By Edward Pentin
ROME, 3 JUNE 2010 (ZENIT)
Conferences aren't always the most interesting events to attend,
but when one is devoted to the subject of love, it promises to
be more thought-provoking than most.
That was the case during three days of illuminating discussions
in Rome, bringing together some of the Church's leading
philosophers and theologians to take a critical look at Dietrich
von Hildebrand's philosophy of love.
Von Hildebrand (1889-1977), an anti-Nazi activist who fled the
regime and settled in the United States in 1940, wrote a number
of philosophical works which are said to have helped many to
embrace the Catholic faith. With Benedict XVI among his
admirers, his writings contributed to the development of a rich
Christian personalism, especially through his stress on the
transcendence of human persons.
The main purpose of the May 27-29 event, organized by the
Alexandria-based Hildebrand Legacy Project, was to look at the
first, newly published English translation of Von Hildebrand's
great work, "The Nature of Love."
The conference theme, "The Christian Personalism of Dietrich von
Hildebrand: Exploring His Philosophy of Love," drew academics
from around the world to discuss what it means to love and be
loved, questions about the dignity and destiny of the human
person, and especially about the capacity of the human person to
encounter the other by making a gift of self to the other.
Leading Church philosophers shared a wide range of views, from
the philosophical differences between Thomists and
Hildebrandians to insights into spousal and romantic love. One
of the most impressive speakers was Metropolitan John Zizioulas
of Pergamon, Greece. An Orthodox theologian, well respected in
both churches, he also heads the Joint International Commission
for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox
Without prior knowledge of Von Hildebrand, he read "The Nature
of Love" for the conference and found it to be one of the most
significant books he'd ever read. In his address, he compared
the book to Greek Patristic thought, examining commonalities,
but mostly differences, between the two. Yet he praised many
aspects of Von Hildebrand's thought, such as his emphasis that
"love alone" brings the human being into full awareness of his
personal existence, that love involves "a transcendence of the
human being from his self-centredness toward the other," the
importance of "beauty for love and personhood" (recalling
Dostoyevsky's words that "beauty shall save the world"), and Von
Hildebrand's emphasis on the "role of the heart in the
experience of love."
The German philosopher's works show "great potential" for both
theology and philosophy, Metropolitan Zizioulas said, adding
that he believed they will contribute to the dialogue between
the main Eastern and Western traditions of Christian theology.
He also predicted Von Hildebrand would increase in prominence as
the historians look back on the 20th century.
Perhaps the most innovative and original intervention came from
Professor Michael Waldstein, the Max Seckler professor of
theology at Ave Maria University, who attempted to reconcile
long-standing philosophical differences between Thomists and
Hildebrandians. He suggested Von Hilderbrand and some other
philosophers of his day were unable to make adequate readings of
St. Thomas Aquinas' works because of the dominant
interpretations existing at the time.
Hanna Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz, chair of philosophy and
comparative religion at the University of Dresden, Germany,
spoke of Hildebrand's conception of the "Gift of Love,"
underlining his philosophy that true love is never an exchange
but unconditional. Interestingly, she compared him with Jacques
Derrida, the deconstructionist philosopher, who she felt,
although believing love as pure gift was fiction, would
nevertheless agree that there is a measure of love that is
Yet the conference went beyond abstract academic theories, and
brought Von Hildebrand's thought and the subject of love into
the realms of everyday human experience.
Professor Robert Spaemann, the renowned German philosopher and
close friend of Benedict XVI, shared his own philosophies on
love. He described the theological view that God accepts us as
we are as "unspeakable nonsense." If that were true, he said,
then there would be no such thing as forgiveness. In fact, he
said, it is the opposite of forgiveness because forgiveness
means allowing the person "to distance himself from being that
way and to begin anew." To accept someone as he is, is the
"ultimate form of resignation," he said, and stressed that the
proclamation of Jesus didn't begin with the words: "God accepts
you as you are" but with: "repent, change and be different from
what you are now."
"To love someone means to understand the reasons God had to
create this person," he explained, and he added that jealousy is
part of love. "The total absence of jealousy at a given occasion
is an insult to the beloved person who is degraded to being one
among others," he said, and pointed out that this is why the Old
Testament often speaks of a "jealous God."
Professor John F. Crosby, chair of philosophy at Franciscan
University of Steubenville, highlighted Von Hildebrand's theory
that a person is never loved for individual qualities, which of
course can exist in a fuller form in others, but rather that "it
is the very person himself who is loved." He also spoke about
what Von Hildebrand called "Eigenleben," or subjectivity, saying
that love is not about being a tool or doormat for another
person. Von Hildebrand was an opponent of "narcissism and
self-absorption," Crosby told ZENIT, "but at the same time he
avoided this form of altruism where you just become an
instrument for advancing the good of another." There's something
beyond those two extremes, he said, which "is a truth about
The American Catholic philosopher Michael Novak spoke about the
virtues and myths of romantic love as opposed to the "low love"
of eroticism. It is a kind of love that "is not a sated appetite
but quite the opposite," he explained. "It loves the feeling of
never being satisfied, of being always caught up in longing and
dwelling in the sweetness of desire; it feels a murderous
hostility to any rude awakenings of fleshly, ordinary things."
But he added that with consummation, "the illusion is shattered"
and the "reality of human condition sets in." The most
satisfactory ending for tale of romantic love, he said, "is not,
as one would think, physical consummation or even growing old
together. It is actually death. While longing still pierces the
heart, death, for then, the living member of the couple can go
on living forever above the ordinariness of mere earth."
But he argued that Christian love "is not about love and escape,
it's about suffering." Humble love, he said, "is very down to
earth. [And] so in a fascinating way, spousal love [with it's
many trials], is the nexus of all loves."
Sense of humor
As an aside, he said marriage "is a lot of saying 'I'm sorry,'
and a lot of being asked for forgiveness, but mostly it's about
good humor." If you have good humor, he said, "you have a good
shot at marriage and being successful in marriage, especially in
Also to much laughter, he made a couple of light-hearted quips:
"Once you've had grandchildren you actually realize it's so much
fun, you could have skipped the children," he said. And he
recalled that amusing truism: "Every woman tends to think after
marriage her husband will change, and he seldom does, and every
man thinks his wife will never change, and she always does."
Von Hildebrand's 87 year-old widow, Alice, received a standing
ovation after addressing the conference. She recalled many fond
memories of her husband. She remembered lamenting to him that
she hadn't met him earlier in life, to which he responded by
immediately writing his memoirs
a work that came to a remarkable 5,000 pages. Close to death, he
wrote a book on gratitude, saying "it is the gateway to
happiness." And as he was dying, he told his wife he was "a
helpless little thing," but added, "My soul is still a lion." A
faithful lover of truth and the Church, she recalled one of his
last literary bequests in which he told her: "If you find one
sentence which is not in perfect agreement with the teaching of
the Church, burn it."
John Henry Crosby, founder and director of the Hildebrand Legacy
Project, said the conference exceeded his expectations and he
and others were particularly pleased with collegial and friendly
atmosphere, despite some open and candid criticism by some
speakers of Hildebrand
all of which Crosby had invited.
"Everyone was serious about truth, even though you're not
supposed to be today," he said. "The conference was an
interesting example of how the pursuit of truth in friendship is
really the most powerful kind."
In addition to the plenary speakers, many other respected
scholars gave profound and helpful lectures during separate
afternoon sessions. Space prevents examining them here, but they
and all the other speeches can be obtained by contacting the
Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project at