Alice von Hildebrand, Conservative Catholic Philosopher, Dies at 98

The Roman Catholic philosopher Alice von Hildebrand lived to be 98, but her life almost ended one night in June 1940, when she was just 17.

She and her sister Louloute were sailing to New York as refugees, having fled their native Belgium in the wake of the Nazi invasion. They were asleep below deck when they heard the ship’s bell ringing furiously; rushing topside, they found passengers piling into lifeboats — and a German submarine floating a few hundred yards away.

The Germans had given the captain an hour to evacuate the ship before they torpedoed it. By the time the sisters got to the front of the line, the lifeboats were full.

Then, suddenly, the submarine sailed off. Perhaps its captain realized the ship was merely carrying refugees; perhaps he got other orders. In either case, the ship continued on and the sisters survived.

Dr. von Hildebrand’s memoir, which was published in 2014.

It was, Dr. von Hildebrand wrote in “Memoirs of a Happy Failure” (2014), a focusing moment — about good versus evil, and about the power of God over fortune and fate.

“With a clarity and precision that approached the supernatural,” she wrote, “I relived everything I had ever done, failed to do, thought, imagined and felt. The experience was overwhelming and convinced me of God’s goodness.”

Dr. von Hildebrand went on to a storied career as a philosophy professor and an interpreter of the work of her husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand, himself a renowned Catholic philosopher at Fordham University; later still, she became something of a celebrity within conservative Catholic circles for her critiques of feminism.

She died on Jan. 14 at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y.

Her death was confirmed by John Henry Crosby, the founder and president of the Hildebrand Project. The project, based at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, in Ohio, is dedicated to preserving the legacy of Dr. von Hildebrand and her husband.

Dr. von Hildebrand taught philosophy for 37 years at Hunter College, in Manhattan, where, after marrying her husband in 1959, she continued to use her maiden name, Jourdain. She developed an avid following among students — and, she said, a dedicated enmity among many of her colleagues — for teaching unfashionable ideas about truth and beauty.

Though she rarely discussed faith explicitly in class, she was so quietly charismatic that dozens of students said they either converted to Roman Catholicism or returned to it after taking her class.

The author and philosopher Ronda Chervin had a similar experience. As an unhappy undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University in the 1960s, she happened to see the von Hildebrands on TV one day, discussing their conceptions of truth and love. She was so entranced that she transferred to Fordham, converted to Catholicism and went on to teach at a number of Catholic colleges and seminaries.

“I had never met anyone, and seldom have since, who actually when she would talk to you, she would look right into your eyes and go really heart-to-heart with you,” Dr. Chervin said in a phone interview.

In her 2002 book, Dr. von Hildebrand argued that women were not merely vessels for God’s work, but active participants in it, more so even than men.

Dr. von Hildebrand worked as an assistant to and collaborator with her husband,a leading figure in the field of Catholic personalism, which emphasizes the centrality and uniqueness of individual people. They also co-wrote a book, “The Art of Living” (1965).

He died in 1977, and she retired in 1984, more out of frustration with Hunter’s adamant secularism than a desire to slow down. In fact, she sped up, hitting the lecture circuit and touring mostly Catholic colleges and universities around the world.

She also began to write about womanhood and feminism in a way that won her legions of fans and not a few critics.

In books like “By Love Refined: Letters to a Young Bride” (1989) and “The Privilege of Being a Woman” (2002), she argued that women were not merely vessels for God’s work, but active participants in it, more so even than men, and that they should advance the world by embracing feminine virtues like receptivity, generosity and maternity.

Men, she explained, had fallen victim to the traps of materialism and utilitarianism, but women were not yet lost, and had a chance to extricate humanity from the clutches of modernity. In that framework, she saw feminism as her great opponent, a secularist, materialist attempt to eradicate everything that made women different and virtuous.

“What is it that is so incredibly important about women today?” she said in a 2015 commencement address at Christendom College, in Front Royal, Va. “The answer is very simple: the vicious attacks made by feminists on the beauty and dignity of being a woman, and the incredible mission that women have in this world today.”

She was equally critical of abortion rights, gay rights and cultural relativism, stances that put her outside parts of the Catholic mainstream but that attracted countless followers. Her message resonated especially with many young Catholic women who felt trapped between retro feminine ideals and the press of secular feminism.

Dr. von Hildebrand in 1980 with Pope John Paul II.Credit…via Hildebrand Project

“She never shied away from those questions,” Rachel Bulman, a Catholic writer and speaker, said in an interview. “I think a lot of women now are realizing that this pursuit of the intellectual life is not something that’s adverse to who I am. Me wanting to be a thinker is not something that somehow takes away from my femininity.”

Dr. von Hildebrand gained even broader attention as a regular face on the Eternal World Television Network, which carries exclusively Catholic-themed programming around the country. She made some 80 appearances, often as a guest of the wildly popular Mother Mary Angelica, who founded the network and hosted a talk show.

Such was the intensity of her fan base that when she grew too frail to make trips abroad, wealthy admirers would send their private jets to pick her up.

“She had this great energy,” Mark Gottlieb, an Orthodox rabbi who sits on the board of the Hildebrand Project, said in a phone interview. “It was a deep grace and power of the soul to just resonate outward and engage you by her words and her ideas and the very force of her personality.”

Alice Marie Jourdain was born in Brussels on March 11, 1923, to Henri and Marthe (van der Horst) Jourdain. Her father, who owned a small business, was a deeply religious man, attending mass every day, a practice that left a deep impression on young Alice.

After the German invasion, she and her sister were sent to New York to live with a wealthy aunt and uncle in the Waldorf Astoria. Alice entered Manhattanville College but later transferred to Fordham, where she met her future husband.

Dietrich von Hildebrand was a refugee himself. As a professor at the University of Munich, he had watched, and vocally opposed, the rise of the Nazis in that city in the 1920s. When Adolf Hitler took power in 1933, Dr. von Hildebrand fled to Vienna, where he founded an anti-Nazi newspaper. When Germany took over Austria, he fled again, first to France and Spain before coming to New York.

Ms. Jourdain became his student and assistant, and received her doctorate in philosophy in 1949.

She is survived by a sister, Marie Laure Gillis.

Dr. von Hildebrand in 2010. Over the course of her career she attracted countless followers, many of them young Catholic women.Credit…via Hildebrand Project

Dr. von Hildebrand applied for jobs at Catholic colleges, but none would hire a woman to teach philosophy. She finally found a temporary position at Hunter, which, after rave reviews from students, became permanent, though she said that antagonism from her colleagues kept her from getting tenure for 14 years.

It was a searing experience, she said, and one that set the tone for her later writing and speaking. Though she often singled out feminism for her attacks, she saw it mostly as an outgrowth of something worse, moral relativism.

“If you want to know what is the pulse of the country, go to the university and find out if they teach the students truth,” she said in a 2018 interview with WCAT Radio. “Believe me, relativism is a poison that basically leads a country to its destruction.”

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