- The Life and Thought of St. Edith Stein
In May 1997, ten years after her beatification, the last hurdle for the canonization of Edith Stein cleared when Pope John Paul II, on the recommendation of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, recognized that a miracle had occurred as a result of her [End Page 135] intercession. The miracle involved the remarkable healing of a young Catholic child in a Massachusetts Jewish hospital. Blessed Edith Stein was formally canonized as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross on October 11, 1998, corresponding with the seventh day of the Jewish High Holy Day, Succot. The story and spiritual pilgrimage of this Jewish- born convert to Catholicism, who was gassed along with her sister, Rosa, at Auschwitz on August 9, 1942, is reverently told by Freda Mary Oben, herself a convert from Judaism to Catholicism.
Edith Stein was born in 1891 to a wealthy Jewish family in Breslau (now part of Poland known as Wroclaw). She studied philosophy at the University of Göttingen and earned a doctorate in 1916. She was an atheist, but in 1922, inspired by a biography of St. Teresa of Avila, she was baptized as a Catholic, and in 1933 she became a cloistered Carmelite nun in Cologne, Germany, taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Soon after, she appealed to Pope Pius XI to speak out against the Nazi persecution of the Jews, but she received only a papal blessing for her and her family. That same year, she started her autobiography, Life in a Jewish Family (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1987).
Reichspogromnacht, November 9–10, 1938, caused Stein to flee from Germany for a safer Carmelite order in Echt, Holland. On May 10, 1940, the Germans marched into Holland and ushered in the period of occupation. Two years later, the Dutch Catholic bishops protested the Nazi transportation of Jews to concentration camps in Eastern Europe. In reprisal, the Germans ruled that Jewish converts to Catholicism were to be seized and shipped to the camps. When the deportation order came, accounts say, Stein told her sister Rosa, who had also joined the church and became a nun, “Come, Rosa, we are going for our people.”
Oben introduces the life and thought of St. Edith Stein in three equal sections. Part One speaks of Stein’s affection and respect of her Jewish heritage, reasons for her conversion to Catholicism, and her vocation as Carmelite. Part Two talks of her writings in Christian philosophy, highlighting her talent for uniting phenomenology and scholasticism; also noted is her leadership in the Catholic Women’s Movement in Europe and her advocacy for the dignity of the person in society. Part Three surveys the problems and continuing controversy regarding her canonization, and the meaning of her sainthood for the Church and the world today. The goal of the author is to present Stein as a creative philosopher-theologian, whose intellectual acumen and spiritual seeking are fused in Christ and whose life is the embodiment of the Torah way, which Jesus taught as the great commandment, love of God and love of neighbor. 1
As Catholic devotional literature, I salute Oben’s efforts; but there are major questions in presenting Edith Stein as a Jewish martyr. Arguably, it is the Church’s [End Page 136] teaching about Stein’s natal birth and heritage that has disturbed many Jewish thinkers, who are concerned about the heightened Christian veneration of a Jewish Holocaust victim. Catholic authorities teach that Edith Stein “died as a daughter of Israel ‘for the glorification of the most holy name of God,’ and at the same time as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross” 2 ; and Oben opines that “she wanted to be faithful to her Jewish heritage, to share the fate of Jews during the Holocaust in imitation of Christ’s passion, and to expiate for the human sins which caused the Shoah” (back cover; italics added). On this I respectfully differ because (a) Stein was sent to her death not...