Dietrich von Hildebrand on the Natural Ends of Religion

The ultimate aim of all authentic religious practice, von Hildebrand always insists, is the creation of a truly supernatural life in the soul of the believer, in order to bring him to a final end with God that fallen nature can never hope to achieve with its own resources.

The Good Shepherd

Few Christian philosophers of the 20th century have had as keen an appreciation of the spiritual and religious nature of the human person as did Dietrich von Hildebrand.  One need only recall the first lines of his classic Transformation in Christ to see the supreme importance of the supernatural destiny to which every man and woman is summoned:

God has called upon us to become new men in Christ. … This new life … is not merely a moral perfection qualitatively identical with natural morality, owing its supernatural meaning only to a super-additive gift of grace; it is Christ’s supernatural wealth of virtue, which in its very quality represents something new and distinct from all merely natural virtue. 1

At the same time, von Hildebrand consistently and explicitly denied that this religious destiny requires the destruction of our human nature, or that our supernatural end should even be seen as in fundamental tension with the ends to which we are directed by nature.  The venerable theological principle, “Grace builds on nature, it does not replace it,” clearly governs his philosophy.  However, while everyone knows that von Hildebrand considered religion to be of supreme importance in the supernatural life of man, little has been written about his understanding of the role of religious belief and worship (Christian or non-Christian) in ordering us towards our purely natural ends, or to put it in his language, in enabling us to achieve at least some of the purely natural “objective goods for the person.”  To correct this neglect, this paper will examine von Hildebrand’s understanding of the “natural” ends of religion, and show how they contribute to the supernatural goals of all true religion.

In order to better appreciate von Hildebrand’s understanding of the “natural ends” of religious worship, I will first provide a brief overview of his understanding of the distinction and relationship between the natural and supernatural elements of the person.  Next, I will identify some of those “objective goods for the person” that are proper to man as a natural being and, thus, do not require the gift of grace for their accomplishment.  Finally, I will explore how, for von Hildebrand, religious belief and practice contributes to the accomplishment of these natural ends.  While enabling man to reach these “natural” goods is obviously not the primary purpose of religion (which is the transformation of the personality of the believer through grace), it is, nevertheless, a real and important effect of religion that can be defended on a purely philosophical basis.

On Nature and the Supernatural in Man
At the heart of the mystery of human existence, setting us apart from all other creatures, is the presence of both a natural and a supernatural life within man, distinct from one another but interrelated, and unique within the created order: “To be endowed with this supernatural life presupposes the existence of the natural ontological basis, that is to say, the essence of the person.  Such a supernatural life could never be granted to an inanimate thing, or to a merely living creature such as a plant or animal.” 2  In book after book, von Hildebrand railed against the attempts of modern science, philosophy, and even theology to deny this fundamental distinction within man.  Consider his attack on Teilhard de Chardin, whom he correctly accused of:

…utter philosophical confusion, especially in his conception of the human person.  I was even more upset by his theological primitiveness.  {Teilhard} ignored completely the decisive difference between nature and supernature. … When our talk touched on St. Augustine, he exclaimed violently, “Don’t mention that unfortunate man; he spoiled everything by introducing the supernatural.”  This remark confirmed the impression I had gained of the crass naturalism of his views. 3

Against such reductive and anti-supernatural views of man, which in one version or another are ubiquitous in the modern world, von Hildebrand insists that one must never forget that man is ultimately directed toward a supernatural end as his highest good, or view his natural existence in total isolation from it.  Thus, in his Ethics he writes: “If we stress the completely new splendor of the virtues of the new creature in Christ, we should, nevertheless, not forget that all natural morality finds its fulfillment in it.  The virtues of the new creature in Christ are the fulfillment foreshadowed by all moral goodness. … Important as is the distinction between saintliness and mere natural morality, we should not lose sight of their deep interrelation.” 4

However, while forcefully affirming the reality of a supernatural level of existence in man against Teilhardian naturalism, von Hildebrand wisely refuses to swing to the opposite extreme that would deny that man also possesses a properly natural and non-supernatural level of existence.  Both extremes miss the uniquely mixed character of human existence, and their opposite departures from the truth ultimately meet again (like the ends of a line that curves into a circle).  Thus, in comments directed against Teilhard—but equally applicable to such modernist theologians as Henri de Lubac and Karl Rahner, who would conflate the natural and the supernatural orders—von Hildebrand writes: “Yet great and mysterious as is the concursus divinus—that is, the support God gives at every moment of our natural existence, without which we would sink back into nothingness—there is an abyss separating this natural metaphysical contact from grace.” 5  In other words, the presence of a supernatural existence in man never abolishes or suppresses the natural existence of man.

One more caveat is necessary here if we are to understand von Hildebrand’s understanding of human existence.  There could be no error more typical of the materialistic and positivistic errors of modern culture than the tendency to equate the physical existence of man with his “nature,” and his spiritual existence with the “supernatural.”  Since science claims to deal solely with the natural world, while the spiritual being of man is what makes him alone capable of a supernatural destiny, a modern world enthralled with science and secularism has tended to identify “human nature” with “physical existence.”  Nothing could be more mistaken.

“Spiritual” and “supernatural” are not synonyms, but instead refer to two fundamentally different orders within creation, effecting two distinct perfections within man.  Thus, he writes:

This natural basis is the existence of man as a spiritual person, the presence of spiritual “organs” such as the powers of knowing, willing, loving.  To these should be added the special natural tendencies received by man through heredity.  The supernatural basis of the imitation of Christ is the divine life implanted in us by baptism, and which is restored, fortified, or supplemented in us through the other sacraments.” 6

And this natural basis of human existence, including as it does both physical and spiritual faculties, is neither destroyed nor necessarily perfected in and of itself by the achievement of one’s supernatural end: “Of course, grace does not replace but transfigures nature.  If an intellectually ungifted man attains sainthood, he does not suddenly acquire a philosophical or theological genius.” 7  Far less, it goes without saying, does achievement of one’s natural ends necessarily move one towards his supernatural goal.

Thus, von Hildebrand clearly and unequivocally affirms that there is within man a truly natural, that is, non-supernatural level of existence, and that this natural existence includes both the physical and the spiritual levels of our existence.  And while this natural existence finds its ultimate fulfillment in the supernatural destiny of the beatific vision, insofar as it is natural, it must also have its own proper goods that can properly be identified and accomplished apart from the order of grace and, therefore, without immediate reference to the supernatural order.  These ends, capable of attainment by the natural operations of the person, really do result in the attainment of at least some of what von Hildebrand called “objective goods for the person.”  What are some of these naturally obtainable “objective goods”?

On the Objective Goods for the Person
In discussing the “objective goods for the person” in his Ethics, von Hildebrand recognizes their great diversity.  At the lowest level are “things indispensable for our life: food, a roof to shelter us, etc., primarily the indispensable elementary necessities of our life, and secondarily useful goods.” 8  This class of “objective goods,” determined entirely by our physical nature, is certainly indispensable for our bodily existence, but their significance really reaches no higher than that level of our being.  We can obtain them without any supernatural assistance, but their rank in the scale of all goods is quite low.  As von Hildebrand says of them, “these goods do not bestow happiness on us, but … their absence is a source not only of suffering but even of absolute misery.” 9   Despite their necessity, these “objective goods” do not directly touch the spiritual existence of man but instead pertain only to our physical being. To that extent, they are not really “human” goods at all in any distinctive sense, but rather only animal or organic goods whose necessity we share with non-spiritual beings such as plants and animals.

Since the spiritual existence of man is not merely a part of human nature alongside his physical existence, but is infinitely superior to physical existence, the higher and properly “human” objective goods must relate to our spiritual nature.  They need not be purely spiritual goods, of course, without any reference to our bodily existence, but to be truly “human” goods their significance must extend beyond the merely physical level of human existence.  What “humanizes” these goods is their reference to our spiritual nature.  For instance, von Hildebrand distinguishes between the biological “end” of sex, namely, procreation, and its spiritual “meaning,” that is, the expression of a spiritual union between husband and wife.  Without reference to this spiritual union, sex remains a physical and essentially animal act, rightly distrusted by the Christian and philosophical tradition.  As he explains in Man and Woman, “As long as one sees sex as a mere instinct—as long as it is placed on the same level with hunger or thirst—one remains blind to its true nature.  One may study the Kinsey report, one may read treatises on the physiology of sex, but they will not help one bit in detecting the true nature and meaning of sex.” 10

Thus, the objective goodness of conjugal love for a person arises not from its physical function—neither its pleasure nor its biological utility—but from its spiritual significance.  This automatically places it on the much higher level of “objective goods for the person, … which are able to bestow true happiness upon us because of their value (emphasis added).  Again, we are faced with an enormous scale of objective goods for the person, culminating in the eternal union with God (i.e., beatitude) and embracing love union with human persons, the possession of a truth, dwelling in a beautiful country, etc.” 11  Some of these spiritual goods (e.g., beatitude) require grace for their perfect possession, while others (e.g., truth) do not, but all are properly human goods insofar as they direct our spiritual being towards the realm of values: the intellect knows the truth, the heart responds to beauty, the will desires the highest good.  In grasping these, we come to enjoy the objective goods for which our most basic spiritual faculties (intellect, heart, will) are intended.

A third type of objective good for the person, von Hildebrand tells us, is for the person actually “to be endowed with moral values.  To be morally good, to be intelligent, to have charm, all this is objectively in line with our own good; it is objectively of benefit to us.” 12  At the highest level, such objective goods include “the ultimate objective good for us, the similitudo Dei,” 13 in which we actually come to instantiate fully the imago Dei in which the human person is made.  This particular objective good, of course, requires the workings of grace in our fallen state.  But even the non-supernatural goods of this order, such as physical attractiveness, a personality that draws others to us, a well-trained intellect, etc., are all real and objective goods that perfect our nature and actually endow us with a higher value and goodness than we would possess without them.  Unlike the simple possession of an objective good, this third type of objective good consists in the actual embodiment and instantiation of goodness by the person.

However, since both these types of higher objective goods for the person relate to the spiritual being of man, their enjoyment can never terminate in some splendid, self-sufficient isolation from the world and our fellow human beings.  Rather, it must find its fullest expression in a spiritual communion with others.  As he and his wife, Alice, write in The Art of Living: “Precisely on account of this selfhood, man is destined to enter into communion with other persons, and it is through this communion that he fulfills himself.  … The climax of communion between persons is reached in love.” 14  Through this communion of love with our fellow men, we come to enjoy the highest objective goods for the person in the most perfect manner, that is, selflessly and benevolently.  Here we reach the very peak of man’s natural existence and glimpse beyond it into man’s supernatural destiny.  This selfless and benevolent attitude, von Hildebrand writes, “flows out of charity, the very core and summit of all moral goodness, by which God is glorified more than by all else.” 15  Thus, in the final analysis, the purely natural possession and instantiation of values, that is, the true “objective goods for the person,” lead one outside of oneself and into a communion with, and selfless concern for, other persons, the very edge of the order of grace.  Certainly, the coming together of the faithful in worship during the Mass should be seen as one of, if not the most perfect, instance of such a spiritual communion to which we are called both by nature and supernature.

Religion and the Natural Perfection of Man
Whatever their roles in the supernatural life of man, though, the “objective goods for the person,” to which we are directed by nature, relate primarily to the natural perfection of our spiritual faculties: the intellectual grasp of spiritual truth, the affective response of the heart to the aesthetic beauty, the desire of the will for the good.  All these ends are quite noble, but none are supernatural in the strict sense.  On the other hand, the “objective goods” toward which religion directs us, it would seem, ultimately exist in the order of grace and the supernatural, where God, through the sacraments, brings about the life of Christ in the soul of the believer.  How, then, can the practice of religion—which is intended to bring about in us the new life in Christ that is truly and irreducibly supernatural in character—contribute anything to the achievement of those “objective goods for the person” that are directed at the natural (and in this case, spiritual) basis of human existence?

To answer this, it is first necessary to understand what von Hildebrand understands by “religion” per se.  Here we must avoid the modern error of reducing religion to nothing more than an organized, institutionalized, and ritualized set of practices grounded in a system of beliefs about the divine.  These external, visible forms of religion, von Hildebrand insists, are only manifestations of the underlying spiritual attitude upon which such rituals and beliefs are built, and it is to this attitude that we must look to understand the “natural end” of religion.  Thus, von Hildebrand makes frequent reference in his writings to the virtue of religio, which he defines as “the attitude of our reverent submission to God and the world of values.” 16  This is a disposition in the soul, a habit (in the non-technical sense) of both recognizing and responding adequately to the world of values, and to the supernatural order that stands above us.  It is imparted to the soul through religious ritual and observance, which train the eyes of the soul to look up from the immediate demands of life, and the physical world, to the spiritual and divine.  That attitude, which con Hildebrand believed was expressed in an incomparably pure way in the Catholic liturgy, and especially in the Mass, is nevertheless not unique to it.  Rather, he writes in Liturgy and Personality:  “Plainly enough, the implicit presence in the liturgy of the notion of value is to be found in every religion.  The very nature of religio, of a bond toward God, implies the notion of the important-in-itself.” 17

Furthermore, to practice religion, to acknowledge the dignity of God, and to search for him above all else, cultivates in the soul the virtue of reverence:  “Reverence is the mother of all virtues, of all religion.  It is the foundation and the beginning because it enables our spirit to possess real knowledge, and primarily the knowledge of values. … In its most primitive form, reverence is a response to the general value of being as such.” 18  Religion, by its emphasis on the spiritual and the divine rather than the physical, and by the profoundly vertical orientation it imparts to our bodies and our souls whenever we worship God, trains one to expect and look for spiritual values and realities, and to give to them the adequate value-response they are due.  Indeed, the spiritual discipline it imposes on the soul provides a support for faith just as important, if not more so, than that given by philosophical reflection.  Von Hildebrand can thus write in Ethics: “Reverence is, at least in its most primitive form, the presupposition of faith, the praeambulum fidei.” 19

But, he tells us, this practice of religio, and the virtue of reverence that accompanies it, cannot be identified with the supernatural act of faith found in Christian worship.  It is instead a natural virtue, not unlike piety as discussed in Plato’s Euthyphro, whereby man acknowledges the authority and the goodness of God, not with his lips, but by the manner in which he lives and directs his life.  Thus understood, “religio, the fundamental bond to God in which lived the ‘just man’ of the Old Testament and also, to some extent, such a man as Socrates,” 20 can even encompass certain forms of paganism!  Socrates’ respect for and deference to his daimon was of a piece with his intellectual quest for knowledge of the forms.  Both presuppose not only the belief in a higher spiritual and intelligible world, but also a reverence for these that led Socrates to sacrifice his own life rather than refuse them an adequate value-response.

Of course, von Hildebrand is not endorsing here the all too common claim that there is truth to all religions, and certainly he rejects any kind of religious indifferentism.  Nothing could be further from his thought than the popular attitude of post-modernity that simultaneously affirms and dismisses all cultural manifestations of religion as equally “spiritual” and, therefore, equally irrelevant.  Rather, he insists, the fullness of moral existence, which engages the soul of man on both a natural and a supernatural level, can never be grounded on a primitive religio common to all men, since “full moral existence does not presuppose religion in general, but rather the true religion.” 21, pp. 15-60), 60.]  He rejects as entirely false “the oft-heard modern view of every well-disposed friend of religion, that everyone is really religious, that everyone has a God,” and that this “God” is truly known by each believer, and can provide an adequate basis for true morality. 22  In an example that proved prescient of the current infatuation for Eastern religion among some celebrities and intellectuals, von Hildebrand rejected any talk of “Buddhist holiness,” as if one could separate the quality of holiness from the truth of the religious system that produces it. 23  But note especially the example he gives here.  He does not single out Islam or Judaism or even Hinduism here, but rather Buddhism, the one major world religion that, in at least some manifestations, denies the existence of either God or the soul.  Therefore, it cannot cultivate the virtue of religio that would have the soul reverently turn its gaze toward the spiritual and the divine.

Ultimately, von Hildebrand insists, religion plays an essential role in the natural perfection of man because it forces man to take seriously and reverently those spiritual and divine realities toward which he is ordered as a spiritual being.  That is to say, it impresses upon man, in all its fullness, his status as a creature that exists within, and not over, the hierarchy of being that spans from the lowest inorganic matter to the Creator God Himself.  In its purest form, in the liturgy of the Church, this hierarchy of being is made manifest on both an intellectual and an aesthetic level and, therefore, man is perfected both as a natural and a supernatural being through participation in it.

On the other hand, the loss of religion, or the loss of this sense of a divine hierarchy to the universe within religious worship, leads not only to the loss of a supernatural life, but frequently even results in the inability to properly comprehend and order one’s natural existence.  Thus:

Man no longer wants to accept his character of a creature, to admit the fundamental religio toward something that is above him.  He refuses to submit to obligations not created by his free commitment, to look respectfully at great gods such as marriage, children, his own life.  He does not want to accept toward these goods the role of a mere administrator, but, on the contrary, he arrogates an arbitrary sovereignty over them.” 24

One need only look at our present society, and the present state of morality in the Church itself, to see how correct von Hildebrand was to discern and defend this properly natural end of religion, and to see the continuing relevance of his thought for contemporary culture.

The ultimate aim of all authentic religious practice, von Hildebrand always insists, is the creation of a truly supernatural life in the soul of the believer, in order to bring him to a final end with God that fallen nature can never hope to achieve with its own resources.  No one could ever be more opposed to a naturalistic reduction of religious belief than von Hildebrand.  That having been said, the practice of religion, insofar as it trains the believer to acknowledge a higher spiritual realm of values, and prepares him to both know and give an adequate response to it, also helps perfect man in his natural existence—a manifestly important, if not strictly speaking essential, precondition for the spiritual life.  Man’s intellectual capacity to know spiritual realities, his affective ability to respond adequately to them, and his volitional power to seek them at the expense even of his own life, are all natural powers that can be realized apart from the supernatural life of faith.  But they cannot, or at least cannot without great difficulty, be realized, or their proper “objective goods for the person” be obtained, without the virtues of reverence and religio that religious practice cultivates in the soul.

  1. Transformation in Christ (New York: Image, 1963), 7.
  2. Liturgy and Personality (Baltimore: Helicon, 1960), 23.
  3. Trojan Horse in the City of God (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1993), 273.
  4. Ethics (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1973), 178.
  5. Trojan Horse, 288.
  6. Liturgy and Personality (Baltimore: Helicon, 1960), 23. Emphasis added.
  7. Ibid., 20.
  8. Ethics, 394.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Man and Woman (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1965), 8.
  11. Ethics, 393-94.
  12. Ibid., 393.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Dietrich von Hildebrand and Alice Jourdain, The Art of Living (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1965), 50.
  15. Ethics, 404.
  16. Ethics, 402-03.
  17. Ibid., 78.
  18. Liturgy and Personality, 36.
  19. Ibid., 38.
  20. Ethics, 268.
  21. “Religion und Sittlichkeit,” in Die Menschheit am Scheideweg, (Gesammelte Abhandlungen und Aufsätze; Herausgegeben und eingeleitet von Karla Mertens [Regensburg: Josef Habbel: 1955
  22. Ibid., 59.
  23. Ibid.
  24. The New Tower of Babel, 171.
Dr. Lance Byron Richey About Dr. Lance Byron Richey

Dr. Lance Byron Richey is an associate professor of theology at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana.


  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    This article makes sense to anyone who is familiar with Western/Thomistic Philosophy. However, Contemporary United States is not a world defined by such terms. How does one engage a secular scientist in a dialogue on the nature of religion? If we are interested in evangelization, the philosophical basis for understanding religion must go beyond the traditional western Catholic ways of thinking. My world includes many Chinese friends; their world view differs radically from the one I grew up with as a traditional Catholic. How does a Catholic begin to open a dialogue with the Chinese, the majority of whom have been exposed to no religion?

    • Lance Richey Lance Richey says:

      As the author of the article, I fully recognize and acknowledge your concern here. I don’t think von Hildebrand (who was thoroughly defined by the western tradition) really recognized this problem about the transcultural (or not) character of religious sentiment. I have no answers to your question, but did want to acknowledge its validity. This might be the biggest question Christianity needs to confront in the coming century, both at home and abroad, as it were. Thanks for reading and asking!

  2. Avatar Dane E. Ryan says:

    With regards to his vision of the gracing of the Universe, Teilhard is not promoting a pantheistic naturalism but simply the teaching of St. Paul, “He who descended is also the one who ascended high above the heavens that he might fill all things,” something also affirmed by the teaching of Bl. John Paul II, “The Incarnation of God the Son signifies the taking up into unity with God not only of human nature, but in this human nature, in a sense, of everything that is ‘flesh’: the whole of humanity, the entire visible and material world. The Incarnation, then, also has a cosmic significance, a cosmic dimension. The ‘first-born of all creation,’ becoming incarnate in the individual humanity of Christ, unites himself in some way with the entire reality of man, which is also ‘flesh’ and in this reality with all ‘flesh,’ with the whole of creation.”-Donum et Vificantem 50

    • Lance Richey Lance Richey says:

      I claim no special expertise in de Chardin, nor sympathy for him, and will just say that von Hildebrand read him from the critical perspective of Pius XII rather than the somewhat more generous view of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Von HIldebrand was certainly on the conservative side of the nature-grace debates of the Nouvelle Theologie, even if he didn’t participate in them. I will leave final judgment on Teilhard to others more qualified, and let my description of his views be qualified by “in von Hildebrand’s opinion”.


  1. […] The ultimate aim of all authentic religious practice, von Hildebrand always insists, is the creation of a truly supernatural life in the soul of the believer, in order to bring him to a final end with God that fallen nature can never hope to achieve with its own resources. The …read more […]