Endow Weekly

St. Edith Stein | Seeker of Truth – Week 4

Week Four: Theory of Woman’s Identity

Consider the Intellectual 

Chapter 4 delves into Edith Stein’s intellectual journey in answering the “problem” of woman: “How can a woman’s identity be philosophically described?” 

Catholic philosophy and theology adopts St. Thomas Aquinas’ articulation that the “soul is the form of the animated body.” Human beings don’t “have” souls or bodies. We are our souls. We are our bodies. We are body and soul composites. If a person has a rational soul without a body, he is not a human. He is an angel. (I’m leaving God out of the picture here. Email me if you want an explanation on the divine nature!) If you are a body without a rational soul, you aren’t a person at all, you are an animal. But if you are a body and (rational) soul, you are a human. 

In trying to describe feminine singularity, Edith caused a philosophical controversy during a lecture when she stated, “her faculties are different from men; therefore a differing type of soul must exist as well.” 

Why is this philosophically problematic? Because to propose a “different type of soul” is to propose an entirely new being. However, women are not essentially different beings than men. Both are equal members of the human species. 

If you’re tempted to be scandalized by Edith’s philosophical error, resist! It is the work of philosophers and theologians to perform and propose thought experiments to the scientific community for scrutiny. And philosophy and theology are sciences. However, it is theology which St. Thomas described as the “Queen of the Sciences!”

Consider the Emotional 

This aspect of Edith’s philosophical proposal was rejected by her academic circles. In one of her letters during this season, she wrote, “I have to put up quite a struggle to justify my scholarly existence—not with any of the people, since they do all they possibly can to help me—but with the situation created by my ten-year exclusion from the continuity of (academic) work and the lack, so deeply within me, of contact with the contemporary scene.” 

The struggle is so very real. First, as a woman and later as a Jewish woman major obstacles to her intellectual calling had been placed. And because of that she wasn’t even able to really enjoy a mutual exchange with the Aristotelian and Thomistic circles that were conversing amongst themselves regarding her philosophical thinking. Despite the personal (“she often expressed an awareness of her limitations” and her “insecurity about writing in relation to the thought of St. Thomas”) and public obstacles, she persevered with the goal of understanding woman’s identity.

Consider the Spiritual

Once the Nazis took over Germany in 1933, Edith had more limitations placed on her as a Jewish woman and even her ability to travel and give lectures were halted. This circumstance helped accelerate her Carmelite vocation which she had recognized since her conversion. She wrote to a friend, “I do not regret that I no longer give lectures. I believe a great and merciful Providence is behind all of it.” 

Perhaps she had taken consolation from the encouraging words and Biblical promise of St. Paul to the Phillipians: I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. (1:6) I also wonder if Pope John Paul II took consolation from Edith when, after the assisination attempt on his life, he remarked, “In the designs of providence there are no mere coincidences.” 

When things are bleak, I always return to this meditation by Father Giussani; which helps me begin again the difficult work of trust and perseverance: 

God who came among men goes to the scaffold: defeated, a failure; a moment, a day, three days of nothingness, in which everything is finished. This is the condition, the condition of sacrifice in its most profound meaning: it appears to be a failure, it appears not to succeed, it appears that the others are right. Remaining with Him even when it seems that everything is finished or has finished; staying next to Him as His Mother did–only this faithfulness brings us, sooner or later, to the experience that no one outside the Christian community can have in this world, the experience of the Resurrection.