Edith Stein has frequently been referred to as a “Catholic feminist”. And it’s true: she was a vocal supporter of women entering into professional life and gaining greater freedoms in civic and political life. She was also a strong supporter of what was uniquely feminine.
She often criticised elements of the feminist movement that tried to flatten out the differences between men and women and treat them as if they were basically the same. Still, she was a powerful voice in support of women and their equality. Her thoughts on these matters were deeply biblical and deeply shaped by the person of Jesus Christ.
Born into a Jewish family in 1891 in Prussia, Stein ended up converting to Catholicism after reading St Teresa of Avila's autobiography. She wrote several works of philosophy (being a phenomenologist, they can be quite dense and difficult to wade through), and she taught for two years at the German Institute for Scientific Pedagogy in Munster. In 1933, however, when the Nazis rose to power she was dismissed from her position because of her Jewish descent. That same year she joined the Carmelites in Cologne, taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, and in 1938 she was transferred to their Holland convent for safety. There she wrote two of her most famous works of philosophy, The Science of the Cross and Ways to Know God.
In 1942, the Dutch bishops courageously condemned Nazi anti-Semitism, and the Nazis responded violently: the German authorities went out of their way to arrest non-Aryan Catholics. Stein was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Auschwitz. On 9 August, two days after her arrival, she was killed in the gas chamber along with her sister, Rosa.
A few days before her deportation to Auschwitz, Stein wrote to her fellow Sisters at the convent who were contemplating trying to rescue her. In her response, Stein said that just because she was baptized doesn’t mean she should be spared this suffering:
If I cannot share the lot of my brothers and sisters, my life, in a certain sense, is destroyed.’
In his homily for Edith Stein’s canonisation, Pope John Paul II emphasised the fact that even for her philosophy, Jesus Christ was everything. When she discovered the truth of the Catholic faith, he said, she was ‘seized’ by it, and by the fact that the truth had a name: Jesus of Nazareth. The discovery of the truth of Jesus Christ shaped everything about her philosophy. Even though her philosophy covers a broad range of topics and can be quite difficult to read (and articulate), there is one topic of modern concern where the significance of Christ shines through clearly: the role and vocation of women.
One of the most important essays Stein wrote about the relationship between men and women was called The Separate Vocations of Man and Woman According to Nature and Grace. She begins this essay with a reflection on the biblical account of creation found in Genesis. She points out that whilst humanity was created in a kind of “duality” of man and woman, their relationship is marked by a profound “mutuality”: they share a common vocation to be God’s image in the world, to be a family, and to be stewards of creation. This is something they share in together, without hint of hierarchy or subordination. Of course, the language in English translations of the Bible talk about woman being created as man’s “helpmate” – the Hebrew phrase being ezer kenegdo – but she says this phrase is practically untranslatable (it is true that this phrase is notoriously difficult to translate; the late Rachel Held Evans has a great blog post discussing the issue). What we shouldn’t understand this to mean, Stein says, is that man is somehow sovereign over woman.
The image Stein uses to help us understand the meaning of this phrase is that of a mirror: to say that woman was created as a helpmate, if we want to understand the original language, is to suggest that there is something deeply common between them; the woman reflects back at man his own nature. This is why Adam exclaims, ‘This at last is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh!’ (Genesis 2:23). It is a statement about their mutuality and common bond, not about hierarchy.
The Fall obviously threw a spanner in the works of this mutual and common vocation. The relationship between men and women became characterized by conflict and subordination and pain. What happened in Christ and the coming of his kingdom, however, was the possibility of a restoration of this relationship. This restoration doesn’t come about through the waving of a magic wand: it comes about through a close and personal union with Jesus Christ, Stein says, the one who lived out humanity in its fullness, in whom the masculine and the feminine virtues are united and perfected. Because of this, in Christ both men and women can find their redemption and perfection. This is why, Stein observes, in holy men we can see an almost ‘womanly tenderness’ and in holy women a more masculine ‘boldness, proficiency and determination.’ In Christ there is both.
When she does discuss the infamous Scriptural passages relating to man’s ‘headship’, she argues that fundamental to man’s role is actually to enable the woman’s personality and talents and gifts to come to fruition; to enable her to develop and grow because she is human and she desires to flourish just as much as men do. Even though she acknowledges that this ‘headship’ involves care for the spiritual health of the family, she also says this is a burden they share equally. She actually says that women should share ‘more than half of this load’.
During Edith's lifetime, there was much conversation around this topic. We might take it for granted today but in the early years of the twentieth century, especially after the First World War, there were serious conversations being had about women going into the workforce and whether or not some professions were more suited to men as opposed to women – the implication being that some professions would bar women entirely from entering. Stein argues that ‘no legal barriers of any kind should exist’ to women entering whatever profession they choose. This was for two reasons: firstly, because it wasn’t clear that some professions were more suited to one sex as opposed to the other – some women had more masculine traits, and some men had more feminine traits, and you can’t neatly divide the two into separate classes; secondly, because times were tough, economically, and people should be allowed to take whatever jobs they were able to find. The danger of some legislation was that it didn’t take into account ‘life on the ground’, so to speak; it didn’t acknowledge and care for the concrete circumstances and lived experience of women.
In another essay, The Ethos of Women’s Professions, Stein makes it clear that at the end of the day a woman can only fulfil her vocation by surrendering her life to God; by being a ‘handmaid of the Lord’ and a ‘spouse of Christ’.
Whether she is a mother in the home, or occupies a place in the limelight of public life, or lives behind quiet cloister walls, she must be a handmaid of the Lord everywhere … then would each fulfil her feminine vocation no matter what conditions she lived in and what worldly activity absorbed her life.’
Finally, it’s important to point to Edith Stein’s love for the Eucharist. Ultimately, for Stein, both men and women can only fulfil their masculine and feminine vocations by becoming images of Christ. He is the one, after all, who restores their shared and mutual image broken by the Fall. Part of what this means is having a richly Eucharistic life because it is through the Eucharist we receive the divine life, the flow of divine love. In The Spirituality of the Christian Woman, she writes:
It is most important that the Holy Eucharist becomes life’s focal point: that the Eucharistic Savior is the center of existence … life with the Eucharistic Savior induces the soul to be lifted out of the narrowness of its individual, personal orbit. The concerns of the Lord and His kingdom become the soul’s concerns …’
It is through a life of daily participation in the Eucharist that we can most easily become attuned to God’s will and making his kingdom central to our being.
The Catholic Church celebrates Edith Stein's feast day on 9 August.
Melbourne Catholic24 June 2022
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