The Pope and the Philosopher

John Henry Crosby on his project to promote the thought of
Dietrich von Hildebrand and Benedict XVI’s support for it.

It’s rare for a 28-year-old to have a private audience with the pope. But John Henry Crosby found himself in Pope Benedict XVI’s office last March.

Crosby told the Pope about his challenges in raising money for the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project (, which he founded in 2004 to promote the thought of philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand. Crosby, a resident of Alexandria, Va., had an attentive audience in Pope Benedict, as he is a longtime admirer of the man Pope Pius XII is said to have called a “20th-century doctor of the Church.”

The Pontiff subsequently wrote Crosby a letter endorsing the Legacy Project. In it, he lauded the German philosopher’s “distinctive contribution to Christian philosophical thought.”

Von Hildebrand, who died in New York in 1977, was a proponent of Christian personalism. He was also an earlyand strong critic of Nazism, which nearly cost him his life. CWR spoke with Crosby about Pope Benedict’s interest in von Hildebrand.

Pope Benedict XVI seems to be very interested in promoting the thought of Dietrich von Hildebrand.

John Henry Crosby: I’d have to say, he’s taken a lot of unusual steps to help us. It goes back to when he was on our advisory council; he was an honorary member as Cardinal Ratzinger, which is something I don’t think he did too much.

And when he became the Pope he used the resources of the Papal Foundation, an American-based foundation that provides him with annual funding to enable him to support his various priorities, to make a fairly sizeable grant to the Legacy Project. In fact, I saw him in June 2006 and I thanked him for that, and he said, “I put that grant through myself.” He remembered it right away and he expressed the fact that he had sort of taken the initiative.

So, for various reasons, probably some of them not fully known to me, he has a particular bond to this project and a desire to see it succeed. I know he has tremendous respect for von Hildebrand; he knew him personally.

Do we find von Hildebrand’s influence in Pope Benedict XVI’s writings, speeches and homilies?

Crosby: I think it might be productive to distinguish between influence and “intellectual kinship.” A clear case of influence seems to be the strong impression on the young Father Ratzinger by a speech of von Hildebrand on beauty and the liturgy.

On the other hand, a case of “intellectual kinship” might be the equally critical attitude of both Pope Benedict and von Hildebrand on the problem of relativism. I have no doubt that von Hildebrand would have concurred entirely with Cardinal Ratzinger’s formulation, “the dictatorship of relativism.” My hunch is that the category of “kinship” is more significant between Benedict and von Hildebrand than that of influence, but I may be wrong.

The Papal Foundation Grant was $45,000. How has that been used?

Crosby: Among other things, it was used to prepare a new edition of von Hildebrand’s classic study, The Heart, which had been out of print for nearly 30 years.

The Holy Father’s support was also put toward the creation of the first-ever anthology of von Hildebrand’s writings, called the Dietrich von Hildebrand Life- Guide. Our publisher, St. Augustine’s Press, has this LifeGuide series, the idea of which, quite simply, is to boil down themes in great thinkers like John Paul II, Gabriel Marcel, St. Augustine, or von Hildebrand. A LifeGuide contains maybe 80 or 90 pages.

In preparing the LifeGuide, we went through as much von Hildebrand as possible to distill passages on love, marriage, truth and freedom, conscience, and prayer.

I was able to present one of the first copies of The Heart when I saw the Pope in March. His response: “Ah, the young people will like it.”

Why would he say that?

Crosby: You know, I cannot answer this with certainty. To some extent, I imagine he had in mind the fact that young people are still people of the heart and that they still hope from the fullness of their hearts.

Von Hildebrand in The Heart says that the heart has a sort of “stepson status” in the history of philosophy in that it’s always being placed second to the intellect or the will. There’s a sort of suspicion toward the emotion and the heart, and von Hildebrand tries fully to explain its real meaning and dignity. He even develops the beautiful idea that the heart and will are sometimes not meant to have the same response. Consider a situation when a person dies. On one level, we are obviously asked at least to try to accept that death, yet von Hildebrand would object to the idea that the heart should be squeezed into that same response. In fact, he thinks that the heart should grieve, while the will should accept.

Tell me about Pope Benedict’s letter endorsing the work of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.

Crosby: The Holy Father took the time to articulate the importance of Dietrich von Hildebrand in terms of themes familiar to those who know his work and who have been watching his papacy closely. For example, in one passage in his letter to me, he quotes the First Letter of St. Peter in speaking of the Christian obligation that believers must offer a reasoned account of the hope that is within them. This idea of a “reasoned account,” of making Christianity persuasive, is a frequent theme in the writings of Benedict.

What else does the Legacy Project plan?

Crosby: Besides the primary work of making English translations of von Hildebrand’s many German writings and seeing to their publication, the Legacy Project is keenly interested in building events around our books, whether for general audiences or for academics . . . Obviously one of our goals is to get von Hildebrand’s writings read more frequently in courses because that’s probably the single most effective method of exposing people to his ideas in a meaningful and lasting way.

I’m particularly excited about a weeklong seminar for seminarians the Legacy Project will be organizing in the summer of 2008 to introduce them to von Hildebrand’s writings on marriage, sexuality, man and woman, ethics, the virtues, prayer, contemplation, etc. As with introducing our books into courses, the idea once again is to work closely with seminarians because they in turn will exercise a critical influence.

For someone unfamiliar with von Hildebrand’s works, what’s a good book to start with?

Crosby: Given the fact that at heart all of us love a good story, maybe the best place to begin would be Alice von Hildebrand’s biography, The Soul of a Lion. It’s a quick read and it really gets something across of von Hildebrand’s personality. To some extent, the book even traces the origins of some of von Hildebrand’s ideas to inclinations and interests that already manifested themselves in his early childhood.

For example, there is a beautiful story of how young von Hildebrand, as a child being raised in a non-religious home, was once found by his mother prostrate before a statue of Christ—an early example of the virtue of “reverence” about which the same child, as an adult, would write so beautifully.

In terms of a book by Dietrich von Hildebrand, it would be helpful to start by distinguishing between his philosophical and religious writings. Undoubtedly his most important religious work is Transformation in Christ, which is widely considered a modern-day classic. Whereas most of von Hildebrand’s books are now out of print (a problem that the Legacy Project exists to overcome), Transformation in Christ is still in print
thanks to Ignatius Press. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his book, Principles of Theology, says of Transformation in Christ that it contains one of the deepest and most illuminating recent discussions of the nature of true conversion of heart.

For a reader with in an interest in getting to know von Hildebrand on a broader level, I would urge them to get a copy of the Dietrich von Hildebrand LifeGuide, published by St. Augustine’s Press. This book is a good place to encounter von Hildebrand because it presents short selections on a host of themes—truth, relativism, marriage, man and woman, the virtues, the inner life. The LifeGuide contains an excellent short introduction on von Hildebrand and then contains a series of short chapters, each devoted to a different theme in his thought.

Von Hildebrand wrote numerous philosophical works (he was, after all, first and foremost a philosopher, albeit a Christian philosopher), of which he apparently thought his book on love, entitled The Nature of Love, to be his most important. I am proud to say that, after nearly five years of work, the Legacy Project will be publishing the first-ever English translation of this work with St. Augustine’s Press. The book will be available by March 2008. The Nature of Love is not any easy book, let alone a Christian self-help book. Rather, it is a philosophical study of what love is (and what it is not), very much inspired by and drawing from the Christian understanding of love.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About John Burger 22 Articles
John Burger is news editor of