church.  Should Hildegard of Bingen’s or the bishops’ views more strongly influence Catholic voters this week?

The National Right to Life organization also lobbies and campaigns extensively on the issue of abortion.  Right to Life is a self-described “non-religious” organization, led by a mathematician and public health worker versus theologians or bishops.  They are not controlled by the church nor do they speak for the church, especially since they define “life” issues more narrowly than the bishops.  Though many good people belong to Right to Life, they are neither canonized saints nor Doctors of the Church.  Should voters follow Right to Life endorsements or consider whom St. Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church, might support?

What can we learn from St. Hildegard’s care for women?  How can we best perpetuate her work? 

(Physica by Hildegard of Bingen)


  1. Hi Questions from a Ewe! I'm interested in St. Hildegard's work, since I'm a female Catholic OB/GYN-in-training. I read your post and went to read the Physica. But my translation (Beacon Press 2002) is very different from yours. It doesn't mention some of the herbs you list (asarum, white hellebore, and oleaster aren't there). Naturally, I'm wondering which one is a better translation and why they're so different. Which translation did you use?

  2. The claim that she supported abortion or birth control is highly dubious:

    Doctors of the Church are not superiour to popes, church councils or church fathers and it is the pope who has to declare them doctors of the church. The sensus fidelium is not majority opinion and can neither be independent off or in opposition to the magisterium.