In memoriam: Dr Alice von Hildebrand (1923-2022)

Dr Alice von Hildebrand, philosopher and wife of the late Dr Dietrich von Hildebrand, died on 14 January at the age of 98. A professor at Hunter College in New York City for 37 years, Alice von Hildebrand was, without doubt, one of the most remarkable Catholic intellectuals of our time. In a moving interview which she gave to the Catholic News Agency in 2014, she said, “God has chosen the pattern of my life — totally different from what I had imagined. I feel like the female Habakkuk brought into the lion’s den.” 

Alice von Hildebrand loved the Church and laboured for her honour, publishing several books and innumerable essays. Her writings on morality and on true femininity are particularly important today and perhaps key to healing the many fractures surrounding questions which remain essential to us. Alice von Hildebrand pointed to the privileged position that has been granted to women in the Economy of Salvation, from the Annunciation to the Resurrection and beyond. The holy women, in the company of the Blessed Virgin Mary, followed and served Our Lord in His public ministry, fought their way to the praetorium in His trail, accompanied Him on the via dolorosa and assembled at the foot of the Cross. Amid complete despair, when God Himself was dying, Our Lady, the model for all women, received her new mission. The Apostles had fled. St John alone had recourse to Mary and was present at Calvary, where the dying Saviour commended him — and, through him, the whole Church — to His Mother: “Woman, behold thy son.” Her task was not yet finished, nor was she intended to complete it alone. Each woman who desires to fulfil her role in the Church, must share in her motherhood, wrought at the foot of the Cross.

In memory of Dr Hildebrand, this faithful woman, whose life and work gave such a great example of devotion to Jesus and Mary, and of following them, we would like to take this opportunity to share some extracts from her book, The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002, Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University).

“The punishment for both [Adam and Eve] was and is fearful: death. Moreover, Eve was severely punished in the very domain that was her glory — to give life. How illuminating are God’s words referring to the enmity that will exist between the serpent and the woman. Why is the male not mentioned? Once again, it is luminous that Eve is the enemy par excellence because, being the mother of the living, she is Satan’s arch enemy, for he was ‘a murderer from the beginning’ and hates life.”

“The whole drama that has been developing in our society over the past sixty years vividly shows how it is through the woman that the enemy is directing his attacks. Feminism was born the day that the enemy convinced some ambitious women that they will never achieve greatness unless they liberate themselves from the burden of giving birth that was so unfairly placed on their shoulders. He convinced them to believe that maternity is a jail and it is high time that women free themselves from these unbearable chains. It is only natural that the contraceptive mentality embraced in the sixties was seen as a key instrument in freeing women from this unfair burden. Yet, we cannot escape the individual and societal consequences of contraception predicted by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae — lower moral standards, greater infidelity, less respect for women by men, and coercive use of reproductive technology by governments — all evident today. This was followed by the legalisation of abortion which should be understood in all its gravity as the ultimate violation of woman with immeasurable societal implications. The continued rejection of natural law and the radical definition of what it means to be a woman and a man will bring even more grave consequences.”

“The holy women are all assembled at the foot of the cross. No woman was privileged to see Christ transfigured on Mount Tabor, but they were there at the Crucifixion. This is — once again — deeply meaningful: it was not given them to see Him transfigured; but they were permitted to see Him ‘bruised for our iniquities, smitten by God and afflicted’. The apostles had fled. Saint John — the disciple Jesus loved — did come back; and it was to him that the dying Saviour confided His mother with the words: ‘This is your mother.’”

“The Church grants all her children the means of achieving holiness — but she cannot force them to become holy. It is noteworthy that the Church is at times censured for abusing her authority by ‘imposing’ her dogmatic and moral teaching on her children, without consulting them! But the next moment, her accusers criticise her for not using her authority to force her children to live according to the Gospel.”

“As every sin brings with it its own punishment, is it surprising that today we have become so morally blind (for wickedness blinds) that we save baby whales at great cost, and murder millions of unborn children. Man’s conscience has been so darkened by his repeated infidelities toward God that these outrageous murders are no longer registered as being crimes that cry to heaven.”

“… the ‘weakness’ of the female sex, as far as accomplishments and productivity are concerned, can be more than compensated by her moral strength when she lives up to her calling. That is, when she loves. The influence that she can exercise over her male partner is great indeed when it manifests itself, not by issuing commands, but by example and gentle persuasion. On the other hand, when she betrays her mission, she can indeed be man’s downfall. Her role is a key one. Kierkegaard wrote that ‘woman is the conscience of man’. But her conscience must be illuminated by faith and enlivened by true love; it must not be a conscience distorted by self-centred relativism. But feminists — blinded by secularism — do what, in fact, will lead to a worsening of women’s situation. Feminists are women’s great enemy. Not only will they not succeed in trying to become like men, but they will also inevitably jeopardize the sublime mission confided to them.”

“The new age philosophy of feminism, in waging war on femininity, is in fact waging war on Christianity. For in the divine plan both are intimately linked. Not socialism, as Simone de Beauvoir believed, but Christ is the great ally of women.”

“One thing is certain: When the time has come, nothing which is man-made will subsist. One day, all human accomplishments will be reduced to a pile of ashes. But every single child to whom a woman has given birth will live forever, for he has been given an immortal soul made in God’s image and likeness.”