In her first book, Scivias (book II, vision 3), St. Hildegard explained the symbolism of a vision she experienced; she had seen the image of a woman with many children in her womb, who represented the life of all baptized Christians. They are as unborn children developing in the womb of their mother, symbolizing the Church, which administers the life-giving sacraments to her sons and daughters. She describes differences among these children and notes that “…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). She also speaks of those at the other end of the spectrum who “…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). [All quotations herein are taken from: 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.].
Hildegard’s view of “ensoulment”, when an unborn child receives a soul, was typical of the Middle Ages. Like today’s Church teaching it was at conception, but the science of the times did not know when conception took place or how long it took. This led to St. Thomas Aquinas’ belief that ensoulment took place after forty days, the time it took for conception to occur according to Aristotelian science. We now understand that it takes place immediately after fertilization. (An excellent discussion of ensoulment by James Akin can be found here). In the following quote Hildegard equates the life of a child, evidenced by its movements, with the reception of the soul:
“…after a woman has conceived by human semen, an infant with all its members whole is formed in the secret chamber of her womb. …[F]or, by God’s secret and hidden command and will, fitly and rightly at the divinely appointed time the infant in the maternal womb receives a spirit and shows by the movements of its body that it lives” (p.119).
In the following passage she establishes the presence of a soul in an unborn child, a soul whose powers remain hidden as the child “awakens” in the womb:
“The exterior human being awakens with senses in the womb of his mother before he is born, but the other powers of the soul still remain in hiding. …[T]he human senses manifest all the reason and powers of the soul” (p.123).
The science of the Middle Ages led her to prohibit conjugal relations during pregnancy:
“Those who have intercourse with the pregnant are murderers. I do not want the work of a man and woman to take place from the time when the root of a little child has already been placed in a woman, lest the development of that little child be polluted by excessive and wasted semen” (p.84).
The position of St. Thomas is often misinterpreted by pro-abortion advocates to suggest that the Church taught that the life of a child was not established until ensoulment took place a period of time after conception. For St. Hildegard, once conception has taken place, any intentional action that puts the life of an unborn child at risk is an act of murder.