The Feast of Two Remarkable Doctors

One was a 16th-century Italian Jesuit and theologian; the other an 12th-century German Benedictine and mystic

Today is the Feast of two Doctors of the Church, a man and a woman who are remarkable in many ways, including in how very different they are from one another.

First, St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) was an Italian and one of the first Jesuits who became a leading controversialist and apologist due to his theological prowess. He worked closely with St. Aloysius Gonzaga and St. Francis de Sales (the latter also being named a Doctor of the Church). Among Bellarmine’s many accomplishments, his work in the realm of ecclesiology is especially notable, as Fr. John Hardon, SJ, pointed out years ago in a fine essay, “Communion of Saints: St. Robert Bellarmine on the Mystical Body of Christ”:

It is significant that Bellarmine went out of his way to emphasize what seems so obvious to us—that the Mystical Body of Christ is also the established Church of Christ. Until his time, there were relatively few Christians not in communion with Rome who claimed that their organization was the Body of Christ of which St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “You are the Body of Christ, member for member” (I Cor., xii. 27). But with the advent of Luther and Calvin the situation changed. On the one hand, they preached an invisible Church founded on faith and predestination; on the other hand, they called their Church the Body of Christ. This was a new idea and challenge to traditional Catholic theology.

The Mystical Body of Christ, the predestinarians argued, is not unlike His tangible physical Body. And since the whole physical Body of Christ is in heaven and glorified with all its component parts, it follows that the Mystical Body should also arrive at heavenly glory in all its individual members. The statement looks harmless enough until we examine its implications. If every member of the Mystical Body is going to be saved and the Church of Christ is the Body, then the only members of the Church are those whom God has eternally decreed should enter heaven. Everyone else is a putative member only, deceived by God and deceiving himself that he is even a Christian, much less a part of the Mystical Body.
“My first reaction to this doctrine,” Bellarmine observes, “is that the opposition has pushed the analogy between the mystical and physical Bodies of Christ far beyond the limits ever intended for them by the Apostle. They are certainly alive in general outline, but not in every detail. And besides, even the physical Body of Christ entered heaven and was glorified only in its formal constituents, but not in all its natural parts, many of which were lost and changed with the passage of time, as we notice happens in our own bodies.

So, it is correct enough to say that the whole Mystical Body will be saved in its constitutive elements, inasmuch as every class in the Catholic Church—apostles, prophets, teachers, confessors and virgins—will be represented among the saved. It is not true, however, that all its material elements, that is, every numerical member of the Mystical Body, will finally attain to salvation.”

This same idea—that external membership does not, in fact, equal certain salvation—was clearly reiterated in Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium:

They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged. (par 14)

Bellarmine was canonized in 1930 by Pope Pius XI and was named a Doctor the following year.

St. Hildegard of Bingen, of course, was canonized and named a Doctor just last year by Pope Benedict XVI, a fellow German. Hildegard (1098-1179) was one of the most extraordinary women of the medieval era, being a mystic, composer, writer, philosopher, and Benedictine abbess. Medievalist Sandra Miesel, in her 2012 CWR essay, “Hildegard of Bingen: Voice of the Living Light” (January 25, 2012), outlined some of the key events of her life:

Nothing would have seemed extraordinary about Hildegard for the first half of her long life. She did not wish to publicize the visionary experiences she had been having since the age of three when a blaze of dazzling brightness burst into her sight. A diffuse radiance which she called her visio filled her field of vision for the rest of her life without interfering with ordinary sight. Hildegard came to understand this phenomenon as “the reflection of the living Light” which conferred the gift of prophecy and gave her an intuitive knowledge of the Divine.
Hildegard’s visions were not apparitions or dreams. She scarcely ever fell into ecstasy but rather perceived sights and messages with the “inner” eyes and ears of her soul. She dictated what she “saw” and “heard” to secretaries while fully lucid. Because the astonishing images she described and directed artists to illustrate feature sparkling gems, shimmering orbs, pulsating stars, curious towers and crenellated walls, modern psychologists have suggested that Hildegard suffered from a form of migraine called “scintillating scotomata.” The debilitating illnesses that preceded or accompanied her visionary episodes might have been migraine attacks. Because supernatural communications are received according to the capacity of the receiver, neurology can offer insights on Hildegard’s particular repertory of forms. But it cannot explain away her experiences or the religious meanings she assigns to them. These were genuine occasions of contact between Hildegard and God.  
In 1141—on a date she was careful to record exactly—heaven opened upon Hildegard as “a fiery light of exceeding brilliance” and a mighty voice commanding her to “tell and write” what she sees of God’s marvels. Like Jeremiah and several other prophets, Hildegard quailed at her call. Pleading her sickly female constitution and lack of formal education, she fell ill. But she confided in the convent’s provost, who shared the matter with his abbot at Disibodenberg who urged Hildegard to accept her call. She rose from her bed and set to work on her first book, Scivias.
Hildegard also asked advice from Bernard of Clairvaux who also encouraged her. Meanwhile, her local abbot notified the archbishop of Mainz who mentioned Hildegard to Pope Eugenius III, then visiting Germany. After a papal commission reviewed chapters of Scivias, the pope approved Hildegard’s writings and read portions to a regional synod at Trier in 1147.

Hildegard’s music has been surprisingly popular in recent years. A great guide to her compositions is Dr. Christopher Morrissey’s 2012 CWR piece, “A Beginner’s Guide to the Music of St. Hildegard of Bingen”, along with Catherine Harmon’s post, “St. Hildegard of Bingen: A playlist for the new Doctor of the Church”.

(This post originally and incorrectly stated that St. Aloysius Gonzaga was a Doctor of the Church)

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About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.