A Woman of Holy Influence: Alice von Hildebrand, philosopher-theologian, knighted by Francis

In my book, Blessed, Beautiful, and Bodacious, as in my podcast, Among Women, I often discuss what it means to be a woman of holy influence. And what the end game really is: making a difference in the culture as spiritual and physical mothers. You cannot get there unless you understand the dignity and the gifts of women in the first place. I quote Alice von Hildebrand’s wisdom in two places in my own book, and at the back of my book I encourage readers to read her short, academic treatise on women: The Priviliege of Being A Woman. (Her other writings are listed here.)

Her life’s work as a professor at New York’s Hunter College for over three decades, and being the keeper of her husband’s philosophical legacy, as well as her own work, Von Hildebrand always kept the dignity of the human person in full view.

John Burger at Aleteia reports:

The aim of education is to cultivate in students a “listening heart,” Cardinal Raymond Burke said in New York this week.

Cardinal Burke invested von Hildebrand as a Dame Grand Cross of the Pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great, an honor Pope Francis bestowed on her Sept. 19. The investiture took place during a dinner at a club in midtown Manhattan. The affair marked von Hildebrand’s 90th birthday and was held by the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project, which seeks to disseminate the work of the German Catholic philosopher of the same name.

Cardinal Burke, prefect of the Vatican Signatura – the highest judicial body in the Church – said in a keynote address that both Dietrich von Hildebrand, a professor at Fordham University, and his wife… faithfully carried out the role of Catholic educators in engendering in students the “listening heart” that leads one to the fullness of truth in the Catholic faith.

“So often today, we find individual Catholics as well as Catholic endeavors and institutions in the state of some confusion or even error about their Catholic identity,” he said. “In particular, a notion of tolerance of ways of thinking and acting contrary to Catholic teaching and morals seemingly has become the interpretative key of many of our Catholic activities. This notion is not securely grounded in the moral tradition, but it tends to dominate our approach to the extent that we end up claiming to be Catholic while tolerating ways of thinking and acting which are diametrically opposed to the moral law and therefore to the Catholic faith.” Such a relativistic approach is illogical, he said.

The piece also noted Von Hildebrand’s love of students, and the moral leadership she offered to students from every walk of life…

The cardinal said that Alice von Hildebrand “tirelessly gives witness to the truth of the faith through the witness of her life and through her speaking and writing. … So many students were drawn to Christ and assisted in receiving faith in him who alone is our salvation. She truly loved her students, and therefore wanted them to know the truth and its living source in God.”

Alice von Hildebrand has said that she never sought to proselytize her students, but that simply teaching that there is an objective truth that can be known led many to the Catholic faith.

One of her former students, journalist Stephanie Block, herself a convert, said that von Hildebrand was often under fire at Hunter, part of the City University of New York system, for her adherence to objective truth.

“Why would someone remain in such an environment?” Block asked, answering with a quote from her former teacher’s memoirs: “I was convinced I was doing meaningful work and was equipped to address every possible nationality, every possible philosophical outlook and every sort of background, particularly the humble and problematic circumstances typical of Hunter College students.”

“There’s a whole passel of former students who are her godchildren, and for every one of them dozens of others, if not hundreds who owed so much to her intellectually and spiritually,” Block continued. “Her wit and generosity were the sugar that made the medicine go down. The medicine was the truth, the salubrious truth that was her gift to us in a world that was so stingy about it.”

Author Genevieve Kineke, blogger at the Feminine Genius, and a recent Among Women guest, chimes in on Von Hildebrand’s efforts being honored.

Consider the spiritual motherhood at work in that very classroom, and how her active and listening heart won over so many souls to the truth. Truth and beauty speak a language of dignity and consistency, which must have been present even in the indifferent halls of Hunter College. Her integrity of character is tremendously inspiring, showing us that there is no setting where maternal wisdom cannot shine.

While Pope Francis seems to think that we need a new “theology of women,” it seems that the theology surrounding the truth of God is sufficient to form young men and women–even today. Dame Alice always sensed that, and used her classroom as a “seat of wisdom.”

Burger reports that Von Hildebrand poignantly offered deep gratitude to the many important people in her life as she marked the occasion. Indeed, the fire of a Christian’s soul is fanned by grace and good company.

“My husband said toward the end of his life, ‘Love and friendship are remnants of the earthly paradise.’ In this vale of tears, when we encounter so many difficulties, to have people you can call friends is such a joy, such a comfort, such a gift,” von Hildebrand said. “We are meant to be united by a bond of love. Friendship implies that you have a clear vision of what the other person is called to be. You see that person with imperfections but you are willing to forget that.”

Read the whole report at Aleteia.

I found an interview with Alice von Hildebrand archived at Catholic Answers, and one more recent at Blog Radio. 

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