Joseph Ratzinger, attentive to all the problems that the conflict with modernity entails for the Church, has always been very aware of the strident contrast between the process of emancipation of women in secular society and the secondary role in which they were relegated -both religious as well as secular – in the life of this almost two thousand year old institution.
His response to this problem, in line with his mentality as an intellectual, developed above all at the theoretical level, where he launched a kind of symbolic revolution that, unfortunately, few have realized.
In “God and the World,” the second book of interviews with Peter Seewald published in 2000, the question is addressed through reasoning about the creation of Adam and Eve. Commenting on the biblical text, Ratzinger clearly affirms “the ontological equality of man and woman. They are of a single gender and have a single dignity», to which, however, he adds «the mutual interdependence» that is manifested «in the wound that is present in us and that leads us to meet».
This interdependence is read by the Bavarian theologian as an opportunity for growth and expansion: “Man was created in need of the other in order to go beyond himself.” At the same time, interdependence is also seen as a potential drama: “Together they will be one flesh, one human being. This passage contains all the drama of the partiality of the two genders, of mutual independence, of love.
Today’s culture, which has made a myth of individual autonomy, rejects all forms of complementarity and interdependence. To this conception of equality, in the difference between women and men, contemporary culture contrasts an egalitarian ideology in which Ratzinger sees “a form of spiritualism that reveals a kind of contempt for corporeality and that does not want to recognize how the body is a important component of the human person.
Ratzinger in his theological work defends Marian devotion, which he interprets as a continuation of the biblical tradition, because “the figure of the woman occupies an irreplaceable place in the general structure of Old Testament faith and Old Testament piety.”
The theologian then underlines that “in the thought and faith of Israel the woman always appears not as a priestess, but as a prophetess and as a judge-savior; with this, she outlines what is specific to her, the place that she has been assigned ».
During his pontificate, Benedict XVI has devoted more than just clockwise time to looking at women in the Church with a maverick spirit. In his speeches he has often quoted Christian and non-Christian intellectual women such as Etty Hillesum and Simone Weil.
But, especially significant is the fact that, from September 1, 2010 to January 26, 2011, he dedicated a complete cycle of catechism in the general audiences on Wednesdays to the medieval saints, rereading their lives with attention to the present. .
For the first time, a pontiff devoted a series of reflections to female characters, and his selection of leading men was only partly predictable. In addition to two catecheses dedicated to Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena and Clara of Assisi also slipped into his list.
However, it includes Angela of Foligno, a woman who had to wait several centuries for the Church to dispel the doubts that had arisen around her extraordinary and original mystical experience. Benedict XVI took a step forward to address the being and doing of two other mystics whose holiness has not yet been recognized: Margaret of Oingt and Juliana of Norwich.
But, without a doubt, Pope Ratzinger worked to have her recognized as a saint and then proclaimed Hildegard of Bingen, a very interesting but until then controversial female figure, a Doctor of the Church.
Scientist, doctor, artist (especially with a gift for music), founder of a female monastic order, mystic and protagonist of unforgettable homilies in the cathedrals of the southern German cities tormented by the Cathar heresy, Hildegard was a strong female figure. and modern, difficult to circumscribe in the traditional models of holy mysticism then proposed by the Counter-Reformation.
Precisely for this reason, she had never reached the canonization that Pope Ratzinger decided on thanks to an extraordinary process, betting on her immediately after a doctor of the Church.
Benedict XVI was not concerned by the fact that in recent years Hildegard had been rediscovered thanks to feminists and supporters of natural medicine, crowning her almost as an environmentalist ante litteram.
From this “prophetess” woman, the pontiff wanted to claim the profound mystical experience, paying tribute to the exceptional qualities that she demonstrated in her life following the Light that spoke to her and illuminated her.
A music lover, a theologian with a strong capacity to understand spirituality, Ratzinger had found his reference model of holiness in this woman. Hildegard offered the theologian Pope the opportunity to confirm the need for a female presence in this area of knowledge: «We see how theology can also receive a particular contribution from women, because they are capable of speaking about God and the mysteries of faith with its particular intelligence and sensitivity.
I therefore encourage all those who carry out this service to carry it out with a deep ecclesial spirit, nourishing their reflection with prayer and looking at the great wealth, still partly unexplored, of the medieval mystical tradition.
One aspect is immediately surprising, on first reading the texts on the mystics she chose: how many of these women had received a decent education or, rather, were highly educated. Many of them knew Latin, often they could even write in this language, and they were very familiar not only with Holy Scripture, but also with patristics.
Also from this point of view, Hildegard of Bingen stands out above all for her multifaceted genius, thanks to which she made important contributions to medicine, music and poetry, but also to theology: gifts of the Holy Spirit “intended for the edification of the Church” that also open up another important capacity, that of “discerning the signs of the times”.
Joseph Ratzinger’s attention to women has therefore been mainly cultural, but lucid. In this way, Benedict XVI was very conscious of offering “high and important female models to Christians today.” And thus open the way to theology and, more generally, to an intellectual presence that is finally heard in the life of the Church.
*Lucetta Scaraffia is founder of Donne Chiesa Mondo