Friedrich von Hügel was born in Florence, where his father was the Austrian ambassador to Tuscany. Eventually the family settled in England, where Friedrich experienced a conversion and determined to pursue the life of an independent Catholic scholar.
While visiting Paris he met Alfred Loisy, a French priest who was the foremost Catholic champion of modern biblical criticism. They became close friends and collaborators. By this route, von Hügel came to play a role in the Modernist controversy, which involved a loosely connected network of scholars seeking to reconcile Catholic faith with principles of modern philosophy, biblical interpretation, and historical consciousness. Von Hügel, who had a gift for networking, became a connecting thread to many of the protagonists. He shared their principles, but not their passion for confrontation. When Modernism was condemned by the Vatican in1907, he pulled back from the controversy. Frustration with the institutional exercise of authority (which was often “cruel and unjust”), he believed, was no reason to cut oneself off from the spiritual and sacramental life of the Church.
Subsequently, von Hügel shifted his work to the study of spirituality and mysticism—a necessary balance, he believed, to the Church’s overemphasis on the institutional element. The result was his masterpiece, The Mystical Element of Religion. He died on January 27, 1925.
“The lonely, new and daring (if but faithful, reverent, and loving) outgoing of the discoverer and investigator are as truly acts of. . . the church and her life as his coming back to the Christian love and community.” —Baron Friedrich von Hügel