The world lost one of its guiding lights last week with the passing of Alice von Hildebrand at the age of 98. While small in stature, she was as Michael Warshaw, the head of ETWN and publisher of the National Catholic Register, rightly observed “a giant among Catholic women in the 20th century.”
In 1940, Alice and her sister fled their native Belgium by ship after the Nazis had invaded their country. One night they were awakened by a shipboard alarm. Running out of their cabin, they found that their ship was staring face-to-face with a Nazi submarine which threatened to torpedo their ship – giving the occupants only one hour to secure safety on one of the ship’s lifeboats. Alice and her sister looked around and saw that all the lifeboats were full, and their hearts sank – fearing that they would soon be dead.
Then miraculously, their lives were spared. The submarine that had threatened to torpedo the ship suddenly sailed off, leaving Alice, her sister, and the others to continue their voyage to America. Alice would later write, “The experience was overwhelming and convinced me of God’s goodness.”
That reminder of God’s goodness would shape the remaining 82 years of her life. She eventually arrived in New York City. It was there as a student where she met her future husband, Dietrich, also a refugee. She would later work as his secretary and collaborator. And what a collaboration it was!
As she would state on her 90th birthday: “His approach showed that philosophy is not an abstract discipline. It is a life. It involves my heart, my intelligence, and my will, and therefore opens up a vista of greatness and beauty that most of us are not aware of … He showed me that what we call Christian philosophy is not an abstraction, it is simply reason baptized by faith.”
Because of this faith, their marriage and life together was built on a strong Christian foundation and they both grieved as they witnessed the moral collapse around them – a collapse which Alice called a state of “total confusion.”
As she told the National Catholic Register in 2014: “The great tragedy of today is that truth has been replaced by preferences, goodness by whim, and beauty by ‘fun.’ In my 37 years of teaching, the overwhelming majority of students I encountered were of the belief that truth, goodness, and beauty were relative: They were whatever you want to make of them … The reality is far different. We are in a severe moral crisis in which the eternal truths have been exchanged for temporary fads.”
She taught history at Hunter College in Manhattan where she was sometimes dismissed by her colleagues because she espoused the reality of objective, moral truth – that all human life was sacred, that gender was God-ordained, that marriage was intended for one man and woman, and that moral relativism was a kind of societal toxin.
She said, “I think man should thank God for being a man because he’s given a very clear mission to protect. A woman should thank God for being a woman because her special mission in life is to give life, to corroborate with God.”
She would later add, “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. Believe me, relativism is a poison that leads a country to its destruction.”
Not exactly the opinions that will win you popularity contests on college campuses, but Alice winsomely and boldly held firm to her convictions and spoke the truth with unflinching clarity. Interestingly, her words resonated with many of her students who saw her as a beloved figure. Clay Risen wrote in the New York Times: “Though she rarely discussed faith explicitly in her class, she was so quietly charismatic that dozens of students said they either converted to Catholicism or returned to it after taking her class,” embracing the eternal truths that flowed from her teaching and that she modeled through her actions.
Alice von Hildebrand left us with a legacy of how to speak and live the truth with effortless grace and brio, without fear. For that, we should all be thankful and strive to model her example in our words and actions – drawing people closer to God while challenging spiritual drift in the public square. Hers was a model of how to live and how to die – and how to live again.
Timothy S. Goeglein is vice president of government and external relations at Focus on the Family in Washington DC.
Photo from Twitter.