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Friedrich von Hügel
Friedrich von Hugel.jpg
Birth name:  Friedrich Maria Aloys Franz Karl von Hügel
Other name(s):  Baron von Hügel
Born:  5 May 1852
Died:  27 January 1925
Nationality:  Austrian
Denomination(s):  Roman Catholic
Known for:  Modernist Christian theologian
Title:  Freiherr (Baron)
Education:  private
Spouse(s):  Hon. Mary Catherine Herbert
Children:  three daughters: Gertrude, Hildegarde and Thekla

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Friedrich Maria Aloys Franz Karl, Freiherr von Hugel, usually known as Baron von Hügel (5 May 1852–27 January 1925) was an influential Austrian Roman Catholic layman, religious writer, Modernist theologian and Christian apologist.


Life and work

Friedrich von Hügel was born in Florence, Italy, in 1852, to Charles von Hügel, who was serving as Austrian ambassador to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, and a Scottish mother, Elizabeth Farquharson, who was a convert to Roman Catholicism. Friedrich was educated privately, and moved with his family to England in 1867 when he was fifteen, where he remained for the rest of his life.

In 1873 he married Lady Mary Catherine Herbert (1849–1935), daughter of the statesman Sidney Herbert, first Baron Herbert of Lea, by Elizabeth Ash à Court-Repington, an ardent convert to Catholicism and philanthropist. Mary, like von Hügel's mother and her own, was also a convert. The couple had three daughters: Gertrude (1877-1915), Hildegarde (1879-1926), and Thekla (1886-1970) (who became a nun). He remained an Austrian citizen until he found himself to be a "hostile alien" after England declared war with Austria in August 1914. He applied for naturalization and received it in December of the same year.

He was a Baron of the Holy Roman Empire (an inherited title), and a frequent visitor to Rome. A self-taught biblical scholar, a linguist with a fluency in French, German and Italian as well as his adopted English, and a master of many subjects, he never held office in the Catholic Church, or an academic post, nor did he ever earn a university degree. However, he is often mentioned alongside John Henry Newman as one of the most influential Catholic thinkers of his day. The scope of his learning was impressive and the list of his correspondents reads like a "who's who" of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European religious leadership (for example: Alfred Loisy, George Tyrrell and Evelyn Underhill). Von Hügel did much to bring the work of the philosophers Ernst Troeltsch and Rudolf Christoph Eucken to the attention of the English-speaking public, despite the hostility during and after the First World War to all things German.

When the University of Oxford granted him an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree in 1920, it was the first time since the Reformation that a Roman Catholic had been so honored by that university. (The University of St. Andrews, where the Hügel archives are now located, awarded him an honorary degree in 1914.)

Baron von Hügel was deeply engaged in theological discussions with a wide group of scholars associated with the turn-of-the-century Modernist controversy. His scholarly concerns included the relationship of Christianity to history, ecumenism, mysticism, the philosophy of religion, and the rejection of much of the immanentism in nineteenth-century theology. Under Pope Pius X, prompted by conservatives such as Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, there was a backlash against many of the Modernist thinkers, and von Hügel attempted to negotiate a middle way of restraint, while remaining true to the principles intellectual rigour and free enquiry.

The Three Elements

Hügel's most enduring contribution to theological thinking is his "three elements". The human soul, the movements of western civilization, and the phenomena of religion itself he characterized by these three elements: the historical/institutional element, the scientific/intellectual element, and the mystical/experiential element. This typology provided for him an understanding of the balance, tension, and 'friction' that exists in religious thinking and in the complexity of reality and existence. While this typology occasionally digressed into a forced Trinitarianism, it is an organizing paradigm that remained central to his project. The effort to hold these sometimes disparate dimensions together is structurally and theologically dominant throughout his writing. His friend George Tyrrell observed, "All life, according to [von Hügel] consists in a patient struggle with irreconcilables—a progressive unifying of parts that will never fit perfectly." ("Review of The Mystical Element of Religion by Baron F. von Hügel," Hibbert Journal, 7 (July 1909): 689).

Hügel's The Mystical Element of Religion is a critical but largely appreciative philosophy of mysticism. Yet, in many ways throughout this work Hügel counsels the reader of mysticism’s potential dangers. The mystical impulse is but one of the three elements that together with the other two constitutes the rich complexity of existence. Hügel cautions:

  • "...mysticism would never be the whole of religion; it would become a dangerous error the very moment it claimed to be this whole; but, at the same time, it would be an element essential to religion in the long run and upon the whole, although it would . . . possess its own dangers, its own besetting sins, as indeed also the primitive, naïve type of religion possesses its own different dangers and different besetting sins." (91)

William Butler Yeats addressed von Hügel in the last stanza of "Vacillation":

  • "Must we part, Von Hügel, though much alike, for we / Accept the miracles of the saints and honour sanctity? / The body of Saint Teresa lies undecayed in tomb, / Bathed in miraculous oil, sweet odours from it come, / Healing from its lettered slab. Those self-same hands perchance / Eternalised the body of a modern saint that once had scooped out Pharaoh's mummy. I — though heart might find relief / Did I become a Christian man and choose for my belief / What seems most welcome in the tomb — play a predestined part. / Homer is my example and his unchristened heart. / The lion and the honeycomb, what has Scripture said? / So get you gone, Von Hügel, though with blessings on your head."

Von Hügel died in 1925. His tombstone in an English country churchyard bears the simple inscription: "Whom have I in heaven but Thee?"


With a deep commitment to the life of prayer, von Hügel was an authority on the great mystical writers, particularly of the pre-Reformation period, and sympathetic to the emotional and spiritual burdens of humanity, so that he was sought out by many as a counsellor, guide, and spiritual mentor. His authority as a spiritual writer has endured through the posthumous publication of many of his letters: Selected Letters, 1896-1924, (1927), Letters from Baron Friedrich von Hügel to a Niece, (1955), and Spiritual Counsels and Letters of Baron Friedrich von Hügel, (1964). In addition to extensive correspondence, his published works include The Mystical Element of Religion, a study of St Catherine of Genoa (1908), Eternal Life (1913), Essays and Address (1921) and The Reality of God and Religion and Agnosticism (1931). This last book, The Reality of God, includes what was to be the Gifford Lectures of 1924-1925 and 1925-1926 at Edinburgh University.

The Von Hügel Institute, a research center for the study of Christianity and society at St. Edmund's College, The University of Cambridge, was founded in 1987, and is named in honor of Friedrich's brother, Anatole von Hügel, the first director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge.


Secondary Sources

  • David L. Johns, Mysticism and Ethics in Friedrich von Hügel (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2004)
  • Ellen M. Leonard, Creative Tension: the Spiritual Legacy of Friedrich von Hügel (Scranton, PA: University of Scranton Press, 1997)
  • James J. Kelly, Baron Friedrich von Hügel's Philosophy of Religion (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1983)


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