A 12th-century nun's tips on reforming a corrupt clergy

Pope Benedict XVI continues to sound a message of Church renewal through penance and personal conversion — not structural reform — in the wake of the clerical sex abuse scandal. 

The latest example is from a general audience address earlier this month in the Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall. In the second audience address focused on the work of St. Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century German Benedictine mystic, the pope noted that toward the end of her life, she became a sort of traveling missionary for ecclesial renewal. 

In his talk the pope made no explicit link to the modern-day clerical sex abuse scandal, but it is difficult to imagine he didn’t have it at least partially in mind. 

Here’s the relevant passage from his text: 

Hildegard “was considered to be a messenger sent by God, in particular calling monastic communities and clergy to a life in conformity with their vocation. Hildegard especially opposed the German Cathar movement. The Cathars — their name literally means ‘pure’ — supported radical reform of the Church, principally to combat clerical abuses. 

“She reprimanded them fiercely, accusing them of wanting to subvert the very nature of the Church and reminding them that the true renewal of the ecclesial community is not obtained by changing structures so much as by a sincere spirit of penance and a fruitful journey of conversion. 

“This is a message we must never forget.” 

Today, of course, we’re seeing similar calls for structural changes, from significant to radical: married priests, women priests, even elimination of the hierarchical priesthood completely. 

It is difficult to see these calls as little more than attempts to leverage the pain of abuse victims for smaller political purposes. If the goal truly is creating a safe and healthy environment for children, there’s no reason to believe these measures would help in any way whatsoever. 

In the world of popular business literature, a regular mantra is to not lose sight of one’s “core competencies.” 

In some ways, Pope Benedict’s regular focus on penance and personal conversion is a prime example of that. 

First and foremost, Christ instituted the Church as a vehicle of mercy and forgiveness. Renewal and conversion are, in a very real way, its core competencies. And if our own bright ideas for Church renewal don’t include our own personal reform, we can be pretty sure we’re coming at it from the wrong direction. 

“The Church ... has a deep need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn forgiveness on the one hand, but also the need for justice,” the pope said earlier this year. “In a word, we need to relearn precisely this essential: conversion, prayer, penance and the theological virtues.” 

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