Volume > Issue > Briefly: June 2001

June 2001

The Soul of a Lion: Dietrich von Hildebrand — A Biography

By Alice von Hildebrand

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 322

Price: $14.95

Review Author: Ronda Chervin

In 1959 I met one of the greatest Catholic philosophers of the 20th century, Dietrich von Hildebrand, then a professor at Fordham University. At the time I was 21 and he was 70. I was an atheist from a Jewish background, on the verge of despair due to the skepticism and relativism prevalent at the secular universities where I had studied philosophy searching for truth. He was a famous professor and writer, author of such brilliant and influential books as Christian Ethics, a phenomenological analysis of value, and Transformation in Christ, an intricate study of the human attitudes essential in the quest for holiness.

The first thing that struck me on a visit to one of von Hildebrand’s classes was not his wisdom but his personality. I wondered how a man who presumably held to the worst, most superstitious religion in the world, as I understood the Catholic faith to be, could emanate so much joy and love. Impulsively, I risked losing my scholarship at Johns Hopkins Graduate School and transferred to Fordham. Studying philosophy with von Hildebrand and other great professors at Fordham, I was converted within six months not only from skepticism but also from atheism. Grace poured into my soul, enabling me to see that truth was a Person and that He could be found in the Catholic Church.

Throughout many years as student, disciple and friend of both Dietrich von Hildebrand and his wife, Alice, I heard fascinating anecdotes about the lives of my mentors, who came separately to the U.S. during World War II (Dietrich partly through the help of Jacques Maritain). Dietrich was an anti-Nazi activist on Hitler’s hit-list. When I heard that Alice — also a disciple of Dietrich’s and now more famous in some circles than Dietrich because of her appearances on EWTN — was writing a biography, I became excited. I knew that the bare facts and sporadic stories I had heard in the past would now be augmented with Alice’s characteristically sparkling and profound reflections. I was not disappointed.

Dietrich von Hildebrand was born in Florence, Italy, toward the end of the 19th century. He lived part of each year in Munich, Germany, where works of his sculptor father can still be seen. The family loved the arts. Dietrich, the youngest with five older sisters, was brought up surrounded by high European culture, especially in the areas of music and art.

The family, nominally Protestant, was not especially religious. Yet Dietrich was attracted to religion. It was only after years of studying philosophy, particularly under Max Scheler, and getting to know deeply pious Catholics, that in 1914 Dietrich entered the Church. From the beginning he had a burning desire to bring others to his newfound faith. He was in fact the proximate cause of many conversions both in Europe and in the U.S.

The Soul of a Lion provides an interesting picture of life in philosophical circles between the World Wars, including accounts of little known incidents in the lives of Scheler, Edmund Husserl, and Edith Stein. The final chapters describe von Hildebrand’s outraged protests against Nazism, which began early on. The way so many Catholics were willing to give in to pressure is chillingly described and carries unhappy echoes for our times when such anomalies as “pro-choice Catholics” likewise follow the crowd. Von Hildebrand’s heroic spirit reappeared later when he battled the Trojan Horse of dissent that entered the Church through the open doors of Vatican II.

Because I have read everything von Hildebrand wrote in English, it was most revealing to learn from Alice’s book about the roots of his philosophical ideas in his personal life — something a wife is uniquely able to tell about.

Alice shows how the remarkable beauty of the family house and environs in Florence, combined with the imbibing of music and art through the talents of his father and siblings, developed in the budding philosopher a tremendous response to beauty. The array of remarkably lovable personalities in the family circle sensitized Dietrich to what he called “the infinite preciousness of each unique person.” The sense of the importance of beauty and personality was one of the factors in von Hildebrand’s avoidance of the slightest sign of academic pride and pretension. In spite of his prodigious dedication to teaching and writing, Dietrich never put his work above the needs of the person who came to him for counsel or aid.

I hope that Alice will write a sequel to Soul of a Lion, which only takes the reader as far as Dietrich’s arrival in the U.S. during World War II. In the Foreword, Cardinal Ratzinger describes Dietrich as “a man whose life and work have left an indelible mark on the history of the Church in this century.” If you are already an admirer of von Hildebrand, I highly recommend this biography. Likewise, Soul of a Lion is a good introduction to von Hildebrand’s own writings. Many of these writings are available from Sophia Institute Press.

Two Chapels: Newman and the Case for Modern Martyrdom

By Frank Morriss

Publisher: The St. George Press (P.O. Box 460, Grand Marais MI 49839)

Pages: 92

Price: $11.95

Review Author: Elizabeth C. Hanink

Have you recognized that John Henry Cardinal Newman is a pivotal figure in Church history but wonder whether you are quite ready to study him and his writings? Two Chapels might just be the book with which to start. Written after visits to the Keble and Littlemore chapels at Oxford, Morriss uses the pair as a metaphor to explore the contrast between two prominent 19th-century religious leaders.

The first church, Keble, is expansive with massive doors and tinted windows — windows which fail to provide sufficient light, even on a sunny day. The chapel’s namesake, John Keble, was a key player in the Oxford Movement and argued for an apostolic Church of England not dominated by the state. Yet Keble’s vision was limited, for he could not achieve a full understanding of the Real Presence or accept the need for the papacy.

The second sanctuary, Littlemore, is a former stable, small and austere, suffused with brightness and exuding warmth. It exemplifies the love that needs to govern the intellect, and testifies to the obedience with which Newman lived his life after his conversion to Catholicism. He understood that it is the Church herself, not some individually determined belief, that keeps the light of Christ burning.

Newman paid a heavy price for his views. He was disparaged, vilified, and ostracized. Noting this, Morriss raises a provocative question: Does martyrdom require actual death or are those who suffer intensely for the Church, intellectually or emotionally, martyrs as well? The author proposes that Newman, whom the Church calls “venerable,” truly experienced martyrdom in every way except by blood.

Morriss’s argument is intriguing, yet not entirely persuasive — especially given the multitude of believers who, in this past century alone, have paid the ultimate price with their lives. That John Henry Newman endured much for the Faith is, however, beyond dispute. Equally so is the need we have for his wisdom and splendid witness.

The Catholic University as Promise and Project: Reflections in a Jesuit Idiom

By Michael J. Buckley, S.J

Publisher: Georgetown University Press

Pages: 224

Price: $No price given.

Review Author: Jesús Arellano

Buckley offers us reflections on the Catholic university in a “Jesuit idiom.” But in my experience, after four years at a Jesuit university, I can report that most students are illiterate not only in Catholicism, but in any conceivable Jesuit idiom.

For Buckley, theologies blossom in a university setting where discussion occurs without external interference. Buckley maintains that the Church must not limit discussion within the halls of academe — that bishops have an obligation “to teach what is of Catholic faith,” but universities must provide “open discussion” that can lead to disagreement. Unfortunately, Buckley doesn’t seem to realize that the hypotheses of theologians cannot replace the authoritative teachings of the Church.

For example, the author suggests that the late Archbishop Dwyer of Portland should have softened his criticism of the Catholic University of America for its scandalous dissent from Humanae Vitae. But Pope Paul VI did not offer his encyclical as material for debate. Humanae Vitae was not sent from one theologian in Rome to another in Washington for feedback and assistance in finishing the final text.

Even as Pope John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae teaches that the “person and message of Christ” gives the Catholic university its “distinctive character,” the identity of Catholic universities is getting lost in modern society. Some sociologists, such as George Ritzer, are exploring the “McDonaldization” of society. The “rationality” of a fast-food restaurant, with its emphasis on efficiency, predictability, quantity, and technology, now dominates certain Catholic universities.

Buckley does present an alternative to the “McUniversity,” but John Paul II presents a superior alternative in Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Only the Pope’s vision is viable — only the Pope’s will avoid the secularization of the Catholic university (which even Buckley says he opposes).

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