Preserving the Legacy of a Giant 

Preserving the Legacy of a Giant: 

An Interview with John Henry Crosby, Director of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project

By John Mallon

This article  appeared in a condensed version in the January 2008 issue of Messenger of Saint Anthony, of Padua, Italy.  It is published here with their kind permission.

John Henry Crosby comes from a family of philosophers. He and his father, Prof. John F. Crosby, of Franciscan University of Steubenville, are cofounders of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy project. His father and his uncle, Prof. Fritz Wenisch, of the University of Rhode Island, were students, friends and proponents of von Hildebrand. We interviewed Crosby by phone on their project to preserve and promote the legacy of this great Catholic thinker.

John Mallon: Mr. Crosby, for those of our readers who may not be familiar with him, tell us who Dietrich von Hildebrand is, and what led to the foundation of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.

John Henry Crosby: Well, Dietrich von Hildebrand is a (we can say he is, because he has the kind of relevance or presence in our thought and in our Catholic thought and the wider world of philosophy, because of a kind of timelessness in his contributions) – but he was born in 1889 in Florence, Italy and he died in 1977 (so thirty years this year) in New Rochelle, New York. He was, I think you could say, a great and original philosopher. He was also an author of many religious works; he was a heroic anti-Nazi activist in an intellectual capacity, not as a militant person with a weapon, but with the weapon of his pen. And he was also a great man of culture and a great proponent of beauty and the importance of beauty and the necessity of beauty, the importance of the arts. And so he has this tremendously unusual personality of so many different facets. Most often we find the trait of, you know, we consider a person unusual if they excel in any one of those areas, and he really excels in all of the areas. 

He was also really a great Christian witness. Maybe you could say that all of the different components are somehow united in his witness, which was obviously fairly dramatic in the anti-Nazi work, but it was also expressed in his philosophical work, which he always saw not just as an academic exercise, but as philosophy in the bigger sense – pursuit of wisdom – and then a life lived in accordance.  Those are, perhaps, the defining marks of who von Hildebrand was, in a very general sort of way.  

Would you say he is best known for great contribution to understanding Catholic teachings on marriage and human love?

Yes, von Hildebrand produced an enormous corpus of writings in ethics, in, you might say, Christian personalism, with a great interest in subjects such as love and marriage and the meaning of sexuality. He had a tremendous influence on subsequent thinkers, and then later on the Church’s teaching on marriage, with his attempt to recover or to understand more deeply the unitive dimension of marriage, alongside the procreative dimension, which had been traditionally emphasized. In any case, he wrote quite heavily in all these different areas and had, really, a whole career in his life in Germany. He taught at the University of Munich, then.

Wasn’t he a convert to Catholicism?

Yes. He was raised in what you would call, at best, a nominally Christian home. His parents were, as I think his wife Alice von Hildebrand has said often, noble pagans, in that they were humanitarian; they were caring, they were cultured; they were believers in, I think, the basic goodness of other people; they were not wrinkled cynics, but they were really people of a very noble bent of mind, but their ultimate god was Beauty, it was not the God of Christian revelation or of really any church. They were nominally Protestant, I believe, and so young von Hildebrand was actually baptized a Protestant. It was not an infant baptism, he was – I’m not quite sure how old he was – but he was a little boy, I think.  And when he was baptized, interestingly enough, his sisters or someone kind of jested about the humorousness of the ceremony, and he was quite upset about it. Somehow, he took it quite seriously, even though he didn’t entirely know what was going on; he felt it needed to be taken seriously.

He was also very attuned to religious things as a child and there is a beautiful story told of him: his parents had a statue of what is simply known as the Head of Christ, or a bust of the Head of Christ by Donatello. They had it in their home, just a bust of it, just as a kind of, again, a thing of beauty that they admired. One day the mother walked into the room and there was young von Hildebrand prostrate before the statue of Christ, in a kind of state of reverent adoring. She was very touched by it and she had the good motherly sense not to beat it out of him. And so she simply closed the door and walked out. And so again, these kind of, almost preternatural predispositions to the sacred, and to the holy and somehow to what it is given by God.

Another time one of his older sisters said to him, “Well Mother says that Jesus was just a good man, but he most definitely was not God.” And little Hildebrand who was a young boy by then, maybe 11 or so, stood up on his bed and waved his little thumb at her and said, “I swear to you that Jesus Christ is God!” 

So these, kind of things, almost sound like the legends that surround stories of the saints, with these kind of mystical things. But there was something apparently quite ordinary about these things in him; there was something very deep in him that was attuned and it didn’t involve any theoretical belief or any kind of commitment to these things, but somehow these moments where something was working in him.

There were very early manifestations of a great understanding for sexuality and for purity; for God and the sacred; and then for philosophy, and somehow an ability to kind of smell sophistic arguments and to really have deep intuitions into things, that later on he developed in his thought. So, those are by way of examples, some interesting anecdotes about him as a young boy.

You could say, God was privileging him with certain things that later predisposed him and, I think, you can see it in themes that his works run, on beauty, love and ethics.

It sounds like he was born with a special grace, given a special grace by God.

Absolutely. He was clearly being prepared. He was kind of a marked man by grace, for the mission he later had in his life and all of these things – you know when the soul is young and sensitive and open, he was being formed with very deep and beautiful things, that really flourished and flowered later on in his life. It’s a tremendous early childhood given the non-religious dimension.

Now he went to study at the University of Munich, where he studied with Max Scheler. Scheler was the primary impetus in his becoming Catholic. Scheler, who was the philosopher on whose thought John Paul II wrote his doctoral dissertation, and a close friend of von Hildebrand.

Von Hildebrand became a Catholic in 1914 together with his first wife, Marguerita. Scheler opened the door and he did it in a very interesting way because he said one day to von Hildebrand, “The Catholic Church is the true Church of Christ.” And von Hildebrand said, “What? What do you mean?” And Scheler said, “Well the Catholic Church produces saints,” and this whole world of the supernatural, which had been, in some ways already open to von Hildebrand as a child, was somehow encapsulated in the idea of a saint, and Scheler wrote a beautiful essay on the saint, using St. Francis as a kind of paradigm, trying to explain, sort of in philosophical terms, what a saint is and why sanctity has to come from above, to some extent. And that was the primary impetus – the idea of a saint, the beauty of sanctity, the beauty of the God-man. That is what brought von Hildebrand to brink of the Church. And then he entered in 1914 with his wife. And that was probably the single most transformative moment in his life – I mean he had great moments before, and he had his education and his influences, but this moment of conversion changed everything, in some ways – really in all ways. And so, the entire subsequent thought and output of him was marked by the Faith. 

Didn’t Hitler order him to be killed?

Yes, he taught successfully at the University of Munich for many years when the Nazi horror comes onto the scene, and already von Hildebrand was blacklisted by them as an opponent, because he was so outspoken against their racism, their anti-Christian stance, and so he already developed this reputation long before they ever came to power. 

Von Hildebrand was already analyzing at a philosophical basis the moral and philosophical confusion of National Socialism, and also of Communism, which he thought was equally bad, because there was a tendency at the time for Communists to hate National Socialists and National Socialist to hate the Communists. 

They saw themselves as antagonistic positions, and von Hildebrand said, but philosophically, in terms of their notion of the person, and so on, they’re basically, equally bad. So he took aim at both of them, which was a difficult position to take at the time.

After 1933, he said, “I can’t stay in Germany, because I have to raise my voice, and if I raise my voice I will either be silenced or sent to a concentration camp, and I can’t do that.” So he left Germany, and spent some time discerning what he should do, and finally he said I need to go and put myself at the service of the only European leader who is really resisting Hitler, and this was the Austrian Chancellor, Engelbert Dollfus. And today, you get mixed reactions when you mention him because of some elements of his Chancellorship, but he was an ardent Catholic, he was deeply opposed to what he saw as a kind of pagan uprising from Nazi Germany, and he had really entrenched himself in this position that he was going to resist it. So von Hildebrand went to him and offered his service as a kind of intellectual warrior for the cause. 

Dollfus helped him to start a newspaper, or journal, and in that journal, for the next four and half years, von Hildebrand waged relentless war with the intellectual foundations of National Socialism. And, I might emphasize, with great impact. One might think, particularly in today’s world of spin, that this kind of thing would be over people’s heads, but it was required reading apparently, and I guess the governments on both sides, both Germany and Austria had a quite an elite subscriber base, and Hitler himself was extremely upset by von Hildebrand’s activities. There’s a secret missive, that we actually have a copy of, in which the German Ambassador to Austria, before the invasion of Austria, sent back a kind of memorandum of sorts, to Hitler, saying that our chief problem here is this evil ex-German renegade philosopher, Dietrich von Hildebrand. So a kind of acknowledgement from the very top of the kind of impact that he was having.

So the time came when he had to flee, and he fled instantly. He went all over the world, I mean really, he went from Germany to Czechoslovakia to Switzerland, France and the like – I mean that’s not even everywhere he went. He was pretty much chased the entire time because he was always just a few steps ahead of the Nazis. And he had a stint at Toulouse, where he taught, and then he finally, in 1940, after the invasion of France, he was in Portugal and managed to get a boat out to the United States via Brazil. He went to Brazil and then he went to the United States. 

That’s when most of us pick up with him because then he was appointed immediately to Fordham University where he taught, and where he wrote many of his very popular books that were written in English, such as Christian Ethics and What is Philosophy? and the like. And so, then his career, in one sense became much less dramatic, because his focus was on his teaching and on his students and on his Christian witness – he had over 100 godchildren. 

That was the result of the kind of coherence between his teaching and his life. So he had, in some ways, a less successful, but still very effective second career in the United States at Fordham; he wrote profusely, he was very involved in discussions around the period of Vatican II, after many years in the United States. Then, of course he met his second wife – his first wife passed away – and then he remarried, I think in 1957 or ’59, he married Alice von Hildebrand, who is his now very well-known widow, who has spent her life championing his cause. He died in 1977 in New Rochelle. 

Well, as a student, I know the first time I discovered von Hildebrand, I just wanted to cheer, because he made Catholic teaching on love, on marriage and sex so beautiful, and that’s the main area of Catholic teaching that’s so misunderstood and so stereotyped.  Could you tell us why von Hildebrand is important today?

His thought is important on many different areas and the first reason for that is simply that he wrote on so many areas. And so, as I said at the very beginning when I defined him as a philosopher and a religious author and Christian witness and then a man of culture – in each of those areas he made valuable contributions. And I would say for those of us concerned with – not so much the restoration of Catholic culture, because that seems too backward looking – but a kind of renewal of Catholic culture, and of just the culture at large, there are things that he offers in each of those areas which are of great, great importance. 

If I had to say what are the two or three most important things, I would probably say that his writings on marriage and sexuality are in a way among the real contributions for our time, and it’s possible that in a later period with maybe different struggles and so on, that other dimensions of his thought would emerge. But just this thoroughly positive view of sexuality with its celebration of its joyful dimension and a kind of a – I don’t think he had a puritan bone in his body – and that prevented him from many of the kind of maladies that creep into both Christian thought and feeling in the whole emotional life with regard to sexuality. 

So he was able to awaken in people a sense of the beauty and glory of this and the gift that it is in our lives, and also its – I think he probably made significant headway in the understanding of the unitive dimension, which was seldom emphasized in the traditional teaching. 

It’s not simply a single point in his thought on marriage, but somehow this beautiful picture that he was able to paint, and then inspire all those who saw it. I think everyone who reads his books on marriage is inspired to become more hopeful about the possibilities of love and the possibilities of a healthy marriage and family. So many people are wounded by sexual disasters and somehow something is rekindled in them about the possibilities that all of this brings. So I would say that’s maybe the one main area and, as you said that was very helpful to you at the time.

You recently met with the Holy Father, Benedict the XVI. Would you tell us about that?

In March, yes. It was a wonderful meeting. I guess it was made possible for two reasons: first of all the old connection between von Hildebrand and Alice von Hildebrand and the Holy Father when he was still Father Ratzinger. 

After the war von Hildebrand lived in the United States but he would spend all his summers in Europe and so whenever he was in Munich he would attend a parish where Fr. Ratzinger was the assistant pastor. So the priest, being much younger, had this access to von Hildebrand, and was deeply impressed with him. Von Hildebrand would give lectures and Ratzinger was in attendance at times. There was one, in particular, I think that impressed him greatly, about beauty in the Liturgy; that really touched Ratzinger. So I would say that that early bond formed between them. The importance of von Hildebrand loomed large in the reasons of Ratzinger’s appreciation for von Hildebrand. I keep coming across passages in Ratzinger’s books where he speaks with enormous admiration for von Hildebrand’s writings. There’s one passage in one of his books where he says that von Hildebrand’s work, Transformation in Christ, [contains] a discussion of metanoia, of conversion, that is one of the deepest such discussions in the literature out there. 

And so, this brings me to the second point, which is that, because of this old admiration and esteem, we thought we should invite Cardinal Ratzinger to be a member of our advisory counsel when we first started the Legacy project in 2004. Much to our surprise, he wrote right back and said that, though he could not be a member of the advisory counsel, he’d be honored to have an honorary position. And so he then subsequently accepted this title of honorary member and in that capacity he was very helpful to us. 

I was able to see him in November of 2004 and I have to say, when he became Pope, I was initially had a slight moment of selfishness, thinking, “We’re going to lose contact with him,” and as it turned out he became much more helpful in the sense that he had new resources, you might say, to help us, and so the very first thing that happened was that the Papal Foundation made a fairly significant grant to us.

The Papal Foundation, is an American foundation, which presents the Holy Father with a certain amount of money each year, that he then can dispose of as he pleases, and applications are sent to him through bishops. So, in any case, we received a very substantial, unexpected grant. And I thanked him then, the subsequent year at a general audience I was able to speak to him briefly. And he looked at me and he said, “Oh, I put that through myself.” And he took very, very specific credit. Of course, that only encouraged my sense that we had still a very great advocate in him, even as the Holy Father. 

And because of that, also, I think, Alice von Hildebrand began to gain the hope and the courage that he would perhaps grant an audience to her and to me. And so, through the help of various friends, we were able to put a request through, and he granted it. 

So in March of this year, we were able to see him, so that was a culmination of a lot of help along the way that he had given to us. The point of the meeting was to simply tell him about our work. I had asked him for his support in different ways, and one of those was the letter. I said, “I think, Your Holiness, we would receive support and more interest from Catholics if they felt that they we are collaborating with you.” as opposed, for example, to just saying “We’ve got papal support”—because a pope would support any good cause in the Church, but, to be able to say, this is a different order and demonstrably so, it was extremely helpful. When I asked him for the letter, he said, “I’d be happy to; send me a letter.” So I did follow up with him, and about a month later I had the letter in hand, or at least he had written a month later according to date, which means it was done in very German fashion – turned around quickly. 

He completely surprised me in the letter, because I expected a few lines of support. Now, I had asked him to explain why, but again, I didn’t think he would go on at such length. And so, to receive a letter in which he touched on various themes that are hallmarks really of his own thought, was really striking to me. So it exceeded all of our expectations and you can imagine, it has been extremely helpful, as I think he intended it to be, in promoting our work and gaining further attention for von Hildebrand.

So, could you just tell me what the Legacy Project is doing? What’s your major activity?

Well, a sort of poetic, but fruitful way of expressing the mission of the project is to say the real goal or mission of the project is to unleash the power inherent or contained in the writings of von Hildebrand, and also in the story of his life, for the Church in a new way, because I think, he has had a tremendous impact, perhaps not entirely acknowledged in every corner, but he did have a great impact in many places within the Church, certainly in the Church’s teaching on marriage. One could make the case that in Gaudium et Spes, where it acknowledges the unitive dimension of sex within marriage, that von Hildebrand’s influence is there, and certainly he influenced many of the leading thinkers on marriage. But at the same time, certainly there was the sense that many people no longer knew who he was; that he was perhaps somewhat eclipsed by his reputation as a critic of the Counsel, or a critical voice during the time of the Counsel. 

I think in a generation of Catholics, who perhaps had been given the real key to the Counsel through the pontificate of John Paul II, there is perhaps a certain sense that von Hildebrand had been surpassed in his views on the Counsel, and I think that, and a few other such cases created, perhaps, a forgetfulness about the whole man and the whole thought, and so the project strives to renew understanding and appreciation for his thought, and to really make it a vital and fruitful source of renewal and energy in the Church, as I think it’s capable of doing. 

I think there were also dimensions that were not only forgotten, but just never known. Some works that he wrote at the very end of his life, his great work, The Nature of Love, which is about to be published – it’s just been translated – on esthetics – many of them are simply unknown because they were never translated into English. 

So, I would say, our mission is to unleash the power of these writings. The objectives are basically to address this problem of his many untranslated writings on the one hand, and the many out-of-print writings on the other hand. And so, we’re trying to translate nearly 5,000 pages of various writings and books and also his memoirs, and there are probably over 1,000 pages of books that have been in English but are out of print now, such as Christian Ethics or What is Philosophy? And so the labor is great at the present time. It’s a huge project simply to address the many untranslated writings. Another big dimension of our thought, what I think closes the circle so that we don’t remain in our ivory tower of academic pursuits of translation and publication, is to also spend a great deal of time in using different types of events to promote von Hildebrand’s legacy. 

The use of events, conferences and so forth, to contribute to our efforts is, a dimension which we’ve only come to appreciate more recently. In a world of people, even interested people, who just are overwhelmed with the things they are already doing, the ability to bring people together and to encourage them to consider his thought and to enter into in different formats has been very helpful. 

We just had a conference at Franciscan University of Steubenville on philosophical legacies and Hildebrand, and we were gratified by how many new faces turned up. There’s a kind of latent interest that needs to be tapped into and organized. Also, we’re going to be doing a week-long seminar on his thought for seminarians some time in 2008, and that’s being supported by a priest, actually, who has tremendous interest and who believes that seminarians in the Catholic [?Faith] today will be greatly benefited by an exposure to his thought. And so things of that sort: conferences, seminars, half-day symposia and even just simple lectures are things that we are much more involved in now, organizing and helping to do. 

I guess you might say that we also have a certain focus on working with those who in turn have circles they can influence. So, for example, of our main constituencies are professional philosophers, theologians, historians, those who have students, because we can obviously just do popularizing events, or we can work with those who, in turn, will incorporate this into their teaching and then, over a teaching career of 30 or 40 years will often affect thousands of students, or at least expose thousands of students, to von Hildebrand’s thought. So that we can do by working with teachers who have their own student bases, rather than just go directly to those student bases. So that’s an important dimension in our thought; it’s a kind of marketing analysis, you could say, in terms of how do we get as many people to become knowledgeable in formats where they are truly receptive, because, you can do a million interviews, including some as valuable as this, and in one sense people are still only being impeded at this moment to take greater interest. 

The use of something like an event where they are invited to sit down, and they come together and they’re fed a good meal and conversation ensues, I think is a very critical part of drawing people into further reflection on his thought. 

I understand Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna has also become involved.

Yes. I recently was able to communicate with Cardinal Schonborn and he was very gracious about his willingness to join the advisory counsel of the Legacy Project. I guess he’s really like Cardinal Ratzinger and Mrs. Von Hildebrand – there’s an advisory counsel of many people, twenty people or so, and then there are three honorary members: Cardinal Schönborn, the Holy Father is now a former honorary member and Alice von Hildebrand is, of course, an honorary member. And so, I was able to meet him recently and he was extremely helpful and he’s written letters of support. I think for him, not being himself really a student of von Hildebrand but more of a kind of an admirer, the thing that maybe encapsulates his interest in von Hildebrand is the fact of a great thinker, a great mind, but a mind immersed in his Faith. So, von Hildebrand is not only a great contemporary thinker, someone with great powers of intellect, but someone who ultimately operates on his knees. And that to him is something which is increasingly precious and increasingly needed – that’s what he sees in Dietrich von Hildebrand, you know, a man who really thought at an enormously high level and is capable of engaging all the currents of our time and both assimilating from them but also being critical towards them, but still doing this within the context of a deep and informing faith.

© 2008, 2020 by John Mallon