In her book, Scivias (book II, vision 3), St. Hildegard explains the symbolism of her vision of a woman with many children in her womb. The woman is the Church and the children represent the life of all baptized Christians. She describes differences among these children and notes:
“…some direct their attention to spiritual purity and shine with serene virtue, treading earthly things underfoot.” These, she states, “…are marching forward vigorously in the womb of the image” (p.195).
“…[Some] tear away from her and attack her and break her established rules. They abandon the maternal womb and the sweet nourishment of the Church” (p.196).
The life-giving sacraments which are administered by the Church to her sons and daughters are like the “sweet nourishment” of a mother’s womb. When Christians cut themselves off from this sustenance, they are spiritually aborting themselves.
Such references, according to some Hildegard scholars, were meant to address the Cathar heresy, which held that the since the physical body was irredeemably sinful, the sacraments were ineffective and invalid (more on the Cathars can be found here). The way they recruited was to point their finger at the local clergy, who, at the time, were generally corrupt, and ask how sacraments could be dispensed by such hypocrites.
This was a problem in the 12th-century that Hildegard would contend with for many years — dissolute priests. Most of them were illegally married or supporting a concubine, treating the local church and its attendant properties like their own little fief. Catholic historian Philip Hughes suggests that this was the result of the expansion of the Church into the “backwoods” of Europe:
“…where ‘civilization’ went little further than the individual man’s ability to fend for himself. With bishops more baron than Father-in-God, and priests as rude as the illiterate serfs to whom they ministered, such a refinement of ecclesiastical discipline as the mystic celibacy was exposed to altogether unheard-of losses.”
The heresy induced millions to abandon the church and the sacraments even though they still considered themselves Christian, some even continuing to attend mass.
Luther and the protestant reformers did the same thing. They pointed to corruption in the Church hierarchy as evidence that its authority was illegitimate. Unsurprisingly, in the Protestant church the sacraments were to become irrelevant, even baptism. Most Evangelicals get baptized, but it’s not necessary. Communion is optional and not regarded as a conduit of grace.
The difference between the Middle Ages and now is that back then religious sentiment was intense, a matter of life and death. Eventually the Church would exterminate the Cathars and condemn Luther and the reformers. If it hadn’t, the sacraments might have died out long ago. I think that today, religious tolerance and “dialogue” are overemphasized to the point that the importance of the Catholic sacraments as our spiritual sustenance is being diminished. The differences between our faith and other religions is critically more important than the similarities.
*Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias, translated by Columba Hart and Jane Bishop. The Abby of Regina Laudis: Benedictine Congregation Regina Laudis of the Strict Observance, Inc. Paulist Press, 1990.