Why Seek Objective Truth? Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Message to Postconciliar Catholics

When I entered the seminary a few years ago, I was browsing in a Catholic bookstore with a newly ordained priest. He saw an old book I was perusing and warned me severely: “You really shouldn’t read any book on theology written before Vatican II. It could be dangerous.” As we returned to the car, I, confused but prudent, quickly threw a jacket over my copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions. Dangerous indeed. Over the years since then, I have pondered, as have many young Catholics, the diversity of belief which regularly confronts us today.

Some observers attribute this conflict to a “healthy” difference of perspective among believers. If this were true, it is difficult to reconcile with the degeneration of spiritually vital conversations about revealed doctrine into the catch-phrases of the relativist: “Let’s agree to disagree,” or “I’m really just not comfortable with that.” Such might be a sufficient settlement to an argument about night games for the Cubs, but it is surely no way for Catholics to conclude their discussions about papal infallibility or the Real Presence.

Others attribute these divisions to a generation gap between the traditionalists and the baby-boomers which will blow over once the older Catholics die out. This premise and solution are challenged by the peculiar revival of conservatism among seminarians and other young Catholics who never experienced the preconciliar Church and who, if the generational view is correct, should instead embrace the spirit of postconciliar progressivism.

A number of young people are unsure about how to interpret the present polarization, and will not be comforted by superficial explanations. Not knowing which camp to turn to for spiritual guidance, they may lose courage. Herein the real danger lies. Caught in a cross-fire between “rigid, legalistic” conservatives and “touchy-feely” liberals, the naive and well-intentioned young Catholic may be deterred from greater involvement in his faith because he is baffled by this extreme diversity of belief. The differences of belief between so-called “educated Catholics” may seem too great to reconcile reasonably, too reminiscent of Protestant majoritarianism and schism.

The great theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand has argued that these divisions are not a result of mere intergenerational conflict or even the friction of clashing personalities. The divisions instead revolve around, but rarely address, the true schism: the acceptance or denial of the relativism of Truth and the consequences thereof for Christian belief.

The philosophical basis of these problems must be addressed now because the fidelity of many young Catholics is at stake and will be resolved only within the realm of ideas. The new generation of educated Catholics cannot remain firm in the faith without access to a carefully articulated presentation of Christian belief that takes into account the origin of the influential ideas of our time. Incredibly, the Catholic intellectual rebirth earlier in the twentieth century is almost unknown to my generation. Names such as von Balthasar, Dawson, von Hildebrand, Gilson, de Lubac, and Maritain have often been replaced by contemporary writers who simply assume a postconciliar framework and who do not attempt to establish a continuity with orthodox Church teaching, as their great predecessors did.

I do not mean to imply that any work published after the Council is not useful — far from it. What I do suggest is that these earlier writers were instrumental in presenting a common Catholic culture and could again enlighten us Council children who so badly need it. Their wisdom is a resource to those of us unfamiliar with the context of ideas that have configured the modern Church and culture. They analyzed the intellectual and secular trends that shaped this restless century and that had such an important effect on our Upbringing as Catholics. Several of them lived through the postconciliar years and have addressed the incongruities in implementation of the proposed reforms.


The Objectivity of Truth

Among those who contributed to this analysis, Dietrich von Hildebrand presented a philosophical context for a re-appreciation of objective truth and for the formation of the true Christian personality —work which will help young Catholics understand the Church’s current situation. Von Hildebrand’s writings encompass a broad range of interests, including metaphysics, political philosophy, theology, spirituality, and liturgy. His characteristic theme was that of the primacy of objective truth against the secular trends undermining the integrity of objective truth in the pursuit of relativism. Von Hildebrand’s early philosophical works explicated this metaphysics of objective value and its ethical implications for man, and his later criticism highlighted the pitfalls of secularization as it affected the postconciliar Church. Trojan Horse in the City of God, The Devastated Vineyard, and other books and articles remarked the decline of faith among former believers — indeed, he would assert that secular relativism could only thrive in an atmosphere where faith had become contingent. He was one of the few Catholic intellectuals to defend Humanae Vitae, in which he emphasized the mystery of spousal love.

Von Hildebrand’s philosophical insights were rooted in his upbringing, the developments of his time, but most of all in his embrace of Catholicism. He was born in Florence in 1889 and spent his childhood zestfully savoring this city of art, as well as the surrounding Tuscan countryside. His father, Aldolpho, was a celebrated German sculptor whose home provided a meeting place for the cream of European intellectuals, artists, and musicians. Here von Hildebrand developed the passionate love for music and art evident even in his shortest works.

At the age of 17 von Hildebrand began his formal study of philosophy, later earning his doctorate from the University of Goettingen. Max Scheler, the renowned German phenomenologist, was an early teacher who, despite being a lapsed Catholic, first engaged von Hildebrand with the beliefs of the Church. The saints of history fascinated von Hildebrand, and he came to believe that only a church capable of producing a saint of the caliber of Saint Francis could lay claim to be the true Church of Christ. He was baptized in 1914 and in 1924 assumed a teaching professorship at the University of Munich. During his tenure there he and the future Pope Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli, then papal nuncio to Germany, became friends. Pius XII later was to refer to him as “a twentieth-century Doctor of the Church.”

During the infancy of the National Socialist movement, von Hildebrand wrote Metaphysics of Community, a criticism of totalitarianism that aroused the suspicions of Hitler. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, von Hildebrand fled to Italy. Owing to support of the Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss, von Hildebrand was able to take a teaching position at the University of Vienna. Here he founded the anti-Nazi newspaper Christliche Standestat to fight the popular support for Hitler in Austria. He thereby became a prime target for execution by the Gestapo. Equipped with his coat, hat, and walking stick, he barely escaped on the last train to Czechoslovakia, hours before Gestapo officers arrived at his home.

The following years were an exhausting odyssey through Switzerland, France, Portugal, and Brazil, where von Hildebrand continued to teach and write. During these periods he completed his classic work of spirituality, Transformation in Christ. Through the intervention of Jacques Maritain he secured a ticket to New York, where he was offered a teaching position at Fordham University. Making America his home, he worked with his characteristic intensity, teaching and writing about a myriad of philosophical and spiritual topics. Eighteen of these works were eventually to be published in English. Von Hildebrand died in New Rochelle in 1977, survived by his widow Alice, herself a philosopher and teacher, who now devotes her time to promoting and expanding her husband’s work. 

Divine Origins

The growth of relativism in this century has created a fundamental challenge to Christian belief. Basic convictions as to the objectivity of values and the reality of Good and Evil that were held for centuries were called into question on a popular level. Von Hildebrand sought to reaffirm the verity of objective value to students of our time, thus preserving a necessary context for religious belief.

In contrast with proponents of relativism, von Hildebrand emphasized that the divine origin of values establishes their objectivity:

All values — goodness, beauty, the mystery of life, the noble light of truth … are rays which radiate from God’s being, Who is all holiness. Whatever is good and beautiful, all that possesses a value, is a reflection of His eternal light and imitates God according to His own fashion. Values are not only like dew falling from heaven, but also like incense rising to God; each value, in itself, addresses to God a specific word of glorification. A being, in praising God, praises Him through its value, through that inner preciousness which marks it as having been drawn out of the indifferent. [Liturgy and Personality, I, pp. 11-12]

True values demand from us an appropriate response, not because we gain anything or will be improved, but simply because they are deserving of glorification by free creatures. If we seek only our own ends we are instead drawn to an egotistical tedium and anomie so characteristic of the affluent society because we have not sought value as an objective good.

The egotistic type is in a tragic situation, for he will never achieve his own fullness of values which he seeks, demands, and wants to enjoy. The more he demands, the less he will obtain. [Liturgy and Personality, VI, p. 68]

Free creatures, responding to objective values, are being transformed and glorifying God in the same action. Our response to the greatness and bounty of God, revealed in true values, lifts us beyond ourselves, even beyond our interest in our own transformation. Our formation by values leads to the sanctity that von Hildebrand calls “true personality.”

The way to true personality is not through the application of a number of pedagogical rules to our own person, a number of acts which are not accomplished for their own sake but only as a means for a determined aim. What is necessary is the growing into God through value-responses valid in themselves, demanded as such, and not intended as means. [Liturgy and Personality, X, p. 155]

In contrast, the egocentrism encouraged by secular values is the counterfeit currency of the spiritual economy. Though the path to true personality demands the denial of self, this does not mean that it is simply an exercise of intellect and will. Von Hildebrand debunks the false rivalry between “intellectual Catholics” and “compassionate Catholics,” and the perceived distinction between central Church teaching and the “pastoral response.” He acknowledges that modern philosophy has discounted the affective sphere, calling it a drastic example of the dangers of abstractionism, “the danger of constructing theories about reality without consulting reality.” As reflected in the devotion of the Church to the Sacred Heart, Christ is the model of the transformed affectivity of the Christian.

Should not the fact that it is precisely the heart of Jesus which is the object of a specific devotion, and not his intellect or will, move us toward a deeper understanding of the nature of the heart, and consequently to a revision of the position taken toward the entire affective sphere? [The Sacred Heart, p. 20]

Von Hildebrand adds:

The way to true personality does not lead through the formation of a technique of the will, a decomposition of life into a series of separate, cramped acts, a partitioning of our relations with God into momentary, inorganically linked, quantitatively multiplied little sacrifices, renunciations, appealing glances, and intentions. It does not lead through a petty decomposition of God’s commandments into innumerable rules dominating every situation in life from the inside. The way to true personality leads rather through the opening of oneself in the depths, the exposing of oneself to the sun of God; it means being filled with joy by the glory of God, longing to see and to know oneself in His light, in confrontation with Him…. It means especially the clear understanding that we are impotent to form Christ in our soul by our own efforts, but that the Lord must transform us; that we cannot save our soul by our own power, but only by the power of Christ. It requires prayer for the right thoughts and decisions, prayer for love, grasping the fact that our task is only a free cooperation with grace, letting ourselves be transformed by God. [Liturgy and Personality, X, pp. 154-5]

Von Hildebrand highlighted the many graces the Church offers to protect us from error. In particular, the liturgy immerses us in the totality of Christ’s truth as we pray with Him to the Father. The liturgy is an encounter with Christ that forms our personality in His imitation.

The man formed by the Liturgy will not fall into the exaggeration and isolation of one truth only; he will live from an organic, synoptic vision and the entire plenitude of supernatural truth. [Liturgy and Personality, XI, p. 174]

In opposition to the truth of Christ, the trends and ideologies of the secular world have done much to cramp, distort, and destroy the supernatural vision of the Christian. Von Hildebrand believed the greatest error is the myth of the “modern man.” Particular contemporary interpretations of the “spirit” of the Council gave rise to a full-scale incorporation of secular values in an attempt to accommodate this so-called “modern man.” But man’s essential composition and metaphysical situation does not change. His vocation to perfection and sanctity is a struggle that transcends the progress and technology of the world.

Man always remains the same in his essential structure, in his destiny, in his potentialities, in his desires and moral dangers; and this is true notwithstanding all the changes that take place in the external conditions of his life. There is and has been one essential historical change in the metaphysical and moral situation of man: the advent of Christ — the salvation of mankind and reconciliation with God through Christ’s death on the Cross. [Trojan Horse in the City of God, XVII, p. 1321

This is an important proposition against the iconoclasts who encourage the young to ignore tradition or the wisdom of earlier saints. We enjoy no moral privilege because we live in the age of computers, Velcro, and liposuction. Indeed, the man who places primary trust in a secular appreciation of science and technology necessarily lacks a primary assent of faith.


The Scandalous Christ

The notion that the improved “modern man” reduces God’s relevance marks the end of religion. To the believer, Christ alone is the focal point of history and culture. What affected von Hildebrand most of all in the years following the Council was the crisis of faith among lay Catholics and the clergy, linked to the growing secularization which he criticized consistently long before the Council. Christ is not just a “jolly good fellow,” but a challenge. Further, the Church is not “our Church,” but “His Church.”

Christ cannot but be a scandal for the world in all epochs of history, because of the essential antagonism that exists between the spirit of Christ and the spirit of the world. True renewal of the Church, as Urs von Balthasar points out, consists in eliminating what is false in the Church — unchristian scandals — in order to throw into relief the true scandal of the Church that is rooted in Her very mission. [Trojan Horse in the City of God, p. 222]

Simply to explain the progressive rashness of the postconciliar years in terms of an inevitable and uncontrollable revolution against the rigidity of the 1950s, without recognizing the signs of profound renewal present long before the Council, is clearly dishonest — a form of historical revisionism. Nevertheless, this revolutionary interpretation of a Church they never knew is the view presented to young Catholics today. Study of the ideas which have shaped this century, presented systematically by teachers such as von Hildebrand, should help my generation to interpret present divisions, to distinguish truth from error, and to grasp the truth of Christ with His Church. Call it an antidote, call it ammunition, but a clear portrayal of the meaning and historical context of the crisis of the Church is necessary for us Council children to face the future from a secure foundation, liberating the Confessions from beneath the jacket.


  • Mark Williams

    At the time this article was published, Mark Williams was a third-year student studying for the priesthood at the North American College in Rome.

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