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Alice von Hildebrand, Catholic philosopher and critic of moral relativism, dies at 98

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John Burger - published on 01/14/22 - updated on 01/15/22

A fellow refugee from Europe and lifelong devotee of Dietrich von Hildebrand, she made a name for herself as a champion for truth.

Alice von Hildebrand, a Catholic philosopher who devoted her life to advancing the thought of her late husband, the philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, died at her home in New Rochelle, New York, Friday morning. She was 98.

Von Hildebrand, born Alice Jourdain in Brussels, Belgium, on February 11, 1923, had been Dietrich von Hildebrand’s student at Fordham University and later a close collaborator. Two years after the death of von Hildebrand’s first wife, Alice and Dietrich married, in 1959. [The two are pictured in the photo above.]

“We share all the same passions,” she once said. “Shakespeare, art, music, Dante, Italy. When we are particularly happy we speak Italian.”

They settled in New Rochelle, a northern suburb of New York City. Dietrich von Hildebrand died there in 1977. The couple did not have children.

Both Alice and Dietrich were refugees from war-torn Europe. Dietrich’s story of escaping Nazi henchmen who sought to silence him for his strong criticism of Adolph Hitler was dramatically told by Alice in her 2000 biography, The Soul of a Lion: the Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand.

An idyllic life, interrupted

Growing up in Belgium, French was Alice Jourdain’s mother tongue. She wrote that at the age of 11, she discovered Blaise Pascal while taking a course on 17th-century French literature. His Pensées overwhelmed her, especially “with the beauty of his style. [He] awakened in me a profound philosophical interest. I started memorizing many of his most beautiful thoughts, and I recall reciting them over and over again as I walked along the Belgian seashore where my parents had a summer home.”

That idyllic life was brutally interrupted with the May 1940 German invasion of Benelux. At 17, Jourdain set sail for the United States. On the way, a German U-boat threatened to sink her ship. Fortunately, the sub was called off by military superiors, but the close call, she said, focused her attention on questions of eternal destiny. 

A life-changing encounter

While studying at Manhattanville College in New York, the young woman heard a talk by Dietrich von Hildebrand on the theme of Transformation in Christ – the title of one of his best known books. She was so impressed by his erudition and the clarity of his thought that she signed up for his courses at Fordham. There, she earned a doctorate in 1949. 

She found it difficult to get a teaching position, even at Catholic colleges, which told her at the time that they did not hire women to teach philosophy. Finally hired at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, she became the first woman to teach philosophy there. She also found herself in a secular world for the first time. Her dedication to objective truth raised the hackles of professors who were materialistic, liberal and communist, she said. Responding to the suggestion of the college president, a Catholic named George N. Shuster, that she would be happier at a Catholic institution, she said she felt it was important that a Catholic be present in a secular university.

Over her 37-year tenure, many of her students — even atheists — converted to Catholicism, not because she proselytized, but because in her courses she insisted that there is such a thing as objective truth that can be known.

“The crucial question in teaching philosophy is whether there is an objective truth and whether man’s mind can find it,” she said in a 1996 interview with Catholic New York, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York. “Relativism and subjectivism inevitably block the way to God, who is truth itself. … The moment you recognize that there is an objective truth, independent of man’s mind, you look for it, and, if you’re honest, you find God.”

Apparently, many of her students did just that, and she and Dietrich served as godparents at the baptism of several of them. 

“Many of the kids came [to college] so depressed, so despondent,” she said in the interview. “Life was meaningless. … All of a sudden, someone was saying there’s meaning in life, there’s something beautiful and worthwhile. Year after year, I always had the joy of students coming to the Church.”

In spite of constant opposition to her philosophy from fellow faculty members, von Hildebrand received the prestigious President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching upon her retirement in 1984. She received it from the hands of the then-president, Donna Shalala, who would go on to become Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton. 

“Her class turned me around,” said a former student, Gary Fuchs, in a 1996 interview. “She was a very dynamic speaker. … And her eyes flamed with intensity. Also, you had the distinct feeling that for the entire class time she was speaking directly to you.”

As with other students, the experience was life-changing for Fuchs, who up to that point had not found anything in college that was feeding his soul. He had been wondering about the God question, and von Hildebrand’s class, Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (the title of one of her books), addressed his curiosity. The professor never preached, he said; she merely examined the essence of religion. He realized from the lectures and his own explorations that Catholicism is “divinely inspired.” He became a Catholic. 

Popularizing philosophy

Outside of the classroom, von Hildebrand promoted her husband’s thought on the lecture circuit, including frequent appearances and a miniseries on EWTN, and wrote several books that popularized aspects of philosophy and Catholic teaching. They include By Love Refined: Letters to a Young Bride, a series of letters counseling a newly married woman. A 1989 letter from Pope John Paul II thanks Alice von Hildebrand for the book. “May the Lord give it the success it deserves, since you treat a most important and endangered theme,” the letter says.

By Grief Refined: Letters to a Widow, written in the same epistolary manner, offers advice from a woman who has lived for years without her husband to someone who recently lost hers. It was specifically written for her close friend, Madeleine Stebbins, whose late husband, H. Lyman Stebbins, had founded Catholics United for the Faith in 1968. Madeleine Stebbins died just last year.

With Dietrich von Hildebrand, Alice also co-wrote a number of works, including The Art of Living

Her own autobiography, Memoirs of a Happy Failure, recounts her escape from Nazi Europe and her teaching career at Hunter. She also wrote The Privilege of Being a Woman, which holds up the Blessed Virgin Mary’s role in the Incarnation as pointing to the true privilege of being a woman. “Both virginity and maternity meet in Mary who exhibits the feminine gifts of purity, receptivity to God’s word, and life-giving nurturance at their highest,” according to a description of the book. 

Man and Woman: A Divine Invention was a follow-up to The Privilege of Being a Woman, expanding the discussion to explore how the fullness of human nature is found in the perfect union between man and woman. 

Her life and public speaking were not without controversy, of course. In 2009, she made waves when she lambasted a television interview involving Christopher West, a prominent promoter of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. She criticized West as irreverent and insensitive to the “tremendous dangers” of concupiscence. The interview with West, on ABC television, showed him calling for Catholics to complete “what the sexual revolution began.” He also described “very profound” historical connections between Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy, and Pope John Paul II. West later said the network had sensationalized his message. 

West’s approach, von Hildebrand said in an interview with Catholic News Agency, makes him forget that sex is “an extreme danger.” Though sex can be sanctified, that sanctification implies “a humility, a spirit of reverence, and totally avoiding the vulgarity that he uses in his language.”

“I’m shocked and horrified by the words that he uses,” she charged. “His mere mention of Hugh Hefner is to my mind an abomination.”

In 2004, she joined with several of her husband’s former students in launching the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project

“Those who knew Lily often heard her say that the wick of her candle was growing ever shorter,” John Henry Crosby, founder and president of the Legacy Project said, in announcing her death. To her friends, she was known as Lily. “In fact, she yearned for death — to see the face of Our Lord, to be reunited at last with her husband Dietrich, her parents, her dearest friend Madeleine Stebbins — with the peace that only true innocence and profound faith can grant.”

A papal honor

To mark her 90th birthday, in 2013, Pope Francis bestowed upon Alice von Hildebrand the Grand Cross of the Pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great. Cardinal Raymond Burke, at the time prefect of the Vatican Signatura, invested “Dame Alice” during a dinner in New York in October of that year. 

The cardinal said that 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.”

In her remarks, von Hildebrand reflected on the impact her husband had had on her 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.”

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.”

Her funeral will be held at Holy Family Church in New Rochelle, N.Y., on Saturday, January 22, at 9:30 a.m.

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