At 91, Alice von Hildebrand knows she is approaching the end of her life. However, she does not take this as an excuse to blithely give today’s moral problems a free pass. As devoted to objective truth as ever, she does not hesitate to challenge moral relativists or even orthodox Catholics who might be mistaken on a given issue.
In her latest book, Memoirs of a Happy Failure, von Hildebrand recounts her upbringing in a “truly Catholic” Belgium, her dangerous voyage to the United States (which included nearly being sunk by a German submarine) and her many clashes with relativists at Hunter College in New York City. She also tells of her marriage to the late Dietrich von Hildebrand, informally deemed a “20th-century doctor of the Church” by Venerable Pope Pius XII.
Von Hildebrand enthusiastically continues to promote the philosophical work of her husband. This is done, in part, through the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project, the organization that made possible the recent English translation of her husband’s book My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich.
Von Hildebrand recently spoke of her and her husband’s shared dedication to the truth, the “severe moral crisis” of today and the centuries-old solution of repentance, prayer and penance with Register correspondent Trent Beattie.
What inspired your search for truth, goodness and beauty from the time of your youth — especially when relativism, evil disguised as good and ugliness were growing in prominence?
As I near the end of my life, I recall all the graces and gifts God has sent me. One of the greatest is that I grew up in Belgium when it was a truly Catholic country. At 4 years of age, I was conscious of the beauty of the Catholic culture surrounding me. There were glorious churches, sublime chant and superb paintings, to name a few things. Everything was beautiful.
Sadly, the same cannot be said today. There is so much ugliness around us — a sure indication that the devil has been at work. Ugliness is a reflection of the devil, and the profoundly disordered nature of our modern culture unmistakably reflects its greatest influence. What is most distressing is the fact that ugliness has made headway in our own Church.
The great tragedy of today is that truth has been replaced by preferences, goodness by whim and beauty by “fun.” In my 37 years of teaching, the overwhelming majority of students I encountered were of the belief that truth, goodness and beauty were relative: They were whatever you wanted to make of them. My conception of them may differ from yours, and this was to be celebrated, not lamented.
The reality is far different. We are in a severe moral crisis in which the eternal truths have been exchanged for temporary fads. We have been blinded into valuing quick fixes more than a permanent transformation.
If only we would open ourselves up to God through prayer and penance, we would be given the grace to see things as they truly are and the power to love as God wants us to. On our own, we are pitiably weak creatures, but with sanctifying grace, we can live the very life of God. This is extraordinarily beautiful.
Beauty is often seen as an “extra” to the more important matters of truth and goodness. What is wrong with this view?
Truth is beautiful, and goodness is beautiful. Truth, goodness and beauty form a trinity of values that are interactive and dependent upon each other. They are the transcendental properties of being, so you don’t isolate one and take it all on its own; because where you find one, you will find the others.
Today, we have largely replaced beauty with “fun.” What I mean by “fun” is the countless distractions that help us to forget that we [as a society] are tremendously bored. The noise, flash and inanity so common today serve to keep us oblivious to our own disconnect with reality. Instead of searching for meaning in life, we cover up our present lack of purpose with an abundance of superficial delights.
Your husband’s book My Battle Against Hitler has recently been released in English. How did your husband catch on to Hitler so early?
My husband’s ardent love for truth is what allowed him to perceive the poison of the Nazi philosophy so quickly. When truth was violated, it registered clearly to someone who had such an appreciation for it.
However, the key may not have been the immediacy of recognition, because many other people did not like Hitler’s philosophy from the time it became known. What distinguished my husband was that he went to the trouble of speaking out against Hitler’s atheistic, brutal philosophy that obliterated the individual and deified the state.
There were millions of Germans who did not agree with Nazism but who, nonetheless, offered no resistance to it. They kept a low profile in order to avoid possible repercussions in their personal and professional lives. The problem with this strategy can be seen in the abominable results that took place in the 1930s and ’40s.
Physical courage — something you find on athletic fields, for example — is very common, but moral courage is not. It is not easy to stand up for what is right when that might mean losing one’s job, one’s family or even one’s life. It is far easier to keep quiet and let things slide.
My husband, by contrast, was a morally courageous man. I had the privilege of meeting many good Catholics before making the acquaintance of my husband, but I don’t think I had met a hero before meeting him. My husband was, by the grace of God, a man with heroic dedication to truth, goodness and beauty. That is a rare grace.
My husband left a comfortable job and mansion in Germany to flee into Italy, then Austria, then France, then Portugal, then Brazil and, finally, to the United States. He was not willing to remain silent in the face of evil. For him, being constantly on the move was highly preferable to being immersed in the lies, evil and ugliness of Nazism — or communism, for that matter. He was an ardent opponent of both philosophies, which are, despite different names, essentially the same.
My husband taught at Fordham University, where he helped to bring many converts into the Catholic Church. Just one example was a Jew who had been an officer in the Pacific during World War II. One evening, while onboard his ship, he saw a sunset of such beauty that it brought tears to his eyes. He longed for more and thought he could find it in the study of philosophy. At the advice of a friend, he enrolled at Fordham. There, under the influence of my husband, he found what he was looking for: He became Catholic and then started a Carthusian monastery in Vermont.
You have been a critic of how the Church’s theology of the body has sometimes been taught. How should it be presented?
It is sometimes mistakenly put forth — even by well-meaning Catholics — that, in the intimate sphere, we are like animals, that human intimacy is “natural” as it is in a dog, cat or horse. While this may seem to be the case, it is in the human body that the personhood of man — I use this term to include women, so you see that I do use inclusive language — is so apparent.
A man and a woman collaborating with the Eternal God in creating a new human being is an awe-inspiring privilege not given to the angels — not even the highest of the seraphim. Every husband and wife should be filled with profound reverence at the fact that they can bring into being a unique creation of God who will live forever. The intimate sphere is a sacred one — one that should be treated with trembling awe.
I’ve taken my husband’s book In Defense of Purity as my inspiration for attempting to explain the crucial importance of this topic in my own book Dark Night of the Body. My husband shows the God-given beauty and importance of this sphere, yet he does not lose sight of the fact that, precisely because of its beauty and importance, it is particularly targeted by the devil and wounded by original sin.
Young people should be taught — as modestly as possible — the sublime meaning of the sphere and simultaneously be made aware that it is also open to grave temptations, not only because of its inebriating character, but because it can easily be misused by the devil to make persons seem like objects. Moreover, public discussions loaded with unnecessary details scratch the noble enamel of this topic, which is, of its nature, mysterious and secret.
As important as it is to reject a Puritanism that sees the human body as inherently evil, it is crucially important to reject immodesty, which, in its severest forms, is a cancer that destroys love, marriage and family. We need only look at the nearest shopping mall to see the ground gained by immodesty, so great care is necessary to protect the young from its influence.
A note here on penance might be helpful, too: St. Thomas More wore a hair shirt. A married man engaging in a corporal penance thought of as only for monks is something very instructive. No matter our state in life, our fight for salvation has not ended while we are still on earth. Rather, subduing the flesh is meant for everyone in the Church militant.
You’ve written and spoken of the privilege of being a woman. Do you think a renewed respect for authentic femininity has grown a little bit in recent years?
My philosophical archenemy, Simone de Beauvoir, who demeaned motherhood, has gained far more ground than I have. She has convinced thousands of women that their purpose in life is to be found competing against men. This is a grave error — one that completely misses the centrality of motherhood, not only for women, but for the entire human race.
Why did the serpent go to Eve instead of Adam? Some have said it was because Eve was weaker and therefore an easier target, but I think the answer goes much deeper: Eve was the mother of the living, which drew the attention of the “murderer from the beginning.” Because he hated human life, the devil went after Eve.
A hallmark of your husband’s career was his promotion of reverence. Why is this characteristic so important?
If we have not reverence, all our other talents are for naught. The greatest heretics and erroneous philosophers were talented, but they lacked the one essential ingredient for anyone desiring to pursue the truth: reverence. In other words, they did not allow reality to reveal itself; they wanted to make up reality. A man can come up with all kinds of interesting ideas, but if he is to get to the truth, he must baptize his intellect with humility, which is closely related to reverence.
Truth is not a matter of invention, but of veneration. We do not create truth; we serve it. This is why we cannot end our quest with acceptance of the truth, as praiseworthy as that is. We have to live out the truth in our lives, which is another way of saying our actions have to be good. The apparent beauty of our actions then points others back toward the source of all truth, goodness and beauty: God himself.
How can we effectively share the glorious truths of the Catholic faith with others when we do not let those truths affect our behavior? This is especially so when in the direct presence of the Supreme Lord of the Universe, who deigns to reside in our tabernacles. It is impossible for a Protestant or Jew to believe in the Real Presence when he enters a church filled with Catholics who chat and joke as if they were in a restaurant or who are dressed as if they were going on a camping trip. If God is really present in our churches, we must act like it.
In your most recent book, Memoirs of a Happy Failure, you recount being persecuted for the “crime” of claiming there is objective truth.
I endured many unfortunate experiences at the hands of administrators, fellow professors and even students at Hunter College who did not like the proposition that reality is not what one determines it to be. I was pushed into an exhausting schedule, was underpaid and had the slowest promotion of any professor I was aware of. When I finally received tenure after 13 years, a colleague said this was nothing short of a miracle. So, in the secular domain, I was a radical failure because I would not go along with the spirit of the age for material advantages.
However, as the title of the book suggests, the persecutions were outnumbered by positive experiences, most of which came from the students. From the very start, many of them happily accepted objective truth, and at the end of my career, I was voted by the students as the best teacher at Hunter. Despite the attempts of many professors to have things otherwise, objective truth had prevailed.
I should also say that, even though I never presented the Gospel in the classroom, my defense of objective truth, citing thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, was the starting point for many students to search further. Their thirst for truth led them to the One who said he is the Truth, and then they entered Holy Mother Church. Thanks be to God that he uses weak and imperfect instruments for his glory.
Because we were made by God, we long for the truth, goodness and beauty that can only be found in God. We will only be content in the possession of the Almighty, who does not merely have truth, goodness and beauty, but who is truth, goodness and beauty.
There is a price for this greatest of all goals: our very selves. We must exchange self-love for love of God, or charity. We must deny ourselves, take up our various crosses and follow Christ. If we suffer with Christ, we will be glorified with Christ. Then, enjoying the ineffable majesty of the beatific vision, we will desire nothing more, because we will have found all we were made for.
Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.