The Secular War on the Supernatural by Alice von Hildebrand

by Fr Richard Heilman | May 22, 2016 1:43 PM

All the myriad life-and-death battles being fought on the socio-political and religious fronts today are mere symptoms of the root conflict treated in this inspirational address. Delivered by the esteemed philosopher at the Faith of Our Fathers conference held in London on 13 June 1998.

The Secular War on the Supernatural


In 1965 my husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand and I had a private audience with Pope Paul VI, in which my husband “shot from the hip” as usual, saying “Your Holiness, you realise that the Church is going through the worst crisis in history, worse than the Protestant Reformation” (which I usually refer to as the Protestant Deformation). The Pope seemed to be surprised and my husband continued: “What has taken place is that people have lost sight of the supernatural.”

Partaking in God’s life

The supernatural is the greatest gift that God has given us. We are humble, modest creatures. The human male was made from the dust of the earth, a very un-aristocratic origin; the human female did a little bit better and was taken from the body of a human person. (This is one of the big triumphs that women have, one of the advantages that they have over men!) The supernatural is a partaking in God’s very life. There is not one single religion that can compete with Christianity, a religion allowing us to become God-like by participation in His life.

The supernatural is something that could never have been invented by the most inventive human person. The supernatural is a new song, a new music coming from above that never entered man’s head. In some way you can prove the Divinity of Christ by saying no human being would ever have invented a God who chose to take the form of a slave, to suffer and to die, to re-open for us the gates of Heaven, Humanly speaking, it is sheer madness.

It was the supernatural which converted Edith Stein, who studied under Husserl with my husband. She was an atheist who one very fine day read the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. She started at seven in the evening and the next morning at seven o’clock she said “I’m going to become a Roman Catholic” and she became a Roman Catholic saint (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross).

Co-operating with Christ

It was his discovery of the supernatural which drew my husband into the Church; a new reality, something infinitely more beautiful, the supernatural was infinitely above what he had experienced before. Following his conversion from atheism to Catholicism, until his death, it was his very particular mission to fight for the reality of the supernatural, which he saw as being eroded more and more. An erosion so systematic that it has led today to an absolute rebellion, when modern men say to God “We do not want it, we can do without it; human nature can perfect itself by itself, we do not need any help.”

The supernatural life was lost by sin and this loss was so irreparable that God alone could give it back to us, it was impossible, by human effort, to re-conquer this Divine life that had been given to us. And this is, of course, once again, the amazing message of Christianity, that God became man, to be humiliated, to be rejected and ridiculed and to die the most agonising death to re-open for us the gates of Heaven.

We have the possibility of re-living, re-conquering the supernatural life through the message of Christ, through the Church and the sacraments, but God asks for our co-operation. St. Augustine said “He Who made you without you, will not sanctify you or save you without your help”. And Christ tells us very explicitly “If you want to become my disciples, carry your cross and follow me.”

Fear of humiliation

To have supernatural life might be very appealing; to carry one’s cross is much less appealing. There are lots of people willing to follow Christ to Mount Tabor, there are very few people willing to follow Him to Calvary. Yet Calvary is a step that we have to go through in order to reach Eternal Life.

When Christ first gave this message, some people were so overwhelmed that they become Christians and it is said explicitly in the Acts of the Apostles “When they were mocked and whipped and tortured, they rejoiced because it was a privilege for them to suffer with Christ”. That was the beginning of Christianity and why that period was such a glorious time was because people were so conscious of the gift of the supernatural that they despised all human advantages, security, money, honour. They embraced suffering with joy because Christ had suffered and died for us.

Unfortunately, people discovered that to suffer is unpleasant and in order to enter Heaven we not only have to accept suffering, but humiliation. After all, Christ was humiliated to the greatest possible extent. We have to accept humiliation, but if there is anything that we dread, it is humiliation. We fear suffering, but probably we fear humiliation more than that.

Fear of the truth

So the Church became recognised in the fourth century and grew until that great period called The Middle Ages. Even through the Middle Ages the Church did not produce people who were all saints, but there were plenty of saints and there are two things about the Middle Ages that I would like to emphasise.

The first was that they knew that the greatest achievement a human being could aspire to was holiness, to be re-born, to become a new creature. And the second thing that they knew was that when they sinned, they were sinners. Well today, the peculiarity of modern man is that he sins but denies that sins exist. There is a rather striking difference between the two. As long as you know that you are a sinner, there is hope, but the very day that you no longer know it and feel perfectly comfortable sinning and justifying your own sin, things are getting to be a bit dangerous.

Even though the supernatural is the greatest gift that man could possibly have received, for some reason there is something in man’s fallen nature that does not like the message of the supernatural at all.

For example, in the Gospel of St. Mark (Chapter 5) in the country of the Gerasenes, Christ sent the legion of unclean spirits out of the man possessed into a great herd of swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.

The terrified swineherds fled, rushing into the town, spreading the news throughout the countryside. Jesus was begged to depart from the neighbourhood. Why did they want Jesus to go? They had lost a lot. 2000 swine cost a lot of money. However, a much deeper explanation, suggested by Kierkegaard, is a valid one. The Gerasenes could not stand the confrontation between themselves and Christ’s holiness. In other words they were afraid of the truth, and I claim that most men, if not all men, are afraid of the truth. Why? Because the moment I know it, I know that I have to change. I know that I have to die to myself and be re-born.

Fear of conversion

Christianity has done something which is totally revolutionary. Christ did not say “I have the truth”, he said “I am the truth”, Moses did not say so, Buddha did not say so, Mohammed did not say so. Christ alone claims that He is The Truth, capital T. Now, the very moment that you are confronted with the Truth, and you suddenly discover all the lies that are in us, there are two possibilities. Either you kneel down and adore and recognise Christ to be God, or you run away and say “depart from us, we can do without you”.

Once again let us turn to the New Testament. When Christ is about to be condemned, and He says “I have come to give testimony to the truth”, what does Pilate say? “What is the truth?” And runs off. He doesn’t wait for an answer, which Christ could have given him. He is not interested. He just raises a rhetorical question “What is the truth?” and takes off.

Or take Felix, the Roman Governor. When St. Paul was waiting to be sent to Rome, the Governor Felix came to see him almost daily because he enjoyed Paul’s brilliance and scholarship. These visits continued for a while, until one very fine day St. Paul had the unfortunate idea of mentioning chastity. The moment he spoke the word “chastity”, Felix got up, left and never came back. Can you guess why? I believe you can find the answer by yourself.

So the amazing thing we are going to discover is that theoretically all our universities accept in some way the pursuit of truth, but in fact when it comes to accepting a concrete truth that challenges me to change my life, we say “depart from us, we don’t want you.”

Fear of guilt

I happen to be a Benedictine Oblate, According to the Rule of St. Benedict, a sign that you have a Benedictine vocation is to love humiliation. Why? Because Christ was humiliated. We die to our fallen nature and we are reborn in Christ. In other words, holiness. The very moment that you realise that this is going to cost suffering and the cross, you’re going to say to yourself “There might be ways of escaping”. Apart from suffering and humiliation, which we dread, all of us, there’s something that we fear desperately and modern man believes that he has succeeded in eliminating this feeling, that is, guilt.

How many of my students when I was giving a course on ethics would raise their hand furiously and say “of course you’re trying to give us a bad conscience, but I’m not responsible for what I did, it’s my education or my genes or the society in which I live, but I’m not responsible. I’m guiltless”. Basically many psychiatrists are going to talk you out of a feeling of guilt and say “you’re not guilty, you’re just as good as anyone else”. The gospel of the New Age is love yourself, like yourself, you are fine, you are O.K. and I am O.K. and everybody’s O.K. and then we have a very happy world.

Now suppose that deep down in my soul I refuse to live up to the demands made by the Church, and the Church does make demands upon us, the Church challenges us to die to ourselves and to become new creatures. The Church invites us to receive the sacraments in a state of grace and if we fail to do so, to go to confession and to recognise our guilt and then the tremendous gift of absolution. “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven.” Not to have guilt without the possibility of believing in absolution is dreadful.

Unholy steps to catastrophe

Now suppose that I realise that the Church is making these demands upon me and I don’t want to listen to them, what do I do? I’m going to use unholy cleverness. Cleverness is not intelligence. Intelligence, according to Plato, is the capacity to distinguish between truth and error. Cleverness is the capacity to use your mind in such a fashion that you always manage to fend for yourself or to defend your position.

Go to the United States and you’re going to see how clever lawyers can be. When they defend a cause which is absolutely defenceless, they win because they are clever, because they can distort things, because they can create such confusion that in the end you don’t know the difference between black and white and true and false.

Now, I have found out from a long period of teaching at the City University, secular and to a large extent atheistic, that some of my least gifted students were very clever at defending themselves. We don’t want to live up to the demands of the Church, but we’re going to use our cleverness to escape from these demands. After a series of steps, the final step is going to lead us to the catastrophe that we are experiencing today, when there is an open war on the supernatural.

The first step is simply to pay lip service to the teaching of the Church. You recite the Credo and you know your Catechism, but there’s no relationship whatever between what you say and your life. You are a Sunday Catholic, you go to church, you bow and the rest of it and on Monday you live as a pagan, very comfortably. That’s step number one.

The second step is worse. Once you are just giving lip service to the Church, you’re going to go a little bit further and water down the teaching of the Church. What does it mean to “water down”? Let me quote Kierkegaard who has a superb formulation. He said: “Christ changed water into wine. Modern theologians do a lot better than that, they change wine into water”. Instead of seeing the Church as founded by Christ, instead of understanding that Peter has the keys; where Peter is, there is the Church, that he has this extraordinary position of re-presenting Christ, however unworthy he might be as an individual, he says “Well, you know, sociology has taught us that the Church is basically a human institution, flawed and weak, not to be taken that seriously.” You water it down.

Or, the third step goes a little bit further and this applies particularly to contraception. You go to confession and you say to the priest “I’m practising contraception”. The priest says to you “You know, I grant you the teaching of the Church presents an ideal, but the Church is a mother and knows that we are very weak and we cannot live up to that ideal. No one can, we are weak human beings, we’re imperfect. So, keep in mind the Church puts the clock one hour ahead of time; so even if you don’t quite make it according to your watch, keep in mind that you still have one hour and you still will make it. So therefore you can practise contraception, but nevertheless you can go to heaven because the Church does not expect perfection, it just shows a sort of ideal which is good to strive towards, but if you can’t do it the Church will understand.”

Once again, to quote Kierkegaard, who detected the war of the supernatural within the Protestant Church in the nineteenth century and fought relentlessly against it, the next step is more subtle and more devastating and this is something which is very widespread today and it leads to the catastrophe which we are going to examine.

Secularising the supernatural

The next step is to praise the supernatural very highly, but for purely secular reasons, not because it is supernatural, not because it comes from above, not because it is this holy jewel that fecundates our soul, but … let me give you a series of examples that I heard in articles, or books, or at conferences.

The Holy Virgin praised to the skies because of her vitality, physical strength and resistance. Just imagine, she becomes pregnant and then immediately she leaves Nazareth and walks all the way to Judea, no buses, no cars, no roads, no airplanes, mostly on foot, or donkey. Look at her strength.

And then, we read in the Gospel, when Christ was being crucified she stood at the foot of the cross, not collapsed, she did not become hysterical. She stood for hours. What vitality, what physical resistance and strength. Not a word about her spiritual and supernatural attitude, not a word about the fact that she was carrying the Son of God in her womb and that obviously she was carried by Angels, she was held by God, because she was totally receptive to his message.

At Hunter University, the Bible was praised for its literary beauty, but there was not one acknowledgment that it is the Word of God. It was recognised that the Bible was not Homer, not Dante, but nevertheless worth reading.

People rave about St. Francis, he was so jolly, he was fun, but that he sang out of love for God, not a word of it. Voltaire, one of the worst enemies of the Church, declared that there was only one saint to his taste, St. Vincent de Paul, because he was doing social work! Don Bosco is praised because he was a great educator.

On American TV Mother Teresa was praised because she started from scratch and built up a rather impressive religious organisation with great efficiency. That her efficiency was based on holiness, that she prayed five hours on her knees every day, that she relied totally on God and was carried by faith, not a word of that.

Pope John Paul II was praised by a priest for delivering the Christian message in 54 languages and covering great mileage during his Pontificate.

The next most vicious and dangerous step is to place nature above the supernatural.

The moment my husband entered the Church, he fell in love with the Church and that love lasted as long as he lived. He saw the Church as a living bride of Christ. He saw the Church with supernatural eyes. He knew full well that there were bad popes and mediocre prelates, but his vision of the Church never changed from the first day to the last.

At the University of Munich, he was warned not to mention religion, but to call it metaphysics. He was told off for giving precedence to his students who were priests when entering or leaving a room.

The conclusion that I’m drawing is man’s fallen nature is tricky and he’s doing everything to try to undermine the message of the supernatural so that we can live as we please.

The great divide

I’m going to make a suggestion. If you read articles, you’ll read that traditional Catholics are opposed to liberal Catholics, or you’re going to be told that traditional Catholics are too far right. Maybe the best Bishop we have in the United States, Bishop Bruskewitz of Nebraska, who is to my mind a very great man and a blessing for us, was accused and turned upon. He was to receive an Honorary Doctorate, and was turned upon because he was too far right and when he heard this he had a beautiful answer (and I thought he was quoting my husband): “Neither right nor left; higher and deeper.”

Now let us abolish the terms “conservative” or “liberal”, the terms “left” and “right” which are secularistic. I suggest that we say from now on “those who have kept the sense of the supernatural and those who have lost it”. That is the great divide, that is the essence.

Do you look at the Church and her teaching, whether dogmatic or moral, with a supernatural eye, or do you look at it with secular lenses? That is the divide. Left and right confuses the issue. Let us re-discover the greatness and the beauty of the supernatural and I claim that it is so difficult in the polluted world in which we live, that if we don’t pray for it every single day, we are going to be infected. It is the air that you breathe, the newspaper that you read, the television show that you see, time and again you will see this is a fight and attack on the supernatural.

Understanding a celibate clergy

Now today, after we have gone through these various steps, the supernatural has been eroded, particularly from the time of the Renaissance and from the time of the Protestant Deformation. It has been so weakened that today people lay down the mask and there is an open rebellion against the teaching of the Church. The Resurrection of Christ is denied, whether Christ actually founded the Church is challenged, the authority of Peter is rejected, the presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist is no longer believed in by the majority of Catholics, who get no Catholic education, or get a Catholic education which is a scandal and which must make the angels in Heaven cry; the celibacy of priests is rejected and the ordination of women advocated.

Feminism is one of the greatest threats to the Church. I have spent the last ten years fighting feminism in all its forms in the United States.

Now let me say one word about the celibacy of priests.

I claim that if you lose sight of the supernatural, you will never understand why there should be a celibate clergy. You’ve already chosen the secularistic norm and then say “Well, after all, Freud has convinced us that to have a sexual life is good and healthy and good for your nerves and if you don’t have that sort of thing then obviously you’re going to be crippled and you’re going to be repressed and you’re going to have all sorts of psychological problems. So why shouldn’t priests get married? And on top of it, there are so very few priests today and if you want to attract more vocations, let us abolish celibacy.”

If you look at it from a supernatural point of view and you understand the extraordinary dignity granted to priests, the overwhelming gift which given to them, supernaturally, to become another Christ, to be able to change bread and wine into His Holy Body and Blood, to be able to say to someone “your sins are forgiven” and they are forgiven, this calls for a total self-donation.

I heard a very famous Catholic prelate, very high up who would say “I truly do not know why celibacy is required of priests”. The sexual sphere is something very mysterious and very profound. So to speak, it is man’s secret, a great mystery which is confided to us and which is meant to be shared only in marriage as an expression of the total self-donation to another person. If there is something that the priest is called upon, it is to give himself completely and totally to God and this implies precisely the sealing of the sexual sphere because it symbolises that particular dimension of donation. This is what happens in marriage. The husband gives himself to the wife and vice versa. It’s not just a biological act, it is a profound psychological donation to another person.

Innumerable priests do their very best to make you forget they are priests, by dressing like lay people or cracking coarse jokes like lay people and then feel somehow they are in with the spirit of the times.

Woman’s religious mission

But let me turn to the question of feminism which has been one of my great concerns. Feminism started as a sort of revolt against sometimes very unfair and unjust treatment of women and one of my delights at City University, day after day, was how stupid my colleagues considered me. For a long time I was the only woman in the Department. And they used to say “A woman, how can you teach philosophy?” It’s very tragic, but what can you do? There is a history of male accomplishments.

If you read the Gospel, women play a very secondary role. Even the Holy Virgin is mentioned very rarely and speaks very little. The very moment that you put on supernatural lenses you are going to come to the strange conclusion that it is a privilege to be a woman. It is a privilege precisely because, to be in the background, from a secularistic point of view, to be humiliated, which often happens, is a tremendous supernatural advantage.

This is something St. Teresa understood so profoundly. It is not true that to be humiliated is to be inferior. It is not true that to be subject to one’s husband is to be inferior. If you read the Gospel of St. Luke when Christ was found in the Temple in Jerusalem and then went back to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph, it is said “He was subject to them”.

Would you like to be in the situation of St. Joseph or in the situation of Mary? St. Joseph had original sin and was a creature. Mary had no original sin and was a creature. And the Child Jesus was God. And Who was subject to whom? God was subject to these creatures. It’s not a comfortable position to give orders to someone who is Divine. Therefore to be subject does not mean to be inferior, but it means simply the supernatural outlook that to accept humiliation is to come very close to God, because that is our way to Paradise. It’s a blessing. But I claim that women have a particularly religious mission.

Why a religious mission?

Because women, by their very nature are more receptive than men. You see this in the mystery of the sexual sphere. The woman is receptive, which doesn’t mean passive. That was one of the dreadful confusions made by Aristotle, that he identified passivity and receptivity and then declared the male superior to the female, which is a pagan nonsense.

The woman has a great advantage over the human male, she is receptive and religiously speaking, receptivity is a crucial virtue. The Holy Virgin taught us that when she said at the Annunciation “Be it done to me according to Thy Word”. She wasn’t doing, she said “be it done”. In other words she was receptive and her receptivity enabled the Holy Spirit to fecundate her and at that very moment the Son of God was made incarnate in her womb.

St. Teresa of Avila and St. Peter Alcantara say that many more women than men receive extraordinary mystical graces, and if you study the history of mysticism you will be amazed how many more women than men were mystics. Why? They are more receptive and you see, towards God we are all females. A saint becomes a male saint because he learned to be receptive to God’s grace. “Give it to me, O Lord, I cannot do it by myself”.

The mystery of femininity

The woman is in a very particular way the guardian of purity and in the world in which we live, the world of sexual perversions and disaster, maybe it can be said this is because women have failed in their mission to stand for purity.

And why do I say she stands for purity and for virginity?

There’s something very interesting. If you look at the liturgy there are special Masses for popes, for apostles, martyrs, non-martyrs, confessors, non-confessors and when you turn to women, you have only two categories, virgin/non-virgin, martyr/non-martyr. This is something extremely interesting. There is no Mass for celibates, none, but there is a Mass for virgins.

This indicates very plainly that there is something extraordinarily great and mysterious about femininity. And why do I say it is so great and so mysterious? Because you all know that every little girl that is born, is born with a seal, so to speak, protecting the mystery of her femininity, which is the womb. There is a seal and if you understand, a seal always indicates something which is sacred. The seal, which doesn’t exist in the male body, is profoundly symbolic and says this belongs to God in a special way. This is a sphere which is so beautiful and so profound that it cannot be touched upon, except with God’s permission, in a Catholic marriage.

When a girl or young woman is permitted to give the keys of this mysterious domain, this closed garden, to her husband-to-be, she says: “Up until now I have kept this garden virginal, now God has given me the keys and is allowing me to give them to you and I know that you will penetrate into it, with trembling reverence and gratitude”. The moment that a woman is embraced by her husband and a few hours afterwards she conceives, in this very moment, something absolutely amazing happens which once again illuminates the greatness of femininity. Neither husband nor wife can create a human soul. God alone can.

Of course there is the male seed and there is the female egg. These are material realities that God has put into the bodies and when they are united, an amazing thing happens. God creates a new human soul, totally new, which never existed before. Where? In the mystery of the female body. This is where the soul is conceived. It has nothing to do with the husband. The husband is out of the game at this point and the very moment that God creates a soul he implies that there is a special contact between God and the female body, so to speak, touching it in creating it. Once again, what an extraordinary privilege.

Sacred veiling

And this is why the female body should be veiled because everything which is sacred calls for veiling. When Moses came down form Mount Sinai, he veiled his face. Why did he veil his face? Because he had spoken to God and at that very moment there was a sacredness that called for veiling.

Now the stupid feminists after Vatican II suddenly “discovered” that when women go to Church veiled, it is a sign of their inferiority. The man takes off his hat and the woman puts on a veil. My goodness, how they have lost the sense of the supernatural. Veiling indicates sacredness and it is a special privilege of the woman that she enters church veiled.

You see the Church recognises things so profoundly that in some way you can say she has always recognised the special dignity granted to women. You cannot be a Christian and not recognise the privilege that it is to be a woman, because the most perfect of all creatures, the only creature born without original sin, is a woman and therefore once again you understand the extraordinary privilege of being one and having this image of the Holy Virgin, who was both Virgin and Mother and the two go beautifully together.

Virginity and maternity

It’s not so that if you remain a virgin you are going to have no children. The women who have most children are virgins. Mother Teresa of Calcutta had millions of children. You know in the best of cases women can have 18 or 20. Today they no longer do that, but it used to be the case. But if you are a virgin and you give yourself completely and totally, you become a mother to millions of people, begging for your help and begging for love because basically, what is maternity? Maternity is so holy, because it is to accept to suffer that someone may be born and therefore there is a beautiful parallel between maternity and the sacrifice of the Cross.

Christ accepted to die that we may be re-born to Eternal Life. In some way you can see this charism of women. Either virginity which can be combined with maternity or maternity without virginity are so sublime and are so beautiful that these two charisms are incompatible with the priesthood. They just don’t go together. The moment that you realise you have a maternal vocation, the moment that you realise you are called to virginity, it excludes the priesthood. They don’t go together. You cannot have all the charisms and what a blessing that men have the priesthood, because otherwise they could develop complexes of inferiority which would be a catastrophe because they don’t like it. As a matter of fact I think they would be very disturbed suddenly to realise the greatness of femininity.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta said “A woman cannot become a priest. There was only one creature on earth who could say with truth ‘This is My Body, This is My Blood’, the Holy Virgin and she was not chosen to be a priest.” Therefore let us accept and realise to be a priest as St. Paul says quite explicitly, God chooses who is going to be a priest and he happens to have chosen the male sex. However, some stupid women would like to sell the privilege of their femininity, the mystery of their femininity, the sacredness of their femininity, their maternal vocation, to become priests and to steal it from men who have received it from God Himself. The Church has always honoured women in an extraordinary way.

Overcoming the evil of feminism

If you study pagan art, you will see that the pagans glorified the male genitals. The male organ was considered to be the symbol of strength and power. If you go to Pompeii or to Athens, to pagan countries, the male organ was always the one that was honoured.

When the Church took over, she waged war on this pagan cult. She eliminated it, she fought against it. Sometimes you find remnants in pagan cultures, but the very moment the Church came it was officially eliminated and what did she do? She replaced it by a prayer, prayed by millions of people, day after day, century after century, which makes an explicit reference to the female organ par excellence, the womb: “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus”. That is the place that the Church gives to women in the Church.

Therefore let us realise the tremendous greatness of the mission women have received and make them realise that they have to wake up to the greatness of this mission, to fight for it and to overcome the catastrophe and evil of feminism.

I have not chosen to be a woman, but the more I meditate on the Christian message, I am grateful I am one.

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