Conference reflects on twentieth century convert and martyr

Sarah Borden Sharkey, associate professor of philosophy at Wheaton College and author of two books on Edith Stein, delivered the keynote address for the seventh annual Edith Stein Conference.  The Edith Stein Conference, sponsored by the Identity Project of Notre Dame, is the largest student-organized conference on campus, In the words of the co-chairs of the project, “the Edith Stein Project provides a forum for the discussion of our dignity as men and women and as college students preparing for the future.”

Students and professors from Notre Dame and around the country gathered to begin the discussion of this year’s theme, vulnerability.  In preparation for the event, Fr. Jenkins released a statement in which he wrote, “This year’s conference hopes to accomplish two objectives: (1) to offer hope and healing to those who have been harmed by the exploitation of their vulnerability, and (2) to examine the positive role of vulnerability, particularly within relationships.”

In her address, Sharkey examined the role of vulnerability in the life of Edith Stein, from her birth in Germany in 1891 to her death at the hands of the Nazis in 1942.

According to Sharkey, Edith Stein’s life was full of disappointments and challenges, though neither of these broke Stein’s spirit.  Stein was vulnerable as a woman intellectual at a time when women had just begun to enter into public discourse. She was one of the first women to receive a university degree and a doctorate in philosophy, but despite these qualifications she never received a teaching position at the university level.  Subtle sexism, even in the attitude of her academic mentor Edmund Husserl, cost her the academic honors she desired and deserved. In response to the sexist attitudes she encountered, which she felt damaged her dignity, Stein described herself as a “radical feminist.”  Stein never blamed or criticized individuals, but sought to change institutions. For example, in response to the controversy surrounding her failure to obtain a university post, she wrote a letter to Prussian Minister for Science, Art, and Education to protest calmly against the discrimination against women.  The Prussian government eventually enacted legislation that protected women’s rights in the workplace, though Stein did not live to see this change.

In 1922 Stein again made herself vulnerable by abandoning the Jewish faith to convert to Catholicism.  Her baptism and the struggles that led up to it are largely lost to history, though Stein later recounted that the conversion was “the most important decision of my life.”  She quit her academic career to teach with the Dominican sisters in Speyer, where she also worked on translating works of Thomas Aquinas from Latin into German.

Stein finally entered the academy in 1932, taking a post as a lecturer at the Institute of Pedagogy in Muenster.  The rise of the Nazi party and the enacting of laws against Jews, however, forced her to resign in 1933. Stein refused to attack individuals for the societal injustice that cost her so much personal loss.  Instead, she appealed to Pope Pius XI asking him to condemn Nazism and anti-Semitism.  That year, she also entered the Carmelite convent at Cologne and took the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

Even after entering religious life, Stein’s academic career was not complete.  In her novitiate, her superiors asked that she resume studies, a unique and unprecedented request for a Carmelite nun.  In addition to studying the works of her former mentor, Husserl, she continued her study of Aquinas and Aristotle and eventually composed her magnum opus, FINITE AND ETERNAL BEING, in which she proposed a new argument for the existence of God. The work also had a distinctively Carmelite strain, influenced in part by the spirituality of Spanish Carmelite reformer and mystic St. Teresa of Avila.

Because of anti-Semitic laws, at the last minute her work was not published. After struggling to find a foreign publisher, Stein resigned herself to the idea that the work would never be published. Again she had been vulnerable, and again she had been wounded. Though she continued writing, she never again wrote for an academic audience.  In 1942 she seized by the Nazis and executed in the concentration camp at Auschwitz.

Borden Sharkey closed by reflecting on Stein’s philosophy of life.  She stressed that humans can suffer uniquely in an expiatory or redemptive fashion, a suffering in which Stein certainly participated. Despite the setbacks, Stein called the last decade of her life her happiest, and did not resent the sting of failures in her academic life. She loved the religious life, even though no one but her superiors knew of her academic talents.

Dale Parker is majoring in classics and sometimes thinks he can get away without a humorous remark at the end of his byline. He can be reached at