Episcopal Moderator for Catholic-Jewish Relations
National Conference of Catholic Bishops
In May of 1987, the Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs issued an "advisory" to the nation's Catholics indicating appropriate understandings for Catholic veneration of Sister Benedicta of the Cross, Blessed Edith Stein. At the time, I chaired the Committee. The present statement renews that advisory and updates it based on insights gained through Catholic-Jewish dialogue in the intervening decade.
The 1987 statement sought to address two underlying Jewish concerns. The first was that the raising up of a convert of Jewish background for Catholic veneration might occasion the development of organized movements within the Church to proselytize and convert other Jews. History, the BCEIA knew well, teaches us that such movements, while perhaps well intentioned, have almost invariably led to a severe diminishment of the religious freedom of the Jewish people in Christian lands, and at times to forced conversions, expulsions, and other forms of persecution. Thus, the BCEIA declared:
"Catholic respect for the integrity of Judaism and for the ongoing validity of God's irrevocable covenant with the Jewish people is solidly founded on our faith in the unshakeable faithfulness of God's own word. As the Second Vatican Council declared, "according to the Apostle, the Jews still remain most dear to God for the sake of their fathers, for He does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues (cf. Rom 11:28-29)." Therefore, in no way can the beatification of Edith Stein be understood by Catholics as giving impetus to unwarranted proselytizing among the Jewish community. On the contrary, it urges us to ponder the continuing religious significance of Jewish traditions, with which we have so much in common, and to approach Jews not as potential 'objects' of conversion but rather as bearers of a unique witness to the Name of the One God, the God of Israel. As the Holy Father declared during his visit to the Rome Synagogue: 'Each of our religions, in the full awareness of the many bonds which unite them, wishes to be recognized and respected in its own identity, beyond any syncretism and any ambiguous appropriation . . . No one is unaware that the fundamental difference from the very beginning has been the attachment of us Catholics to the person and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, a son of your people . . .But it must be said that the ways opened for our collaboration, in the light of our heritage drawn from the Law and the Prophets, are various and important. Jews and Christians are the trustees and witnesses of an ethic marked by the Ten Commandments, in the observance of which man finds his truth and freedom' (April 13, 1986). Celebration of Edith Stein's own witness can only serve to enhance the Church's sense of the significance of the 'spiritual bonds' (Nostra Aetate, no. 4) which link us to the Jewish people."
Happily, our Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs is able to report that there has not been any hint of an organized conversionary effort using Edith Stein's name being developed among Catholics. Her intellectual and spiritual journey, from which Catholics have so much to learn, is presented as her own, a model for Catholics, not a model for Jews. Meditation on and emulation of Blessed Benedicta of the Cross will deepen the faith of Catholics and, properly understood, should lead Catholics to a deeper appreciation of the spiritual richness and integrity of Judaism, the faith to which God has called the Jewish people.
The second major Jewish concern addressed by the BCEIA, and by the Holy Father in his homily at the beatification ceremony and elsewhere, was that raising up the figure of a Jewish convert as symbolic of the millions of victims of the Shoah might lead to an "appropriation" by the Church of the Holocaust itself, by making it seem that the Church, not the Jewish people, was the primary victim of Nazi genocide. The BCEIA stated:
"We see the beatification of Edith Stein as a unique occasion for joint Catholic-Jewish reflection and reconciliation. In honoring Edith Stein, the Church wishes to honor all the millions of Jewish victims of the Shoah. Christian veneration of Edith Stein does not lessen but rather strengthens our need to preserve and honor the memory of the Jewish victims. Catholic veneration of Edith Stein will necessarily contribute to a continuing and deepened examination of conscience regarding sins of commission and omission perpetrated by Christians against Jews during the dark years of World War II, as well as reflection on those Christians who risked their very lives to save their Jewish brothers and sisters. Indeed, it was in retaliation for a public letter by the Dutch Catholic bishops protesting the deportation of Jews that Edith Stein was picked up by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. Through the beatification of Edith Stein the Church calls all Christians today to join with the Jewish people in opposing any and all forms of antisemitism."
Again, our Secretariat reports that the educational and devotional materials that have been developed since the beatification over a decade ago are free of both theological and historical "triumphalism." Rather, they stress that the killers of Edith Stein, that is to say the perpetrators of the Holocaust, were, by and large, baptized Christians whose consciences, in the Holy Father's phrase, had been "lulled" by centuries of negative theological polemics against Jews and Judaism emanating from all levels of the Christian community. While it cannot be said in any sense that the murderers were practicing Christianity in perpetrating mass murder (indeed, Nazi ideology bitterly opposed and sought to destroy the Church), meditation upon the martyrdom of Edith Stein must stress the guilt of Christians and call all today to repentance, even as they rightly point to the saintliness of her life and death.
One can note here not only the numerous statements of the Holy Father calling the Church to repentance for the Shoah and what preceded it, but now, within the last few years, the remarkable series of statements of repentance issued by Bishops' Conferences both in Europe and the United States, including most especially that of the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, trenchantly entitled, We Remember, which concludes with the following insistent appeal to the whole Church:
"At the end of this millennium the Catholic Church desires to express her deep sorrow for the failures of her sons and daughters of every age. This is an act of repentance (teshuvah), since as members of the Church we are linked to the sins as well as the merits of all her children. The Church approaches with deep respect and great compassion the experience of extermination, the Shoah suffered by the Jewish people during World War II. It is not a matter of mere words, but indeed of binding commitment. We pray that our sorrow for the tragedy which the Jewish people has suffered in our century will lead to a new relationship with the Jewish people. We wish to turn awareness of past sins into a firm resolve to build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Judaism among Christians. . . The spoiled seeds of anti-Judaism and antisemitism must never again be allowed to take root in any human heart" (March 16, 1998).
The statements of the European and American bishops' conferences, as well as that of the Holy See have now been collected and published by the U.S. Catholic Conference. The very important statement of May 15, 1998 by Edward Cardinal Cassidy, the President of the Commission, completes the volume. In this statement, which reflects Jewish concerns over certain phrasings in We Remember, Cardinal Cassidy gives the document its definitive interpretation as a teaching document of the magisterium.
Both the 1987 statement of the BCEIA and that of the Holy See urge further joint studies and dialogue between Catholics and Jews on the Holocaust and its implications for the future. Indeed, the past decade since the beatification has taught us the immense complexity of the issues, both theological and historical, that the figure of Edith Stein raises for our dialogue with the Jewish people.
In a reflective piece on "Edith Stein: Jewish Perspectives on Her Martyrdom," Holocaust scholar Zev Garber speaks for many in the Jewish community when he states his appreciation for the 1987 statement of the BCEIA:
"Catholic authorities say that sainthood for Sister Teresa is recommended because of her pious life, her religious writings, her good works and her execution. Her act of Christian martyrdom gives the Church every right to claim her ultimate sacrifice as an act of testimony to the Passion of Jesus, preparing the world for the Kingdom of God. Jewish fears that the veneration of Sister Teresa would promote conversion among Jews or appropriate the Shoah event as a Church tragedy are properly laid to rest in a statement of the Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. . .But it is in the reflection on Catholic-Jewish reconciliation vis-a-vis the words of Edith Stein and the Church's understanding of her martyrdom that major obstacles continue to exist".
Similarly, Rabbi Daniel Polish, whose reflections on the beatification of Edith Stein were considered so helpful in 1987 that his article received a top award from the Catholic Press Association that year, notes, in an update written for a new volume of essays giving both Jewish and Christian perspectives on Edith Stein, that the canonization "serves to highlight one of the many areas of significant disagreement between the Catholic Church and Jewish understanding. Thus, while we cannot embrace the notion that Edith Stein will serve as a bridge (between Jews and Catholics) we can see the occasion of her canonization as opening a door to significant discourse. For if this moment offers us the opportunity to explore this area, it will have served constructive purpose".
The issues raised by these two Jewish scholars, and by Rabbi Jack Bemporad as well, are serious and profound. Interestingly, Garber, Polish and Bemporad all engage in respectful dialogue with the Holy Father's homily at the beatification. Polish frames the dilemma posed for Jews by the sanctification as a paradox: "To elaborate on this paradox, it is clear that in the eyes of those who executed her, Edith Stein was a Jew. For them she died as a Jew. She came from a Jewish family, and was thus deemed to be racially Jewish. To the Nazis, it made no difference that Edith Stein had converted to Christianity. To Jewish self-understanding, on the other hand, that fact made all the difference. While a non-practicing, even non-believing, Jew is considered to be Jewish, one who embraces another faith is understood by Jewish teaching as renouncing Jewish faith and must, as a consequence, be considered no longer a Jew. Thus the painful paradox and the dilemma that while Edith Stein died precisely because the tormentors of the Jews considered her to be Jewish, to those in the midst of whom she suffered and died she cannot have been deemed Jewish at all." Garber and Bemporad argue in a similar fashion, helpfully taking the reader through some of the intricacies of applicable rabbinic tradition in the process.
This is a most delicate matter and one that will require much serious dialogue, not so much to resolve as simply to clarify. On the one hand, the issue of "Who is a Jew?" is not entirely resolved within the Jewish community (under whose sole responsibility the matter resides). On the other hand, the Catholic Church can and doubtlessly should accept at face value the integrity of individuals who come to it through God's gift of faith to them. And in Edith Stein's mind, we know, she never for a moment felt that she had ceased to be a Jew. So the dilemma for Catholics is different than that posed by Edith Stein's canonization for Jews. As a Church, we cannot pretend that she died as anything other than one of the millions of Jews murdered in the Shoah. This would be to fall into trap highlighted by the Jewish concerns articulated -- by Rabbi Polish among others -- ten years ago that the Church would somehow diminish the Jewishness of the Shoah or even appropriate it as a Catholic event by lifting up one of the six million for veneration. Edith Stein, it is important for the Church to say, died both as a "daughter of Israel" and as a Christian martyr. We need the reminder of Christian sinfulness that the first affirmation brings with it, as well as the spiritual challenge of the second affirmation. But we need also to remember, sensitively and compassionately, that the Jewish people do not see it that way. Nor, of course, do they need the reminder of the Shoah in the same way we do.
The issue of Edith Stein's continuing Jewishness does not exhaust the areas where this canonization can be the catalyst for significant theological dialogue. For even the second affirmation, that Sr. Benedicta died a martyr, and the very nature of what martyrdom means, are variously understood in our two communities. Here are raised theological issues which go to the heart of the dialogue. What do we mean by redemptive suffering? By redemption itself? As Professor Garber puts it:
"No wonder the Church has seen fit to beatify her as the quintessential Shoah martyr: She is of Jewish birth and loyal to the Jewish people, a confessor of human sins, which, theologically crucified Jesus; and a participant in the 'theology of suffering,' who is redeemed by self-sacrifice inherent in Christ-like creeds and deeds. . .We would suggest, with all deference, that the Church and the Jewish people can agree that the courage and passion of Edith Stein should help Christians learn the lessons of Shoah, but they necessarily differ in their theology of redemption. For the Church, it is the Easter faith, spirit over matter, that enables victory to be proclaimed over Golgotha and Auschwitz. For the Synagogue, it is the covenantal oath at Sinai, uniting spirit and matter and resulting in everyday acts of holiness, that permits Zion to triumph over Auschwitz. Recognition of this difference may lessen the Jewish objection to Pope John Paul's canonization of a 'Jewish' nun."
I would suggest just as deferentially that the dialogue over Edith Stein engaged in by Jews and Catholics does not and must not end with the recognition of difference on this level. Each of the points raised by Polish, Garber, Bemporad and others requires deeper reflection and sharing (for example, the issue of the relationship of matter and spirit in the Church's sacramental understanding). For differences can at times mask deeper commonalities of revealed insight for Judaism and Christianity alike. This is the unending hope of dialogue between us, and the unending goal of reconciliation.