Professor Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977), the son of the renowned German sculptor, Adolph von Hildebrand, was born in Florence and taught philosophy at the Universities of Munich and Vienna in Europe, and then at Fordham University in New York City. Pius XII referred to him as "the twentieth-century Doctor of the Church." Dr. von Hildebrand‘s whole life was dedicated to philosophy and to the arts, in the context of a deep love for the truth of the Catholic Faith.
In 1968, Professor von Hildebrand founded the Roman Forum in order to defend the official Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. His successor was the much beloved Dr. William Marra, also of Fordham University, active on radio, television, and lecture programs throughout the United States and Europe. In 1991, he was followed by the current Director, Dr. John C. Rao, D. Phil. in Modern European History from Oxford University, and Associate Professor of History at St. John's University in New York City.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the modern world has been the presumption of unavoidable warfare between nature and religion. Naturalists look upon the introduction of religious ideas into daily life as a death sentence for individual freedom and social progress. Many people with religious convictions are suspicious of the world around them, and consider any interest in nature and human achievement to be an impossible obstacle to spiritual growth. The results, taken together, have been disastrous: "culture" that lacks both transcendence and depth; one dimensional religious perceptions; flatness, boredom, lack of poetry and purpose in all aspects of life.
A second modern tragedy has been the compartmentalization of existence. Many theologians know no philosophy; most scientists, no theology; many experts in abstract intellectual studies, little about the fine arts; most artists, or, for that matter, most people in general, nothing of the need to root themselves in the permanent things. Almost no one can place his field of study or his daily actions within an historical context. Men work at counter purposes and gain little for their efforts but a vision of shadows on the back wall of the cave of modernity.
The Roman Forum has sought to respond to this tragic situation through an active defense of the one force that can pull all of the aspects of nature and the supernatural together: Roman Catholicism. By 1991, however, it realized that to do so, it had to give the educated Catholic a deeper understanding and appreciation of the way in which they could work harmoniously together than it had been providing in its ordinary lectures and conferences. The Forum saw that it had to dedicate itself to a teaching of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful—one that ignored neither thhe particular nor the whole picture of knowledge, the arts, and life in general—more systematically than it had been doing, and within a more structured historical framework. It recognized that at least part of this systematic, historically-focused training had to be given in an environment more congenial to the Catholic love of 3Truth and Beauty than an America which is Protestant in its origins and secularized in its contemporary practices and beliefs. Hence, the foundation of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Institute.
The Institute was inaugurated on February 23rd, 1992, the Solemnity of the Chair of Saint Peter in Antioch (now the Institute's patronal feast), with a Solemn Pontifical Traditional Mass celebrated by His Eminence, Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler, former Prefect of the Vatican Library.