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Dietrich von Hildebrand and Edith Stein: Husserl’s Students
by dr. alice von hildebrand
roman catholic books, 52 pages, $5.90

Dietrich von Hildebrand and Edith Stein were born on the same day, October 12, just two years apart (Dietrich in 1889, Edith in 1891), and there the similarities ended—for a while.

Dietrich was born into a prominent and artistically-gifted family—son of the famous German sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand—amid what he called “the superabundant love of my mother, and all of my five sisters.” Edith, in contrast, lost her working-class father when she was just two, and had more challenging relationships with her siblings, as she reveals in her autobiography, Life in a Jewish Family. But Edith’s heroic mother kept the family business prosperous and made certain that her children were well-provided for and learned about their Jewish faith and heritage.

Dietrich’s sense of the supernatural came early and unexpectedly. When he was just five, Dietrich’s sister, Bertele, reflecting upon the lapsed Christianity of her parents, told her brother, “Mama said at supper tonight that Christ was a very good man, but just a man like all of us; there was nothing divine about Him.”

To Bertele’s astonishment, writes Alice von Hildebrand in her fine joint biography of the two, “the boy jumped up in his pajamas, stretched out his little hand, and said to her solemnly: ‘Bertele, I swear to you that Christ is God!’”

Reflecting that belief, Dietrich’s mother often found the youngster prostrate in front of a reproduction of Christ by Donatello. Even as a child, Alice comments, Dietrich “felt that adoration is the adequate religious posture.” The love for beauty that Dietrich’s parents had instilled in him led, providentially, to the author of all beauty.

Edith’s religious journey was more circuitous. After attending synagogue with her mother for years, Edith fell away from God and religion altogether. Susceptible to bouts of despair (at one point even welcoming visions of being run over by a bus), her love for philosophy rescued her: It reopened her interest in religion and questions about ultimate meaning and existence.

What eventually brought these two together was phenomenology: Both became students of Edmund Husserl and devotees of his Logical Investigations. While German philosophers tended toward various forms of nihilism after Kant, “it was Husserl’s great merit,” wrote Hilda Graef, Stein’s biographer, “to have dispelled these mists of relativistic agnosticism by reaffirming the two old truths: the existence of objective truth and the existence of a knowable world in which we live.”

Dietrich and Edith both found in Husserl not only a refutation of modern skepticism, but a convincing alternative. “It was for me like experiencing a sunrise,” wrote Dietrich. Husserl had demonstrated “that the human mind could attain absolute certainty.”

Edith, for her part, would apply Husserl’s methodology to her own writings and search for truth, now guided by a new foundation. Their attraction to phenomenology would foreshadow its influence on numerous other Catholic thinkers, not least the future pope and saint, Karol Wojtyla.

Among the movement’s original leaders was Max Scheler (subject of Wojtyla’s second dissertation), who articulated the truths of Christian revelation and helped moved Dietrich and Edith toward Catholicism. Scheler told Dietrich that a mark of the Church’s truth was that it produced saints.

But it was Adolf Reinach, Husserl’s assistant, who most directly influenced the two.

Unlike Husserl, who later drifted toward idealism—the very philosophy he had critiqued so well in Logical Investigations—Reinach retained Husserl’s most important insights, and became a Christian. His early and tragic death in World War I left behind a young and devout widow, and affected Edith deeply: “This was my first encounter with the Cross and the divine power it imparts to those who bear it—it was the moment my unbelief collapsed and Christ began to shine his light on me—Christ in the mystery of the Cross.”

During one of the two occasions that their paths directly crossed, Dietrich and Edith met briefly at Reinach’s funeral, jointly mourning their great friend and mentor.

By 1914, Dietrich had become a Catholic, marking the final destination of his spiritual progression. Edith would formally convert in 1922 after reading the Life of St. Teresa of Avila. When she finally laid down the book, she said to herself, “This is the Truth.”

These were not decisions without cost. Every time Dietrich wrote about Catholic themes—like martyrdom, purity, or the holiness of the saints—his secular colleagues accused him of “Catholic propaganda.” Edith suffered because her loving mother could not understand why her daughter was abandoning her Jewish heritage, even as Edith believed she was deepening it by entering the Church.

Dietrich described his faith in “The New World of Christianity,” an essay that expanded into his spiritual classic, Transformation in Christ—written at a time when his life was being threatened by the Nazis. Later, concerned about the terrible loss of faith, he delayed writing The Nature of Love to combat errors affecting the post-Conciliar Church.

Edith left the secular world to teach at a Catholic institution and eventually entered the Discalced Carmelites. Even as the Nazis closed in on her community—first in Germany, then in the Netherlands—she was able to complete her masterpiece, Finite and Eternal Being (synthesizing the work of Aquinas and Husserl), and a major work on mystical theology, The Science of the Cross.

Edith’s writings were, like Dietrich’s, grounded in prayer, and she prayed not only for herself but for others. Upon learning that Husserl had fallen gravely ill, she prayed for him, and was moved to learn that his last moments were spent with Sr. Adelgundis Jaegerschmid, another former student of his.

In 1942, Edith, on account of her Jewish heritage and in retaliation for the Dutch bishops’ protest against the Nazi persecution of Jews, was deported to Auschwitz with her sister Rosa, who had also converted and entered the convent.

According to those who last saw her, Edith was fearless in the face of death, and compassionate to all those around her. She bore her own cross willingly, and awaited her Redeemer with serenity and courage. Edith has since been canonized as Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

Dietrich, whom Hitler tried to assassinate, escaped to America, where he taught and wrote for nearly forty years. Having died in much more peaceful surroundings, he “left this world,” writes Alice, “longing for the Face to Face which God grants those who love Him.”

Both are remembered as philosophers whose quest for truth led to an unreserved love for God.

William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.

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