Pope Hails von Hildebrand
Conference Remembers Catholic
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
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.