Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

How Edith Stein Is a Christian Martyr

by Inside the Vatican Staff


This article explains how Edith Stein can be considered a martyr and as having died for the Faith rather than because she was a Jew.

Larger Work

Inside the Vatican



Publisher & Date

Urbi et Orbi Communications, October 1998

There have been claims—by some Christians, but primarily by Jewish observers—that Edith Stein died because she was Jewish, not because she was Christian. It is a claim against giving her a special place as a martyr.

The reasons behind that position seem sensible enough—the Nazis were deporting and killing Jews, Stein was Jewish, was deported and killed by the Nazis. Case closed.

Yet, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints looked long and hard not only at this line of reasoning, but also at the Nazi attitude toward the Church, especially in Holland in July 1942, at every word Stein said and wrote, at every act of hers after her conversion, particularly in the last few days of her life, and decided she should be venerated as a Christian martyr. It did not reject the argument that her Jewish heritage made her a target of Nazi exterminators. But the Congregation found that Stein—in religious life Sister Benedicta a Cruce ("blessed by the Cross")—gave witness to her Christian faith by words and actions while facing death, and concluded that Nazi hatred of the Catholic faith (odium fidei), in July 1942, was clear and present and the immediate cause of her being seized and killed.

Behind the Congregation's conclusion is the Catholic understanding of martyrdom. The Catechism's summary definition is this: "The Christian is not to 'be ashamed of testifying to our Lord' (2 Tim 1:8) in deed and in word. Martyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith." The Catechism also says the martyr "bears witness to the truth of the faith and of Christian doctrine," and "endures death through an act of fortitude."

In her own life. Stein had come to see martyrdom as including anyone who offers up suffering in union with Christ on the Cross, and thereby shares in Christ's martyrdom. There is much evidence that she offered up her own sufferings for 20 years of her life toward this goal, and underscored what she was doing by choosing as part of her religious name the words "blessed by the Cross." Thus, it is difficult for Catholics not to see her as a martyr.

In March of 1987, the Congregation for Saints published an account of the thinking on Stein as a martyr. The report, by Fr. Ambrose Eszer, O.P„ an official of the Congregation, begins by noting that when Stein's cause was turned over to a Relator, one who investigates and makes preliminary judgments, on May 11, 1984, one of the first things he encountered was the earlier request of the German and Polish Episcopal conferences that she be considered as a martyr. Immediately after the investigation began, Eszer notes, there was shining proof of the heroic degree of Sister Teresa Benedicta's virtues"—the kind of proof that is often established only slowly, and over a period of time.

To established that she gave witness to her faith before her persecutors was more complicated. What is traditionally required, according to Eszer, is called "a valid provocation directed at the Tyrant ("the Tyrant in this case being the Nazis, who were specifically motivated by hatred of the faith," he added.)

Of great significance, to Eszer, in the 1942 Nazi campaign to wipe out Dutch Judaism, was the fact that Arthur Seyess-Inquart, Reich Commissar for the Netherlands, "made exceptions for baptized Jews whether Catholic or Protestant." Under this Nazi Commander's "exception" policy. Sister Benedicta would not have been seized. What happened, then?

Stein was seized only when Dutch bishops opposed the Jewish deportations. She went to her death because of Nazi hatred of the Church. Eszer points out that "as an extra punishment, or as an alternative to the deportation of the 'Catholic Jews,' the Nazi authorities considered secularizing some large charitable institutions of the Catholic Church in Holland, viz., the large Catholic hospitals of Groningen.' These institutions had nothing to do with the Jews; still, taking them over was being considered as a direct punishment of the Catholic Church for having defended them."

"The simple existence" of such a plan, writes Eszer, "establishes proof that the motive for seizing Catholic Jews was not general racial hatred but hatred against the Catholic Church."

Concerning Sister Benedicta's "profession of faith" before "the Tyrant," Eszer has no doubts that she stood up to her persecutors. He cites evidence that when she was asked "Who are you?" in camp, she replied: "I am a Catholic." The SS interrogator was furious and cursed her as a 'damn Jew." A similar response to a police questioner occurred a year and a half earlier. Her first biographer revealed that when she was summoned before the Gestapo in Maastricht "she greeted them with the words, 'Praised be Jesus Christ!' Startled by this greeting they simply looked up and made no answer." She later told her Reverend Mother that she had no intention of being diplomatic, she felt she was involved in "the eternal struggle between Jesus and Lucifer." Yet, for Eszer it seems the major "provocation of the Tyrant" was "the action of the Dutch bishops, with which Sister Teresa Benedicta completely agreed." As for her own "preparation for martyrdom," the report states, "we see it in her act of offering herself as a victim for peace and the unbelief of the Jewish people in her 1939 will."

The most detailed part of Eszer's report is his analysis of the Nazi's strategy against Catholicism, controlling the Church during the war while patiently waiting for the end of the war when they planned to eliminate the Church, and replace it with a new church, strongly influenced by Wagner's racial and mythical theories. Part of the Nazi's policy was, thus, to avoid questioning their victims about their religious beliefs in order not to make martyrs around whom opposition could gather. They sought, according to Eszer, "to suppress any eventual confession of faith."

Thereby, Eszer argues, the Nazis sought to reduce those persecuted to "an infantile state in which they would be unable to give expression to their faith" and, furthermore, "suffer humiliation and loss of their human dignity."

"The Catholic Jews of Holland knew very well why they had to suffer," Eszer continues. "Thus, the third order Dominican, Dr. Lisamarie Meirowsky, wrote from Westerbork Camp: I consider it a grace and a privilege to have to suffer in such circumstances and so give witness to the word of our Fathers and Shepherds in Christ. Even if our sufferings have been worsened a little, grace is doubled, and a magnificent crown awaits us in heaven. Rejoice with me.'"

In sum, Eszer's argument for considering Sister Benedicta a martyr rests on these points:

(1) Catholic-Jews were deported and killed in "an act of revenge against the Catholic Church, with anger and premeditation."

(2) Sister Teresa Benedicta made a "profession of faith" in a number of ways when facing here persecutors.

(3) Though deportation of Catholics of Jewish origin and of Jews may seem to be identical, they arose from different motivations. "The goal of the extermination of the Dutch Catholic Jews was the punishment of the Catholic Church in Holland by killing off its Jewish children," Eszer argues. The goal of the Jewish deportation and killing was "the wiping out of this people and the exaltation of the Aryan race."

Sister Benedicta gave her life as she had long intended to, by witnessing to her faith as she witnessed to her love for her people. (ITV Staff)

© Inside the Vatican, Martin de Porres Lay Dominican Community, 3050 Gap Knob Road, New Hope, KY 40052, 800-789-9494.



This item 804 digitally provided courtesy of