Edith Stein Project explores identity, creation in the Image of God


“Human beings are most real … as they become richer and richer images of God.  They are most real in their complementarity.”

With these words, David O’Connor, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, began his keynote address at the 10th annual Edith Stein Project Conference, an annual symposium organized by the Identity Project of Notre Dame.  This year’s conference drew a record number of 420 registrants from all walks of life.  Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s College, and Holy Cross College students and faculty mingled with family members, religious, and representatives from the University of North Carolina, Hillsdale College, the University of Dallas, and local high schools.

Seeking to provide a forum to discuss the identity of man as a being created, male and female, in the image and likeness of God, the 2015 Edith Stein Project blended personal witness with philosophical, theological, scientific, and even artistic discussion in a manner that elevated the mission of the typical academic conference.  The conference sought to provide an opportunity for personal encounter with the truth and to be a source of hope and healing for its participants.

Maura Byrne—a survivor of 17 years of abuse and resulting physical and psychological complications—urged her listeners to “find dignity and worth in God the Father.”  Byrne gave a powerful personal account in which she described the challenge of recognizing her own self-worth and discovering the healing power of forgiveness, which, she emphasized, can only be accomplished with the grace of God.

Ultimately, the obstacles in Byrne’s life led her to found Made in His Image, an inpatient medical center for women recovering from eating disorders and abuse.  Made in His Image provides education and medical treatment for female victims in a manner that recognizes the dignity of each human person.

Many of the speakers acknowledged the importance of humble self-gift as the avenue by which one arrives at his true identity.  Notre Dame senior Samuel Bellafiore, in his paper “Liturgy: Healing the Pornografied Mind,” presented the liturgy as the most effective antidote to pornography’s warped understanding of the human person.  While pornography prevents the viewer from seeing the other as anything but an object of use, he emphasized, the liturgy is, by its very nature, a lens through which man comes to understand himself in relation to the divine.

In the Mass, both Christ and His Bride the Church offer themselves totally to each other. Bellafiore explained, “In the liturgy, the Creator affirms His creation as beautiful.”  Man’s identity is derived not from that for which he is considered useful, but from the fact that God daily gives Himself totally and unconditionally to man, he argued.

Father William Dailey, CSC, Lecturer in Law, suggested a similar remedy for a culture plagued by a failure to acknowledge the existence of objective truth.  The absence of God in contemporary thought, Fr. Dailey explained, has led many to cling to an “illusory autonomy” which gives the individual license to act without considering the moral implications of his action.

Drawing from the 1992 Supreme Court decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Fr. Dailey noted how deeply this sense of moral relativism has affected the law, especially in relation to social concerns such as abortion and contraception.  In Casey, the Supreme Court asserted that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Father Dailey argued that, casting off any notion of dependence on God, we attempt to construct our own identities, to satisfy ourselves with a false confidence in our self-sovereignty.  Nevertheless, in agreement with other speakers, he stated that “humility is an inversion of this autonomy that is illusory.”  In order to comprehend “the mystery of human life,” he said, we must once again perceive ourselves authentically, as beings dependent upon our Creator.

Among the other speakers was Janet Easter, who drew from her experience in the fashion industry and whose work with Elle magazine prompted her to co-found Verily magazine, a fashion and lifestyle publication, as an alternative media outlet.  Easter redefined modesty as something that reveals more of who we are at the core of our being.  Verily seeks to reflect and respect the whole woman by showing authentic beauty, featuring happy, healthy women, and refusing to photoshop images.

In a statement to the Rover, Mary Kate Martinson, one of the conference’s co-chairs, described her hopes for the 2015 Edith Stein Conference.  “I hope that all participants, whether they attended one or five talks, first and foremost internalized how deeply beloved and cherished they are and felt strengthened with knowledge of their worth,” Martinson stressed.

“I hope they left the conference armed with tools they can bring into their daily lives and felt inspired to take the next step on their personal journeys to true and lasting happiness.  We have all experienced suffering, but I hope, at the very least, participants found a supportive community at the Edith Stein Project,” she continued.

At the closing Mass, Father Bill Miscamble, CSC, Professor of History, touched on several examples of the internal battles to which Martinson alluded: the young woman besieged by a sense of inadequacy and battling an eating disorder, the young man struggling with depression after his parents’ divorce, and the countless students’ fraught questions about sexual identity.  In the midst of this cultural and moral confusion, Fr. Miscamble noted, the need for the Edith Stein Project is felt acutely.

Monsignor Michael Heintz, Professor of Theology, in his discussion of “The Eucharistic Form of Christian Life,” sent participants forth with a task rooted in their identities as baptized persons called to offer themselves unreservedly to God in imitation of Christ:  “Every choice you make to live His Paschal love,” Msgr. Heintz maintained, “extends His work and His victory in the world.”


Nicole O’Leary is a freshman history and theology major who lives in McGlinn.  Back in ‘82, she could throw a pigskin a quarter mile.  (She would not have been able to do this if she had remembered her byline.)  Contact her at noleary@nd.edu.