Dietrich von Hildebrand: Exemplar of Catholic Intellectual Life

To find a recent exemplar of Catholic intellectual life, one ought to look to the personalist philosopher and cultural critic Dietrich von Hildebrand (12 October 1889 – 26 January 1977). Few have exercised this calling more courageously, faithfully, or with greater integrity. Hildebrand’s intellectual pursuits were anchored in the solid rock of a devout life.

Hildebrand, a convert to the Faith, was born in Florence, Italy. His father was the famous sculptor and art theorist Adolf von Hildebrand, who created the beautiful Wittelsbachfountain in Munich. Growing up between Florence and Munich, the Hildebrands were a nominally Protestant household. The general atmosphere in the home was markedly Kantian, but, as Hildebrand recounts, ethically relativist. Drawn to the Church by the beauty of her liturgy and especially her saints, foremost St Francis of Assisi and St Augustine, Hildebrand entered the Catholic Church in 1914.

Dietrich von HildebrandDuring his long and eventful life, Hildebrand fought with voice and pen for truth and the Catholic faith against enemies without and within, against relativism and skepticism, materialism and nationalism. Hildebrand courageously opposed nationalism and the National-Socialist movement from its early beginnings almost to the point of losing his life; he tried to stop the influx of socialist ideas into Catholic conceptions of marriage and sexuality; he tried to correct the false equivocation of Church and nation and explained the two as substantially distinct communities; he labored to create a European, transnational network of Catholic intellectuals and students for the recognition of a common spiritual identity and to further mutual love for local and national differences; he tried to warn against and correct the abuses, as he saw them, after Vatican Council II. And he famously instructed his wife that anything in his writings contrary to the Church’s teaching was to be destroyed.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Although his heroic opposition to Nazism is well worth retelling, here we will content ourselves with Hildebrand’s earliest spiritual writings and thoughts in the service of the Catholic liturgical and cultural renewal movement in post-World War I Germany and Europe. Hildebrand emphasized that the formation and renewal of Christian culture is the consequence of personal moral and spiritual purification and ultimately of conversion. He warned of the danger that is always present, then and today: to place temporal above eternal goods. This closing in on the world, he thought, is often grounded in the tragic failure to see the supernatural, divine reality in which human beings exist.

Let us “finally remember the one thing, the one end and mission,” wrote Hildebrand in 1921, the one source of healing for human society in all ages: to “follow and imitate Christ.” This, to Hildebrand, meant “to preach Christ the Crucified … to view all things in a supernatural spirit,” and “through humble self-denial to open oneself for the working of the Holy Spirit.” From this principle stemmed his teaching on the prerequisites for spiritual renewal as well as the proper relation between the spiritual life and a renewed Christian culture. Today’s “main danger,” he contended, “the obliteration of the difference between natural and supernatural” reality, the order of nature and the order of grace, “a deadening of one’s vision for the specifically Christian.” Many Catholics saw the world in merely natural and material terms and in their ambition for cultural and scientific equality, a desire inherited from the times of the Kulturkampf, were absorbed with cultural accomplishment, placing temporal above eternal goods. “To be ‘scientific,’ on par with modern science, is the object of all their aspirations and means more to [them] than to be called humble and loyal sons of the Holy Church and be thought fools for Christ’s sake.”

Hildebrand argued that one wholly misunderstands the purpose and activity of the Christian in the world, the nature and end of the spiritual life and the centrality of love if one were to turn the renewal of the spiritual life into a means to salvage the crisis-ridden time, into a means to improve this world. That is to say, personal transformation into another Christ is not desirable because it is the means to improve this world, its state, its culture, and its civilization. The Kingdom of God—here understood as the new interior life of the person transformed by love of Christ—“is an end in itself.” The redeemed person does not improve this world but completely overcomes and transforms it into the “Kingdom that is wholly permeated and governed by the love of Christ.” Hildebrand insisted that “the admirable, natural world has value only to the extent that it leads to the Kingdom of God.” That is not to say that the condition of the world has no relevance for the Christian. Hildebrand readily admitted that the Christian vocation was also to bring the Kingdom of God into the world, to Christianize the world. But, and this was the critical point, not only was the transformation in Christ the one overarching and sovereign end of Christian life, unless one sought to imitate Christ before all else, a genuinely Christian culture would neither flourish nor grow. In other words, in Hildebrand’s mind, a genuinely Catholic culture could not be the primary goal of renewal. Culture was always the consequence of the spiritual disposition of a people, and Christian culture was solely the consequence, the enactment of the Christian ethos. The truly Christian ethos, “the ethos that rests in Christ,” that “victorious love … seeks first the Kingdom of God, and all the rest will be given to it.”

Hildebrand did not tire of emphasizing participation in the Church’s liturgy as the central Christian act in which the “exalted voice of the holy Church” calls man to God and into His Kingdom. In this sense, the liturgy is the direct source of spiritual formation and sanctification. Second to the liturgical celebration, to learn from the example of the saints is the “most powerful weapon against the confusion of nature and super-nature,” “against spiritual sleep and lethargy,” and “the greatest help” in living the Christian life. When we contemplate a saint, Hildebrand wrote, we are offered a “window into heaven” and God “removes for a moment the mantle which keeps from us His realm of supernatural, mysterious glory and sanctity.”

In his long and prolific life, Hildebrand lived the calling of a Catholic intellectual. He set an example. The Catholic intellectual always strives to serve the Church and to call men and women to Christ. With eyes fixed on proclaiming and living the truth, whatever the cost, his good is not the praise of his readers or listeners, but the good of their souls as well as of his own.


  • Denis Kitzinger

    Denis Kitzinger is a Fellow and Dean of Students at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is a student of the history of Christian Europe with a particular interest in the Catholic intellectual tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

With so much happening in the Church right now, we are hard at work drawing out the battle plans so we can keep the faithful informed—but we need to know who we have on our side. Do you stand with Crisis Magazine?

Support the Spring Crisis Campaign today to help us meet our crucial $100,000 goal. All monthly gifts count x 12!

Share to...