Alice von Hildebrand: Humble Giant of ‘Authentic Femininity’
Alice von Hildebrand (1923-2022) left an incredible Catholic intellectual and spiritual legacy that promoted the privileged dignity of women and motherhood.
As a young woman in her 20s, Ronda Chervin was an atheist philosophy student, and contemplating taking her life, until by Providence’s design she encountered philosopher Alice von Hildebrand.
“I was in despair and ready to kill myself because I couldn’t find truth or love in philosophy or life,” Chervin told the Register. It was near the cusp of the 1960s, and it just so happened that Chervin’s mother turned on the television to the Catholic Hour program where Alice and her husband, the famed 20th-century philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, were “talking about truth and love.” Right there and then, Chervin wrote Alice von Hildebrand a letter.
“I’m a philosophy student, and I’ve been looking for truth and love, and you seem to know where it is,” she said. “Can you help me?”
Their meeting would transform Chervin’s life. As she told friends afterwards, “I’ve just been in the presence of a saint.”
On Jan. 14, 2022, at the age of 98, Alice von Hildebrand died: A humble and powerful intellectual giant in her own right, she also left a powerful legacy testifying to the glory of being a woman and being a mother.
Although she never had any children of her own, Alice von Hildebrand inspired generations of Catholic women like Chervin, as well as Catholic men, and changed their lives with her wisdom, her personal witness and her love.
“She would always look right at you into your eyes when she would speak,” Chervin recalled. “Most people don’t do that. I could just see the depth of her soul in her eyes. … The loving look in her eyes when she would look at me: It’s just an incredible loving look.”
Von Hildebrand, who taught at Hunter College in New York, would become Chervin’s mentor — critical at a time when not many women were philosophy teachers, let alone philosophers. Chervin herself would study under Dietrich von Hildebrand and go on to become a philosophy professor, as well as a wife and mother, and the author of 60 books.
Even though von Hildebrand did not speak about the faith in her classroom, her teaching about objective truth from the standpoint of philosophy — not religion — led many students into the Catholic faith.
“She taught many people truths of philosophy, and that led them to explore the truths of religion,” explained Father Gerald Murray, pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City and longtime friend.
“She was someone for whom the Catholic Church was the entire subject of her interest. And she wanted to promote the faith whatever way she could,” he said. “She’s one of those outstanding female figures of Catholic life in the U.S. in the 20th century.”
Refugee From the Nazis
Born Alice Marie Jourdain in Belgium to a Catholic family, her life in her homeland was upended when Nazi Germany invaded her country. They fled first to France and then to New York — a passage fraught with terror at the interception by a German U-boat, which made her reflect intensely on God’s mercy and goodness in her life.
According to the Hildebrand Project, the turning point of Alice’s life would be encountering her future husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977), already a renowned German philosopher and refugee who publicly opposed and escaped the Nazis, at a lecture on his work Transformation in Christ in 1942. She became his student, secretary and a lifelong promoter of his intellectual work. She became a professor of philosophy herself at Hunter College (after, according to her own accounts, being denied positions at Catholic institutions that did not at the time employ women philosophers). Alice married Dietrich in 1959, two years after the death of his first wife of 45 years, Margarete.
The pair would have less than two decades together before Dietrich’s passing in 1977.
John Henry Crosby, president and founder of the Hildebrand Project, which is entrusted with the intellectual legacy of Dietrich and Alice von Hildebrand, told the Register that “anyone who knew or heard Lily [as she was known by close friends] knows, she loved her husband, Dietrich, with a profound and powerful love.”
“Lily spoke of her husband as a ‘Knight for Truth,’” Crosby said, noting the later decades of her life would be spent publishing her husband’s works into English and promoting them — a task she entrusted to the Hildebrand Project in 2015.
“They were both original philosophers who made real philosophical progress, but they saw themselves only as servants of the truth,” Crosby said.
The Privilege of Being a Woman
Crosby said Alice von Hildebrand is known “both as a feminist and an anti-feminist,” explaining she took a position between the “‘angry’ feminism” at one side and the “‘polite, demure’ anti-feminism” at the other. A feminism that sought to be simply “equal” to men was not enough for von Hildebrand, who thought it actually “obscures the special brilliance of woman and the beauty of the complementarity in which God created men and women.”
“Her feminism offered a dramatically different vision of woman, one that was not less empowered than popular feminism, but more — this ‘power’ was specifically feminine power,” he said. “It was empathetic and receptive and nurturing, but not any less intellectually or culturally rich.”
Crosby said reading Alice von Hildebrand’s perhaps-best-known work, The Privilege of Being a Woman, “is to step into the world of Shakespeare, Dante, Plato and St. Augustine.”
Amy Stout, who teaches theology at John Paul the Great Academy in Lafayette, Louisiana, told the Register that von Hildebrand inspired her as a young woman in her 20s when she met her in person nearly two decades ago.
“It was such an opportunity to be close to this really phenomenal thinker,” she said.
Stout, who studied at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C., said her two favorite books were The Privilege of Being a Woman and Letters to a Young Bride. However, she brought a copy of one of the volumes of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Transformation in Christ for Alice to sign.
In the course of their meeting, she asked Alice about the greatest lesson she learned from her husband.
“She just pointed to the title, Humility, and just smiled. That was what he had taught her,” she said.
“I am sure I asked her other questions, but I was always impressed with her candor, how she spoke with confidence but also gentleness.”
Stout, a great admirer of St. John Paul II, said that Alice von Hildebrand’s teaching on femininity and motherhood helped her see the beauty of the vocation of marriage and motherhood and the gifts women bring to the Church.
“She was really great about articulating that every woman, no matter what her vocation is in this life, is called to be a mother — whether it is spiritually, psychologically, physically, and it could be all three or some combination of them,” she said.
“Her work on what it means to be a woman was always really profound to me,” she said. “She could give some new insights into that at a time not many people seemed to be doing that.”
Millions of Catholics in the U.S. came to know Alice von Hildebrand thanks to Mother Angelica, who invited her to teach the friars at the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word’s House of Studies and brought her onto EWTN’s programs. In total, von Hildebrand would make some 80 appearances on EWTN over her lifetime.
“They were kindred spirits, in the sense of loving their Church and loving their faith. They were both people with a strong will, but, at the same time, incredible gentleness,” Doug Keck, president and chief operating officer of EWTN Global Catholic Network, told the Register, which is a division of EWTN News. He interviewed von Hildebrand many times over the years, getting to know her personally.
Keck added that Mother Angelica’s invitation for von Hildebrand to teach the friars in the ’90s also “shows how much Mother’s faith in her perspective was there.”
He added that von Hildebrand was “a lot of fun at the same time.”
“That’s why Mother Angelica got along with her, too, because [Alice] had a sense of humor,” Keck said. “And Mother likes saints with a sense of humor.”
“I’ll leave it up to the Church, but in my mind, Alice von Hildebrand was a saint.”
A longtime friend of Alice von Hildebrand, Cardinal Raymond Burke recalled her as a “person of extraordinary intellect and cultural refinement who, at the same time, had a childlike faith, in the highest sense of the word.”
But the cardinal made clear that a deep, living relationship with Jesus Christ animated von Hildebrand in every dimension of her life, including as a philosopher, enthralled with the philosophy of God.
“It was clear that she lived daily an intense relationship with Our Lord in the Church,” he told the Register. “The depth of her philosophical and theological knowledge found its consummation in an intense life of faith.”
Cardinal Burke also made clear that von Hildebrand’s “keen sense of [the] feminine and maternal identity” is relevant today.
“In the present time, marked by so much confusion about our identity as male and female, she frequently spoke and wrote about the gift of being a woman,” he said.
“She spoke the truth clearly and firmly and with deep love,” he said. “I am certain that Alice von Hildebrand will continue to exercise her spiritual maternity on behalf of all who strive to live a good and holy life, especially on behalf of young women.”
Spiritual Mother to Priests
Priests who knew von Hildebrand also told the Register that she had a tremendous impact on them and their priesthood.
Father Paul Check, executive director of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin, told the Register that as a young priest he organized a series of talks at an Irish bar, and von Hildebrand came to speak about The Privilege of Being a Woman.
“She enchanted and edified the audience,” he said.
They stayed in touch, and Father Check said his own mother formed a close bond with her.
“Lily would speak with her about the blessing of being the mother of a priest. And this was something that, of course, was wonderful for my mother to hear,” he said.
“She was a spiritual mother to many, including me, and my mother, and the bond that they formed over the priesthood.”
Father Murray told the Register that his family were members of the same parish in New Rochelle, New York. Growing up, he remembered seeing them at Sunday and daily Mass and was impressed by how “at home” she seemed in church.
When Father Murray became a priest, he really got to know her.
“She was a totally dedicated Catholic who eloquently defended the faith and took a great interest in promoting the spiritual life,” he said. He recalled how prescient von Hildebrand could be.
Long before Benedict XVI coined the “dictatorship of relativism,” he recalled von Hildebrand discussing with him relativism and how the “loss of truly Catholic understanding of philosophy and theology affecting seminaries and college” would harm the Church.
The promotion of reverence in Catholic worship was dear to her, as well.
“She was an ardent promoter of the traditional Latin Mass and for the reverential celebration of the Holy Mass in the extraordinary and ordinary form,” he said.
However, even with the difficulties in the Church, Father Murray said von Hildebrand “took the supernatural view that God is in charge, and we just have to pay more attention to the signs of his providence.”
Alice von Hildebrand is to be laid to rest on Jan. 22, after her funeral Mass at the Church of the Holy Family in New Rochelle, New York. Father Murray is the scheduled celebrant and homilist for her funeral Mass.
Crosby, of the Hildebrand Project, said Alice von Hildebrand’s pioneering work in “authentic femininity” has just begun.
“This struggle within our culture to reclaim and celebrate the beauty and dignity of women is far, far from over,” he said. “We can carry that forward by living that truth in our lives, being the best women we can be and by being the best men we can be.”