Teresa-Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein): new Carmelite Saint

Teresa-Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein): new Carmelite Saint

Tracey Rowland

0n October 11, 1998, Edith Stein is to be canonised as St Teresa-Benedicta of the Cross at a ceremony in St Peter's Basilica in Rome.

For those unfamiliar with her story she was born on the Jewish Feast of Yom Kippur (October 12) in 1891.

She was a child of precocious intellect and in her early adult years became a leading member of the school of phenomenology pioneered by Edmund Husserl.

In 1922 she converted from Judaism to the Catholic faith and was especially influenced to do so after reading the Autobiography of St Teresa of Avila. For the next eleven years she was engaged in various intellectual enterprises including the translation of the letters of Cardinal John Henry Newman, written between 1801 and his conversion to the Catholic Church. In 1933 she joined the Carmelite convent in Cologne-Lindenthal and remained there until 1938 when she transferred to the Carmel in Echt, Holland, in order to avoid Nazi persecution.

Dutch Bishops' pastoral

On 26 July 1942, the Dutch Bishops issued a pastoral statement to be read in all Catholic churches which attacked the Nazi persecution of the Dutch Jews and Catholics of Jewish descent.

In retaliation, the Nazis issued orders for the deportation of all Catholic Jews, including those in religious orders. On August 2, Edith and her sister Rosa (who had also converted to the Catholic faith and lived at the Carmel at Echt) were arrested by Nazi officers and deported to Auschwitz. It is not known precisely how they died. There were no survivors from those deported with them.

Her major contribution to the intellectual life of pre-War European Catholicism related to the education of women. She argued that certain properties associated with femininity and masculinity are rooted in our very being, and accordingly, she wrote: "We have to reject a social order and a system of education that completely deny the special characteristics and destiny of women, which refuse to admit an organic co-operation of the sexes as well as organic social entities, but would treat all individuals as so many cogs in a mechanically regulated economy. We shall also reject a social order and a system of education that value humanity and sexual relations merely biologically, failing to recognise the autonomy and superiority of the spiritual and intellectual in comparison with the vital forces, and knowing even less of a supernatural orientation."

She concluded that "there is no other bulwark against these contemporary currents than the Catholic faith and a metaphysical, social and educational theory and practice that rest on this faith."

Edith Stein believed that Catholic educational institutions should foster the development of women of "high intellectual culture", and further, that training in the "discipline of strenuous professional work" was a "good natural remedy for all typically feminine weaknesses" such as an exaggerated focus on one's personal interests. However, she cautioned against a tendency to make a "cultivated personality" an end in itself.

Educational opportunities

All aspects of education must be ordered to the perfection of the soul (which includes the perfection of the intellect, but it is not restricted to this). She warned that "if a nature has been disciplined merely through education it will preserve its cultivated exterior only up to a point; if it is subjected to too strong a pressure it will break the barriers."

Since Stein was a female scholar of high repute who encouraged the German bishops to improve the educational opportunities for Catholic women, she is sometimes portrayed as a proto-Catholic feminist. However, there is nothing in her work which is not consistent with the teaching of Pope John Paul II on matters pertaining to women, and indeed, many of the Pope's statements in these areas sound like a paraphrase of Edith Stein. In particular it should be mentioned that she was opposed to the ordination of women.

Stein also thought that women have a natural aptitude for self-sacrificial love. She noted that it is precisely this feminine trait which causes women so much trouble since many sacrifice themselves for unworthy causes.

Self-sacrificial love is, however, at the heart of every Carmelite vocation, and Edith Stein lived this is in a particularly dramatic and poignant way which ended in Auschwitz.

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