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The Hermeneutic of Betrayal

It is not hard to choose between Edith Stein and Martin Heidegger; thus surprising that so many get it wrong. To put it most simply: the one was a saint, and the other was a monster.

Perhaps that puts it too simply.

Both were philosophers, wading in the pools of “phenomenology,” filled largely by the genius of Edmund Husserl. That was near the dawn of the 20th century, before the Great War and all that followed from it; before even Sigmund Freud.

Edith Stein (1891-1942) was the youngest of a large and happy Jewish family, in Breslau. We are used to thinking of poets as mad, of the genius as being maladapted: all the flotsam from a sunken romanticism. She was very sane, very well adapted, in a world that was itself about to be turned violently upside down.

Were I a genius myself, I could fit what I have to say this morning into the space of this column, the way Pope Benedict used to do in his breathtaking Wednesday “catecheses,” when at the length of a homily he provided such broad yet precise vistas of major saints and thinkers of the Church. How privileged we were to listen to his gentle, consistent, reliable voice, expounding the great themes of our religion.

Real learning: founded in wholeness and good sense. That is what opens the windows, lets in the fresh air. Yet when Cardinal Ratzinger (as he then was) spoke on Edith Stein, at her beatification, he was purposefully misunderstood, his remarks misrepresented to impute an anti-Semitism that he could not possibly have intended.

The significance of this woman is not to be found in her supposed conversion from Judaism to Catholicism. By the age of fourteen, she was an “agnostic-atheist,” not a practicing Jew. Her conversion, at age thirty, was from that.

The betrayed: Edith Stein in 1926
The betrayed: Edith Stein in 1926

As she said herself, it was by her reception into the Catholic Church that she recovered, also, the Jewish heritage she had lost. Ratzinger presented her in her own account of herself, and decidedly NOT according to some “dark” interpretation from the “pre-Vatican II lagoons.”

That is a side issue, distracting us from the central and far more interesting one: of how Edith Stein found her way, through penetrating philosophical reason, from the dry, academic, atomized position, to the Mystical Body of Christ.

Her journey began in reasoning, on contemporary questions of Einfühlung – an important term for which our English translation, “empathy,” was invented only in 1909. Stein was a research assistant to Husserl, and like Heidegger his academic disciple.

In her early twenties, she began to discern that the master’s “phenomenology” relied upon a conception of empathy that hovered over a pit of nothingness. This was because he had failed to confront ambiguities in this crucial term. Her earliest papers modestly called attention to this.

Husserl and followers thoughtlessly wrote as if a human’s “feelings” could be entirely his own. By doing so, they overlooked a hugely important truth: that so many of these feelings, and the knowledge that comes from them, are shared. What belongs to me actually came from another. It does not matter if that “other” can be traced; it is demonstrably from outside. When “vicarious” levels of human experience are brought into the account, we begin to see not only how we “feel our way” into arts and humanities, but also into pure science.

We can have a primitive certainty that there are other egos, besides our own narrow Cartesian selves, and that our perceptions and inferences not only require them, but originate in them. Our understanding of the world requires an unavoidable mimesis. Our very means of understanding is prior to the “content” of our understanding.

In effect: we do not discover others through experience, but discover experience through others.

Verily, on this we may build a “hermeneutic of continuity,” through space and time. And it is a hermeneutic which lies at the bottom of the extraordinary teaching of Saint John Paul II, in his apostolic exhortation, Familiaris consortio, explaining the rudiments of Christian family life.

c. 1935 as SisterTeresa Benedicta of the Cross
c. 1935 as SisterTeresa Benedicta of the Cross

From just such a starting point, Stein by-passed Heidegger, finding her own patient way to Catholic Christianity, to Carmelite monasticism, to sanctity, and then down into the gas ovens at Auschwitz – by a road of faith paved with reason at every stage.

Heidegger, by contrast, put such truths as he could discern consistently at the service of his own self-interest, narrowly drawn. He saved his own university career, and rose to intellectual prominence, as a Nazi party member in the service of Adolf Hitler.

As a servant instead of God, Edith Stein was cast out of the university. When she turned to her old, well-connected colleague Heidegger for help, he shabbily disowned her.

It is superficially puzzling that in the philosophy faculties, post-War, Heidegger has been lionized, Stein dismissed from serious consideration. For Stein is the deeper and more consistent thinker, the more accessible writer, and for all that, too: the woman not the man, the universalist not the racist, the martyr not the Nazi Gauleiter.

Yet what I think fundamentally divides them is not whether they were personally nice or good. Instead, it begins in this very philosophical conception of “empathy” – in what one school has taken for granted, and the other has not. We have two distinct paths through a very modern philosophical wilderness.

And we have glimpsed them today, far down the line, in the discussion of “justice” and “mercy” that has surfaced with the family synod at Rome. In the intellectual universe of Edith Stein, which is that of the true Church, they are different aspects of the same intelligible whole. In that of Heidegger and his intellectual successors, they end up in conflict.

God save us from the “mercy” of those who propose to confuse Church teaching, by pastorally “welcoming” contradictions to it.

In the land of Jan Paweł, they have a new term for this: hermeneutyka zdrady, “the hermeneutic of betrayal.”

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The betrayer: Heidegger