Edith Stein’s Conversion: How a Jewish Philosopher Became a Catholic Saint

Invited to lecture on the philosophy of Edith Stein, I found myself preparing the manuscript within the shadow of the ancient University of Salamanca, chartered first in 1215. One of its most distinguished twentieth-century rectors was Miguel de Unamuno, known the world over as a philosopher, poet, dramatist, novelist, and essayist. Writing in Salamanca, my thoughts drifted from Stein to Unamuno and back. Near contemporaries their intellectual biographies record disillusionment and quest, but quests that led to contrasting answers, symptomatic of diverse intellectual currents of their day.

Unamuno was born in 1864 in the Basque coastal city of Bilbao, but as a young man, age 16, left his native city for Madrid. One of his biographers notes that shortly after he arrived in Madrid, this formerly pious youth stopped going to Mass. What he took up is not fully disclosed, but he began reading German philosophy: Schopenhauer, Kant, and Hegel. He learned English in order to read Herbert Spencer, the prophet of evolutionary progress, who was the intellectual fad in those years. The upshot of his studies was that he lost his Catholic faith.

Unamuno eventually married his childhood sweetheart, and the couple had eight children. When he was in his early thirties, they lost their third child. The experience was shattering. It brought Unamuno to his knees and to a life of contemplation and prayer, although he never returned to the practice of his faith. Though Unamuno was culturally and emotionally a Mediterranean Catholic, he failed to develop a Catholic mind to go with it. Years later as an influential academic and politician, he was trusted neither by the Catholics nor by his secular colleagues. His literary legacy remains ambiguous, a kind of reverent humanism without adequate foundation.

Unamuno was 15 years of age when Leo XIII promulgated his famous encyclical Aeterni Patris, which recommended to the Catholic world the study of Saint Thomas. Leo XIII recommended Aquinas both as a philosopher and a theologian, for he was aware that the critical philosophy of the Continent, not to mention the empiricism of Scotland and England and the various materialisms which commanded the allegiance of intellectuals throughout the West, provided no foundation for the Catholic faith. To one of the Catholic faith, belief makes sense not only for the understanding it provides, but because it forms a continuum with, and adds to, what one already knows to be true from experience and reason.

Leo XIII recognized that some philosophies open out to the faith, just as some philosophies close it as an option. Immanuel Kant, for example, may be the perfect philosopher for some forms of Protestantism, but he can never become an adequate guide for the Catholic mind. With his dictum, “I have destroyed metaphysics in order to make room for faith,” he reflects the tradition of Luther and Calvin, whose doctrine of original sin held that with “the fall” intellect was so darkened that it cannot, unaided, conclude to the existence of God. Faith for Luther and Calvin is a leap in the dark. Kant said, in effect, that given the limited ability of the human mind it must always be so. By contrast, the Catholic tradition insists on the reasonableness of belief. Revelation adds to the store of natural knowledge, completing it, as grace perfects nature. The Catholic mind is woven out of threads provided by Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and medieval Paris.

Path to Saint Thomas

Picture now a young woman schooled in the German philosophy of the same period, newly a student of Husserl, discovering Catholicism. Edith Stein was born 12 years after Leo XIII urged the study of Thomas. She was eventually to experience the fruit of the Thomistic revival. Edith’s path to Saint Thomas was complex. It began with philosophical study that eventually led, through her acquaintance with Max Scheler, to an appreciation of Catholicism. That is the same Max Scheler on whom Karol Wojtyla was to write in earning his doctorate degree in philosophy.

Reared in a conservative Jewish home, Edith Stein, not unlike Unamuno, abandoned her faith as an adolescent. Between the age of 13 and 21 she considered herself to be an atheist. Intellectually precocious from childhood, as a University student she found herself dissatisfied with the dominant German philosophy of her time, the same philosophy which separated Unamuno from his religious heritage. By accident she discovered the two volumes of Husserl’s Logical Investigations.

The Logical Investigations is made up of six investigations preceded by a “Prolegomena,” published as Volume I. The “Prolegomena” is a sustained critique of “psychologism,” the doctrine that reduces logical entities—such as propositions, universals, and numbers—to mental states or mental activities. Husserl insists on the objectivity of such targets of consciousness and displays the incoherence of trying to reduce them to activities of the mind. As Robert Sokolowski shows, “Husserl’s distinction between intuitive presentation and symbolic intention enables him to discuss in a realistic manner not only perceptual objects but categorical objects such as states of affairs, relationships, causal connections and the like.”

Husserl’s realism came as an antidote to both Kant and Hegel, insofar as he affirmed the existence of objective truth and the existence of a knowable world apart from the mind. This enables one to embrace the Christian faith as a compelling objective account and not as a mere subjective conceptual schema. Husserl himself, partially trained in Vienna, was indebted to two Austrians, Franz Brentano and Bernard Bolzano, both trained as priests, both steeped in the scholastic philosophy of the Thomistic revival.

Thus at age 21 Edith left Breslau for Gottingen where she hoped to study with Husserl, whom she had already come to regard as the leading philosopher of her day. It is in Gottingen that she met Max Scheler, a Jew, who was an on-again-off-again Catholic. Scheler opened her eyes to the fact that one could be a philosopher of rank and a believing Christian. It would be ten years before she enters the Church, but under Scheler’s influence she discovered what she called, “the phenomenon of Catholicism.” Husserl taught her the method of phenomenology, a method she used to look closely, in a detached way, at the world and into herself.

Long before her baptism she began to study Saint Thomas. Later, on the advice of the Jesuit philosopher-theologian Erich Przywara, she began the translation of Saint Thomas’s Questiones Disputate de Veritate. It was that translation which brought her into intimate contact with the mind of Saint Thomas, but to say that she admired his style would be to leave a false impression. The Scholastic practice of stating a thesis, listing the objections to the thesis, defending the thesis, and then answering the objections to the thesis would, in her judgment, discourage the modern reader. Thus she dispensed with the objections and their answers and got to the meat of Thomas’s own systematic thought on the topic.

To each question she appended an analysis showing the contemporary bearing of the discussion with particular emphasis on the metaphysical and epistemological issues involved. She was writing for a literate general audience, not for scholars. Martin Grabmann provided an introduction. Father Przywara was to say of it, “It is Saint Thomas and nothing but Saint Thomas throughout, but he is brought face to face with Husserl, Scheler, and Heidegger.” The translation gained for her a reputation as a student of Saint Thomas, and she received numerous invitations to lecture on his thought.

Teresa of Avila

But it wasn’t Thomas alone who prepared her for her reception of the Catholic faith. Husserl and Thomas both opened the way. Husserl’s realism opened her to theism; from Thomas she acquired a Christian outlook. Yet it was Teresa of Avila who led her to the final step. Visiting the home of Hedwig Conrad-Martius in the summer of 1921, she read the autobiographical Life of Saint Teresa of Avila. Upon finishing the work in the early hours of the morning, she put the book down proclaiming to herself, this is “Truth.” Thomas’s De Veritate was about “truth” in the abstract; Teresa gave her truth concretely.

The same morning she set out to buy a catechism and missal. Frau Conrad-Martius relates that she had the impression that Edith attended Mass daily from the night of her encounter with Saint Teresa. Edith studied both the catechism and the missal, and one morning after Mass, she followed the priest into the sacristy and asked to be baptized. Surprised at the abruptness of her request, he informed her that she would have to take instructions. Her response was quiz me, which he did. Needless to say, she had prepared herself well. She was received into the Church on January 1, 1922. As de Fabregues puts it in his little biography, “Edith found her source in the intellect and came home to her Creator: the love dwelling in her soul responded to the searchings of her mind.”

Without Husserl and Thomas, Edith may not have been positioned to appreciate Teresa. Clearly, in her case, faith came as a gift perfecting nature. Husserl once said “The life of man is only a progression towards God. I have tried to reach this progression towards God without theological proofs, methods, or aids—in other words, I tried to reach God without God’s help.” Husserl added, “I have tried in one way or another to delete God from my scientific thought so that I might outline a way to Him for those who lack the security of faith in the Church which we have.” Husserl is also reported to have said that on his death he ought to be canonized since he had led so many people to the acceptance of Christianity. His philosophy, he thought, “converges towards Thomism and prolongs Thomism.”

From the earliest days following her baptism, Edith desired the cloistered and contemplative life of which Teresa provided the model, but her spiritual mentors advised her to stay in the world where she would be more likely to influence others. She taught for eight years at the secondary level at Saint Magdalene’s, the Dominican nuns’ training school at Speyer, and eventually sought a university post, having completed her habilitationschrift, Potency and Act. Failing to secure a position at Freibourg, she accepted an appointment at Minster in the Institute for Educational Theory, an appointment which she held for less than a year owing to the Nazis’ ascendancy and their exclusion of Jews from university positions.

Though her teaching career at Speyer and Minster was brief, she was respected by pupils at both the secondary and teacher’s college level. In her classroom she personified that virtue which she regarded as paramount for the Catholic teacher. Of the Catholic teacher she wrote, “The most important thing is that the teachers should really have Christ’s spirit in themselves and really embody it in their lives.”

Although Husserl failed to support her for a chair at Freibourg, he used to call her his “best pupil.” After her entry into the Cologne Carmel he said, “I do not believe that the Church has any neo-scholastic of Edith Stein’s quality. Every true scholastic will become a mystic, and every true mystic a scholastic. It is remarkable—Edith stands on a summit, so to speak, and sees the furthest and broadest horizons with amazing clarity and detachment, and yet there is another side, for at the same time she sees into herself with equal penetration. Everything in her is utterly genuine, otherwise, I should say that this step was romanticism. But—deep down in Jews is radicalism and love faithful unto martyrdom.”

Through her writing she gained a reputation which led to lecture invitations from Vienna to Paris. Known as a “Catholic feminist,” she lectured on behalf of the League of Catholic Women and the Association of Catholic Women Teachers on women’s roles, professionals, responsible co-workers in the Church, homemakers, teachers, and mothers. She was distressed by the increasing destruction of family life and the glorification of sex. As Hilda Graef remarks in her introduction to Edith Stein’s collected works, “She saw that the Catholic teaching on marriage as an indissoluble union was the only solid bulwark against the destructive tendencies of modern thought and education.” But she thought, writes Graef, that such teaching had to be explicated in language that took account of contemporary circumstances. Graef continues, “She also demanded a more thorough training for women in their political and civic duties, since she knew that part of the success of national socialism was due to the emotional attraction Hitler and his methods had for women, who constituted an appreciable part of the electorate who voted for him.”

Stein was clearly what we would call “a popular lecturer” on women’s issues, but she never lost contact with professional philosophical circles. Perhaps her closest friends in the philosophical community were Hedwig Conrad-Martius, Alexander Koyre, and Max Scheler. Scheler, of course, had the most influence on her, and she might have had the amoral Scheler in mind when she wrote, “There is a lot of difference between being selected as an instrument and being in a state of grace.”

Husserl and Thomas

Between 1922 and 1929 she published a series of essays in Husserl’s Jahrbuch on topics such as “the structure of the human person,” “union of body and soul,” “the nature of community,” “the nature of the State,” and “the relation of the individual to the State.” In 1929, for a festschrift honoring Husserl on his seventieth birthday, she produced a comparative study of the philosophy of Saint Thomas and Husserl’s phenomenology, showing that on many issues there is a remarkable agreement between Husserl and Thomas.

For both, philosophy is an exact science; neither doubts the power of reason; and both look upon philosophy as a conscious effort to appropriate and transmit to others the philosophia perennis. Stein observes that while Husserl never contests the validity of the act of faith, he does not recognize the duty of reason to faith, or the superiority of knowledge derived from faith to that provided by reason. “A Christian philosophy,” she wrote, “will consider its principal task to prepare the way for faith.”

The most serious difference between Husserl and Thomas, she thought, arises from Husserl’s starting point. He begins with the epistemological question, putting the real world into brackets until he has completed his critique of knowledge. Stein thinks that with his doctrine of transcendentally purified consciousness, Husserl establishes a sphere of complete immanence wherein knowledge and its object are absolutely one. He thereby excludes all doubt. Husserl in effect asks, how is a world which I can immanently investigate constructed for a consciousness? From the pure data of consciousness the subject constitutes the intentional world through its own intellectual activity.

For Thomas, metaphysics is prior to any theory of knowledge; it is the normative science to which logic, epistemology, and ethics are subordinate. Although Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology treats the subject as the starting point of philosophy and considers epistemology to be the basic science, Husserl and Aquinas would agree on three important issues: (1) all knowledge begins with sense perception; (2) human knowledge is characterized by an intellectual elaboration of sense data, which is the work of the intellect composing and dividing; (3) both admit the active and passive character of intellection and deny that thought is simply a product of the intellect.

In 1931 on a trip to Vienna, Edith stayed with Rudolph Allers who later, as a member of the faculty of philosophy of the Catholic University of America, translated her article on Dionysius the Areopagite for Marvin Farber, then editor of the Journal of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Apparently Farber thought it was too “theological” or too “Catholic” for his journal. Allers then published it in The Thomist under the title, “Ways to Know God.” It was the only article Edith ever submitted for publication to an English language journal. Though she submitted it in the fall of 1941, she did not live to see it published.

Glancing backward for a moment to September 1932, we find Edith Stein at a conference of the Thomistic Society in Juvisy, France, along with Jacques Maritain, Alexander Koyre, Etienne Gilson, and Nicholas Berdyaev. She exchanged correspondence with the Maritains and was the recipient of an inscribed gift copy of the first French edition of Maritain’s Degrees of Knowledge.

Denied the possibility of a teaching position in Germany she was free to pursue her contemplative vocation. She entered Mary Queen of Peace Carmel in Cologne on October 14, 1933. “Modest,” “humble,” “mischievously witty,” “cheerful,” “friendly,” are words used by co-religious to describe her. Encouraged by her religious superiors at Cologne, and later at Echt, she continued to write. Her habilitationschrift was rewritten to become Finite and Eternal Being. No German publisher would dare bring it out under her name; it was published posthumously in 1950. This was followed by the article Ways to Know God: Dionysius the Areopagite and the book Science of the Cross. The latter was a study of the life, theology, and poetry of Saint John of the Cross. (Interestingly, Pope John Paul II, who wrote a dissertation in philosophy on Max Scheler, also wrote a dissertation in theology on John of the Cross.)

She was still working on this book the day the Gestapo arrested her, August 2, 1942. She and her sister were two of more than 700 non-Aryan Christians who were arrested in reprisal for a pastoral letter the Dutch bishops had promulgated in all the churches on Sunday, July 26, condemning the Nazi treatment of the Jews. Only eight days had elapsed between the promulgation of the letter and her arrest. Within another seven she was dead. The death date normally given is August 9, 1942.

Contemplative Life

This sketch would be incomplete without some mention of Stein’s habitual self-denial and her long hours at prayer before the Eucharist. It is commonly acknowledged that the contemplative life is fraught with a multiplicity of psychological and spiritual dangers. In the religious life one can easily become carried into perilous regions of the soul through excessive or uncontrolled zeal. Stein was to maintain her sanity in spite of the rigorous self-mortification which she undertook as a matter of course. Abbot Raphael Walzer, in comments prepared for a volume to commemorate the tenth anniversary of her death, echoed Husserl’s earlier assessment when he wrote, “Her interior life was so simple and free from problems that, from my conversations with her, nothing remains in my memory but the picture of a soul of perfect clarity and maturity.”

The point I wish to stress about Edith Stein—and the reason I began with Miguel de Unamuno—is that Stein was first intellectually prepared to grasp the faith she later received. True, not everyone who embraces the Catholic faith has to go through a series of philosophical steps in order to be open to the gift of faith. Most are accorded the faith through family inheritance. Yet even the born Catholic is admonished to examine, in Socratic fashion, his received faith in order that it may be rationally embraced. The convert, on the other hand, is by definition one who has experienced a change of outlook. The type of philosophy one espouses, implicitly or explicitly, either opens one to the faith or closes it as an intellectual option. Furthermore, the type of philosophy one espouses determines the kind of Christianity one embraces.

Classical Greek and Roman intelligence gave rise to and will forever lead to the ecclesiastical institution shaped by the Fathers and Doctors of the early medieval church. As Edith Stein clearly saw, if one starts with modern philosophical nominalism or epistemology, one will not end up in the faith which shaped Aquinas. If Stein had not found her way to the objective phenomenological method of Husserl, her intellectual and spiritual biography would have been quite different. If Husserl had not been exposed to the Aristotelianism and Thomism of Brentano and Bolzano, he, too, may have philosophized differently. Conversely, although faith provides one with a basic intellectual outlook, if that faith is not accountable to a logically prior philosophical order, it is apt to lose its intellectual integrity and dissolve into an unanchored fideism or biblical fundamentalism.

I began with Unamuno. If one returns to the book which gained for him worldwide attention, Del Sentimiento tragica de la vida, aptly translated into English as The Tragic Sense of Life, one finds an author solely concerned with his own life, a life full of contradictions, torn between “the truth thought” and “the truth felt.” His reason can rise no higher than skepticism; his faith appears anti-rational and therefore incommunicable.

Contrast Unamuno with the detachment and self-ignorance of Edith Stein. Even when writing of her own inner experience she employed the impersonal “one.” Her philosophical realism gives her work a being-centered objectivity. Nature, manifested as phenomena, controls her thought and dictates her action. When interpreting her contemplative experience as a phenomenologist, she distinguished between the phenomena of accepting the doctrines of the Church by faith and the phenomena of meditating on them in discursive prayer. Stein could never say as did Unamuno, “Our ethical and philosophical doctrines in general are usually merely the justification a posteriori of our conduct, of our actions. Our doctrines are usually the means we seek in order to explain and justify to others and to ourselves our own mode of action.”

If Unamuno’s dictum were to be taken at face value, one would have to say that philosophy is mere rhetoric. Clearly, no one in the being-centered tradition of Aristotle or Thomas would look upon philosophy as the rationalization of one’s behavior. Stein’s search for truth, her discovery of Catholicism, and her subsequent life are the inverse of the subjectivism and pessimism of Unamuno and his mentors, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.

Clearly, one’s philosophy does make a difference.


Jude Dougherty is Dean Emeritus of the School of Philosophy in the Catholic University of America and the editor of The Review of Metaphysics, and General Editor, Series Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, Washington, D.C., The Catholic University of America Press.

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