Thursday, June 23, 2011

When women ruled the Churches 3

The Modern Abbey and Abbey Church
at Bingen in the Rhineland
We have seen that at times—and by historical standards fairly recent times—women have exercised considerable authority in the Catholic Church.  We looked initially at the abbey of Quedlinburg and then at Saints Bridget of Kildare and Hilda of Whitby.  In our last blog we had a detailed example of the ceremony of obeisance given by the clergy in the prelacy of Conversano to the Abbess who was their prelate nullius.   We can return to the Abbey of Quedlinburg and a bull issued by Innocent III.  (We will be looking at Innocent, who reigned from 1198 until 1216, in our series of Reformations.  Innocent was responsible for what is probably the second most successful internal reform of the Church, second only to Trent.) This is what Pope Innocent wrote in a Bull concerning the Abbess of Quedlinburg:
Our daughter beloved in the Lord, the Abbess of Bubrigen [Friedberg says in a footnote that this should be read as Quedlinburg in the diocese of Halberstadt] has set forth the following in a petition sent to us: Sometimes when she suspends her canonesses and the clerics who are subject to her jurisdiction [clericos suae iurisdictioni subiectes], because of disobedience and other lapses, from their office and benefice, they do not observe a suspension of this sort because they are strongly convinced that she cannot excommunicate; hence, their excesses remain uncorrected. So that the said canonesses and clerics show obedience and respect to the above named abbess and obey her good admonitions, we consign therefore to your discrimination to what extent you — according to previous admonition — wish to inflict on them ecclesiastical censure under exclusion of appeal.  
The Abbey of Santa Maria la Real de las Huelgas
in Burgos, Spain--the seat of a very important
abbess in medieval Castile
Quedlinburg had been founded by the Abbess Matilda, the widow of King Henry the Fowler and mother of the Emperor Otto.  Otto, you may remember from an earlier blog, placed his daughter Matilda as its second abbess.  He richly endowed the Abbey with lands and properties and exempted it from all external jurisdiction, including exemption from the Bishop of Halberstadt who was the local ordinary. This is not the only Abbey with such exemption.  About thirty years before Pope Innocent wrote to the
Abbess of Quedlinburg, Adrian IV had issued the following Bull to the Abbess and nuns of Herford in Germany:
We forbid that in the said monastery any bishop outside the Roman pontiff exercise jurisdiction, and indeed in the sense that he never — unless he will be so invited by the abbess — may presume to celebrate solemn Masses there. 
While these prelatial abbeys were most common in the Holy Roman Empire, they were by no means limited there.  The most important of these Abbeys where the Abbess exercised ordinary jurisdiction not only over the nuns but over the surrounding area with its churches, clergy, and faithful was the Royal Abbey of Las Hueglas in Spain, a Cistercian foundation.  The Abbess was declared to be , a "noble lady, the superior, prelate, and lawful administratrix in spirituals and temporals of the said royal abbey, and of all the contents, churches, and hermitages of its filiation, of the villages and places under its jurisdiction, seigniory, and vassalage, in virtue of Bulls and Apostolical concessions, with plenary jurisdiction, privative, quasi-episopal, nullius diacesis."
According to the original Catholic Encyclopedia: By the favor of the king, she was, moreover, invested with almost royal prerogatives, and exercised an unlimited secular authority over more than fifty villages. Like the Lord Bishops, she held her own courts, in civil and criminal cases, granted letters dismissorial for ordination, and issued licenses authorizing priests, within the limits of her abbatial jurisdiction, to hear confessions, to preach, and to engage in the cure of souls. She was privileged also to confirm Abbesses, to impose censures, and to convoke synods.  Basil Pennington once told me that these prerogatives, or at least the canonical ones, were still in place at the opening of the Second Vatican Council.  I don’t consider Pennington to have been a reliable source of information as he tended to go on the principle of “don’t let the truth spoil a good story,” but I can’t say that he wasn’t right on this.  
Perhaps the most significant Abbess of the Middle Ages was the famous Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179).  Though not officially canonized, she is regarded as a saint by the Catholic Church.  She is an immensely popular figure in certain circles today and she certainly was an accomplished woman—a musician, scientist, physician, poet, philosopher, theologian and who knows what else— she was actually authorized to preach by Pope Eugene III at the recommendation of his mentor, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (who, in turn, was no fan of women nor advocate of their cause).  I have no idea of what prompted Bernard’s recommendation but here we have papal authorization for a woman to preach, a license that would be rather difficult to obtain today.  Why aren’t women authorized to preach today?  I know nuns (and laywomen as well) who are far better preachers than many priests and deacons (and even some bishops.)  Perhaps I just answered my own question.   

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