Context of Edith Stein's Letter to Pius XI: Church as a Victim of Nazism

Interview with Expert on the Carmelite Saint

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BURGOS, Spain, MARCH 12, 2003 ( Last month’s opening of the Vatican archives of Pius XI’s papacy brought to light a letter by Edith Stein in which she asked the Pope to intervene against Hitler’s persecution of Jews and Catholics.

To understand the context of the April 12, 1933, letter by Stein (now St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), ZENIT interviewed Gabriel Castro Martínez.

Castro is the secretary of the Mount Carmel review of the Discalced Carmelites of Burgos, and a professor of spiritual theology and expert on Edith Stein.

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ZENIT: In her letter to Pius XI, Edith Stein introduced herself as a «daughter of the Jewish people» and «daughter of the Catholic Church.»

Castro: Yes, and she wished to speak and spoke as such. And this consciousness of a double membership is her first important and novel contribution, something she never concealed, or considered or lived as being contradictory in any way.

It could even be said that her conversion to the Catholic faith was also a conversion to Judaism, which she had ceased practicing in her youth. Only much later, with the Second Vatican Council, was this understanding and integration of the faith of the first and second Testaments made something common in the Catholic Church.

In her time, this double membership was not much expressed and was not yet assumed. Today, her testimony is of great help in healing the historical wounds of Jews and Catholics.

Q: Could you explain Stein’s importance in the German intellectual and educational scene at that time?

Castro: In 1933 Dr. Edith Stein was an outstanding member of Catholic culture, although, of course, her public fame was not what it has become at present.

Suffice it to think that in September of the previous year, when an international colloquium of the Thomist Society was planned in Juvisy, France, no other woman was invited. There she hobnobbed, for example, with Koyre, Maritain and Berdyayev.

She was included in that realm: Dietrich von Hildebrand recommended her as translator of Cardinal Newman; Erich Przywara praised her translation of St. Thomas’ «De Veritate,» etc. However, she was the first to smile at her admirers’ exaggerations.

Q: What elements came together in her personality?

Castro: At this time, as usual, she was searching; she nourished in her heart the ideal of the Carmelite life, and dedicated herself above all to search for a scientific foundation for Christian pedagogy.

As a perpetual vagabond, always with her bags packed, she lived for some months with the religious and students of the Marianum Major School of Munster. She taught classes at the Institute of Scientific Pedagogy, and traveled around giving conferences.

Concern for her family began to be an important part of her acute present. The discipline of scientific research, accepted as a real divine task, and the teaching work she assumed with utmost determination, responsibility and seriousness, were other fundamental elements of her personality at the moment she wrote the letter.

A life of liturgical and personal prayer, together with her pedagogic work, was at the center of her believing personality at this time. Her communication with friends and family did not cease. She also exercised her personal apostolate in the many and delicate relations of friendships that she maintained at this as well as in all other moments of her life.

The Jewish question pierced her soul with tragic feelings of solidarity and resistance. She began immediately to write «Life in a Jewish Family» as an attempt to address in a constructive way the dialogue with society and to dismantle anti-Semitic prejudices.

The relevance of her person, due to her high professional qualification and the respect she had earned in intellectual circles, in fact, lead her advisers and ecclesiastical superiors to postpone her entry into the Teresian community so that she could continue her activity as lecturer not only in Germany but also in Switzerland, Austria and France.

The figure of a woman, philosopher and Catholic was of much importance due to its very rarity in the pedagogic and feminist debate at that time. The Church could not then dispense with or deprive itself of her public word — nor can it now, of course. However, she already began to have a premonition that her life’s mission was not reduced to this, despite its size and importance.

Q: The letter Edith Stein sent on April 12, 1933, to Pope Pius XI requested the Church to condemn the persecution — which was incipient then — against Jews, to pronounce itself against the Nazi regime — founded on pretended Christian ideologies. It also warned about the danger that was hovering over the Church itself. What was the context at that time that caused «silence» on the part of the Church?

Castro: Needless to say, the context of March ’33 was not at all that of 10 years later. Now we can all see clearly.

The Concordat, for example, seems impossible to us. However, the majority of Catholics were blinded by the promises of National Socialism. They did not even pay attention to the instructions of the hierarchy itself. But only personalities like Edith Stein, or Walzer himself, her spiritual director, could realize the dangers that were in the offing.

The Church was concerned above all to find a modus vivendi with the new regime: freedom of worship, independence of youth associations, right to education, compatibility of Catholicism and patriotic loyalty. The Jewish question was not a priority issue at that time for the Catholic Church.

The Concordat and a temporizing and conciliatory policy was common in face of a power that did nothing but promise respect and a Church that, having already tasted the Nazis’ violence, hoped to find security and protection in the agreement.

To foresee at that time the consequences of silence or those of a public denunciation and a frontal break with the regime was something reserved to saints and prophets, to martyrs. In general, the Church did not perceive the problem as its own then. It was impossible to foresee the Holocaust; even today it seems literally unthinkable to us.

For Edith Stein, her condition as victim of the harassment opened her eyes in a way that was incomprehensible for the rest of the members of the Church, who did not share that acute position, although they shared the ideological position of rejection of Nazi theories and practices.

Of course, there was no silence or inhibition. The Church spoke through the person of many bishops, especially in Bavaria. In any case, the Church accepts its history, its successes and its possible errors and, of course, does not fear the archives, the pamphlets or the films.

The silence at the time can be explained, then, by the fact that the Church was hoping for an understanding that was not possible. It was deceived.

It is known that during those same days, precisely from April 9-16 of ’33, while Edith was in Beuron and was writing the letter, Vice Chancellor von Papen was in Rome initiating negotiations for a possible and desired Concordat between the Church and the Third Reich.

On April 10 he visited the secretary of state, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli; on the 12th he was received by Pope Pius XI; and on the 15th he met again with the secretary of state, who was also prefect of the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs.

The talks ended with the signing of the Concordat on July 20 of that year. It would be repeatedly and seriously violated by the National Socialist regime, and the protests of ecclesiastical authorities did not serve for much. Without a doubt, the Church was offering the other cheek.

Q: Four years later Pius XI signed the encyclical «Mit Brennender Sor
.» Can it be said that this document responded to the request expressed in Edith Stein’s letter?

Castro: Properly speaking, no. The encyclical letter does not speak about the Jews. It is addressed to Catholics and tries to direct their Christian conscience given the situation. But insofar as it contains a condemnation of the racist and totalitarian ideology, yes, there was in it a partial response to Dr. Edith Stein’s request.

Q: Edith Stein’s letter not only was framed within the denunciation of the sociopolitical situation, but it was written at a critical time in the spiritual life of the saint, when she decided to share in the suffering of the Jewish people, to which she belonged. Could you describe this singular vocation that Stein perceived at that time?

Castro: She herself recounts this vocational process. The letter to His Holiness Pius XI is one more instance of that vocation to martyrdom, which initially we see confirmed in those days of her life.

The germinating nucleus of the Carmelite vocation and of the letter itself are perceived especially in her beautiful account «How I Arrived at the Carmel of Cologne.» The emergence of the vocation and the interpretation of her Christian existence as «freely carrying the cross oneself on behalf of all,» indicates a high point of her consecrated existence.

In her determination to be personally involved in the one same cross of Christ and of her Jewish and Christian people, are included both mystical solidarity — to enter the Carmel — as well as the initiatives against injustice that were within her reach, whether sociopolitical or ecclesial — to write the Pope.

«Sociopolitical action» and «mystical com-passion» make up her sole attitude before the Hour of the Redeemer. She will enter existentially and consciously in «the hour» of the redemptive passion united to the Savior.

From a devotional and paraliturgical context of a «first Friday» or a «holy hour,» she rises to an ecclesial and mystical commitment of the highest intention and breadth. Her words have prophetic and mystical tones.

Here is the mystical key for a valid understanding to explain the genesis of this letter and of her vocation to Teresian religious life. The Christian vocation is the vocation of witnesses of the love of God manifested in the redeeming cross of the Savior.

She would fulfill it both through prophetic denunciation as well as with religious consecration in the Carmel and finally with her terrible and glorious martyrdom.

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