The Paradoxes of Auschwitz: Barbarity and Beatitude

“Cheery religion” can’t produce Edith Steins. Only the Old Faith can do that. The Old Faith, unafraid of the Cross. 

Shivers of horror still travel down the backs of the sturdiest of men at the mention of Auschwitz. It is a place forever synonymous with satanic evil. Yet, Catholics know differently: not a denial of Auschwitz’s inhuman terrors, but its standing as a crucible of holiness. 

Its barbarity created two canonized saints: Maximilian Kolbe and Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. And they are only the acknowledged ones. Who is to say how many countless souls united themselves to Christ’s cross in that unremitting hell of grisly death, gaining swift entry into paradise?  

To the world, this is a troubling sign of a pathology of masochism, the ressentiment of Nietzsche’s anti-Christian rages. To the Catholic, it is the exquisite paradox of the Cross: acceptance of suffering as the stuff of triumph. Moreover, it is ringing proof of St. Paul’s stirring words that “to them that love God, all things work together unto good” (Romans 8:28). It is Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost who shrieks in maddening frustration, “I will only evil, and accomplish only good.”   

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Souls famished for God can only reach Him through Christ’s Cross. Otherwise, man’s heavy pride weighs him down like a giant concrete slab, sinking him ever more deeply into the dark abyss of the self. Too many rivals of Catholicism within Catholicism itself have worked earnestly to erase this inconvenient mystery.

They are the objects of St. John Henry Newman when he wrote in his Sermons Bearing on Subjects of the Day

We are cherishing a cheerful religion, a hollow religion, which will not profit us in the day of trouble. This age loves an exclusively cheerful religion. It is determined to make religion bright and sunny and joyous…we take what is beautiful and attractive, and shrink from what is stern and painful.

This “cheery religion” fixation has been propagated in ways painfully familiar to Catholics of the past half-century. It is no accident that crucifixes have been removed from sanctuaries and solemn hymns lyricizing the dogmas of the Faith have been replaced by puerile jingles celebrating our specialness. This same mindset has turned the grave divine summons to contrition into the soft tones of therapeutic chic. Michelangelo’s Christ in Judgment leaves these folks unsettled; their Christ is more a fusion of the Buddha with a dash of Gandhi.  It is no accident that crucifixes have been removed from sanctuaries and solemn hymns lyricizing the dogmas of the Faith have been replaced by puerile jingles celebrating our specialness.Tweet This

Chesterton put his finger on the problem when he wrote,

There is more logical consistency in reacting to Jesus by rending one’s robes with a cry of blasphemy and in trying to seize Him as a maniac, than in calmly saying with contemporary rationalists that Jesus was a wise and holy man.

A direct line connects this “cheery religion” with current attempts to accommodate Christ’s sublime teachings. The indissolubility of matrimony, for instance, is redesigned with cheap compromises oozing from the sterile wasteland called post-modern culture. That same line connects the mushrooming acceptance of same-sex marriage and the scandalous reticence of so many Catholics. Today’s version of Judas’ kiss. 

This “cheery religion” would have drained Auschwitz of its power to forge men into saints. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross chose that name at her profession as a Carmelite because she knew well the Cross as the exclusive gate to redemption. In fact, she knew that all joy found its source in the Cross. Armed with that confidence, she greeted the Gestapo when they came banging on the convent door at Echt, Holland, in 1942. 

No doubt shaken, the saint was not surprised. After all, the Dutch bishops had recently breached the prudent reserve of Pius XII to the maniacal Reich by promulgating an official condemnation of their treatment of the Jews. Ironically, it put more innocent Jews at risk, a result Pacelli strained so mightily to avoid. The Gestapo would now hunt down even Jews converted to the Catholic Faith.  

Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross made a delicious target. Loaded into a paddy wagon, she soon found herself at Auschwitz. Only seven days from her arrest she was gassed and incinerated. Eyewitnesses tell us that as she was marched to the gas chambers with thousands of others, she was in her Carmelite habit. Little boys and girls covered their faces in the folds of that blessed garment of the Mother of God as they watched their mothers descend into madness.

St. Teresa Benedicta’s final walk to her Calvary at Auschwitz was preceded by a life at once illustrious and melancholic. Edith Stein had been born into a strict German Jewish family in 1891. However, by the age of 14, this gifted prodigy proudly declared herself an atheist. 

Her remarkable intellectual gifts won her speedy entrance into the University of Göttingen; and even more remarkably, she received her doctorate in philosophy at age 29, under the demanding mentorship of the celebrated phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. Edith was quickly feted as one of Europe’s premier philosophers, with a secure academic teaching position at the University of Freiburg, when this meteoric rise came to a dramatic halt.  

In fact, the exact moment can be pinpointed. Edith Stein had been invited to the country home of one of her colleagues at the University for a restful weekend. After her hosts had retired, Edith’s restless intellect found its way to the professor’s library. She quickly scanned the shelves and paused at a title which piqued her curiosity, The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila

Lifting it off the shelf, she sat in an easy chair and devoured every word. So absorbed was she that Edith lost all track of time. As she turned the final pages, she noticed the rising sun spilling through the library windows. As she closed the book, she murmured to herself, “This is the truth!”

Soon after that providential evening, she made the shocking decision to convert to the Catholic Church. She was baptized on January 1, 1922. 

Her conversion was shocking for two reasons. It shook the academic firmament of Europe’s toniest Universities. Think of the reaction if Laurence Tribe or Elena Kagan announced their conversion to the Church and then entered a cloistered Carmelite enclosure. Exactly. More personally for Edith were the effects on her pious Jewish family, especially her mother. She wept bitterly upon hearing her daughter’s decision to be baptized. So did Edith.  

Ten years later she disclosed to her mother that she would enter the Carmel. This was Mrs. Steins’ breaking point, and she cried out that Edith was dead to her. These were the first shadows of the crosses that would follow Edith. Heroically, she embraced them all.  

Lovers of a “cheery religion” would flee from such circumstances. Easier to worry about the environment or low wages than to disappear into the arms of the Crucified. Ah, “For what does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul” (Matthew 16:26). 

We are told that Edmund Husserl, along with other professorial luminaries, attended the new Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross’ profession in April 1934. We are further told that these bright academic lights wept. The severe majesty of the Faith always vanquishes hearts. It compels man to look at the poverty of his life compared with the riches of Christ and His Holy Church. Any honest man knows what it is that he must do.

Slowly but surely, our age is being covered by the darkness of Auschwitz. 

Obviously, there are no gas chambers; but there are souls choked by the casual acceptance of vices which would make men of another generation wince. Clearly, no emaciated and skeletal bodies are piled neatly on successive small hills; but there are emaciated souls who consider God an embarrassment and Catholics a dangerous obstacle to human freedom and progress. There is no Gestapo; but there is a government which has begun a furtive persecution of the Catholic Church and an intellectual elite that is increasingly successful at painting Catholics as misfits. 

All of this would probably make even a Dr. Goebbels grin.

Only an army of Edith Steins can confront the looming darkness.  

But “cheery religion” can’t produce Edith Steins. Only the Old Faith (to borrow the phrase of the sixteenth-century English recusant Catholics) can do that. The Old Faith, unafraid of the Cross. 

Unafraid of those who are.

Author

  • Fr. John A. Perricone

    Fr. John A. Perricone, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Iona University in New Rochelle, New York. His articles have appeared in St. John’s Law Review, The Latin Mass, New Oxford Review and The Journal of Catholic Legal Studies. He can be reached at www.fatherperricone.com.

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