The 18th-Century German nun whose violent, mystical visions of Jews were the source of several controversial scenes in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is about to move a step closer to sainthood, despite strenuous objections raised by some Catholic and Jewish communal leaders.
Some observers are seeing the Vatican’s scheduled October 3 beatification of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich as a harbinger of a potential worsening relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community. They describe the decision to push ahead as a victory for Vatican conservatives in their battle against church liberals for power in the twilight of the historic 25-year reign of Pope John Paul II.
The longest-reigning pope in centuries, the 84-year-old pontiff is widely hailed for a series of unprecedented measures recognizing the theological legitimacy of Judaism and attempting to improve relations with the Jewish people. But liberal Catholics, and several Jewish communal officials involved with interfaith dialogue, say that Vatican conservatives who do not share the pontiff’s commitment to Jewish-Catholic reconciliation are increasingly asserting control over the church.
Emmerich‘s beatification comes as Jewish interfaith experts and organizational leaders are already upset over the failure of the Catholic leadership in America to repudiate Gibson’s film, which they say resurrected the deicide charge against Jews and antisemitic stereotypes, while also violating the church’s guidelines on Passion Plays. Some interfaith observers expressed anguish and bitterness over the proposed beatification.
Warning that the Emmerich beatification could be a harbinger of a deteriorating relationship, Rabbi James Rudin, a veteran interfaith expert, told the Forward: “I have real worries that the gains achieved will be marginalized, minimized, and possibly pushed aside and will not be part of mainstream Catholic teaching once [John Paul] passes from the scene.”
Philip Cunningham, executive director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College questioned the motives of those who pushed for Emmerich’s sainthood in recent months — during the worldwide controversy over Gibson’s film and after the beatification process for Emmerich had been dormant for at least three decades.
At issue is a book called “The Bitter Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ” generally attributed to Emmerich, the Augustinian nun who lived in Muenster, Germany, from 1774 until 1824. Several of the scenes in Gibson’s movie most commonly described as anti-Jewish were based on passages in the book and do not appear in the Gospels, including several of the most vicious assaults on Jesus and the notion that Satan lived among the Jews.
An invalid by the time she was 14, Emmerich was virtually imprisoned in bed and exhibited the stigmata — unexplainable bleeding on her hands and feet resembling the wounds of Jesus on the cross. In the nun’s final years, Clemens Brentano, a German poet, visited her. Apparently, from 1818 to 1824 he wrote down her mystical visions about Jesus’ life and death. Many scholars today believe that Brentano wrote the book.
Indeed, when moving to beatify Emmerich in July, Vatican officials explicitly stated it is not because of her writings, but because of her virtuous life.
That point was hammered home in an e-mail to the Forward from Eugene Fisher, director of Catholic-Jewish affairs for the director of Catholic-Jewish relations for the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. “The Vatican announced that it had had a lot of problems with the Brentano book, calling it a ‘fringe’ work, and only let the beatification process proceed by announcing as they did clearly that they did NOT believe that the strange things in the book, doctrinal as well as historical, were actually written by Emmerich.”
Fisher rejected the notion that interfaith dialogue was in bad shape and argued that “the bishops did the right thing, after all” when it came to Gibson’s film, including sending out thousands of pamphlets reiterating the conference’s teachings against deicide and antisemitic elements that often marked Passion Plays from previous centuries, which, at times in history, triggered riots against Jews.
“Perhaps,” Fisher stated, “it is time for the Jewish community to reassess the situation and come to understand that the Catholic Church has changed for the better” in recent decades.