From the 1998 Inside the Vatican Special Supplement on Humanae Vitae

The Church has the Truth

An Interview with Alice von Hildebrand

by John Mallon

Dr. Alice von Hildebrand is professor emeritus of philosophy of Hunter College, (City University of New York) where she taught for 37 years.  Since her retirement she has been speaking and writing, almost constantly, largely spreading the legacy of her late husband Dietrich von Hildebrand. Dietrich von Hildebrand is one of the giants of Catholic thought in the 20th century, and was called "a 20th century doctor of the Church" by Pope Pius XII. He is especially remembered for his rich legacy of writings on Catholic marriage, and for foreseeing the modern crisis in the Church before many others. In the nine years before his death in 1977 he was a fierce defender of Humanae Vitae, as Mrs. von Hildebrand explains. 


John Mallon: Dr. von Hildebrand, your husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand, was a kind of prophet in the Church, and foresaw many dangers coming. He was speaking about the dangers and the evils of artificial birth control well ahead of his time, before many other people were. 

Alice von Hildebrand: You know, that in order to answer your question, I have to go way back in history. My husband was born and raised by very good people that were basically pagans — noble pagans. Very cultivated, very kind, extremely warm-hearted, but they had no religion to speak of. Officially they were Protestant, but they never practiced. And, surprisingly enough, ever since he was a young child, he was convinced of the divinity of Christ. That came as a sheer grace. And he had a very, very keen moral sense. Once he had quite a fight with his older sister, who was thirteen years older than he was, because she was a moral relativist, and he stood up at the age of thirteen for the objectivity of moral values. I mean, that was given to him as a grace. 

He got married very young, and already started to get interested in the Catholic Church, after entering the university, and meeting Max Scheler, who was a fallen-away Catholic, but, simultaneously, someone who still was convinced that the Church possessed the fullness of revealed truth. One day Max Scheler said to him, "The Church has the fullness of truth." And my husband was absolutely amazed. Born and raised in Italy as he was, he had never met a practicing Roman Catholic, a convinced Roman Catholic, and he said, "What do you mean, the Church has the truth?" He said, "Yes, She produces saints." and that was overwhelming for my husband. Professor Scheler explained the nature of sanctity and holiness, and then my husband read the life of St. Francis of Assisi as one of his ways to conversion. 

As I said, he married very young, and his interest in Catholicism increased as did that of his wife. Both of them were moving in this direction, and they started to take instructions in 1914. The Franciscan priest who was instructing them (they had been married a couple of years) said, "Do you realize that artificial birth control is prohibited by the Church?" And my husband, who had, as I have told you, a very keen moral sense was amazed. He said, "How can this be immoral? We are not murdering anybody, just preventing something from taking place." And the very good priest answered very calmly and said, "Now, look, either you accept the teaching of the Church in its fullness, or I'm not going to take you into the Church." And my husband gave a beautiful response of faith. He said, "Credo ut intelligam: I believe, in order to understand." And surprisingly enough, he said, within days, or weeks, he had such keen insights into the immorality of artificial birth control, that from that moment on, he became its champion. 

In 1930, there was the famous Lambeth conference in England, and for the first time, a delegation of Protestant ministers certainly accepted artificial birth control as being a valid possibility. My husband was the first Roman Catholic to write an article, a devastating article, criticizing the Lambeth decision. That was number one, in 1930. And then, of course he continued to fight for it, but it was not so very much in the forefront until after Vatican II. After Vatican II, as you know, there was an explosion of crisis in the Church. It was breaking all over, the dikes were breaking, as he said to Paul VI.


Then in July 1968, Humanae Vitae was written by the Pope and was fiercely attacked by the media, and fiercely attacked by hundreds of Catholic theologians. It was published in July of 1968, and early in August, my husband wrote a little book called Humanae Vitae: A Sign of Contradiction, in which he stakes a very strong defense of the position of the Pope, showing the immorality of birth control. 

One of his basic ideas, which is something that he expressed in his book on marriage,  published in the twenties, is that marriage has a meaning and a purpose. He makes a distinction between the two. Usually in Catholic theology it was that marriage has a purpose which is procreation. My husband says it also has a meaning independent of procreation; because, for example, suppose that you are a widower, and then you meet a lovely widow, and both of you are over fifty, and you know that you can no longer have children, nevertheless, the marriage is a sacrament. The marriage is blessed by the Church, even though there is no more physical possibility of having a child. 

So he said the meaning of marriage is a communion of love, the purpose of marriage is procreation. He shows that there is such a profound link between the two, that to sever the link is to cripple love. That is what you are actually doing, because love is fertile, and love fecundates, and love flows over, and if you cut this bond, what you are actually doing is harming the relationship — to cut it is to harm your own relationship to your spouse. Therefore these two things belong essentially together. 

Anyway, he wrote this little book. First it was a lecture he gave in Germany and then it was published as a book. (Die Ehe, 1923, now in print in English as Marriage: the Mystery of Faithful Love; Sophia Institute Press, Manchester, NH, USA.) He published the book after having discussed the whole thing with Pius XII, who was not the Pope at the time, but was the Papal Nuncio in Germany. He expounded these ideas and he said, "Your Eminence, I don't want to publish this unless I have your approval." and Nuncio Pacelli was enthusiastic about it and it was published. 

It was severely criticized at times by people who said, "What! He's introducing the notion of love in marriage, and what he's also doing is opening the door to all sorts of diversions!" But in fact, what he was doing was showing the profound link existing between the spousal union, and the union of love, which fecundates, and if you cut this link, you're actually harming your own marriage. 

In 1968, after the publication of Humanae Vitae, he was the first Catholic thinker to defend the Pope. Shortly afterwards, he received an award from the Vatican, the Order of St. Gregory, or something of the sort, you see, because he stood up and immediately said the teaching of Paul VI is absolutely valid and is binding for all Roman Catholics, and he gave arguments, which to my mind are very powerful and very convincing. So, that is a background of my husband's relationship to artificial contraception. 

This year in the United States we commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion, as well as the thirtieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae. It took only five years for Pope Paul VI's dire predictions to come true. Now we live in the results of ignored prophecy. From your perspective, where do we stand now?

I am sorry to say that morally speaking, we are very, very badly off. Because, once again, let me quote my husband. He had a particular devotion and love for Pius X. Pius X was Pope before my husband became Roman Catholic, and he was the one who condemned modernism, in the most outspoken terms. He was so clear-sighted, and he saw the tremendous danger that it constituted for the Church, because, what is modernism, basically? It is the elimination of the supernatural. You know, to fall back on a naturalistic, secularistic basis, and say, "Man will find his fulfillment in so-doing and the supernatural is a burden that we do not want. We want to reject it and eliminate it." 

Basically what happened is that Pope Pius X saw this and reinstated the crucial value of the supernatural, which is the backbone of Catholic teaching. Catholic teaching stands or falls with the acceptance of supernatural teaching — and of course with the supernatural life, which is partaking in God's very life. Anyway, Modernism was condemned, but my husband said — and I believe he was absolutely right — the modernists then realized there was nothing that they could do at that moment, so they went underground. Very quietly, but very systematically, they started sapping certain basic fundamental dogmas, and moral teachings of the Church, for example, by raising questions. I don't quite see why. To me, they were not convincing. But if you sow doubt, in no time, you're going to have a tempest. What happened after Vatican II was that these evil forces were remarkably well organized, and had penetrated into many levels of society, particularly among the clergy and the nuns, and all of a sudden the whole thing exploded. 

And the so-called orthodox, traditional Catholics — like the Apostles when Christ was sweating blood in Gethsemane — were sound asleep, and never realized there was any sort of danger. If you read the statistics before Vatican II, it was very obvious that there were an enormous amount of conversions, and the Church was getting to be more and more powerful, and many of us had a feeling of security, which was totally unwarranted. 

So, at the beginning of Vatican II this modernism came in such force that people were sort of stunned. And it was only in the last session of the Council that they sort of were reorganized, and put up barriers, and started objecting to certain radical changes that these people wanted to bring about. They did not succeed. But if you hear them speak today, they say, "Well, we are waiting until Vatican III. That will finally give us what we have a right to expect." namely changes in the Church." 

Now, it was Pius X who said, "We should not adapt the Church to our lives. We should adapt our lives to the teaching of the Church." And so, today, because the dikes are breaking, the situation is one of people coming out of the closet with all their objections. They control the news media and they have been extremely efficient. As it is said in Don Quixote, "The devil never sleeps." And usually, good people are sound asleep. You see that again and again and again in the history of the Gospel. We don't realize that the Church desperately needs alert and awake Catholics. We sit back and think and say, "the Church, my mother, the Church will take care of me," but now today, there's a call for each and every lay person, to stand up and to defend the truth.  

You find the same thing in sex education. It is overwhelming. Before parents sort of woke up to the danger and said, "We don't want it!" many thousands and maybe millions of children have been perverted, because they've been told about things that they should not do in the first place. The same thing happened with catechesis. We're wishy-washy and eliminating the supernatural. I recall a nun that I met after Vatican II. As a matter of fact, she wrote a catechism, I believe. She was speaking about the meeting of Jesus with Martha and Mary, where Martha says, "But my Lord, tell my sister to help me. I'm doing all the work and she's just sitting at your feet." And Christ answers, "She has chosen the best part. It will not be taken away from her" meaning that the contemplative life is much higher than the active life. The comment of this nun was, basically, what our Lord was saying was, "My dear, don't worry, just do your best," which is, once again, a total elimination of the supernatural. And this is what has happened today. Many Catholics do not realize that they're looking at the world, they're looking at human progress, they're looking at marriage, they're looking at their relationship to the Church with purely secularistic eyes, and therefore the end result is basically a destruction of what Catholicism stands for. Do you have any other question, John?

Well, wasn't it your husband's insight on the aspect of unity being the meaning of marriage, while the procreative aspect was the purpose of marriage that pretty much revolutionized, or gave a deeper expression to, the Catholic teaching on marriage?

There is no doubt that he has had a tremendous influence, because you see, married love was not mentioned, because many people made the tremendous mistake of assuming that if you say "love," you mean "lust." And one of the basic ideas of my husband, was the distinction between natural love — which is a love of a husband for wife, of parents for children, of friend for friend, or sibling for sibling — as opposed to supernatural love, which is a love of God and the love of neighbor. One of his basic ideas is that we forget that every natural love is a crippled love unless it is transformed in Christ. Therefore you cannot simply say, "My love for my husband is a natural love, and therefore it has to remain in natural categories." He says, no, it has to be transformed in Christ, and become supernatural. You see, one of his basic and beautiful ideas, which has always impressed me very deeply, is where he says, "Every purely natural love is tragic." Because love longs for infinity, longs for perfection, longs for eternity, and we can't reach it on our own. It is only by partaking in Christ's love for the beloved that you reach this. And, therefore, marriage is not to be excluded. You can truly say that marriage is particularly called upon to be spiritualized by supernatural life. 

In his book, The Heart, he stressed the importance of affectivity...

You know, this is a book which is particularly dear to my heart, and which to my great sorrow, is out of print, and I haven't found anybody, as yet, interested in reprinting it. I mean, it's a source of sorrow because to my mind, it is a masterpiece and it is of extreme importance. There is a certain puritanical tendency among some Roman Catholics that say, "Beware of feelings. Feeling are dangerous. Feelings are going to mislead you." In that particular book, my husband shows that indeed, feelings can be very dangerous — when they're subjectivistic, when they're sentimental, when they're self-centered, but the most beautiful things in human life are spiritualized feelings. I mean, if you take the feeling — the burning feeling — of love that St. Teresa of Avila had for Christ, or you take the burning feeling of sorrow that St. Peter had when he betrayed Christ — these are the most noble feelings. They are spiritualized, they're meaningful, they're magnificent. 

St. Paul says about the Greeks, "these people are cursed because they have no love." And it is in the first Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter thirteen, that he places love above everything else. But this is definitely a feeling, but a feeling that must be rooted in values, and a feeling that must be totally confirmed by the will. You see, if your will does not, so to speak, confirm the validity of your feelings, they seem to come and go. This is why if you take the marriage vow, you know you love your fiancée, and then all of the sudden you say solemnly that you promise that you're going to remain faithful to this love. In other words, your will comes in and confirms, or gives full validity to your feelings. 

So, in that sense, the insight is that artificial contraception, in effect, truncates the possibility of fulfillment of our deepest human longings. 

It is an offense of God, and as a punishment, it is also harming the relationship between the spouses. They cheat each other, because in this very moment, instead of accepting the beautiful fecundity that love has, they cut it off. But first and foremost, it is an offense of God. And secondarily, it is a punishment, it is going to harm the relationship between husband and wife. This is why those who practice artificial birth control have a much better chance of having a divorce than people who do not. 

So, it places an obstacle in the way of affectivity by cutting off the unitive from the procreative aspect. 


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