When Kung and Von Hildebrand Came to Loyola


In the middle of my junior year (1970-71) at Loyola University of Los Angeles (now Loyola Marymount University), we had two distinguished guest lecturers: Rev. Hans Kung and Professor Dietrich von Hildebrand. The contrasting manner of their reception at Loyola, as well as their personal effect on me, makes for an interesting story.
First, some background — though I do not mean to single out the Jesuits for criticism here; I believe the situation at their colleges was not significantly different from other Catholic colleges of the day. The whole atmosphere of Loyola at the time was one of progressive optimism, the throwing off of the shackles of outdated authority, and freedom-combined-with-sincerity — this was all man needed. Talk of truth and error (except in math and science), good and evil, much less of personal obedience and self-sacrifice, was rarely heard.
My first theology class at Loyola was a combination of leftist revolutionary propaganda and pick-and-choose existentialism. The lecturer eventually outlined seven options for human life, including nihilism and absurdism as courageous possibilities (with no mention of saintliness as the Catholic ideal), and told the students to just choose a perspective and be sincere and steadfast. My first philosophy class was a special topics course in the evolutionary “optimism” of Rev. Teilhard de Chardin, overlooking both original sin and redemption on the way to the omega point. I was a bit shocked, but I interpreted it all positively, giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. I thought perhaps they were trying to strengthen my faith by presenting challenges to it — though I wondered why there was no effort expended to defend the Faith or answer the objections presented by modern thinkers.
Humanae Vitae was never really discussed, just ridiculed. A common line repeated to students at the time was, “Why would you want a 70-year-old celibate in your bedroom with you?” (Of course, Paul VI had no desire to be in anyone’s bedroom; but he did feel bound to remind us that God — the God of life and love — is there.) Once when I went to the head of the theology department to discuss Humanae Vitae, he opened by noting, “Well, of course, we can throw out the idea that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth.”
At one point, a friend and I approached this same chairman to arrange a special topics readings course he had encouraged us to take on “the Humanity of Christ.” We met with him to choose the books and, similarly, he opened with, “What we want to get into here is heresy.” My friend and I chuckled, thinking he was joking. Very soon we realized that he was quite serious. We were somewhat shocked at first, but also, I’m afraid, impressed with both the chairman and ourselves. We felt the thrill of being on the cutting edge, of daring great and forbidden things; we were to be courageous pioneers, ready to defy even the authority of the Church. (That our “daring” might be more akin to that of Judas was at least still a dim worry in the back of our minds — though not a worry encouraged by our environment.)
Another theology professor, who advised my small-group Honors seminar (and who further advised us that he had lost his faith while studying in Rome, and encouraged us to “grow up” and be “realistic and skeptical,” as well) insisted that we read Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange as one of our Honors “classics” and see the newly released movie, condemned by the Church at the time for nudity and violence. (The original Honors Great Books reading list had been thrown out by the Jesuits, by the way; they didn’t want to impose on the poor students. Each seminar group of eight students chose its own “classics” by democratic vote. We read every camp classic of the 1960s, mostly instead of the Great Books.) Our adviser drove us to the theater and promptly produced a bottle of bourbon, passing it around to the students (some underage), saying “This is the kind of movie you have to see drunk.”
Later that year, the Jesuit scholastics put on a musical skit about the changes in the Church titled, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff!” It was rather well done, very funny and enjoyable, but it was also one of the last years they had enough Jesuit scholastics to put on a skit. In 1970 it was not yet evident to many people that the results of many of the changes would be so bad — optimism and forward-thinking ruled, and I was swept along with it. I had declared a psychology major, and therein was also treated to an extremely relativistic view of the human person — a mixture of Freudianism, behaviorism, and humanism — with little to be said for ethics or for God.{mospagebreak}
I mention all this to emphasize that, drifting along with the general atmosphere and the prevailing view of the Church, I was predisposed to view Kung favorably and von Hildebrand unfavorably. Indeed, the Jesuits did all they could to treat the former like a savior and the latter like a pariah. Kung was welcomed with open arms and celebrated; all the Jesuit scholastics were required to go hear his talk, and his arrival was greeted as the biggest event of the year. (This was before he was forbidden to present himself any longer as a Catholic theologian.)
On the other hand, von Hildebrand — author of the carefully reasoned critiques Trojan Horse in the City of God and Celibacy and the Crisis of Faith (The Devastated Vineyard was yet to be written), defender of Humanae Vitae, and devotee of the Latin Mass — was ostracized. Publicity for his talk was discouraged, it was hard to discover the time and place, and the Jesuits called a mandatory house meeting at the scheduled time to make sure none of the young scholastics could hear him. Thus from the general atmosphere I was inclined favorably toward Kung and a bit “on guard” about von Hildebrand.
The one positive thing I knew about von Hildebrand was that, in a class on Love and Friendship taught by his student Dr. Ronda Chervin, I had read his article “The True Meaning of Sex” and found it to be better than anything I had ever read on the topic in my psychology major or in any of my other classes. However, being more influenced by others at the time and afflicted with an inferiority complex about myself and my own opinions, it seemed safer and wiser to follow the prevailing opinions around me.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I happily went to see the great Kung — before whom the red carpet had been unrolled, before whom the Jesuits bowed and scraped, hoping they were making a good impression, hoping that they would be seen as avant-garde as the leading European thinkers — and instead had one of the most negative reactions to any person I have met in my life. The look on his face, the tone of his voice, the way he held himself, the manner of his response to questions, all combined to give me the most powerful impression of someone immensely pleased with himself, actually encouraging those around him to flatter him (and they happily obliged). The main point of his talk seemed to be that everything that ails either the Catholic or the protestant churches would be solved if they would only listen to Hans Kung.
By the end of Kung’s talk, I was extremely suspicious of his view of the Church, and therefore of the prevailing “Jesuit” view at Loyola. I was beginning to think that my own insights might be worth something, compared with those of the crowd. For this important step toward maturity, I shall be forever grateful to Hans Kung.
However, it wasn’t until I went to hear the von Hildebrands — despite Jesuit disapproval — that all of this really fell into place in a positive way. Dietrich, who had been scheduled for the talk, had been ordered by his doctor not to get too excited, so it was decided that Alice would substitute for him. He was in the audience — in my very row, as it turned out. She gave a brilliant talk on the manner in which Kierkegaard dealt with the theological liberals of his day using irony and humor, with evident and telling parallels to the liberal revolution infecting the Catholic Church after Vatican II. I began to understand why the Jesuits had called a house meeting to keep their “young ones” away.
And yet despite the depth and seriousness of what she was saying, Alice never spoke or behaved in such a way as to draw attention to herself — quite different from Kung — but rather focused on the matter at hand. As far as she was concerned, it wasn’t about her but about reality. How refreshing! I was deeply impressed with both her message and her manner. {mospagebreak}
All this time, Dietrich had sat quietly, resting his heart. However, in the question-and-answer session, when questions arose about the state of the Church, he could no longer contain himself. He stood up in the audience and spoke passionately and lovingly of Christ and the Church, using phrases I had not heard since grammar school, like “the Holy Roman Catholic Church.”
I was left several impressions that came together almost immediately.
First, here was someone who really believed, who humbly accepted revelation from God. He was not intent on figuring out how to get around Church teachings but on how to live them. Secondly, here was someone who really loved Christ and the Church with all his heart. He was full of gratitude for the Church, for its authority, its teachings, its sacraments. He was not resentful of the Church or her authority.
Third, here was a true apostle, proclaiming the truth — rather than his own truth — in season and out of season, ready to stand joyfully with Christ and the Church even when human opinion showered him with ridicule. I looked down my row at the white-haired octogenarian, gesturing with his umbrella for emphasis and risking a heart attack in his enthusiasm (also risking a few hats and heads in the row adjacent with the umbrella), and I felt like I had met St. Paul. Finally, here was someone full of joy and hope, despite his deep sorrow over and reasoned critique of what was going on in the Church. I had met someone who fulfilled the admonition to “Rejoice always and again, I say rejoice!”
Such a meeting changed my life. I was confirmed in my suspicion that following the crowd is not the highpoint of wisdom. I changed from a psychology to a philosophy major and discovered my vocation to teach. The von Hildebrands’ visit, together with that of Kung, was pivotal in finding my way in life and in the Church. (The effect, I’m afraid, was not the one intended by the Jesuits.)
Looking back now on those days, my conclusion is a hopeful one. No matter how long a person swims along inundated by doxa — confused opinions, skeptical debunking, up-to-date progressive theories, and cutting-edge speculations — once he comes across the truth, he knows it. As Plato says, truth has a power of its own and can never be swept away by propaganda. One man speaking the truth has tremendous power to break through the fog, reach people, and change lives. Philosophical truth shares with Christianity that compliment given to the latter by C. S. Lewis in a less politically correct age: It challenges the recipient with “the rough, male taste of reality.” Thus the von Hildebrands compared to Kung.
Yet how can I come to a hopeful conclusion when the majority at the time seemed to be going the other way? Because I firmly believe that if God could pull me out of the morass of those days, He can do so with anyone, and God is not limited by majority opinion at any given time. As Kierkegaard loved to say, God doesn’t deal with crowds, He deals with individuals — and He has the lifetime of each of us to do so, including the lifetime of each person at Loyola in 1971. What matters ultimately is not­­ majority opinion at any given time, but the final end of each individual. This is where our hope rests. As it says in the old Spiritual, “What He’s done for others, He’ll do for you . . . .”


Michael J. Healy is Professor of Philosophy and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.

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