Commentary: The Beatification of Anne Catherine Emmerich

Philip A. Cunningham

Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College

October 7, 2004

On October 3, 2004, Pope John Paul II beatified Anne Catherine Emmerich, the German nun whose posthumously-published, ghost-written “visions” were the primary basis of the controversial Mel Gibson film, The Passion of the Christ. The wisdom of the beatification is debatable. For almost a century, the published works attributed to her have raised questions in the minds of Catholic officials. These remarks briefly explain the Catholic process for beatification and canonization and then consider the particular case of Anne Catherine Emmerich.   

What are Beatification and Canonization?

Beatification is sometimes called a step on the way to canonization, to being declared a saint. This process, which emerged in medieval times, is not a sort of merit badge by which the Catholic Church gives deserving individuals an express ticket to heaven. Rather, it is an official recognition of someone whom the Catholic Church now believes to be with God and so worthy of emulation. This is possible, because of God’s mercy and grace toward the penitent, even in the instance of people who, in their lives, committed terrible sins. As the process has evolved, it now considers a paper trail of evidence during the candidate's lifetime, the testimony of witnesses, and what might be called a miracle-trail of responses to prayers directed to the deceased holy person. Beatification requires one attested miracle; canonization requires a second attested miracle. Vatican-appointed investigators consider the various types of evidence, and an advocate called a “postulator” argues for the beatification or canonization of the individual in question.

The decree of Beatification either permits the veneration of the individual or requires such veneration by Catholics only in the local region in which the individual lived. A beatified person is called “Blessed.” The decree of Canonization requires Catholics around the world to honor or venerate the new saint.

The Catholic veneration of saints does not displace either the worship that belongs to God alone or Jesus Christ’s unique and defining mediation between God and humanity. Catholics praise God through honoring and praying to the persons who have been recognized as graced by God. The Catholic tradition understands saints to be effective mediators with God, without in anyway relativizing the matchless mediation of Jesus Christ. 

Some Peculiarities of the Process

The Catholic canonization process has its own cultural and historical idiosyncrasies. First, there are obviously far more saints dwelling in the presence of God than have been so recognized by the Catholic Church’s canonization procedures. With the exception of biblical figures who are a special case, all canonized saints are Catholics, thereby excluding innumerable holy people outside the Catholic community. Again, this does not mean that these other people were not saintly or are not with God. It simply means that Church has no mechanism for recognizing them.

Thus, when the Catholic community wanted to honor with sainthood a Jew victimized by the Nazis, it could only so honor a Jew who had become a Catholic. This was a significant factor in the canonization of  Edith Stein who had been born Jewish but later became a Carmelite nun. At her canonization it was declared that she was killed because she was Jewish and was to be venerated as a reminder of all Jews killed during the Nazi genocide.

Second, it must be admitted that either celibate men or virginal women are disproportionately represented among the panoply of Catholic saints. One reason why priests, nuns, bishops, abbots, and abbesses so dominate the number of recognized saints is because members of their own religious communities of women or men organize campaigns to pursue their beatification or canonization. In fact, only two married couples have been put onto the path of official sainthood in the whole history of the Catholic Church. The first couple appears in the New Testament, Sts. Prisca and Aquila, who are venerated as martyrs. From this first century couple we must jump all the way to 2001 to the only other married couple to be beatified. Luigi and Maria Beltrame Quattrocchi were formally beatified for the holiness and spiritual depth of their marriage, which endured the loss and illness of children among other things. Theirs was not a typical marriage in this notable respect: three of their four surviving children became priests or nuns and newspapers have quoted their sons as saying that their parents decided to sleep in separate beds after 20 years of marriage, living “like brother and sister for another 26 years.”  A few widowers and widows have been beatified, and Pope John Paul II has acknowledged the need for official recognition of a great number of saintly married Catholics, but it remains a peculiarity of the canonization process that the overwhelming majority of Catholics can look to hardly any saints who model their married state of life. 

Another fact worth mentioning is that Pope John II has beatified over 1300 people and canonized nearly 500 individuals, a record-setting feature of his long papacy. Anne Catherine Emmerich is one person among a throng of people so honored by the current pope. 

With this quick overview of the character and limits of the canonization process, we turn now to the case of Anne Catherine Emmerich. 

Anne Catherine Emmerich

Anne Catherine Emmerich lived from 1774 to 1824 in Westphalia.. She came from a poor background, was barely literate, and as a young woman became a religious sister in the Augustinian tradition. Afflicted at a young age by a debilitating disorder, her condition deteriorated to the point that she was bedridden for the last years of her life and in persistent pain. She developed the reputation in the locality of edifying visitors, encouraging them to endure their own travails. Emmerich eventually manifested the stigmata or bleeding wounds resembling the wounds of the crucified Jesus. She also had visionary experiences that attracted the attention of writer Clemens Brentano, who remained with her in her final years, writing down her utterances and publishing them after her death in a number of books. More material attributed to Emmerich was published around 1860 by Carl E. Schmöger, ostensibly on the basis of Brentano’s notes.

It is these writings that are controversial today. They feature a persistent antisemitic tone, including portraying most Jewish characters involved in Jesus’ crucifixion as exaggeratedly and demonically wicked. They mention the blood libel (Jews killing Christian children to make Passover matzah), and present racist descriptions of hooked-nosed Jews. These antisemitic motifs reflected and reinforced the prevailing sentiments of their time. A major difficulty confronting those investigating the merits of her beatification was their inability to determine whether these notions came from Emmerich herself, from her ghost writer Brentano, or from some combination of the two.

Emmerich’s Beatification Process

The books posthumously published in her name expanded Emmerich’s fame beyond her local region. While never really “mainstream,” her printed “visions” were very popular among those Catholics whose spirituality focused on the sufferings of the crucified Jesus. The writings eventually passed into the public domain so that publishers in various languages could profitably publish them without royalty or copyright issues.

The local Westphalia diocese initiated an investigation into the possibility of beatifying Emmerich in 1892. However, debate over the orthodoxy and provenance of “her” writings arose, raising such serious questions that in 1928 the Vatican froze the beatification process. Pope Paul VI permitted its resumption in 1973 with the caveat that the writings attributed to her not be given any weight in assessing her case. The process has been moving along ever since.

The 2004 release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ brought Emmerich unprecedented notoriety when it became known that the film was based on the Brentano-prepared work, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In the book, just as in the film, Jews who are not followers of Jesus are, with few exceptions, portrayed as possessed by an unexplained obsession with seeing him tortured to death. Demonic presences and impossible amounts of blood and pain are common to both works as well. As a result of the film, sales of the book have sky-rocketed, no doubt profiting its publishers greatly.

A Mixed Blessing?

The beatification of Anne Catherine Emmerich proceeded because the writings attributed to her were not included in the evaluative process. This raises two questions: (1) Is it a weakness of the beatification process that it can overlook the possible pastoral consequence that an eventual beatification could be seen as legitimating evidence that was disallowed during the beatification investigation? (2) In the post-Vatican II era of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue should beatifications or canonizations remain a purely internal Catholic matter, disregarding the possible impact on non-Catholics or on Catholic attitudes toward them?

The beatification of Anne Catherine Emmerich, as well as the earlier beatification of Pope Pius IX, also raises the question as to whether post-Vatican II teachings on relations with Jews are widely recognized in the Catholic community as demanding thoroughgoing Catholic reform – with many dimensions and implications –  as an overriding priority. This question should not be reduced to a so-called “liberal” vs. “conservative” dispute.  When in 2000, with prayers in St. Peter’s Basilica and at the Western Wall, Pope John Paul II solemnly dedicated the Church to “genuine fellowship” with the Jewish people he was not propounding a “liberal” or a “conservative” agenda item. He was committing the entire Catholic community across the board. But perhaps the seriousness of that commitment has not been widely or fully appreciated across the Catholic theological spectrum.

For those Catholics who do make “genuine fellowship” with the Jewish people a high priority, the beatification of Emmerich is quite problematic.  Anne Catherine Emmerich is most widely known precisely because of the published (and now cinematic) visions attributed to her. No doubt future printings of these books will identify the author as “Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich,” suggesting that her alleged visions have been officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church. Since some of these visualizations are explicitly antisemitic, the Catholic moral imperative to eradicate antisemitism – explicitly recognized in numerous official Vatican and episcopal conference statements – will be compromised. Ironically, writings that were disallowed in considering the merits of beatifying her will for some Catholics be validated by her beatification. To the degree that this happens, the beatification of Anne Catherine Emmerich will be a mixed blessing.