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February 4th, 11.30 am – 12.45 pm Adam Room, Grove House, University of Roehampton

 ‘Meet the Person: Exploring Disability Theology through the

Phenomenological Thinking of Edith Stein’

 Talk by Cristina Gangemi (Roehampton University)


























Research Group in Theology, Religion and Practice at Roehampton University


For more information on this event and the other events and work of the RGTRP see the following link...
This is a free unticketed event.  

Abstract of Talk

Over the past twenty-five years, theological discourse has come to be ‘fuelled, at both practical and academic levels, by the spiritual, ethical, philosophical and theological questions and revelations within the lived experience of disability’[1]. Such interdisciplinary conversations are ‘often lead by people with disabilities and their families (who wish to) participate more fully in the life of the Church’[2]. Thus, through critical and mutual conversations, alongside interplay between theory, experience, practice and rights, a change has begun to stir. Theologians, individuals[3], families and practitioners alike have identified, named and interrogated some of the challenges and opportunities that face people who experience disability. During this time, I have worked as a reflexive practitioner[4] at the cutting edge of this ever-expanding field of theology and disability. I have found a disabling prevalence of a prejudicial and theoretically informed ontology, influenced by Greek classicism and a Cartesian interpretation of intellectual capacity[5] which has served to exclude people within society and indeed ecclesial traditions and practices. Such philosophical epistemology, which gives primacy to a “particular notion” of reason intellect and corporeal reality, is evident in the negative language and eugenic culture that surrounds the lives and faith of people who experience intellectual disability.  Predominantly grouped by characteristics of “vulnerability, weakness, poverty and sufferance”, their lives are marked by labels of being “people with learning difficulties” or “the disabled”. Such labels serve to identify a group of people who have problems using “particular interpretations” of logic and intellect, which in turn, seem to prevent reasoning and learning.  It is rare that each person is characterised by the individual and singular abilities or for the ‘creative learning’[6], that I have found so prevalent and formative in my ministry.


It is fair to say that a negative image of human existence continues to influence the ‘loss’ of personhood, for people whom society chooses to disable because of their bodies, communications styles and ways of being.  A critical analytic reading of disability theology has discovered a language of vulnerability and brokenness over and above an emphasis on the creativity and uniqueness of each human life, found also at the heart of the Eugenics movement.  However, I have found that the plight of disabled during the birth of Eugenics seems to be more of a mere footnote in the re-telling and re-membering of the Holocaust.[7]  In my struggle to discover a more representative anthropology and language for my experiences with creative communicators and to bring this footnote into full view, I have been ever more drawn to the work of phenomenologist and spiritual writer Edith Stein. Her scholarship into empathic awareness[8] and its relation to the constitution of the human person holds much to be discovered. However, Stein remains an unexplored voice in any in-depth reading of disability theology and its praxis[9]. Born in Germany, into a Jewish family,[10] Edith Stein was attracted to the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, becoming his student, personal assistant and editor. An early feminist and teacher, she was awarded the Summa Cum Laude PHD, for her acclaimed work ‘on the problem of Empathy.’[11] Her interest in education included disability and she frequently visited a Christian, Special Educational faculty.[12] As a Jewess in the troubled Nazi Germany, she experienced sexism, racism and alongside people, who experienced disability,[13] and suffered at first-hand the extent of presumptuous and discriminative behaviour.  On the ninth of August 1943, her life ended in the concentration camp of Auschwitz. A diligent advocate of givenness and potential in every human life, she became a victim of an idealistic, purist and eugenic anthropology. On the eleventh of October 1998 she was canonised Saint and patron of Europe by one of her own disciples, Pope John Paul II.”  Edith Stein is thus,  more than worthy, if overlooked, conversation partner for a study of Disability and theology


[1] Gaventa W, Disability and Spirituality: Recovering Wholeness (Texas: Baylor University Press, 2018), 275.

[2] Ibid, 275.

[3] Here I intend the “individual” who lives with variant and differing corporeal, sensory and intellectual realities or who are often prevented from living their lives to the full because of disabling social structures.

[4] Swinton J and Mowat H, Practical Theology and Qualitative Research (SCM Press: London, 2006), 59.

[5] See Gangemi C,  Because I Am: Christian Accompaniment Through the Experience of a Pre-birth Diagnosis of a Possible Disability – Parents Resource (Chawton Hampshire: Redemptorist Publications, 2018), 54-55; Wyatt J, Matters of Life and Death: Human Dilemmas in the light of the Christian faith (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2009), 136-138, in Chapter 6 Abortion and Infanticide: A Historical perspective; Brock B and Swinton J, Disability in Christian Tradition (Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 1, 88-89.

[6] Gangemi C and Waldron L, Intellectual Disabilities: Caring for yourself and others (Chawton: Redemptorist Publications, 2017), location 119, Kindle.

[7]  See Marco Paolini is an  author who has  focused attention on the issue of the extermination of disabled people at its role in the Holocaust in his book ‘ Ausmerzen’ Vite Indegne di Essere Vissute ( Translated Rooted out, Lives not worth of living) P. 3-5  (2012)

[8] Stein E, On the Problem of Empathy, trans. by Waltraut Stein, CWES vol.3 (Washington DC: ICS Publications, 1989) 

[9] Gangemi, “Literary Review”, 6.

[10] Stein, E Life in a Jewish Family; Edith Stein an autobiography 1891-1916 Translated by Josephine Koeppel, OCD.,CWES,vol.1(Washington,DC: ICS Publications 1986, 2016)

[11] Stein E, On the Problem of Empathy translated by Waltraut Stein, CWES vol.3 Washington, DC,:ICS publications 1989). Also see key note presentation on the concept of Empathy in the work of Edith Stein, Nikolas Prassas holds that Stein’s doctoral work is ‘one of the most significant contributions to the discourse on empathy to have ever been published, as she renders intelligible this most strange transaction of the human spirit’; Nikolas Prassas ‘Persons and Community’, Blackfriars Hall, St Giles Oxford  28 February 2015, accessed June 14th 2017

[12] As a student Edith would often visit a group of children who experienced disability at a Christian faculty near Oberninigk. Her interest in education stimulated her to explore how children, who were blind, deaf and intellectually disabled, were stimulated to learn. Photos taken by Stein can be found in a book of her life in Pictures. It is quite a sobering thought to think that a Saint was an observer of early endeavours into differentiated education.  Neyer, M Edith Stein Her Life in Photos and documents ( Washington DC: ICS Publications, 1987), 15.

[13] A powerful and very moving account of the a holocaust of people with disabilities, during the Nazi occupation, is related in a fascinating book by Marco Paolini ‘ Ausmerzen: Vite Indegne Di Essere Vissute/ Rooted out: Lives unworthy of Living (Rome Italia: Super IT 2012 )





Edith Stein.jpg

For twenty five years theological discourse has come to be ‘fuelled, at both practical and academic levels, by the spiritual, ethical, philosophical and theological questions and revelations within the lived experience of disability’ . However, my own critical analytic reading of disability theology has discovered the predominance of a language of vulnerability and brokenness, which does not fully emphasise the unique, creative abilities of people who experience disability. Looking for such a voice, I have been drawn to the interdisciplinary wisdom of brilliant phenomenologist Edith Stein.  Here I have noticed a more hope-filled language, which unveils the human person in their individual, singular and universal nature.  As a female Jewess in Nazi Germany, she herself fell victim to Auschwitz at the hands of an idealistic, purist and eugenic anthropology.  In empathy, therefore, Edith Stein is more than worthy of being an important  conversation partner for the continuing and innovative study of Disability and theology.

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