St. Edith Stein: The Prophetic Philosopher For the New Millennium

by: Denis Read, O.C.D.

St. Edith Stein had a long and arduous journey toward the Catholic faith that will remind many of the long, arduous journey of another imperial intellect -- John Henry Cardinal Newman. Like Newman, she was converted in the prime of her life. Like him, she lived by the direction of her conscience, and like him, she also had an uncanny ability to see the way of the Lord, guided by her own inner compass. Like Newman, she also became a religious after her baptism -- but unlike him, she chose the Discalced Carmelite Order, as he had chosen the Congregation of the Oratory. Unlike Newman, she died a martyr, while he died a nonagenarian, in 1891. She recognized his genius, translating some of Newman's works into German. Her philosophy and his have innumerable points of convergence.

She shared with Newman the prophetic charism of a Christian intellectual -- but with the additional gift of growing to appreciate that many-sided gift in her search for, and eventual entrance into, the Carmel of Cologne; for since Carmel is the prophetic Order of the Western Church, this simple fact -- that she lived the prophetic charism, that she found her philosophical vocation fulfilled therein, and that she became a mystical teacher of Carmelite spirituality for simple, ordinary souls, especially laymen and women -- casts a broad light upon her sanctity and her oeuvre. A text on the meaning of the Christian prophetic charism may be helpful, from the documents of Vatican II:

The holy people of God share also in Christ's prophetic office ... (through the) supernatural sense of the faith, ...a universal consensus in matters of faith and morals. This sense of the faith (is) aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, and by it, the people of God receive the true word of God -"the faith delivered once and for all to the saints" (Jude 3). (Lumen Gentiun, 12)

This paragraph marks the earliest introduction, to my knowledge, of a phenomenological category into the official documents of the Church: the sense of the faith, translating an experience of a feeling, as defining the biblical word charism-- a spiritual gift. It is an attempt, in theological language, to come to grips with St. Paul's profound statement in I Corinthians: "We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the things (the gifts) freely given us by God. And we speak about them with words taught by the Spirit, describing spiritual realities in spiritual terms!"( I Cor 2:12-13)

The fundamental change represented by this introduction of the category of experienced charism into the official Conciliar documents, here and elsewhere, may be a point of entry for the recognition of the profoundly formative influence of phenomenology upon the thinking of Edith Stein--and with and around her, of the school of Central European phenomenologists. We need to recognize this if we are to understand her person and her sanctity; but we also need to recognize this if we are to understand what happened at Vatican II, so as to be able to assess this greatest religious event of the 20th century. This is also one of the reasons for this introduction to St. Edith's philosophy of life.

It is an essay in introduction to her thinking and her spirituality, showing that 1) her intellectual life was a very spiritual life, 2) her schooling in phenomenology was the source of those great spiritual intuitions of "the truth," which was her passion, and "the world of values" which phenomenology opened up to her.

In other words, St. Edith Stein is one of a group of Catholic philosophical pioneers -- Newman is another, Dietrich von Hildenbrand and Roman Ingarden are others, Karl Rahner is another, and John Paul Karol Wojtyla is another -- who have developed the thinking of the Catholic Church in this last century. An appraisal of St. Edith will help us to appreciate her colleagues and her disciples.


St. Edith Stein calls her writing "a Catholic philosophy" of "the Kingdom of Spirit and the spirits", and in her final work, The Science of the Cross, she considers St. John of the Cross as her mentor, her chief resource for this enterprise. in saying this, she was inferring that

1. The spiritual life is necessarily an intellectual life.-- The reason this seems strange to us, perhaps, is that we have not understood the fundamental thesis of phenomenology -- i.e. that all that is can be experienced as a value, a good, of which we can have intuitions of empathy, -- feelings of sympathy, etc.-- with a person, or a fellow-feeling with animals, pets and the vast universe of infra-human beings -even before we have any adequate scientific knowledge of such beings.

It is a philosophical method for finding the true meaning and values of things and persons through such empathy; hence the importance of St. Edith's doctoral dissertation, The Problem of Empathy. Allow me to indicate what this "empathic knowledge" is, and what it did for her spiritual life, as well as in her professional works of education and research/writing.

Phenomenology studies the pre-dispositions of human nature, the "self-evident principles and truths " of common human experience, such as our human desires for knowledge, goodness, and beautiful action and interaction, of the way we come to the sacred and the noble in our lives; it studies especially our human freedom of conscience and the wonder, the awe, the ineffable mystery with which all investigation begins. These predispositions include:

1) the vision of our world, our "world-view, as St. Edith calls it in German; (Weltanschauung).

2) a purified consciousness, which is able to be receptive to real goods and truths, from whatever science they derive;

3) our experience of spiritual realities, especially those of persons, such as active and passive virtues, values, judgments and evaluations of conscience, -- in short, the whole universe of philosophy and spirituality. These are "those spiritual gifts" of which St. Paul spoke in the quote above.

2. Our world-vision, or understanding of the world in which we live. -- This refers to what we call "our cultural milieu," our context or thought-world. It also gave Edith Stein a solid criterion on which to judge the history of philosophy and of the world she lived in. The Nazis made their life-world the Third Reich, "a New Order" -- with no room for Jews, convinced Christians, or even dissenting female philosophy professors. The socialists made their life-world the economic situation of society -- picturing a working-class proletariat always in a class-war against the bourgeoisie. The academia of the Prussian Universities made their life-world a German empire of theory and Kantian duty -- into which no woman could enter, and the people who did the manual work of society were simply nobodies. Freudian psychologists made psychology their life-world, proceeding to interpret everything, including their patients, in terms of their life-world, a certain theory of sexuality.

The philosophers of phenomenology rebelled against all of this, and proceeded to examine the presuppositions of such movements as Nazism, psychologism, and Marxist socialism, subjecting them to a rigorous analysis of how they did or did not accord with real principles of a foundational logic and a practical ethic. Phenomenology began to question the intelligentsia, in the school of Edmund Husserl, who was Edith Stein's mentor.

She and they saw that what was necessary in "the crisis of the sciences" of pre-World War I Germany was an authentic philosophy of reality -- and phenomenology was a movement that gave them hope to arrive at such a exalted promise -- to give the world a consistent world-view, a philosophy of life, and to help modern man and woman come to recognize what is necessary for us to live free lives, and how such lives should be lived well, with real meaning, values and authenticity.

3. The absolute necessity for a dialog among the sciences, beginning with philosophy.- Edith Stein and the movement which she entered, under the guidance of Edmund Husserl, its founder and her "Master", recognized something fundamentally modern about the scientific situation in which she was living with her fellow intellectuals: the world War, and the technological intelligence of that time in Europe represented "a crisis of the sciences;" civilization and philosophy, as well as the new Freudian and other social sciences desperately needed a critique: history, sociology, psychology, economics and their offspring were operating on very shaky premises, in a state of mutual contradiction with one another. This made them "the soft sciences", in comparison with the mathematical physics of Einstein which had become more and more probative. Because of such anarchy in the world of intellectuals - the elite leaders of the modern nation-state - all kinds of unexamined pressures, legitimate and illegitimate, were pushing people into breaking the fragile peace of the world - in the name of some "master-race" or "national empire/sovereignty."

What was happening in 1914 is not so different from what is happening in, 2001: a crisis of the intelligence and the moral fiber of the scientific community, and a need - indeed a desperate need -for a method of dialog between governments, religions, institutions, churches and synagogues, as well as with the men and women who have corrupted these governments and debased these religions and institutions as their putative playthings.

As it was with Edith Stein, we too are being driven to make some fundamental philosophical decisions in our lives and in our thinking. We need the phenomenological Method! It opens us to the real intelligence and the profound Gospel Dimensions of our Christian heritage: to its rigorous truth and its transcendent values. In a word our spiritual lives must be truly intellectual lives.

The spiritual life which she lived, and the philosophy which she pioneered and served made her a truly original thinker, and she had begun to influence the philosophical world -- her life-world --, long before entering Carmel. Let her explain her own intellectual life in her own words:

Phenomenology is not simply one world-view, but it also influences the world-view of phenomenologists and perhaps others as well .. To study the relationship between phenomenology and a world-view (Weltanschauung), we must understand clearly what both terms mean:

'A world-view' (Weltanschauung) means a complete understanding of the known world: a panoramic view of all things, and of the order and mutual relationships in which things stand towards each other: and above all, what is the place of man in the world and where does he come from? where is he going? Everyone who is spiritually alive experiences the drive for such a world-view, but not everyone reaches it, because it requires serious effort to do so.

The Catholic has a relative advantage here, because the teaching of the faith gives him a complete view of the world. And yet even he must internalize this faith to make it his own. He who structures his concept of the world purely on the ground of faith can be said to have a religious world-view.

But those outside the Church, and also those who have lost the capacity to appropriate their Catholic world-view personally because of a lack of instruction in the faith, although they were brought up in the Church -- these have a much more difficult journey in recognizing the real resources for constructing a world-view of reality.

In the years since the Enlightenment, the great effort of circles of highly educated 'intellectuals' so-called, has been to achieve 'a scientific world-view'. What this meant was never clearly set forth, but the claim to such a world-view raised the question of whether it was possible. If such a scientific world-view has a claim to be real, it must be

a) either a science itself,

b) or be grounded in a science,

c) or include all the other sciences.

But there is no one science among the others that investigates the entire universe. Moreover, it is necessary for any science, as such, to be diversified into particular sciences which study determinate, objective fields; and thus the more specialized it is, the more scientific it will be. Thus one can also infer that no single science can yield a complete vision as a world-view, and a 'scientific vision of the world' cannot be any science as such, nor can any science give us such a world-view. If any general scientific world-view claims to give us a complete vision of reality, it would have to be such that it can use all the other sciences as the resources for such a construction .... (When) men looked to philosophy to unite the findings of the different sciences,... a philosophy which tried to be scientific rejected this task offered to it. "(Die Weltanschauliche Bedeutung der Phaenomenologie. p. 2ff)

A later part of this journey was the development of a consistent philosophy of life. As we venerate her martyrdom and follow her spirituality, we need to recognize the profoundly formative influence of the philosophy of phenomenology upon her thinking, feeling, and acting, which, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, brought her to the recognition of her Carmelite vocation and her special vocation to follow the way of the Cross to Auschwitz. This essay will show that her spiritual life was also an intellectual life. Her schooling in phenomenology was normative and productive of those great spiritual intuitions of "the truth," for which she had a passion, and of "the world of values" which she espoused and put into practice; and "an opening to these truths and values."

a) Spirituality needs philosophical criteria. -- Spirituality is in need of the kind of reasoned, constructive critique which is expressed in the theological definition: "fides quaerens intellectum" -- "faith in search of intelligence." This is a gift which St. Edith Stein can make to the enterprise of Catholic spirituality. Edith opened up to the positive values and meaning which she found in the phenomenological movement during the first World War. She entered with zest into the task of being the scribe of Edmund Husserl, collecting and adjusting his seemingly disorganized thoughts; editing and publishing his works; corresponding and communicating with Husserl's colleagues, disciples and the subsequent developers of the movement, such as Max Scheler, Martin Heidegger and Roman Ingarden. Scheler was especially brilliant in bringing to light the whole world of values, a basis for a renewed ethic for the Germany of her time. (Remember, Edith was a patriotic German woman, despite the discrimination of the nation-state.) The movement of phenomenology gave rise to religious conversions, as its leaders recognized the meaning of the values of the spirit or conscience: truth, goodness, service, love, beauty, the sacred and the noble. Here was a tool which could assert the validity of spiritual things in the chaos of mass.consumerism! Scheler was to embody the sources of human intuitions re pleasure, vitality, spirit and religion in his typology of the exemplars of each spiritual instinct: 1) the dilettantes of consumerism live out the pleasure impulse; 2) the hero lives out the values of the warrior and the leader, 3) the genius lives out the values of spirituality, 4) and the saint lives out the values of religion. Edith Stein, first, and Pope John Paul II subsequently, gave firmer foundations to the intuitions of Max Scheler by developing a metaphysical basis for his values ethic. She began a critique of Husserl, Scheler and Heidegger, which was then necessary, and still is salutary, for phenomenology.

In philosophy, critics are your best friends.

But the important reality that St. Edith discovered and proposed in all of this intellectual ferment and imbroglio was that praxis is what proves and norms the transcendental goals of any philosophy; praxis is a spirituality which is only able to be developed on the basis of a mystical, living faith: truth, communion, solidarity, service, the moral senses of conscience, are only alive and able to be completely authentic under the actio9n of the Spirit of God. Faith is necessary and adequate for a world-view that is -viable and realistic, or, as she would discover in her journey along the way of St. John of the Cross, "Faith is the ordinary way to union with God."

This simple Gospel spirituality took expression in her discovery of St. Teresa of whom she proclaimed, "This is the truth!", after reading her autobiography toward the end of her assistantship with the Master, Husserl. It was not only a conversion -- it was also a discovery, a proof, and a demonstration of what she would later write, "Whoever is really seeking the truth is also seeking God." The next day she bought a Catholic catechism and a Missal.

b) The purified conscience and its experience for St. Edith. --As she had discovered "the Truth" in St. Teresa, she also gradually discovered the synthesis of the truths that this great woman of truth opened up to her, the Catholic tradition as manifested in St. John of the Cross' spirituality, in St. Thomas Aquinas' philosophy and in Cardinal Newman's "Ideas" of development of doctrine, university education, the prophetic charisma in the Church, and the supremacy of conscience. After her conversion, Edith continued her philosophical labors and deepened her research into the classics of her newly-found faith along the trajectory that phenomenology had laid out. She began a translation of St. Thomas Aquinas' Quaestiones Disputatae De Veritate, and then wrote a course which is now a book, The Structure of the Human Person, using the very pages of her translation of Thomas' De Veritate, on the obverse side. Fr. Erich Przywara, S.J., interested her in the literature of Newman. Certain key updates to Catholic philosophy (this was her term for our scholasticism) were developed in her thinking during these ten plus years before her entrance into the Cologne Carmel:

1) the importance of a knowledge of singulars, as well as of universals, for any contemporary -philosophy; there is a tendency in Catholic philosophy not to take account of the singular approaches of the social sciences in favor of "universal truths or values" -- even in favor of "a system of getting to heaven", as Newman characterized the moral theology of his time -- and sometimes ours. This is dangerous; history, psychology, sociology and economics have all sorts of things to teach us, and oftentimes the feminine attention to singular details is a better tool for empathy with these issues than masculine synthesis or analysis. Her book, Woman shows the complementary aspects of feminine and masculine gifts and spiritualities: "We are a dual species," she writes.

2) The essential importance of the body for an understanding of Christian anthropology.-- All to often, a traditional anthropology -- it still exists today -- would deny the reality that we are "spirits in the body". The results of such "angelism"' are all too evident to require comment. But it was the phenomenologists who first raised this issue in idealistic Germany.

3) Especially the passage to modernism that the above social and anthropoloogical sciences enabled became a respected thesis in Catholic German academic circles, long before the "aggioranamiento" of Pope John XXIII. -- Catholic Germany knew that the Church was in trouble in the modern world long before most of the rest of us, she saw that trouble in the Third Reich. And the Catholic academies of Muenster, Freiburg and Innsbruck were dealing with these questions very early on. Msgr. Romano Guardini, Professor Martin Grabmann and the neo-Thomist translators, Fr. Erich Przywara and the Mainz Jesuits, the Catholic theological faculties of Tuebigen and Freiburg -- all of these, along with the French transcendental Thomists, were beginning a revival of what Gilson would call "a Christian philosophy" This was the thought-world which was to lead to so many of the progressive reforms of Vatican II, when the Rhine flowed into the Tiber.

4) The understanding of singular moral realities has given us tools to reassess the reality/illusion of such little understood values as humility, civility, sympathy, generosity, and the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, as well as the charisms of the Holy Spirit which found no proper categories for analysis in the scholastic system. This is also true of such human gifts as the sense of humor, the smile, the tears of grief and of joy, the changing face of the human being-in-the world. -- Read again the Lumen Gentium descriptions of the priestly, prophetic and kingly charisms of the People of God. In Cardinal Newman's time, he had complained that these were largely ignored by "the Church teaching;"- now the magisteriurn has been forced to come to terms with the charisms of the virtues and the ministries of the laity, which have opened up such a world of spiritual values that Pope John Paul II has called this latter part of the century "the New Pentecost" which the Council prepared.


An enlarged world-view, a recognition of the values of conscience, and a way to experience truth and value in ordinary daily life -- these are the marks of the philosophical journey of St. Edith Stein. As we rejoice in the heroic entrance she made into the Carmel of Cologne, and the even more heroic martyrdom through she found entrance into the "eternal Kingdom of the Spirit and the spirits", let us not forget the way she got there: the spirituality of phenomenology.


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