‘Lady Alice’: Philosopher Alice von Hildebrand Honored by Pope Francis

Cardinal Burke invested her as a Dame Grand Cross of the Pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great at a ceremony in Manhattan.

‘Lady Alice’: Philosopher Alice von Hildebrand Honored by Pope Francis

Bill Rogers

The aim of education is to cultivate in students a “listening heart,” Cardinal Raymond Burke said in New York this week.

The cardinal, an American who works in the Vatican and was touted by some as a candidate to succeed Pope Benedict XVI earlier this year, spoke at an Oct. 30 dinner honoring philosopher Alice von Hildebrand.

Cardinal Burke invested von Hildebrand as a Dame Grand Cross of the Pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great, an honor Pope Francis bestowed on her Sept. 19. The investiture took place during a dinner at a club in midtown Manhattan. The affair marked von Hildebrand’s 90th birthday and was held by the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project, which seeks to disseminate the work of the German Catholic philosopher of the same name. Since Von Hildebrand's death in 1977, Alice von Hildebrand has devoted her life and work to promoting his thought.

Cardinal Burke, prefect of the Vatican Signatura – the highest judicial body in the Church – said in a keynote address that both Dietrich von Hildebrand, a professor at Fordham University, and his wife, who taught philosophy for 37 years at Hunter College in New York, faithfully carried out the role of Catholic educators in engendering in students the “listening heart” that leads one to the fullness of truth in the Catholic faith.

“So often today, we find individual Catholics as well as Catholic endeavors and institutions in the state of some confusion or even error about their Catholic identity,” he said. “In particular, a notion of tolerance of ways of thinking and acting contrary to Catholic teaching and morals seemingly has become the interpretative key of many of our Catholic activities. This notion is not securely grounded in the moral tradition, but it tends to dominate our approach to the extent that we end up claiming to be Catholic while tolerating ways of thinking and acting which are diametrically opposed to the moral law and therefore to the Catholic faith.”

Such a relativistic approach is illogical, he said. “We do not even observe the fundamental logical principle of non-contradiction – that is, that a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time. In other words, a Catholic institution or endeavor cannot at the same time be both true to the Catholic faith and not true to the Catholic faith.”

Rather, true charity demands “unconditional love of the person who is involved in evil but firm abhorrence of the evil in which the person is involved.”

The cardinal himself has displayed such an approach in commenting on the incongruity of Catholics in political life who support legal abortion. He said recently that one such politician in particular, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., should not receive Communion while professing support for the practice.

‘The Listening Heart’

Quoting from Pope Benedict XVI’s 2011 address to the German Bundestag in Berlin, where he explored the foundations of law, Cardinal Burke said that conscience is the “listening heart” that the young King Solomon asked God to give him so he could rule his people with wisdom and justice. It is “reason that is open to the language of being.”

“What he observed regarding the foundations of law and the work of conscience points to the fundamental work of education – namely, to develop in students a listening heart that strives to know the law of God and to respect it in the light of the virtues,” Cardinal Burke said. “It is to such teaching that Dietrich von Hildebrand dedicated his life… to such teaching in the same Christ-like manner, his devoted wife, Alice, dedicates her life.”

He said it was appropriate to quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict in honoring the two, because the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger “spoke so admiringly of Dietrich von Hildebrand as a prominent figure in the history of the Church.”

The cardinal said that Alice von Hildebrand “tirelessly gives witness to the truth of the faith through the witness of her life and through her speaking and writing. … So many students were drawn to Christ and assisted in receiving faith in him who alone is our salvation. She truly loved her students, and therefore wanted them to know the truth and its living source in God.”

Alice von Hildebrand has said that she never sought to proselytize her students, but that simply teaching that there is an objective truth that can be known led many to the Catholic faith.

One of her former students, journalist Stephanie Block, herself a convert, said that von Hildebrand was often under fire at Hunter, part of the City University of New York system, for her adherence to objective truth.

“Why would someone remain in such an environment?” Block asked, answering with a quote from her former teacher’s memoirs: “I was convinced I was doing meaningful work and was equipped to address every possible nationality, every possible philosophical outlook and every sort of background, particularly the humble and problematic circumstances typical of Hunter College students.”

“There’s a whole passel of former students who are her godchildren, and for every one of them dozens of others, if not hundreds who owed so much to her intellectually and spiritually,” Block continued. “Her wit and generosity were the sugar that made the medicine go down. The medicine was the truth, the salubrious truth that was her gift to us in a world that was so stingy about it.”

‘Lady Alice’

For her part, von Hildebrand shifted the evening’s attention to the work of her late husband and the influence it had on her. “I came to the U.S. [from Belgium], and for about 13 months I lived a very wintry time, and then through God’s grace, on Nov. 27, 1952, I was invited to attend his talk in his very modest apartment in New York, very close to Harlem,” she said. “The moment that he spoke – and his theme was transformation in Christ – something happened to me. I was so captivated by his work … that I made the discovery of what philosophy is.”

Von Hildebrand, who had escaped Nazi persecution in 1940, gathered friends in his Manhattan home for regular talks. This one concerned the topic of his book, Transformation in Christ, which Alice von Hildebrand called “his masterpiece” – one that had an “absolutely crucial influence in my life.”

His approach showed that philosophy is “not an abstract discipline,” she told the New York gathering. “It is life. It involves my heart, my intelligence and my will, and therefore opens a vista of greatness and beauty that most of us are not aware of. … He showed me that what we call Christian philosophy is not an abstraction, it is simply reason baptized by faith.”

She also expressed gratitude for the friendships she has developed in life, but cited three friends in particular, all of whom were present at the dinner:

“There are two people in this place to whom my spiritual debt is also immense,” she said, naming first Cardinal Burke, whom she called “a Prince of the Church who lives his faith, who expresses his love in his Redeemer, the one who loves his sheep and is constantly alerting us that the wolf never sleeps.”

Secondly, she thanked Father Benedict Groeschel, who in 1987 began a reform of the Capuchin Franciscans in a new community known as the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. Von Hildebrand, who at one time served together with Father Groeschel on the board of Franciscan University in Steubenville, said the priest “for the last 25 years has been my guide and my help.”

She also thanked  Madeleine Stebbins, the widow of H. Lyman Stebbins, founder of Catholics United for the Faith, whom she has known since the two women were in their early 20s.

“My husband said toward the end of his life, ‘Love and friendship are remnants of the earthly paradise.’ In this vale of tears, when we encounter so many difficulties, to have people you can call friends is such a joy, such a comfort, such a gift,” von Hildebrand said. “We are meant to be united by a bond of love. Friendship implies that you have a clear vision of what the other person is called to be. You see that person with imperfections but you are willing to forget that.”

The evening also included the reading of a tribute from Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, thanking von Hildebrand for “all she has done for the Church and society.”

“In Lady Alice, which is a most fitting title, the Church has a daughter who is most greatly gifted in teaching and writing,” Cardinal Schönborn wrote. “She is always ready to defend the truth, which is found is Jesus Christ, our Savior.”