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Pope gives first woman the Doctor of the Church title

Prophetic and bold, the 12th-century abbess Hildegard von Bingen took incredible personal risks to fight for the rights of women and the oppressed, centuries ahead of her time. Today, she’s about to receive recognition worthy of such a visionary, as Pope Benedict XIV will declare her a Doctor of the Church on Oct. 7, 2012–making her one out of only four women ever to receive the title.

The foretelling teachings of von Bingen have struck a chord with the current German-born Pope Benedict. Bingen’s influence on him may be tied to his love of classical music, while the rise of interest in medieval women also plays a role. Insistent about societal reform, Hildegard’s teachings guided the church to lead with just and moral principles. In the last few years, Benedict has repeatedly referred to her writings and prophecies, especially in difficult times when addressing the church’s sexual abuse controversy.

“Church leaders have always turned to women at times of profound political and identity crisis. When normal means seem to fail, women’s strong, non-institutional faith and voice have always managed to call for an awakening of conscience,” says Alessandra Bartolomei Romagnoli, a Middle Ages historian at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.

Historical influences greatly shaped Hildegard’s journey as an artist, musician and poet. The demise of the feudal system in the Middle Ages brought a renaissance of the arts that allowed von Bingen’s talents to flourish. Much of her work still survives, including accounts of her visions, music, medicine, and letters.