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A new anti-Semitism

THE ORIGINAL sin of the Christian church, and the culture that derives from it, is contempt for Jews, a disorder that continues to infect religious belief and popular attitudes. Discussions of the contemporary resurgence of anti-Semitism focus on such phenomena as the anti-Jewish bigotry of many Muslim preachers or the ready leap from criticism of Israeli policies toward Palestinians to an undermining of the entire project of the Jewish state.

But this year, a startling manifestation of foundational hatred of the Jewish people has occurred in the very heart of well-intentioned Christian faith. When the blockbuster DVD of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was released a few weeks ago, the astounding appeal of an already hugely successful film was made clearer than ever. For many, this portrait of the suffering and death of Jesus is a powerful religious experience, despite its hyper-violence and despite a blatant portrayal of "the Jews" as Satan's allies in the murder of one revered as the Son of God. The film exacerbated problems already adhering in anti-Jewish Gospel texts by drawing on eccentric anti-Jewish "visions" attributed to a 19th century German mystic named Sister Anna Katharina Emmerich (1774-1824).

When the film was released last spring, Gibson's Braveheart sensibility, imposed on the memory of Jesus, was what disturbed, but now the question moves to the huge population of those who affirm that sensibility as their own. This is the background for the extremely worrying event last week, when, at Vatican ceremonies, Sister Emmerich was "beatified," brought to the threshold of sainthood.

The nun is associated with "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ," a text out of the problematic Passion Play tradition, and the acknowledged source of some of Gibson's most lurid denigrations of Jews. ("The high priests were transformed into priests of Satan, for no one could look upon their countenances without beholding there, portrayed in vivid colors, the evil passions with which their souls were filled -- deceit, infernal cunning, and a raging anxiety to carry out that most tremendous of crimes, the death of their Lord and Savior.")

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the "cause" of the canonization of this woman was initiated according to standard church procedures by the bishop of Munster in 1892. Why is the Roman Catholic Church promoting her to the status of "blessed" only now? Is the timing mere coincidence? More explicitly, why is the Vatican, in honoring this nun, affirming some of the most un-Christian aspects of the Gibson film? Indeed, how can this beatification not be taken as a kind of post-facto imprimatur for "The Passion of the Christ?" And given Gibson's open disregard for Vatican II, with its firm repudiation of the "Christ-killer" charge, how can the church embrace this rejection of one of its own most important contemporary teachings?

A reading of history suggests an unpleasant answer to these questions. In the 19th century, when the age of revolutions had alienated large numbers of Catholics from the church, many priests and bishops openly embraced the popular anti-Semitism of the day as a way of reconnecting with believers the church had lost. The most notorious instance of this was the Dreyfus affair, when the French church and many French people found common cause against a common enemy.

Reports had it last spring that the pope had approved the Gibson film, but those reports were disputed, and mainly the Vatican kept its distance, a detachment most bishops emulated. In thus remaining marginal, alas, the Catholic church missed a major teaching moment, since "The Passion of the Christ" amounts to the most successful project of religious instruction in history. Instruction in a dark mistake. But the beatification of Sister Emmerich suggests that Catholic leaders are taking an opposite tack now, replacing detachment with embrace.

Mel Gibson has made the visions associated with Emmerich a world phenomenon, and millions have experienced them as the height of piety. Ignoring the potentially lethal consequences of such visions, are the leaders of an ever more defensive church attaching themselves to this perverse pop-culture success for their own parochial reasons? Does the beleaguered church glimpse its future in Mel Gibson?

This whole sad story suggests that we Christians -- we Catholics -- have barely begun to uproot anti-Semitism from our tradition. And make no mistake, anti-Semitism begins here. Who could have imagined that, returning to square one of the reform, we would have to be insisting again that the "Christ-killer" charge against the Jewish people is a lie?

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe. His most recent book is "Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War." 

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