Dietrich von Hildebrand

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Dietrich von Hildebrand (October 12, 1889 - January 26, 1977) was a German Catholic philosopher and theologian who was called (informally) by Pope Pius XII "the 20th Century Doctor of the Church."[citation needed] Pope John Paul II greatly admired the work of von Hildebrand, remarking once to von Hildebrand's widow, Alice von Hildebrand, "Your husband is one of the great ethicists of the twentieth century." Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has a particular admiration and regard for Dietrich von Hildebrand, whom he already knew as a young priest in Munich. In fact, as young Fr. Ratzinger, he even served as an assistant pastor in the church of St. Georg in Munich, which von Hildebrand frequented in the 1950s and 1960s. It was also in St. Georg that Dietrich and Alice von Hildebrand were married. The degree of Pope Benedict's esteem is expressed in one of his statements about von Hildebrand: "When the intellectual history of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century is written, the name of Dietrich von Hildebrand will be most prominent among the figures of our time."

A vocal critic of the changes in the church brought by the Second Vatican Council, he especially resented the new liturgy,saying, "Truly, if one of the devils in C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters had been entrusted with the ruin of the liturgy, he could not have done it better."[1]


Born and raised in Florence, in the Kingdom of Italy, he grew up in a German household, the son of the noted sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand and Irene Schäuffelen, who lived in a former Minim friary. He received all his early education from private tutors. Although raised in a home without any religion, von Hildebrand developed a deep belief in Jesus at a very young age.[2]

Sent to Munich at 15 to do his Abitur, he enrolled at the University of Munich two years later, where he entered a circle of students who first followed the philosopher Theodor Lipps but soon were swayed by the teachings of Edmund Husserl. Through this circle, he came to know Max Scheler. Through his writings, von Hildebrand would later convert to Catholicism in 1914. In 1909, he attended the University of Göttingen, where he completed his doctorate in philosophy under Husserl and Adolf Reinach, whom he later credited with shaping his own philosophical system.[2]

In 1913, von Hildebrand went to Rome, to attend the First Communion of one of his sisters, in a ceremony held in the Catacombs of Callixtus. The following year, he and his wife, Margaret Denck, were received into the Catholic Church. Upon the outbreak of World War I, he was drafted into service as a physician's assistant in Munich, serving as a kind of surgical nurse.[2]

The publication of von Hildebrand's first book, Die Idee der Sittlichen Handlung, happened in 1916, and two years later, after the war had ended, he was given a teaching position at the University of Munich, eventually gaining an assistant professorship in 1924. By then, he had published another work, in 1921, Sittiichkeit und Ethische Werterkenntniss.[2]

A vocal opponent of Adolf Hitler and Nazism, he fled from Germany, first to Italy, and then to Vienna, Austria, in 1933 upon Hitler's rise to power. There, with the support of Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, he founded and edited an anti-Nazi weekly paper, Der Christliche Ständestaat (The Christian Corporative State). For this, he was sentenced to death in absentia by the Nazis.

When Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, von Hildebrand was once again forced to flee. He spent eleven months in Switzerland, near Fribourg. He then moved to Fiac in France, near Toulouse, where he taught at the Catholic University of Toulouse. When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, he went into hiding; after many hardships, and the heroic assistance of Frenchmen, including Edmond Michelet and Varian Fry, he was able to escape with his wife, son (Franz von Hildebrand), and daughter-in-law to Portugal. From there, they traveled by ship to Brazil and then to New York in 1940,where he taught philosophy at the Jesuit Fordham University on Rose Hill, the Bronx, New York.

He retired from teaching in 1960,spending the remaining years of his life writing. He was the author of dozens of books in both German and English. He was a founder of Una Voce America. He died in New Rochelle, New York, after a long struggle with a heart condition. He had married Margaret Denck (died 1957) in 1912 and with her he had an only son Franz von Hildebrand, and then, in 1959 Dietrich von Hildebrand married Alice von Hildebrand (born 1923), also a philosopher and theologian.


  1. ^ von Hildebrand, Dietrich (1973). Der verwüstete Weinberg (in German). Regensburg: Habbel. 
  2. ^ a b c d "Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977)". Retrieved 26 December 2012. 

External sources[edit]

  • The Soul of A Lion, a biography by Alice von Hildebrand, Ignatius Press, 2000, ISBN 0-89870-801-X

Partial bibliography[edit]

  • Marriage: The Mystery of Faithful Love (1929)
  • Metaphysics of Community (1930)
  • In Defense of Purity; an Analysis of the Catholic Ideals of Purity and Virginity (Longmans, Green and Co., 1931)
  • Transformation in Christ (Longmans, 1948)
  • Liturgy and Personality (Longmans, 1943)
  • Actual Questions in the Light of Eternity (1931)
  • The Essence of Philosophical Research and Knowledge (1934)
  • Fundamental Moral Attitudes (Longmans, 1950)
  • Christian Ethics (McKay, 1952)
  • The New Tower of Babel (P. J. Kenedy, 1953)
  • Ethics (Franciscan Herald Press, 1953)
  • True Morality and Its Counterfeits, with Alice M. Jourdain (McKay, 1955)
  • Graven Images: Substitutes for True Morality, with Alice M. Jourdain (McKay, 1957)
  • Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert (J. Habbel, 1961)
  • Not as the World Gives; St. Francis' Message to Laymen Today" (Franciscan Herald Press, 1963)
  • The art of living, with Alice von Hildebrand (Franciscan Herald Press, 1965)
  • Man and Woman: Love & the Meaning of Intimacy, (Franciscan Herald Press, 1966)
  • Morality and Situation Ethics, (Franciscan Herald Press, 1966)
  • The encyclical Humanae vitae, a sign of contradiction; an essay on birth control and Catholic conscience, (Franciscan Herald Press, 1969)
  • Love, Marriage, and the Catholic Conscience: Understanding the Church's Teachings on Birth Control
  • The Trojan Horse in the City of God: The Catholic Crisis Explained (Franciscan Herald Press, 1967)
  • Celibacy and the crisis of faith, (Franciscan Herald Press, 1971)
  • What is Philosophy? (Franciscan Herald Press, 1973)
  • The Devastated Vineyard (1973)
  • Jaws of Death: Gate of Heaven (1976)
  • The Heart: an Analysis of Human and Divine Affectivity, (Franciscan Herald Press, 1977)
  • Making Christ's Peace a Part of Your Life
  • Humility: Wellspring of Virtue
  • The Nature of Love (St. Augustine´s Press. 2010)

External links[edit]