Pope Hails von Hildebrand Project
Conference Remembers Catholic Philosopher

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio, OCT. 25, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI, expressing his appreciation and support for the work of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project, said that it will have fruitful consequences for the evangelization of contemporary culture.
The Pope said this in a letter written to John Henry Crosby, the founder and director of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.

Crosby read the letter from the Holy Father during a conference hosted by the legacy project at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, held Oct. 12-13. Some 150 participants from eight countries gathered to honor the philosopher on the 30th anniversary of his death.

Alice von Hildebrand, widow of the German philosopher and keynote speaker at the conference, commented, "I was extremely happy to see that so many new people are discovering the importance of my husband's message."

Dietrich von Hildebrand was born in 1889, the son of a famous German sculptor. He studied philosophy under the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl and was profoundly influenced by his close friend, German philosopher Max Scheler, who aided von Hildebrand's conversion to Catholicism in 1914.

Von Hildebrand openly criticized Nazism from within Germany and Austria, earning him the contempt of Adolf Hitler. He is also known for his religious and spiritual writings, and his passionate defense of truth and beauty.

Distinctive contribution

Benedict XVI said in his letter: "Following my recent meeting with you and Mrs. Alice von Hildebrand, I wish to express my appreciation for the efforts of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project to promote greater knowledge of and esteem for Professor von Hildebrand's distinctive contribution to Christian philosophical thought.

"Drawing inspiration from the Augustinian tradition and its Thomistic reception in the light of Aristotelian philosophy, von Hildebrand sought to advance that tradition by creatively reinterpreting it in the context of modern thought and its concerns.

"He was far from a 'petrified' vision of the teaching of Thomas, based on a narrow and uncritical devotion to the 'words of the Master,' and could well make his own the classic dictum: 'Amicus mihi Thomas, magis amica veritas!'"

"It is this 'legacy' which has motivated your project," the Pontiff added.

Benedict XVI continued: "Grounded in the rich philosophical movement which stretches from the Pre-Socratic's through Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus, to Augustine, Thomas and the great thinkers of the modern age, and taking up the challenge set forth in the encyclical 'Fides et Ratio,' the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project aims to enter into reasoned dialogue with contemporary currents of philosophy, bringing the full scope of reason to bear on fundamental human questions and contributing to the recovery of the sapiential dimension inherent in the 'philosophia perennis.'

"Without such a commitment to the philosophical enterprise, Christian faith would fall prey to a 'fideism' which would deprive it of its grandeur as man's free submission of intellect and will to the splendor of God's truth, and gravely compromise its missionary dynamism, whereby believers are called to offer to all a reasoned account of the hope that is within them.

"I therefore express my appreciation and support for the work of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Project, and my confidence that this praiseworthy initiative will bear abundant fruit for the evangelization of contemporary culture."


Dietrich Von Hildebrand's Voice of Reason

Interview With Founder of Legacy Project

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia, JUNE 13, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI sees in Dietrich von Hildebrand a voice of reason in an age that has largely despaired of reason, says the founder of a project to disseminate the philosopher-theologian's writings.

John Henry Crosby recently spoke with ZENIT about the mission of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project and the influence the German thinker had on the Catholic Church throughout the 20th century.

Crosby works closely with Alice von Hildebrand, the widow of the philosopher. Dietrich von Hildebrand lived from 1889 to 1977.

The Legacy Project recently released a new edition of "The Heart," which can be purchased at the project's Web site.

The project has pledged to donate 10% of all purchases through this link to ZENIT, and orders destined for the continental United States are eligible for free shipping.

Q: You and Alice Von Hildebrand recently met with Benedict XVI. What is the Holy Father's interest in this project?

Crosby: This is a challenging question because the Holy Father is interested in the Legacy Project or, more precisely, in Dietrich von Hildebrand, at many levels.

Many people will not know that the Holy Father knew von Hildebrand already as a young priest, when as young Father Ratzinger, he was the assistant pastor at von Hildebrand's parish church in Munich.

From the very start, Father Ratzinger had a deep esteem for Dietrich von Hildebrand, both as a personality and as thinker.

Beyond his personal admiration, however, the Holy Father also sees von Hildebrand as a Catholic figure who left a tremendous mark on the Church -- a mark about which many Catholics are regrettably unaware.

One could hardly attribute a greater historical importance to von Hildebrand than Cardinal Ratzinger did when he wrote about von Hildebrand in the year 2000: "I am firmly convinced that, when at some time in the future, the intellectual history of the Catholic Church in the 20th century is written, the name of Dietrich von Hildebrand will be most prominent among the figures of our time."

These are not idle words, and the Holy Father has gone to great lengths to demonstrate how seriously he meant them.

Soon after the Legacy Project was founded in 2004, he took the rare step of joining as an honorary member, and even after his elevation to the papacy his support has been faithful and concrete.

The Legacy Project just released our first publication in collaboration with St. Augustine's Press, namely a new edition of von Hildebrand's book "The Heart."

The book appeared around the time of our audience with the Holy Father. Alice von Hildebrand and I were able to present the very first copy to him, to which he responded, expressing his gratitude, "Ah, the young people will like this."

Naturally, all of this collaboration only heightens the question of the Holy Father's interest in Dietrich von Hildebrand. Among the many different reasons that come to mind, two in particular, or, perhaps, two ways of explaining his support, stand out.

To begin with, one might say that the Holy Father sees Dietrich von Hildebrand as a voice of reason in an age that has largely despaired of reason.

How often have we not heard it said that there is no objective moral law but only what is right for me; that there is no reality except what I choose to make my reality?

This was hardly the way of von Hildebrand, who was always concerned with conforming himself to reality or, as he often expressed himself, to "listening to the voice of being."

Von Hildebrand has been described as a "knight for truth," and this marvelously expresses the way he not only sought and understood the faith but the manner in which he defended it and gave witness to it through his life.

Too few people know of the great Christian witness of von Hildebrand which, during the 1920s and 1930s, reached a heroic highpoint in his intellectual anti-Nazi resistance.

I am reminded here of some words which Cardinal Christoph Schönborn recently wrote to me in a letter about von Hildebrand, for they drive home the importance of von Hildebrand for today: "I continue to think, as I have in the past, that the work of Dietrich von Hildebrand stands among the very great Catholic contributions to the thought of the 20th century."

"Precisely in our time," Cardinal Schönborn continued, "it is becoming increasingly clear to me how precious it is to have great thinkers formed in the faith through whom we can find orientation and support in the midst of the confusion of the present time."

A second reason for the Holy Father's interest in Dietrich von Hildebrand lies in the fact that he sees the "personalism" of von Hildebrand as a kind of instrument for making the Gospel fully intelligible to the contemporary world.

How ironic it is that one of the bloodiest centuries in history, namely the 20th, went hand in hand with a deepening understanding for the dignity of the human person.

We see this in the whole language of "human rights," which is an expression of precisely this deepening sense for the dignity and inviolability of the person.

The philosophy that has arisen around this deepening sense for the dignity of persons, both as its cause and consequence, often goes by the name of personalism.

One of the greatest practitioners of personalism was the late great Pope John Paul II, who was capable of transforming so many thousands of lives in no small measure because of the personalist approach he always took.

Like John Paul, the thought and witness of von Hildebrand are rooted in his personalism, for von Hildebrand too was deeply interested in the nature and dignity of human persons -- indeed, one can say that the personal forms a kind of axis of his thought.

In his personal style as well, von Hildebrand acted out of a deep sense for the mystery of personal existence -- always with warmth, with love, with respect, and with a passionate desire to "win over" his interlocutor -- and this, I believe, was a crucial reason for his capacity to reach people so profoundly.

If there could ever be any "test" of successful Christian living, it would have to be that of conversions -- genuine conversions motivated by Christian witness. Von Hildebrand had over 100 godchildren -- a remarkable reflection of the personalism he both taught and lived.

Q: What inspired you to found the von Hildebrand Legacy Project?

Crosby: I am often asked why I founded the Legacy Project. How is it that a young man of 26 -- my age at establishing the project in 2004 -- should devote himself to the work of appropriating, preserving and disseminating the legacy of von Hildebrand?

The answer begins in the close bond of friendship that connected my family to von Hildebrand many years before I was born. I t is hard to imagine my maternal grandfather and my parents without the profound and formative relation they had to von Hildebrand.

And while I never knew von Hildebrand personally -- he died in 1977, the year before I was born -- throughout my teenage years I had the privilege of coming to know his widow, Alice von Hildebrand.

My appreciation for von Hildebrand grew especially during my university years. I felt increasingly that his rich and abundant vision of the world was becoming my own, and I began to understand why generations had been nourished by his prolific writings.

Dietrich von Hildebrand was a philosopher I could follow. His heroic struggle against Nazism fired my imagination; his single-minded love and pursuit of truth presented me with a vivid embodiment of the true philosopher; and his passion for music, literature and art taught me that life without beauty is impoverished and inhuman.

The Legacy Project is my response to the gift that von Hildebrand has been in my own life. I do not doubt that I am acting on behalf of the thousands who received this same gift in their own lives.

Q: Von Hildebrand was himself a convert to Catholicism. What led to his conversion?

Crosby: Von Hildebrand's friend and teacher, Max Scheler, drew his attention early on to the saints. Von Hildebrand discerned in them a supernatural beauty that spoke of God and bore witness to the truth of the Christian faith.

He was struck by the way in which their being was transformed by their love for Christ. The new moral ethos of the Christian saints won his heart and deeply affected him.

But it was in particular the radiant beauty that he experienced in the saints, and most of all in the God-man -- it was this beauty that drew him to Christ and led to his conversion.

We can say that his book "Transformation in Christ" is in a way the story of his conversion; for the beauty of "new creature in Christ" that he unfolds so masterfully in that book is the very thing that fired his imagination and made him a Christian.

Q: Why is von Hildebrand considered one of the most influential Catholics of the 20th century?

Crosby: Historians will have to discuss this question in the years to come, for von Hildebrand's legacy looms large in many different areas. Still, a consideration of this question could hardly ignore his prolific writings on marriage, man and woman, purity and virginity.

Given the influence of these writings on the Church's teaching on marriage at the Second Vatican Council and in the encyclical "Humanae Vitae," it is perhaps not an overstatement to say that von Hildebrand's thought on marriage has affected thousands upon thousands of Catholic marriages.

For centuries Catholic writers had stressed almost exclusively the procreative meaning of the marital act. Von Hildebrand was one of the first to see that over and above the procreative meaning there is also the unitive meaning of the marital act -- the enactment of the love of the spouses for each other.

With his writings on man and woman in the 1920s he prepared the ground in the Church for the teaching of Vatican II on the dual meaning of the marital act.

There is another teaching of Vatican II that he also helped to prepare, namely the new emphasis found in "Gaudium et Spes" on the dignity of natural and human values.

He did not think that only a soul in the state of grace really counted and that other values, such as values of culture and human thought, were of no real significance.

He instead contributed to a new Christian humanism in which all human goods and values are redeemed. This humanism can be seen in his rich philosophy of love; for he does not think that only Christian love of neighbor counts as love, but he takes seriously all the kinds of human love, giving particular attention to the love between man and woman.

These human loves are meant to be transformed and redeemed and not to be replaced with Christian love of neighbor.

Q: What do modern Catholics have to learn from the writings of von Hildebrand?

Crosby: Yet again, this is a challenging question, given the wide range of possible answers. I would like to draw attention to one aspect of the writings of von Hildebrand, not only because it is particularly important but also because it is not always properly appreciated.

Von Hildebrand was deeply formed by the tradition of Christian thought, above all by his great love of St. Augustine. On the other hand, he was a student of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), who was also the teacher of Edith Stein -- St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

Like Edith Stein, von Hildebrand drew freely on both the tradition of Christian thought and on the many contributions of contemporary thought -- including those of his famous teacher, Husserl.

In this respect, von Hildebrand and Edith Stein went against a certain Christian tendency that views contemporary thought with a degree of skepticism and even an unwillingness to acknowledge its insights.

Von Hildebrand, as well as Edith Stein, overcame, or better, superseded this tendency in the best and most effective manner, namely, by making contemporary contributions fruitful in his own work.

Not only does this mean that Christian thinkers may benefit from the rich insights of von Hildebrand; it will also help them to approach contemporary thought with a view to harvesting its true and therefore timeless aspects.

This bodes well for the tradition of Christian thought -- which will only become richer and deeper.


When Kung and von Hildebrand Came to Loyola, by Michael Healy:

In the middle of my junior year (1970-71) at Loyola University of Los Angeles (now Loyola Marymount University), we had two distinguished guest lecturers: Fr. Hans Kung and Professor Dietrich von Hildebrand. The contrasting manner of their reception at Loyola, as well as their personal effect on me, makes for an interesting tale.

The whole atmosphere of Loyola at the time was one of progressive optimism, the throwing off of the shackles of out-dated authority, and freedom-combined-with-sincerity—this was all man needed. Drifting along with the general atmosphere, with the prevailing view of the Church, and with the vicissitudes of my major [psychology], I was predisposed to view Hans Kung favorably and Dietrich von Hildebrand unfavorably.

Imagine my surprise then when I happily went to see the great man, Kung—before whom the red carpet had been unrolled, whom the Jesuits bowed and scraped before, hoping they were making a good impression, hoping that they would be seen as just as avant-garde as the leading European thinkers—and I had one of the most negative reactions to any person I have ever met or heard in my life. The look on his face, the tone of his voice, the way he held himself, the manner of his response to questions, all combined to give me the most powerful impression I have ever had before or since of someone immensely pleased with himself, actually encouraging those around him to “kiss up” to him (and they happily obliged)—indeed, (and I’m sorry if I do him an injustice) but the image that came to my nineteen-year old mind at the time was “here is an amazingly self-righteous Pharisee.” His manner was such that I was personally and even physically repulsed by the man, despite all the build-up and praise and despite the fact that on purely physical grounds he was a handsome fellow. I could not believe that all these people, whom I had so respected at Loyola, were virtually kissing his feet! Moreover, despite all my feelings of inadequacy and poor self-image, I couldn’t help but feel—surprisingly—a certain pity for the celebrated theologian. It seemed to me that this kind of treatment by those receiving him was terribly dangerous for poor Hans. They were not only enabling but actively encouraging in him an immaturity and an arrogance of immense proportions. I have never been able to get it out of my head ever since that Hans Kung seemed little more than a spoiled child, demanding things to be his way and that he be praised for it. (This was reinforced a couple of years later when I read his Infallible? An Enquiry, especially the lengthy introduction.) By the end of Kung’s talk, I was extremely suspicious of his view of the Church and therefore of the prevailing “Jesuit” view at Loyola. I was beginning to think that my own insights might be worth something, compared to the “crowd.” For this important step toward maturity, I shall be forever grateful to Hans Kung.

However, it wasn’t until I went to hear the von Hildebrands, despite Jesuit disapproval, that all of this really fell into place in a positive way. Dietrich, who had been scheduled for the talk, had been ordered by his heart doctor not to get too excited, so it was decided that Alice would substitute for him. He was in the audience—right down the same row in which I was sitting as a matter of fact. She gave a brilliant talk on the manner in which Kierkegaard dealt with the theological liberals of his day using irony and humor, with evident and telling parallels to the liberal revolution infecting the Catholic Church after Vatican II. I began to understand why the Jesuits had called a house meeting to keep their “young ones” away! And yet despite the depth and seriousness of what she was saying, Alice never spoke or behaved in such a way as to draw attention to herself (quite different from Kung), but rather in such a way as always to focus on the matter at hand. As far as she was concerned, it wasn’t about her but about reality. How refreshing! I was deeply impressed with both her message and her manner. All this time, Dietrich had sat quietly, resting his heart. However, in the question-and-answer session, when questions arose about the state of the Church, he could no longer contain himself. He stood up in the row a few seats down from me and spoke passionately and lovingly of Christ and the Church. He used phrases which I had not heard since grammar school, like “the Holy Roman Catholic Church.” I had several impressions which came together almost immediately.

First, here was someone who really believed, who humbly accepted revelation from God. He was not intent on figuring out how to get around Church teachings but on how to live them. Secondly, here was someone who really loved Christ and the Church with all his heart. He was full of gratitude for the Church, for its authority, its teachings, its sacraments. He was not full of resentment at authority and at the Church. Third, here was a true apostle, proclaiming the truth (not “his” truth but the truth God has given to us all) in season and out of season, ready to stand joyfully with Christ and the Church even when human opinion showered him with ridicule. I looked down my row at the white-haired octogenarian gesturing with his umbrella for emphasis and risking a heart attack in his enthusiasm (also risking a few hats and heads in the row adjacent with the umbrella) and I felt like I had met St. Paul. Finally, here was someone full of joy and hope, despite his deep sorrow over and reasoned critique of what was going on in the Church. I had met someone who fulfilled the admonition to “Rejoice always and again I say rejoice!” Such a meeting changed my life. I was confirmed in my suspicion that following the crowd is not the highpoint of wisdom. I changed from a psychology to a philosophy major and discovered my vocation to teaching. The von Hildebrand’s visit, together with that of Kung, was pivotal to finding my way in life and in the Church. The effect, I’m afraid, was not the one intended by the Jesuits!

Looking back now on those days, my conclusion is a hopeful one. No matter how long a person swims along inundated by doxa, confused opinions, skeptical debunking, up-to-date progressive theories, cutting edge speculations, etc., once he comes across reality he knows it. As Plato says, truth has a power of its own and can never be swept away by propaganda. One man speaking the truth has tremendous power to break through the fog, reach people, and change lives. Philosophical truth shares with Christianity that compliment given to the latter by C.S. Lewis in a less politically correct age—it challenges the recipient with “the rough, male taste of reality.” Thus the von Hildebrands compared to Kung.

Yet how can I come to a hopeful conclusion when the majority at the time seemed to be going in the opposite direction? Because I firmly believe a) that, if God could pull me out of the morass of those days, He can do so with anyone and b) that God is not limited by majority opinion at any given time. As Kierkegaard loves to say, God doesn’t deal with crowds, He deals with individuals—and He has the lifetime of each of us to do so, including the lifetime of each person at Loyola in 1971. What matters ultimately is not majority opinion at any given time, but the final end of each individual. This is where our hope rests. As it says in the old Spiritual (It is no Secret, What God can Do), “what He’s done for others, He’ll do for you….”

[The complete retelling of this story, first given as an address at the Army & Navy Club, Washington, DC during the Legacy Project’s annual dinner, is forthwith being published by Crisis Magazine.]

Dr. Healy is professor of philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he served as Chief Academic Officer under the presidency of Fr. Michael Scanlan for fifteen years (1986-2000). During that time, primarily through utilization of von Hildebrand’s approach to philosophy, the philosophy department has grown from 2 majors to over 150 majors, plus 40 students in a Master of Arts in Philosophy program. Dr. Healy received his doctorate from the University of Dallas, studying under Josef Seifert and John F. Crosby, two of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s most preeminent disciples. Dr. Healy and his wife Maria are the proud parents of five children.