Edith Stein makes an unlikely saint. Her martyrdom at Auschwitz -- if it was a martyrdom at all -- was not of her own doing. Indeed, she fled her fate, going from Germany to Holland and from Holland she tried desperately to find haven in neutral Switzerland. In the end, she was murdered not because she had lived as a Catholic, but because she had been born a Jew.
Regardless, as Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, Stein on Sunday was made a saint. She is credited with at least one miracle and, not to put too fine a point on it, with raising all sorts of questions about this pope's intentions: Was Stein honored mostly for her conversion?
Next up for sainthood is none other than Pius XII, the silent pope of World War II. For whatever reason, he never once publicly condemned the murder of the Jews.
It is important to stop right here and note that no one is accusing Pope John Paul II of dismissing Judaism as something less than a genuine religion. On the contrary, when it comes to the Jews, he has been an amazing pope -- not the conservative he has been in other matters. He was the first pope to visit a synagogue (Rome's in 1986), and even in the ceremony decreeing Stein's sainthood, he reached out to the Jewish community.
"The value of her testimony is to render ever more firm the bridge of mutual understanding between Christians and Jews," he said.
But the pope's actions are having the opposite effect, and Jewish organizations have turned critical. As a Catholic and as a Pole, he seems determined to make history conform to his own experience -- the Nazis' persecution of the Polish people in general and Catholic clergy and intellectuals in particular. It was not just the Jews who suffered, this pope seems to be saying.
This may account for why Pope John Paul II has made some questionable choices for sainthood. Stein is just the latest. Before her came Maksymilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who volunteered at Auschwitz to take the place of another Catholic. His was a true martyrdom, but Kolbe is a blemished figure. He was publisher of a Polish religious monthly, Knight of the Immaculate, which contained antisemitic articles. You would think -- at least I would think -- that a saint would have acted otherwise.
More recently, John Paul II beatified Alojzije Cardinal Stepinac, a Croatian who was persecuted by the Communists and whom the Vatican says saved many Jews during World War II. Still, for many Serbs -- as well as Jews -- he symbolizes the Croatian church's cooperation with the wartime fascist regime. That enmity is still being felt.
In France, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of France's hard-right National Front, is being investigated for saying last year that the gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps were "a detail in the history of the Second World War." In Turkey, a historian has been jailed for, among other things, blaming the mass murder of Armenians during World War I on Turkish forces. In both instances, the fight is over who will control the memory of what happened. Le Pen and the Turkish government prefer the lie.
Jewish groups fear that the enormity of the Holocaust will slowly shrink until, years from now, it will be subsumed into a universal experience: Everyone suffered, Jews too. But Jews disproportionately suffered. It was the intention of the Nazis to kill them all -- and they nearly succeeded. Polish Christians suffered enormously, it's true, but Jewish life in Poland was virtually extinguished.
In an odd way, Edith Stein is a perfect -- if inadvertent -- choice for sainthood. As a religious figure, she is slight. In the way the word martyr is normally used, she simply does not qualify. What she highlights is precisely how the Holocaust was not, as some would have it, a universal calamity. She died because the Nazis said she had an irrevocable biological affliction for which eradication was the only -- and final -- solution. This was not true of Catholics.
Now, the pope moves on to Pius XII. His elevation to sainthood is on the fast track. With him, even more than the others, this sprint to sainthood seems a transparent attempt to pardon the wartime church for its thundering silence as the Jews of Europe were being slaughtered. More time is needed. More reflection is due. The church was not blameless.
Pope John Paul II is one of the great figures of the 20th century, destined probably for sainthood himself. But by elevating such questionable choices for sainthood he exaggerates their achievements and, inevitably, diminishes his own.