Tag Archives: Nazi persecution

Edith Stein, “St Theresa Benedicta of the Cross”

Today, Aug 9th, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of “St Theresa Benedicta of the Cross” – better known to most people as Edith Stein, Jewish convert to Catholicism, and nun who died in the Nazi gas chambers on August 9th 1942, and was later canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1998.

There is nothing that directly links her to gay or lesbian Catholics, but indirectly I was struck, when reading her story this morning, of how many parallels and points of similarity there are between her situation and ours, that offer abundant material for reflection. This is a new idea for me, which I still need to think through and investigate – but as her day is still fresh, I offer them raw, as they are, while still topical. Perhaps some readers would like to help me to think this through further.

The earliest part of her life that is directly relevant is that she was born a Jew who converted to Catholicism. Judaism is an intensely inward-looking, family oriented culture and religion. For a Jewish person converting to Catholicism, this is much more than simply changing a set of religious beliefs, as in moving from one Christian denomination to another: it involves moving outside an entire culture, possibly including rejection or hostility from family members, and former friends and fellow worshippers. Conversely, adopting Catholicism includes becoming familiar with Catholic culture, quite as much as with Catholic belief and spiritual practices. As lesbians and gay men – and even more for those who adopt a gender identity that departs from biological sex – we grow up in a heterosexual culture and specific gender expectations that we become familiar with, even as we realize that we do not fit. In coming out, and rejecting the “automatic” sexual identity that had been imposed on us for one more in keeping with our authentic selves, we too may find ourselves rejected by family, friends, or colleagues – and certainly by some in the heterosexual world. Instead, just like Edith Stein who had to learn to absorb Catholic culture, we have to learn to find our way around a whole new culture in the LGBT community. Young heterosexuals have complex processes of socialization that guide and help them learn the patterns of sexual interaction and being, in their families, in schools, and from popular culture. Newly out homosexuals have to learn these things for themselves.

Edith was not just a Jewish convert – she was a Jew in Germany, leading up to WWII. She sought refuge in exile, in the Netherlands. As lesbian and gay Catholics, we too may find that we need to seek refuge in exile – exile from the Church itself, and its hostility to sexual nonconformists. She spoke out against the horrors of the Nazi persecution, and distanced herself from her former teacher. So too, we must speak out against the persecution of minority groups by the institutional Catholic Church, and distance ourselves from those who have taught us distorted interpretations of the faith.

As a Carmelite nun, she had a particular devotion to St John of the Cross (from whom she took her name) and St Theresa of Avila. I do not yet know anything specific about this devotion, quite what aspect of these saints she particularly appreciated, but I do know this. One component of the spirituality of these great mystics is that it was expressed at times in intensely physical, erotic language. This alone makes it particularly attractive and appropriate for use as a spiritual path for gay men in particular.

But it is obviously not simply a spirituality of erotic rapture – St John is after all, known as St John of the Cross! Orthodox Vatican doctrine recognizes that its expectation of compulsory celibacy imposes on us a burden which the heterosexuals are not expected to bear, and explains this as a “cross” that we must carry. I too see a cross in our condition – but I see the cross not in the gift of an orientation given to me by God, but in the unjustified persecution we endure by the church, and promoted by its false teachings, in the wider world.

Stein’s death in the gas chambers, and her later canonization, have been seen in two dramatically different ways. John Paul II canonized her as a martyr, arguing that her arrest and deportation was in direct retaliation for a letter by the Dutch bishops denouncing the Nazis, which in turn may have been prompted by the stance of Edith herself. Jewish groups say she was just one Jewish victim among millions, who should not have been singled out for special treatment.

The same divided perspective applies to those gay and lesbian theologians who have found themselves persecuted by the Vatican for their prophetic witness against its condemnation and scapegoating of “homosexuals” in the Church. One side sees them as near heretics, the other as prophets, and (metaphorically) as martyrs who have seen their careers destroyed for their honesty.

Which view is sound? I know where I stand, but ultimately, we await the judgement of history.

St Theresa Benedicta / Edith Stein – Pray for us.

The Priest With the Pink Triangle

For the first post in my “queer modern heroes” series, I begin with someone most people have never heard of. (I’m not sure anyone even knows his name.) I begin with him because he represents a double martyrdom, martyred for his orientation, and also martyred for his faith. I choose him also precisely because he is anonymous, reminding us that in our own way, we are all called to our own heroism in the face of persecution, all called to be “martyrs” in the true, original sense – as witnesses to truth. I read this story in John McNeill’s “Taking a chance on God”: McNeill got the story from Heinz Heger. These are McNeill’s words:

“I would like to end this reflection on the mature life of faith with the eyewitness account of a gay priest who was beaten to death in a German concentration camp during World War II because he refused to stop praying or to express contempt for himself. The story is recounted by Heinz Heger in his book “The Men With the Pink Triangle”, in which he he recalls what took place in the special concentration camp for gay men in Sachsenhausen (Sachsenhausen was a “level 3” camp where prisoners were deliberately worked to death):


“Homosexual” prisoners in Sachsenhausen

 

Toward the end of February, 1940, a priest arrived in our block, a man some 60 years of age, tall and with distinguished features. We alter discovered that he came from Sudetenland, from an aristocratic German family.

 

He found the torment of the arrival procedure especially trying, particularly the long wait naked and barefoot outside the block. When his tonsure was discovered after the shower, the SS corporal in charge took up a razor and said “I’ll go to work on this one myself, and extend his tonsure a bit.” And he saved the priest’s head with the razor, taking little trouble to avoid cutting the scalp. quite the contrary.

 

The priest returned to the day-room of our lock with his head cut open and blood streaming down. His face was ashen and his eyes stared uncomprehendingly into the distance. He sat down on a bench, folded his hands in his lap and said softly, more to himself than to anyone else: “And yet man is good, he is a creature of God!”

I was sitting beside him, and said softly but firmly: “Not all men; there are also beasts in human form, whom the devil must have made.”

The priest paid no attention to my words, he just prayed silently, merely moving his lips. I was deeply moved, even though I was by then already numbed by all the suffering I had see, and indeed experienced myself. But I had always had a great respect for priests, so that his silent prayer, this mute appeal to God, whom he called upon for help and strength in his bodily pain and mental torment, went straight to my heart.

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