The Phenomenon of Dietrich von Hildebrand


by John S. Daly

Taken from Chapter 1 of
Michael Davies – An Evaluation
New Edition (2015)

used with permission

Excerpt from Chapter One: Davies’s Attitude to Authority

Instances of Hero Worship

One of the writers whom [Michael] Davies most frequently quotes is Dietrich von Hildebrand, an American layman whose name would probably be mentioned in a footnote or appendix to a reasonably comprehensive history of twentieth century philosophy – a man who had no significant theological status and simply wrote his opinions on Vatican II and its revolution as a private individual just as Davies does and just as the present writer is doing. Here are some of the ways in which Davies introduces him:

  • (i) From Pope Paul’s New Mass, p. 193:
    The last word on the Children’s Directory must go to Dietrich von Hildebrand, the most profound thinker in the American Church this century. This great theologian and philosopher would not have expressed himself so strongly without good reason….
  • (ii) From Pope Paul’s New Mass, p. 30:
    Dietrich von Hildebrand has rightly condemned this anomaly….
  • (iii) An Open Lesson to a Bishop, pp. 2-3:
    This deplorable state of affairs … has been well described by Dietrich von Hildebrand, almost certainly the most courageous, erudite, and respected layman in the English-speaking world since World War II. Professor von Hildebrand was second to no one in his loyalty to the Holy See, he was made a papal knight for his defence of Humanæ Vitæ,[3] but he would not allow human respect to silence him when the Faith was endangered … Professor von Hildebrand also expresses the belief that bishops who tolerate liturgical pluralism lose the right to claim obedience in disciplinary matters … I would suggest that any bishop who reads these words ponder them carefully. The opinion of so great a philosopher and theologian is not to be set aside lightly.
  • (iv) From Pope Paul’s New Mass, p. 590
    Dietrich von Hildebrand was of the opinion that nothing should be forbidden unless it was evidently wrong or harmful.

Whether von Hildebrand had the grace to blush at Davies’s virtual canonisation of him will not be known in this world, for it is now some years since his death, but it is hard to understand how any Catholic could take such words seriously.

Of the many objectionable features of this conjuring with von Hildebrand’s name, the most serious is the fact that Davies is fraudulently pressuring his readers into thinking that he has independent and weighty authority for his assertions when in fact von Hildebrand can lend no weight to Davies’s words because we have only Davies’s own authority for the fact that von Hildebrand is worthy of credence with regard to the matters in question. But it must also be stressed that whether one holds the view that von Hildebrand was a pretentious buffoon or the greatest philosopher in history, the fact remains that he is not a theological authority and that Davies treats him with more deference than he treats Fathers, Saints or popes. No, this is not an exaggeration: the very last quotation taken from von Hildebrand in the above selection, for instance, is one in which he is cited in support of an opinion, which is such a commonplace that it needs no authority to defend it anyhow,[4] but, if any authority were to be cited for it, one would naturally choose an authority of great weight. In matters of opinion (the word Davies uses), Catholics are not even obliged to agree with St. Thomas Aquinas, yet Davies quotes von Hildebrand as if his words could not but command his readers’ assent. It is as if a political commentator had quoted as a conclusive argument against anarchism the fact that a little known politician had once at a cocktail party expressed the view that for a country to have one or two laws and maybe a small police force is not such a bad thing. The opinion is merely trite; the authority cited for it is not an authority at all and the status implicitly attributed to him by writing as if his say-so were both necessary and sufficient to prove the point is so disproportionate to the reality as to be laughable.

The Truth About Dietrich von Hildebrand

Let us take a moment to examine the phenomenon of Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977) in the world of Catholic thought. This will enable us not only to appreciate the gravity of Davies’s misrepresentation, but also to pinpoint one major intellectual malaise in the world of traditional Catholicism.

If we approach von Hildebrand via his life-story, while the man of action may appeal to us for his courageous intellectual opposition to Nazism, it is a disappointment to discover the extent to which he was influenced by unsound sources among those who were striving to reconcile Catholicism with the Revolution, with Socialism or with “progressive” social doctrines. Notable among these was Marc Sangnier, whose political theories were denounced and condemned by Pope St. Pius X in Notre Charge Apostolique. It is greatly to be feared that von Hildebrand’s opposition to Hitler was in part due to social and political convictions which owed much more to his dubious friends than to the teaching of the encyclicals and which, for instance in the form of the “Catholic” contribution to France’s Front Populaire in the 1930s, presented at least as great a threat to social justice and order as Nazism did.

Approaching von Hildebrand as a philosopher (his chosen profession), we also find von Hildebrand keeping disquieting company – in the “phenomenological” school to which we are indebted for rendering the intelligence of Karol Wojtyła [“Pope” John Paul II] irreparably impermeable to orthodox Catholic doctrine. The strange mercy by which we see von Hildebrand entering the Church (in 1914) apparently through the same door which his apostate friend Max Scheler had left it by, surely owes more to grace than to any connaturality between the Faith and the unhappy pseudo-philosophy of [Edmund] Husserl.

Where does von Hildebrand stand in the field of philosophical thought? To answer the question, let us divide into four groups those who have endeavoured in recent times to cross the Kantian Sea between the Island of Apprehension and the Continent of Reality. The first group is of those doomed forever to pace the near bank without ever getting closer to their destination, though often becoming highly expert on the flora and fauna of Apprehension Cliffs. The second is of those who have ventured a rash leap and fallen into the maelstrom infested by many man-eating sharks. The third comprises the thinkers who have paid the toll of humility at the Bridge of St. Thomas, obtaining the only true right of access. Finally comes the fourth group: those whom we saw yesterday still on the Island, sucking their fingers and gazing seaward and whom we discover today on the continent with no coherent explanation of how they got there.

Whereas his Catholic Faith ought to have pointed him towards the third group, we find that von Hildebrand in fact belongs to the fourth. His distinctive philosophy of “realistic phenomenology”, offers an entirely illusory solution to a difficulty satisfactorily solved by the Angelic Doctor more than seven centuries ago.

There is no trace of any real contribution to theology by von Hildebrand unless we so class his lifelong attempts to justify the ethical teaching of the Church in terms of this false philosophy.

The malaise referred to above is relevant here. For von Hildebrand was one of the many whose adherence to the Church’s direct teaching, at least in its main points, was too strong for him be dragged into the Modernist apostasy precipitated by Vatican II, but whose underlying philosophical thought was too far from the mind of the Church for him to accept the account given by the Church herself of the metaphysics underpinning her doctrines.

Von Hildebrand’s epistemology and ontology were not merely weakened by accidental error, but entirely vitiated. Using experience and intuition to replace our knowledge of essences von Hildebrand raised on the Kantian quicksands an edifice of what he calls “values” in the stead of natural law and the common good. From this he attempted to safeguard the conclusions of Catholic teaching, especially in the field of ethics, by finding what are in reality entirely new reasons for them. In other words he attempted to reach the answers required by the Church, while entirely rejecting the reasoning on which the Church herself bases them. Thus, to take a single instance, we find him in the vanguard of those who reprobate fornication and contraception, not because they violate the natural law by frustrating the finality of a faculty, but because they fail in an alleged, but indefinable, duty of self-giving, allegedly discovered via experience and depending on the heart for its verification. It is hardly astonishing that these forlorn voluntaristic attempts to “save the appearances” of Catholic doctrine and morality have massively failed to convince and indeed have merely exacerbated the tidal wave of unnatural practices within and without marriage which has engulfed the masses of those who mistakenly still think of themselves as Catholic. Nor is it astonishing to find them enthusiastically endorsed by von Hildebrand’s intellectual fellow-traveller Karol Wojtyła.

What is much harder to explain is why so many traditional Catholics, instead of blaming anti-scholastic intellectuals like von Hildebrand for leaving the Church defenceless against her enemies by unilaterally abandoning the Thomistic arsenal, should instead uncritically hail them as allies and shower them with unmerited eulogies whenever they dissent from any of the consequences of the Revolution they made possible. Nor is it reassuring to be informed ad nauseam that Pope Pius XII described von Hildebrand as a doctor of the Church when we discover that the only verifiable source for the claim is von Hildebrand himself![5]

Pride Before a Fall

Once the reader of Davies’s writings has noticed that Davies, on his own authority, has invested Dietrich von Hildebrand with quasi-infallible status, he may well, if he is alert, be wondering how long it will be before our author is led by the nose into error by his chosen mentor. After all, when someone persuades himself with no sufficient reason that a private individual is a credible authority on matters of great moment simply because he likes what that person says, would it not be a wholly appropriate consummation of this process of self-deceit if master and disciple both foundered together, in accordance with Our Lord’s dictum that “if the blind lead the blind, both fall into the pit”? (Matthew 15: 14) Well, how long it took I have not bothered to check, but certainly it had happened by the time Davies laid his pamphlet An Open Letter to a Bishop before the public; for the passage I have just quoted from that work contains as clear an example of grave theological error, affirmed by “the most profound thinker in the American Church this century,” as one could want – or, rather, not want.

I refer to Professor von Hildebrand’s belief, cited with approval by Davies, that “bishops who tolerate liturgical pluralism lose the right to claim obedience in disciplinary matters.” The context in which it first appeared does not in any way temper this remarkable assertion. Since von Hildebrand evidently believed that the bishops in question did not forfeit their offices automatically, he appears to be declaring, in effect, that it can be permissible for a Catholic to disobey lawfully constituted authority, not only on a particular matter where the authority commands something intrinsically evil, but always, habitually and invariably, purely on the basis of some particular offence which the bishop has committed on one occasion. And this can only be appropriately described as a travesty of Catholic doctrine.

As has already been pointed out, it is correct Catholic doctrine that bishops, like all other clerics, forfeit their offices automatically, and are therefore no longer entitled to obedience, if they fall into heresy or into schism;[6] but the doctrine that the same applies to bishops who “tolerate liturgical pluralism,” i.e. fail to condemn liturgical abuses, is an astonishing one. It seems impossible to see how a bishop could “lose the right to claim obedience in disciplinary matters” without losing his office. The only basis I can think of for the notion is the teaching of Wycliffe and Hus that clerics lose their offices for any mortal sin whatsoever – a doctrine which the Church has twice solemnly condemned. (Dz. 595 and 656.) If this is not what von Hildebrand had in mind, I cannot see how Davies’s citation of his words admits of any more orthodox interpretation.



3 It is noteworthy that the sole evidence Davies offers for von Hildebrand’s status is the fact that he was awarded a dignity by the very man – [Giovanni Battista] Montini – who is more responsible than anyone else for the ecclesiastical revolution of which Davies himself complains.

4 There can be no question, however, but that by attributing the principle to von Hildebrand Davies is intending to lend authority to what he says and expecting the authority to be considered conclusive.

5 Gustavo Corção closes his O Século do Nada with a pitiless dissection of the essentially false perspective which vitiates the analysis of the crisis in the Church presented by von Hildebrand in his Trojan Horse in the City of God. The Brazilian intellectual explains why it is unacceptable to present the deviations of the “progressives” as reactions to allegedly comparable deviations, ossifications or archeologisms on the part of the “right” which allegedly dominated in the pre-conciliar period. Readers interested in a more general analysis of von Hildebrand from the standpoint of sound philosophy are referred to Dr. Francisco J. Romero Carrasquillo’s 2007 article “Von Hildebrand… What Do We Make of Him?”

6 Some Catholic authorities believe that a pure schismatic does not necessarily lose his offices automatically, but all agree that public heretics do.

Source: John S. Daly, Michael Davies: An Evaluation, 2nd ed. (Saint-Sauveur de Meilhan: Tradibooks, 2015), pp. 29-33. Formatting largely identical to original, although modified slightly for better online reading.

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