Ideas for Pastoral Ministry from the Philosophy of Love of Dietrich Von Hildebrand

art for The Philosophy of Love of Dietrich Von Hildebrand by Rhonda Chervin

My Encounter with the Philosophy of Love of Dietrich Von Hildebrand
In the year 1958, I was a young atheist philosophy major about to give up on finding truth or love—as I couldn’t find either truth or love at the non-religious universities where I had studied.

By a “miracle,” I saw Dietrich and Alice (then Jourdain) Von Hildebrand on a TV show called “The Catholic Hour,” talking about truth and love as if they were real. By age twenty-one, after graduate study of philosophy at Fordham University under Dietrich Von Hildebrand, I became a Catholic. Eventually I became a teacher of Catholic philosophy myself.1

At Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, I devised an elective course called Philosophy of Love. It was based on the ideas of D. Von Hildebrand, primarily from his classic early book, Marriage,2 and his later book, The Heart.3

Since I am more of a popularizer than a scholar, pretty soon I developed a way of presenting Von Hildebrand’s great ideas in an interactive form. These truths were so appreciated by students that my teaching manuals gradually became little books. These I taught not only in university classes, but also at seminaries and parish workshops. Recently I combined four of these short books into one volume, entitled: The Way of Love: The Battle for Inner Transformation.4

When the editors of HPR asked me for an article, I thought it might be of value to you to offer some of the key insights of Von Hildebrand’s philosophy of love as I teach it—ideas useful to you in your ministries.

At the first session of my classes on philosophy of love, I start by asking the students what few words they would use to describe what love is. Invariably, they use the words “caring” or “sacrifice.” Obviously, those virtues are part of love, especially “agapic” love, but a new perspective comes to them when I give them this description by Dietrich Von Hildebrand which concerns love for other persons: “Love is a response to the unique preciousness of the other.”

I explain the use of the word “unique” in this sentence in this way. I ask: “How many of you have ever fallen in love?” With rare exceptions, everyone says they have. Then I point out that if we only loved certain qualities, there were plenty of other people who manifested goodness, smartness, piety, charm, etc. “How come you fell in love with this one?”

Von Hildebrand’s answer is that when we love another, we are given a glimpse of the love with which God created that unique individual. This is especially true in applying his words to falling in love, but also pertains to other types of love. If we think of poor people as just statistics, obviously none of them has enough value as a unique person for me to donate my precious time, or hard-earned money!

Another main concept explained in Von Hildebrand’s book, The Heart, involves whether love is a matter of the will, or of feelings.

In my book, The Way of Love, here is the way I explain why Von Hildebrand rejected the idea so often proclaimed in our times that “love is not a matter of feelings, but a matter of the will.”

Love: a Matter of the Will, or of the Heart?

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… you shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:37-39)

“Love is not a matter of feeling, but of the will,” we are often told. This sounds as if it contradicts the famous words of Our Lord in the passage quoted above, about loving God with your whole heart. Confusing?

Let’s look at a few examples:

Alicia is the mother of a newborn baby. She feels delight in her little child, but she doesn’t feel happy when she’s changing diapers. A more seasoned mother tells her: “Look, love isn’t a feeling. It’s a matter of will. If you love your baby, you have to do things you don’t feel like doing.”

Clear enough!

But, look at another example. John works at a job he hates because he loves his wife and children, and he wants to bring home the paycheck that feeds, clothes, and houses them. However, when he walks in the door each evening, he fails to smile at his wife or children. For dinner, he grabs his plate, and strides into the family room where he spends the whole evening drinking a six-pack of beer while watching sports. He has used his will to do the loving thing by working at his job, but since he doesn’t feel love in his heart when he is at home. The wife and kids, though grateful for his support, don’t feel very loved on a day-to-day basis.

Could it be that love is both an act of the will and also a feeling?

In his book, The Heart, Dietrich Von Hildebrand throws light on the way the heart and the will need to work together for love to be complete.

Von Hildebrand teaches that it is out of the heart that love is expressed. In his book, he shows how some thinkers over-emphasize the intellect and the will over the heart because of false ideas about our emotions. Some feelings are not in our direct control, such as feeling blue on a grey day, or tired because of not enough sleep. Sometimes we give into irrational bad moods or, worse, into extreme feelings of rage or despair. But we also have feelings in our hearts which are neither out of control or irrational such as joy, peace, hopefulness, gratitude and … deep, authentic love.

The Way of Love involves growing in the right kind of emotions. Such feelings are described by Von Hildebrand as responses to genuine values. How so? Consider the joy you have in your faith that there is a God of love who cares for you. The feeling of joy is a response to this great truth and reality. Consider the grief you experience when a beloved person dies and leaves this world. The feeling of sadness is a response to your experience of loss because, even though you believe his or her soul still exists, this person will be, outside of a supernatural vision, invisible to you until the Day of Judgment.

When God teaches us to love him, and each other, with all our hearts, he surely hopes that we will experience this love, more and more, as an emotion based on gratitude for God’s gifts of our creation and redemption. As Von Hildebrand put it: God does not command us to act “as if” we loved God and neighbor, but to really love God and our neighbor.

Does Von Hildebrand mean it is wrong to do loving things, such as changing diapers, working at a job we hate, or going to Holy Mass on Sunday when we don’t feel like it? Of course not!

The key concepts here are what Von Hildebrand calls “sanction” and “disavowal.” To sanction something is to affirm it. To disavow something is to reject it. These are decisions that include acts of the intellect, and the will. Let me explain.

In the example given above concerning the mother of the baby, she feels joy (in her heart) as she gazes upon her child. She might think (an act of the mind) to herself: “How happy I am to have my little darling.” Then, she might decide (an act of the will) to thank God for this great gift. That is to sanction (affirm) her joy. When she thinks of the unpleasant chore of changing diapers, she might disavow (reject) her feeling of disgust by thinking to herself: “Well, diapers are yucky, but my baby is surely worth it.” She might make a decision (an act of will) in the future to sing a little song when she is changing diapers.

The father who hates his job may use his will-power to overcome the bad mood he has after work. He might disavow (reject) his usual grumpy ways because he thinks about how sad his family is that he is so unfriendly. He can sanction (affirm himself) whenever he succeeds in being more friendly toward his wife and family, and spending more time with them.

Over time, the heart can grow in loving feelings through the help of the intellect and will’s “sanctions and disavowals.”

Now here is the interactive part of this teaching of mine which are based on D. Von Hildebrand’s ideas concerning willing and feelings.

Spiritual Exercise
Watch yourself tonight and tomorrow, and make a list on paper, or in your head, of loving thoughts, words, and deeds that come from the heart, and those that come more from the will in the form of sanctioning or disavowing them.

For example: you gave a newcomer at the Way of Love session a smile, a handshake, or a hug as he or she was leaving. This was a spontaneous little deed of love. You sanctioned it. Later, you failed to greet someone you live with because you didn’t feel like talking to anyone. Then, you disavowed this neglect and, in a loving act of will, you sat down next to him or her and asked: “How was your day?”

For Personal Reflection and Group Sharing:
On average how much comparative time in your life do you give to:

  1. Thinking, as in analyzing things such as news items, work projects, personal problems (the intellect);
  2. Deciding, as in planning for the short or long term future (the will);
  3. Feeling, not as a matter of good or bad moods but as in genuine value response (the heart).

If you wish, write a percentage next to each of the above categories.

You might write a prayer for growth in one of these areas that you think you need to be better at:

  1. Do you try to get away from feelings because they sometimes seem to you to be uncontrollable, or irrational, or painful?
  2. Do you think you might experience more love of God and others in your life if you were willing to risk more?
  3. How do you think the relationship between the will and the heart should be understood? 

Distortions of the Heart to be Overcome
The intellect, even though capable of arriving at important truths of all kinds, after the Fall, can also be skewed toward error or rationalization in a deadly manner. But we don’t consider that this means the intellect is not a good.

In a different way, Von Hildebrand points out that the heart, though created for response to deep objective values, can also be skewed toward irrational states. But we shouldn’t consider that this means the heart is not a good.

Here are some of his insights, with examples I like to use to illustrate them:

  • Rejection of Tender Affectivity but Reveling in Dynamic Affectivity
    Many people who avoid tender emotions—such as manifesting weakness by crying even when that would be the right response—nonetheless have no trouble manifesting anger or lust. Such dynamic emotions seem to them to demonstrate vigor and strength. Can you think of any Catholics who reject religious statues as sentimental, and would never have pictures of Mary, or the Crucifix, in their living rooms, but, nonetheless, think nothing of growling curses out the window at bad drivers?
  • Hypertrophy of the Heart
    By this unusual term, Von Hildebrand refers to those who are truly over-emotional in situations which require the intellect and will to reign. The mind would tell one that it is wrong to give money to an addict who will use it to get harmful substances. Someone, however, with hyper-feelings may decide to give them the money out of compassion. How many times do we hear Catholics admit that the teachings of the Church on, say, contraception, are good but, just the same, they feel that it cannot be wrong to use them in their own situation.
  • Affective Atrophy
    In the chapter on the Heart, devoted to this subject, Von Hildebrand brilliantly describes phenomena such as “the spectator stance” where some of us are so busy analyzing things, that we rarely move out with tender, caring love to those around us. Sometimes, I see someone in a pew crying silently, with tears running down his/her cheeks. Even if I don’t know that person’s name, I will generally walk over, and offer comfort. That so few would do so, may be part of the reason why some non-Catholic Christians from small churches, think our Catholic churches are cold and unfriendly!
  • Other Defects of the Heart
    Even more serious are syndromes such as “heartlessness” caused by those whose feelings are hardened by over-ambitiousness or anger. A form of what Von Hildebrand calls “the tyrannical heart” occurs when someone is consumed with concern for their own selves, viewing every neutral action of others as a slight, or unbearable rejection. A form I have observed in myself, and some others, is to consider that psychological wounds of the past entitle us to lavish compensation from family and friends.

The Heart of Jesus
The second part of the book, “The Heart,” is about the Heart of Jesus, where we review the beautiful, heart-felt scenes of Scripture—such as Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman taken in adultery—and consider how Jesus taught us to love, as did the father in the Gospel story of “The Prodigal Son.”

We hear such passages read so often at Holy Mass and, yet, how many of us think we have forgiven others because we made an act of the will to do so, yet still harbor resentment and anger in our hearts! What freedom for our souls when the heart joins the will, with compassionate forgiveness, for those who have hurt us!

The Litany of the Sacred Heart, with all its responses to the Heart of Jesus, rounds out Von Hildebrand’s demonstrations of the role of the heart in our Christian life.

I highly recommend that those in pastoral ministry get a copy of this book, The Heart, written by Dietrich Von Hildebrand.

And, if you agree with his insights, but think the writing could be a little over the heads of those you want to reach out to, consider my popularized version of many of his ideas: The Way of Love: The Battle for Inner Transformation. It’s 400 pages of teachings, and suggestions for personal reflection, and group prayer, put together for a measly $10 soft-cover, and costs even less for use on Kindle!

  1. See my auto-biography, En Route to Eternity, Miriam Press.
  2. Manchester, N. H.: Sophia Institute Press, 1984.
  3. South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2007
  4. Create Space Books/Amazon, 2013
Ronda Chervin, PhD About Ronda Chervin, PhD

Dr. Ronda Chervin is an Emerita Professor of Philosophy at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Previously she has taught at Loyola Marymount University, St. John's Seminary of Los Angeles, and Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is the author of some 77 books in the area of Philosophical Spirituality and presents on EWTN and Catholic Radio. She is a Dedicated Widow.


  1. Avatar Clara Sarrocco says:

    I would like to thank Dr. Chervin for her fine article on Dietrich von Hildebrand’s philosophy of love. I was fortunate enough to have been a student of Dr. William A. Marra at Fordham Universitiy. Dr. Marra was probably the foremost American proponent of von Hildebrand’s philosophy for all the years that he taught in Fordham’s Philosophy Department. For that I will always be grateful.