The Memorial on 9 August of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross – Edith Stein – reminded me again of her place in contemporary philosophy. Born and raised in Judaism, she studied philosophy under Edmund Husserl, whose name is synonymous with phenomenology, an approach to thinking with which Pope John Paul II was especially familiar, in that he wrote his second doctoral dissertation on whether Husserl’s views, as interpreted by his pupil, Max Scheler, could be bridged to Thomism in general. (His conclusion in brief was that it could not.)
Edith Stein became an assistant to Husserl before she entered the Catholic Church in 1922. A year later, she entered Carmel, where, as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, she continued to write. When Adolf Hitler gained power, she was persuaded by her circle of friends and disciples to relocate to Holland in 1939. But the Nazi persecution of Jews soon reached into Holland; in 1942 the Gestapo even entered the convents there. Arrested with other nuns, she was transported to Auschwitz, where she was executed, a martyr to the Faith. Pope John Paul named her as a co-patroness of Europe (along with Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Bridget of Sweden).
To my mind, Edith Stein belongs to a threesome of major women philosophers in our time. The others are Raïssa Maritain and Simone Weil. All three were Jewish; all three were drawn into Christianity. Two were formally baptized; the third, Simone, must have experienced baptism of desire; in her celebrated books she twice recorded that Christ came down and possessed her – once at Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral, and once at the Monastery of Solemnes.
The narrative of these philosophers reminds us of the great contributions that women have made to the highest of the human sciences. (I hope to do a book on this one day.) But there are so many other areas in which women of Faith have excelled, though without adequate recognition. (Marie Curie comes to mind, of course; she was awarded two Nobel Prizes, each for a different discipline; one for her own work, the other for collaboration with her husband.)
But there are other women who, it seems, have been quite forgotten by historians.
In my first or second year of my seminary college English class, an invitation was extended by a women’s organization to write a lengthy essay on one of three women of Faith: Saint Francesca Cabrini (who had recently been canonized); or Clare Boothe Luce (the playwright and Congresswoman, whose conversion to Catholicism under the tutelage of Bishop Fulton Sheen was still in the news), or the Jewish scientist, Lise Meitner. The final essays were to be judged by appointees of the organization, and, for the times (the mid-1940s), the monetary awards (three) were motivating enough. We were all warned beforehand that the degree of difficulty would probably be the least if Mother Cabrini were the topic chosen, since a great deal of material was available about her. Lise Meitner was, of course, the most difficult, since her story extended to rarified nuclear science.
Aware of the “degree of difficulty,” I nonetheless chose to write about St. Francesca Cabrini, whose name and history were frequently spoken of by my parents, given their familiarity with New York City and northern New Jersey. But my paper was relegated to second place. The first prize went, quite deservedly, to a colleague from another diocese, who previously had studied at a major scientific college; his subject, brilliantly handled, was Lise Meitner.
Lise, born of Jewish parents in Vienna in 1878, also had to relocate to the Netherlands when Adolf Hitler ascended to power. Eventually, she left Holland for Sweden.
For many years, Lise collaborated with the famed Otto Hahn; for 10 years, beginning in 1938, she and he were nominated annually for the Nobel Prize. However, it was Hahn alone who received the 1944 Nobel Prize in chemistry. To this day, Lise’s collaboration with Hahn (and a few others) in the discovery of nuclear fission has enjoyed but scant recognition.
It was another Nobel Laureate, Enrico Fermi, who, in a squash court at the University of Chicago in 1942, demonstrated that the theories underlying controlled nuclear fission could be realized. Fermi’s experiment – no one really knew what would happen; the entire world waited anxiously – was given the “go-ahead” signal by the computations offered by Lise Meitner. President Harry Truman, on meeting Lise in 1946, reportedly quipped: “So, you’re the little lady who got us into all of this!” (i.e., the atomic age).
One interesting corollary: Element 109, meitnerium, in the Periodic Table of Elements, is named for Lise Meitner.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.