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Von Hildebrand's Voice of Reason

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Interview With Founder of Legacy Project

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia, JUNE 14, 2007 (Zenit) - 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 us 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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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