The prophetess and the pope: St. Hildegard of Bingen, Pope Benedict XVI, and prophetic visions of church reform


Pope Benedict XVI seemed an unlikely fellow to declare Hildegard of Bingen a Doctor of the Church in 2012. Yet Joseph Ratzinger’s studies as a medievalist disposed him to the symbolist tendencies of Hildegard and her contemporaries in reflecting on the relationship among scripture, history, and the Church. Deeply affected by the abuse of political power and corruption within the Church, both Ratzinger and Hildegard developed prophetic outlooks on the nature of the Church and its mission in the world, centered on the singular light of Christ’s Incarnation. We find, across the centuries, a shared embrace of the enigmatic tension between the Church’s corrupted institutions and their prophetic renewal. Ironically, Hildegard came to distrust the authority of the papacy and prophesied its ending, even as Benedict would be, as pope, her greatest champion.

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  1. 1.

    On 10 May, 2012, the Pope made Hildegard’s longtime German veneration universal; her feast day is 17 September. On 7 October, 2012, she became the fourth woman among the 35 Doctors of the Church.

  2. 2.

    Following convention, I refer to Ratzinger by his given name for references before his 2005 papal election, and as Benedict for references thereafter.

  3. 3.

    Edited elsewhere as Ep. 149r (Hildegard, 1998a, 333–7; 1998b, 92–4); see analysis in Newman (1987, 241–3) and Kerby-Fulton (1998, 78–80).

  4. 4.

    On this image, see Emerson (2002).

  5. 5.

    As discussed later, Hildegard’s prophetic identity was stronger because of her virgin femininity; the gendered term ‘prophetess’ is thus not just appropriate but essential.

  6. 6.

    Translations of Ratzinger (1959) are the author’s, but references are also given to Ratzinger (1971a, trans. Z. Hayes).

  7. 7.

    Newman notes (in Clendenen, 2012, 224): ‘There is no question that Hildegard is a precursor to deep ecology – the interconnectivity of all creation. […] Hildegard was a theological ecologist, and bringing her ecological imperatives to the fore […] is a unique feature of this papal choice at this time in history.’

  8. 8.

    Cited hereafter as LDO and by part, vision, and chapter.

  9. 9.

    See Widmer (1955, 260–1) and Newman (1987, 241).

  10. 10.

    See, for example, Clendenen (2012, 198–227).

  11. 11.

    See, for example, Kienzle and Walker (1998).

  12. 12.

    The author’s translation of the antiphon, ‘O spectabiles viri’: ‘in lucida umbra / acutam et viventem lucem / in virga germinantem, / que sola floruit / de introitu / radicantis luminis.’


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M. Campbell, N. The prophetess and the pope: St. Hildegard of Bingen, Pope Benedict XVI, and prophetic visions of church reform. Postmedieval 10, 22–35 (2019).

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