Edith Stein was a Roman Catholic nun who died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz in August of 1942 as part of Hitler’s “final solution.” Her “extermination” illustrates the irrationality of Christian Jew-hatred embraced in its most racist form by the Nazis. Edith was born Jewish, she abandoned Judaism when she was 13 years old. After years as a professed atheist, she converted to Catholicism at age 30, entered the Carmelites at 42, and, regardless of her personal history, was killed as a Jew two months before her 51st birthday.
She was canonized a “saint” and designated a “martyr” by the Vatican fifty six years later.
In the spring of 1933 right after the Nazis took power in Germany and before she entered the convent, Stein wrote to Pius XI begging him to denounce what was being done to the Jews:
I dare to speak to the Father of Christianity about that which oppresses millions of Germans. For weeks we have seen deeds perpetrated in Germany which mock any sense of justice and humanity, not to mention love of neighbor. For years the leaders of National Socialism have been preaching hatred of the Jews. Now that they have seized the power of government and armed their followers, among them proven criminal elements, this seed of hatred has germinated. The government has only recently admitted that excesses have occurred. To what extent, we cannot tell, because public opinion is being gagged. … But the responsibility must fall, after all, on those who brought them to this point and it also falls on those who keep silent in the face of such happenings.
Everything that happened and continues to happen on a daily basis originates with a government that calls itself “Christian.” For weeks not only Jews but also thousands of faithful Catholics in Germany, and, I believe, all over the world, have been waiting and hoping for the Church of Christ to raise its voice to put a stop to this abuse of Christ’s name. …
We all, who are faithful children of the Church and who see the conditions in Germany with open eyes, fear the worst for the prestige of the Church, if the silence continues any longer.
The letter was marked as received by the Vatican on April 20. Pius XI concluded a concordat with Hitler in July. The concordat had been negotiated and was signed by the Vatican Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII. It was a mere six months after the Nazi takeover in January. Stein’s letter went unanswered, and its existence went unknown for years. It was not even made available by the Vatican at the time of her canonization in 1998 when all relevant documentation and correspondence had been gathered. It was released to the public as part of the archived documentation dating from the pontificate of Pius XI, made available for study in 2003. There was no comment from the Vatican. The Carmelites picked it up and disseminated its contents.
If the condemnation of silence in the face of the Nazi slaughter of the Jews was one of the reasons for her canonization one would have expected the Vatican to use the occasion to release the letter and make a public display of compunction for its own failures. Hiding the letter as they did suggests that their interests lay elsewhere. Stein, after all, was a well known modern atheist philosopher who had converted to Roman Catholicism.
In the spring of 1942 the Dutch Catholic Bishops spoke out strongly condemning Nazi treatment of the Jews. Hitler retaliated by ordering that all Christianized Jews in Holland be rounded up for extermination. Edith and her sister Rosa had been transferred to the Carmelite monastery at Echt in the Netherlands for their safety; they were arrested on August 2 and sent to Auschwitz where they were murdered seven days later. Her “feast day” is August 9.
Her story has background that illustrates the long and genocidal history of Christian anti-semitism in Europe. Edith was born in 1891 to a wealthy industrialist Jewish family in what was then Breslau, Germany. The city was made part of Poland after World War II and returned to the Polish spelling of its name, Wroclaw.
Located at the crossroads of two important trade routes, there had always been a settlement at that site since ancient times. By the 12th century Breslau had grown into one of the three principal cities of Silesia, and by turns belonged to Bohemia or Poland, usually as part of the Holy Roman Empire.
In the course of the 14th century, Jews were expelled the city several times (1319, 1349, 1360). In 1453, 41 Jews were burned at the stake and the rest expelled after they had been accused of desecrating the Host by the Franciscan John of Capistrano (a canonized Roman Catholic “saint,” known to history as “the scourge of the Jews”). An imperial privilege de non tolerandis Judaeis was given to Breslau in 1455 excluding all Jews from the city. The prohibition remained in force until after the Prussian conquest had made it part of what would become Germany. In 1744 the absolute ban was lifted but only 12 Jewish families were given residence. Those that were granted entry were considered necessary for the well-being of the city. That number was expanded slowly by the authorities, and by 1776 there were 2000 Jews living in Breslau, all by special permission. An “Edict of Emancipation” only came in 1812 in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, and by the 1890’s Breslau was the home of about 20,000 Jews. Given the history of their reintroduction, many were well positioned. The wealthier families enjoyed a privileged life, even seeking education for their daughters, a luxury only the upper classes could afford. The Steins were clearly of this class because Edith, the youngest of 11 children, was given every academic opportunity available.
She began her University studies there in Breslau in 1911 where she became acquainted with the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl who was a professor at Göttingen University at the time. (Husserl was also born Jewish and converted later in life to Protestantism.) She transferred to Göttingen to continue her studies with him and followed him again when he moved to Freiburg where she earned her doctorate under his mentorship in 1916. Her thesis was on “empathy” — a major Husserlian category. She worked thereafter as an assistant professor under Husserl and was chosen by him to be his personal aide. She established a reputation at Freiburg for being one of the university’s leading philosophers and is acknowledged for her original collaboration with Husserl in the development of phenomenology. She was succeeded in her assistantship by Martin Heidegger who later was given Husserl’s position at Freiburg when the latter retired in 1928. Heidegger was elected to the rectorship of Freiburg in April of 1933 and joined the Nazi party a month later.
Stein converted to Catholicism in 1921. She was baptized at the age of 30 and dropped her high level academic career to take a position teaching in a Dominican girl’s school in Speyer. Being a professional philosopher, however, she was soon drawn to the study of the thought of the classic Catholic philosopher-theologians, especially Thomas Aquinas. She translated his De Veritate during her decade in Speyer and she said it re-kindled her desire to do philosophical work.
Her interest in Thomism was not an isolated case. Attention in her time had begun to turn from positivism (scientism) to Europe’s pre-scientistic roots and scholasticism was in vogue. Integrating phenomenology into the overall scholastic world-view became the goal of her intellectual life.
Edith Stein’s work was part of the scholastic revival of the 1920’s and ‘30’s. As a disciple and close collaborator of Edmund Husserl she tried to create a rapprochement between his analytical methods and Thomism. Her major work Finite and Eternal Being completed in the late 30’s, was a new attempt at a project she had initiated with an earlier manuscript, Potency and Act, now separately published, which she wrote as her thesis for post-doctoral qualification as a professor, a requirement in German academia. Because she was a woman Husserl refused to support her efforts in this regard, and her work was turned down. Even without it she was offered a lectureship in Münich in 1932, but when the Nazis took over in January of 1933 she was forced to resign because of her Jewish origins. Neither book was published in her lifetime.
Her serious thinking along these lines, however, had begun much earlier encouraged by Husserl’s own interest in a “return to the roots,” meaning to pre-scientific and pre-philosophical perceptions of reality. Husserl acknowledged the powerful influence on his thinking by the psychologist Franz Brentano, an ex Roman Catholic priest who taught in Vienna and mentored many thinkers including Sigmund Freud. Brentano had opposed the 1870 declaration of Papal infallibility and left the Church in the aftermath of its adoption at Vatican I. His background and abiding interest, however, was always in scholasticism; it affected Husserl and through him, Stein.
Knowledge and Faith
In 1929, in response to a request for a contribution to a Festshrift on the occasion of Husserl’s 70th birthday Stein wrote an article entitled “What is Philosophy: A Conversation between Edmund Husserl and Thomas Aquinas.” As the title suggests she originally presented her ideas in the form of an imaginary dialog between Aquinas and Husserl. It was revised before publication at the urging of Heidegger, the editor of the compilation, and the dialog format was dropped in favor of a more conventional presentation.
It is in that dialog / article, now called “Husserl and Aquinas: A Comparison” which forms the core of the small volume, Knowledge and Faith, published in English in 2000 by ICS, where Stein makes it abundantly clear that when Aquinas is speaking of faith he means precisely propositional truth — a correspondence between words and reality that guarantees knowledge. Faith, she says, is primarily knowledge … and only secondarily surrender: a trusting submission to “God.” But its “content,” i.e., what faith is all about, is knowledge, and as such, a choice that Husserl himself always respected as authentically human, because it is part of the search for truth.
Such knowledge is called “revelation” but, aside from its putative source in “God,” it is still knowledge — every bit as objective and factual as any substantiated proposition of science, and its theological implications are to be elaborated using disciplined scientific methodology. Faith for believers is even more of a fact than science’s facts which are always hypothetical: for faith facts enjoy absolute certitude and provide premises for certain conclusions.
… for the believer, such is the certainty of faith that it relativizes all other certainty, and that he [sic] can give up any supposed knowledge which contradicts his faith. The unique certitude of faith is a gift of grace. It is up to the understanding and will to draw the theoretical and practical consequences therefrom.
The reason why the dialog between Aquinas and Husserl is not only possible, but leads to a fruitful recognition of concurrence for Stein is that Husserl, the phenomenologist, who eschews any source of knowledge except human reason and the application of the rigors of disciplined thinking, is looking for exactly the same thing as Aquinas. Both Husserl and Aquinas are looking for the factual “truth” of the real world.
It’s hardly necessary to point out that “faith” is thought of in very different terms today, even by many Roman Catholics. For faith as knowledge enters constitutively into the nature of the surrender it accompanies. “Surrender,” in other words, with different content — different known “facts” — is not the same surrender. In our time, since the “facts” of traditional faith are increasingly called into question by the discoveries of science, people tend to look at “faith” more from the point of view of its resulting attitudes and behavior, rather than its factuality or the detailed worldview that it depicts. They are interested in the quality and human significance of the faith commitment, and from there “work backwards” to evaluate the propositional truth adduced for its validity. “By their fruits you will know them,” were words attributed to Jesus himself that seem to place the priority on action and attitude not newly revealed “facts” or the world those facts evoke. It is salient to note that among the logia — the words in the gospels thought to have been Jesus’ own — there are no new facts, beyond the received Jewish belief that the one and only Creator of the universe is the one and only “God” of the Jewish people.
There has obviously been a major turn away from focus on Catholicism’s traditional “facts” since Stein’s day and it is worth taking a moment to put it in context. What sounds strange to our ears is that Aquinas’ version of faith seems so different from the perspective that appears to be Jesus’. I am going to claim that what happened between 1929 and now is a radically different way of thinking about who we are as human beings, and what the universe is … and from there, what “God,” is. It is what is called a “paradigm shift.” It means that we work on a different set of assumptions, aspirations and demands and it covers much more than religion. The modern world, built on science, turned a corner early in the 20th century prompted in part by people like Brentano, Husserl and Stein. Without rejecting science as the basis for practical technology, cosmological facts and day to day living, we no longer think that science explains everything, or that valid human choices must conform to its standards of probity. Observers call our era “post modern,” and post-modern Catholics are gratified to find unexpected allies for their position in Jesus and his first disciples.
The post-modern movement began after the Great War of 1914 – 1919 as Europeans staggered under the weight of the horror that modern science had wrought. Many see the post war “return to roots” as part of a deep soul-searching among European intellectuals to find alternative truths that would preserve human and not just scientific values. The work of Husserl and Stein was a part of that quest, and phenomenology might fairly be considered a first step toward the post-modern mindset. The work of others, like Ludwig Wittgenstein, coincidentally also of Jewish ancestry, has been cited for displaying exactly the same transition away from reductionist positivism. It should be noted that Husserl, like Wittgenstein, Whitehead, Russel and others, began as a mathematician and philosopher of the scientific method and gradually developed his phenomenology over the course of his career. Phenomenology was to be the foundation of a new kind of “science” — one dedicated to revealing “facts” that had been overlooked by the sciences.
With the breakdown of scientific pretensions faith easily stepped in to fill the gap, and yet we recoil at the way Stein speaks of Aquinas’ “faith.” And I believe we react the way we do because “faith” — at least as Stein spoke about it in her writings — was simply “science” with a different provenance. It represented a first step away from scientism and toward another source of truth, but philosophically speaking, she saw the mindset of both Husserl and Aquinas as that of the scientist, and the knowledge she claimed they were seeking was what all scientists seek: “the facts.” Stein, moreover, had been persuaded that the traditional Catholic facts represented reality.
Stein’s efforts also illustrate the overarching significance of scientific thought in the long development of western Christianity over two millennia. Christianity was the religion that historically embodied the cultural aspirations of the European sub-continent, which has now become the model for the entire planet. The focus on “factuality” has been characteristic of Christianity’s appeal since the second century.
Apologists like Athenagoras were emboldened to appraoch the emperor Marcus Aurelius, a known “philosopher,” with the argument that Christianity should be looked on benignly by the Empire because it dealt in historical facts — the truth — unlike the obvious absurd myths of the traditional gods of the Mediterranean pantheon. Augustine of Hippo whose theological interpretations of Christian life and faith dominated Europe for a thousand years after his time, consciously brought philosophical premises and methodological rigor to his polemics with his opponents. Mediaeval thought began where Augustine left off and employed the known canons of logic and the newly discovered writings of Aristotle to the understanding of the known facts of faith. Modern science emerged from the slowly developing awareness that the “facts” themselves needed to be questioned and could not simply stand as premises. It’s at this point that Stein took a step back.
Stein’s work was part of that spiraling dialog; she leapt beyond the limits of science (or, in Husserlian terms, returned to its pre-scientific roots), to a belief in the Catholic view of the “facts” and used modern methodology to ground and defend that view.
The tragic reality is that it was precisely Stein’s ultra-doctrinaire version of Christianity — characteristic of Roman Catholicism — that was responsible for the violent anti-semitism that developed very early among the Christian population of the ancient mediterranean and simply grew more violent through the centuries. After a while it outgrew its justifications and became something of an unchallenged assumption: Jews were intrinsically evil, their repudiation of Judaism notwithstanding. Jew hatred even survived the Reformation completely intact. It was that same irrational Christian hostility toward Jews which the Nazis embraced in its most racist form, that drove Hitler’s program of extermination.
Stein’s was a Christianity of a transcendent other-worldly “God” who “revealed” absolute infallible doctrine; and on those premises “error has no rights” as the Inquisition was fond of pointing out. The unbelief of the Jews was the most flagrant and persistent example of doctrinal error. “Judaism,” as a propositional constellation, had no right to be given a hearing, therefore the Jewish people, who promoted those propositions with their lives, had no right to live. We have to realize that what the Nazis did with such thoroughness and efficiency had been done, partially and inefficiently, but with no less genocidal intent by Christians throughout Western history seeking a “solution” to the Jewish “problem.” Hitler acknowledged that legacy by calling the Shoah the “final” solution.
We have to honestly face the Christian doctrinal confluences that conspired to make it virtually impossible to have avoided the travesty of Christian Jew-hatred that endured with such virulence over the course of two millennia:
(1) As mentioned, there are the supposed “revelations” of a Transcendent other-worldly “God” making Christian beliefs scientific “fact” and the Catholic Church infallible. As “fact” Christian beliefs were not considered a matter of opinion, and to claim otherwise was both a personal moral failure and a crime against the well-being of the communitty. Obstinate denial was punishable by death and proven heretics were burned at the stake. Jews were the quintessential deniers of Christian truth. If they were not all burned at the stake it was a gratuitous forbearance on the part of Christians who deferred to the will of a “God” who had nostalgic feelings for his former coventanters.
(2) The “doctrine of Original Sin” as explained by Augustine, following lines of thought clearly evident in Athanasius and other earlier witnesses, tied the very meaning of “redemption” to the sacrament of baptism and membership in the Church; that made it a dogma of faith that “outside the Church there is no salvation.” The unbaptized “belonged to Satan” and just for being born human were slated for eternal punishment, regardless of their moral innocence. Augustine was so sure that this was true that he insisted that without baptism newborn infants who died went to the eternal torment that was their destiny as the offspring of Adam. If Augustine’s belief that “God” actually sent babies to hell was never explicitly espoused by the Church, his “principle” that all unbaptized humans merited damnation and eternal torment was never rejected either. Even in our times, the Vatican Catechism of 1992 acknowledges that if babies are not sent to hell, it is an unexplained mystery of “God’s” mercy. Please note: this is official doctrine.
(3) Natural disasters and historical catastrophes were universally considered to be under the control of “divine providence” and they still are. Even Augustine spoke of “God’s” abiding anger being the only explanation for the sufferings visited upon humankind. It was logical that such anger would be primarily directed at those regions where the unbaptized “contaminated” the earth, for according to Augustine, “God’s” anger at the progeny of Adam was only assuaged by the death of Christ — appropriated by the individual in baptism. Thus the unbaptized Jews were a perennial “problem” that needed to be “solved.” Earthquakes, plagues and other calamities were almost always accompanied by pogroms of Jews — the “solution.”
The dogmatic identification of the “non-baptized” as “unregenerate,” “satanic” and “demonic” was pervasive among Christians and applied across the board in practice; it was not something dredged up simply to justify violence against the Jews. For it was used with ruthless consistency in the 16th century by the Spanish and other “Christian” nations who brutalized and enslaved the primitive peoples — the “heathen” — they “conquered” in the Americas, which they explcitly justified as Christianization. This confirms that it was not simply the bad behavior and clever camouflage of a few lusty latinos, too hot and greedy to obey the commandments. It was conceived, justified, thoroughly debated and officially institutionalized at the highest levels of Christian society involving the direct complicity of Popes, Kings, theologians and the “saints” who put their policies into practice. These “policies” were considered the valid derivatives of Christian doctrine.
But Jesus said, “by their fruits you will know them.” Doctrine that leads directly and inevitably to this kind of behavior cannot be “true.” For me it is standing proof that the need for doctrinal reform is not a matter of aggiornamento — making the Church relevant to the modern world — doctrinal reform is necessary because the truth claim for the body of Christian doctrine that has come down to us is a lie. It is damaging to individuals, it promotes hatred between peoples, it justified the conquista and slavery of the colonial era and it was responsible for the officially sanctioned two thousand year hatred and marginalization of Jews that resulted in the Holocaust.
We are not talking about bad people here; we are talking about bad doctrine. For it was Christian doctrine that generated hatred for Jews and proved itself powerless to stop it. It was the same doctrine that lent itself so readily to the exploitation and enslavement of natives in Africa and the New World. Bartolomé De Las Casas’ denunciation of the enslavement of the Amerindians actually called for a heroic choice against the accepted conventional wisdom of his age and religion — a choice that many good people could not bring themselves to make because it ran counter to the implications of Christian beliefs. How can a doctrine be true if you have to heroicly disregard its logical implications in order to live morally? We love to blame the Nazis; they are a convenient scapegoat for the violent Jew hatred that originated with Christianity’s institutionalization at the time of Constantine. Making Christianity the exclusive religion of the Empire took what had been a religious polemic between rivals and turned it into the dogmatic justification for state sanctioned violence against the Jews and Christian dissenters.
Jew-hatred was a logical deduction of Christian doctrine. It’s time we realized that discovering religious “truth” is not a deductive top-down process moving logically from infallible premises to irrefutable conclusions. Religion is not “science.” “By their fruits you will know them,” is not just a wise aphorism, a cautionary proverb designed to protect the gullible from slick-talking hypocrites. I claim it expresses the essence of the only valid theological methodology open to us. Authentic religious thinking is necessarily inductive and inferential. We can only move from moral choices to the grounds of their possibility. Jesus offered his maxim as a formula for evaluation. He took his stand in synderesis — conscience. And by that standard the practical results of 1700 years of Christian doctrine indicate that a serious mistake had been made in the original assumptions, and what is needed is not an updating, but an overhaul of the premises.
Edith Stein was a good person. But her thinking, I’m afraid, would not countenance even the possibility of reform at that depth. By her standards Catholic dogmas are infallibly true, and need no re-examination or change; all moral failures are due to the individual’s inability to correctly interpret the true import of doctrine and/or are due to the intentional resistance to putting their true implications into practice.
Religion is a moral enterprise, and religious thought must move from moral premises to moral conclusions. Stein’s version of Christianity does not do that. Her own personal conversion may have been the result of her resonance with moral goodness, but once she embraced Catholicism she focused, as a thinker, exclusively on its rationalist justifications — its infallible premises and logical argumentation — implicitly defending the Church’s claims to religious superiority based on infallible truth. And those were the very premises that gave rise to and sustained perennial Jew hatred among Christians.
The contradictions here may be apparent to many people. But for Stein’s Catholic mentality where faith was focused on “infallible truth,” the anomalies were fatally blurred because she was ready to “give up any supposed knowledge that contradicts [her] faith.” Many of us know what that’s like; we were there ourselves. That kind of faith forms an opaque horizon beyond which there is no visibility.
It is significant that in the “Spiritual Will” that she wrote as she contemplated the probability of her “extermination” by the Nazis, she embraced the solidarity with her lineage that would bring her martyrdom, and she offered her death, among other things, “… in reparation for the unbelief of the Jewish people.”
Tony Equale, Willis VA, May 2015
 Cf James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword, ch 49 ff, p.405 ff.
 The Jewish Virtual Library http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0004_0_03508.html
 Stein claims in the mid ‘30’s that the synthesis between modern philosophy and scholasticism “dominate the philosophic scene.” “Author’s Preface,” Finite and Eternal Being, ICS 2000, p. xxviii
 Edith Stein, Knowledge and Faith, tr Redmond, ICS pubs. Washington DC, 2000, p. 21
The total number of deaths includes about 10 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians. The Entente Powers (also known as the Allies) lost about 6 million military personnel while the Central Powers lost about 4 million. At least 2 million died from diseases and 6 million went missing, presumed dead. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I_casualties
 Cf Paula Fredrickson, Augustine and the Jews, who argues that Augustine supported “forbearance for the Jews” as a scriptural mandate. But like Pius XI 1700 years later, Augustine’s modified anti-semitism never went so far as to involve denouncing the violence that was actually practiced. Besides, his “doctrine” was relegated to the shelves of the intellectuals. When Bernard of Clairvaux preached a sermon to the Crusaders in which he urged Augustine’s doctrine that “God had commanded that the Jew be left unharmed,” the audience reacted with utter shock: they had never heard of this before!
 Op.cit., Stein, Knowledge and Faith, p. 21
 John Sullivan, review of Edith Stein by Sarah Borden; The Catholic Historical Review, Volume 91, Number 1, January 2005, pp. 179-180 | 10.1353/cat.2005.0133