My recently completed dissertation, “The Life and Afterlife of Anna Katharina Emmerick: Re-imagining Catholicism in Modern Germany,” concerns the life and subsequent cult of a Westphalian woman discovered to exhibit stigmata during the Napoleonic occupation and secularization of German Europe. Emmerick’s wounds and ecstatic visions stirred controversy across Europe and the United States, becoming symbols manipulated in debates over the boundary between religion and superstition, natural and supernatural. Her life thus provides an entrée into the state of German Catholicism at the moment of its supposed transition from Enlightenment austerity to post-Revolutionary fervor. Her afterlife in the popular imagination, furthermore, can serve as a red thread through the labyrinth of German Catholic culture. From the bestselling publications of her Passion visions by Romantic poet Clemens Brentano, to the 21st-century reiteration of these visions in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, from the pious veneration of her grave by German villagers to her beatification by John Paul II, Emmerick has remained a public touchstone.
My book manuscript will greatly expand the scope of my dissertation, which focused primarily on Emmerick’s lifetime. By examining the twists and turns of her long afterlife up to the present day, it will reveal how Catholics have continually sustained and re-imagined their inherited faith traditions to meet the evolving challenges they faced as modern Germans; to determine who was able to participate in this process; and to track how this changed over time. Taking into account the interplay between the conditions that made possible modern “imagined communities” with the deep history of the Church’s ever-evolving tradition, it will explore how generations of German Catholics have fashioned a usable past from their religious heritage to assert belonging and to address their present-day needs and desires.
My Second Book: Transatlantic Catholicism in the Industrial Age
As I complete this project, I am also looking forward to new research endeavors. My second book, tentatively titled “Transatlantic Catholicism in the Industrial Age,” will use the tragic sinking of the passenger liner SS Deutschland in 1875 as a jumping-off point. Aboard the vessel were five Franciscan nuns fleeing anti-Catholic regulations in Bismarck’s Germany, intending to establish a new monastery and serve German immigrants in the St. Louis area. All five nuns died in the sinking of the Deutschland, which ran aground on British shores. English Catholics buried the five nuns with great solemnity. The tragic event inspired Gerald Manley Hopkins to write one of his most famous poems, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”
This event linking Catholics in three different countries across the Atlantic led to reflection on the “ties that bound” Catholics in this period, the heyday of the steamship, mass newspapers, and telegraphs. This book will assert that there were several – and in doing so, it will push back against a long tradition of scholarship which has seen religion and modernity as fundamentally at odds. For decades, scholars of “modernization theory” argued that the technologies and transformations of the modern world inevitably went hand in hand with secularization. Historians of subsequent generations challenged modernization and secularization theories as teleological, biased, and built on sweeping generalizations. Furthermore, they have called much-needed attention to a nineteenth-century religious “revival” in Catholicism as well as Protestantism. Yet many characterize this revival as thoroughly backward, using modern technology to spread its gospel perhaps, but preaching an anti-modern message. They may have stirred up a few generations of believers, but – so the argument goes – these revivalist movements ultimately fought a losing battle by trying to oppose the relentless march of change. By the twentieth century, an accelerating decline in Germans’ and most other Europeans’ religious faith had set in, one that continues through the present.
What factors led to such a decline? Some have attributed it to the new ideologies of the nineteenth century, arguing that their worldviews were more convincing to the modern person than that of traditional Christianity. New scientific advances, made with ever-more precise instruments, led some to believe that everything – even human behavior – operated by rational laws, simply awaiting discovery. This positivism, however, was far from the only way Germans reacted to modernity. Other great thinkers of the age saw a void at the heart of the modern experience. Nietzsche spoke of the death of God and civilization, leaving little behind but the merciless will to power. Freud argued that, despite its newfangled methods of satisfying human wants and comforts, modernity only frustrated man’s “pleasure principle” because of its many ways to enforce conformity. Ferdinand Tönnies characterized the industrial age as a move from familial, tight-knit community to atomizing, alienating society. Max Weber vividly described it as “disenchantment,” an advance of scientific knowledge that improved the quality of life but also robbed the world of its mystery; and the growth of industrial complexes and bureaucratic regimes that reduced a person to a cog in a machine, or a prisoner in an iron cage.
Ironically, many of these theorists diagnosed the discontents of modernity as expressions of longing for the consolations of God and faith. They nonetheless believed, however, that the modern person who fully grasped the nature of existence in the industrialized world would see religious faith as untenable: a childish desire for an all-knowing and loving father, which the intelligent and mature person had to abandon.
In addition, many have made convincing arguments regarding the threat modern technologies and social changes posed to the Church. For example, many German Catholics left their tight-knit rural communities for growing metropolises (and not just Berlin, Hannover, or Munich, but also Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Louis). They traveled to these cities via an ever-spreading network of trains, steamships, and, eventually, automobiles,
which expanded individuals’ horizons even as they made the world “smaller.” Mass-produced goods replaced homespun products or the work of independent artisans. New kinds of employment, from blue-collar to white-collar, changed the dynamics between husbands and wives, parents and children in the home. The combined effect of these changes was the distancing of German Catholics from the places and the practices that had sustained the faith of earlier generations. Removed from their hometown parishes, inundated by all kinds of consumer goods, drawn to the lure of mass entertainment, and exposed to new ideas from social Darwinism to eugenics, many German Catholics drifted away from their faith as they left rural life behind. For some, religion had become an outdated worldview, just one of many competing in a modern marketplace of ideas. It was not secular ideology alone that had created this “marketplace.” The technologies of improved transportation, communication, and urbanization played an equally fundamental role in drawing Germans out of their sheltered religious milieux.
The event of the SS Deutschland’s sinking, however, brings to light all the ways that these very same technologies helped create new “ties” binding German Catholics together, both locally and across vast distances. Though the five Franciscan nuns bound for St. Louis never made it to their destination, many other German religious orders established “daughter houses” in the United States, or relocated entirely. During the 1870s, this mass emigration of religious orders was a reaction to Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, but it was also a continuation of a movement that had begun decades earlier. Running schools, hospitals, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters, these German nuns (and they were overwhelmingly nuns) not only provided vital services to German immigrants: they also helped them sustain their ties with the Fatherland. In short, the technologies of the industrial age helped bring many Catholics together, even as they helped break others apart.
Many of the ways Catholics utilized modern technology are obvious enough: sending religious orders and missionaries to foreign lands by steamship and railway, mass-printing prayer cards, bibles, and hymnals, establishing their own newspapers, and so on. As other historians have noted, the use of these modern technologies does not, in and of itself, prove that the Catholic Church was modern. Indeed, many Catholics devoutly rejected modernity, in the spirit of Pius X’s famous encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, which condemned modernism as “every kind of heresy” and the enemy of the Church. Contemporary historians have, understandably, taken Pius X and like-minded Catholics at their word.
As I discovered in my first project concerning the veneration of Anna Katharina Emmerick, however, the truth is not so simple. Our understanding of “modernity” has become much more complex with the passage of time, so that scholars now generally speak of “modernities” in the plural: that is, worldviews and practices which share a common reliance on modern technologies, institutions and ideological reference points, but radically differ from each other – and from “classic” European modernity. Each of these modernities represents an essential strand of the history of the era we call modern. Many represent the experiences of minorities or disadvantaged groups. Those who inhabited these various modernities, may have rejected the title of “modern,” because they associated it with institutions, ideologies, and groups that they rejected. Even so, the communities representing each of these “strands” of modernity responded to change with imagination, innovation, and invention – not by trying to revive an irretrievable past. They created wholly new ways to create meaning, build community, and preserve their identity. Thus, they too helped shape the contours of the modern world.
My research views nineteenth-century Catholics in general, and German Catholics in particular, in this light. To give just one example that will feature prominently in this book: women’s religious orders underwent a dramatic transformation during this period. Traditional contemplative orders moved away from total seclusion toward engagement with their communities. A number of German Catholic women established new “active orders” with an explicit mission of service: as educators, nurses, and helpers of the poor. As these same orders sent sisters to form new houses in the United States and elsewhere, they expanded the range of their activities even further. Innovations spread from one convent to sister houses across the Atlantic. All of this amounted to a fundamental re-imagination of religious life and the roles of Catholic women in society. Furthermore, these changes emerged and flourished in direct response to modern developments such as mass emigration, urbanization, and the need to meet growing access to healthcare and education.
In short, the effects of technological change, and more generally the dislocations of modernity, on both institutional and popular religion are more complex than scholars have recognized. This second project, then, will seek to build on one of the central arguments of my dissertation/first book: that the challenges of modernity brought about imaginative and innovative changes in the Church, and not simply an atavistic, anti-modern revival. It will demonstrate once again how modern “imagined communities,” sustained across space and time through technologies like print culture, can be found within the church, not just the nation and the state.
Finally, I have two research projects I am planning to turn into conference presentations and/or articles sometime within the next two years. First: in my dissertation research, I came upon a series of sources dealing with German Catholics using Emmerick’s mystical visions to “discover” new sacred sites in the Holy Land. A number of German biblical scholars and archaeologists took the time to refute these claims in print. The controversy stirred up some other responses – pilgrims’ accounts, more secularly-minded travel literature, Baedeker guides, and so on. As I have decided not to use this material extensively in the final form of my dissertation, I am planning to write an article about German “visions” of the “Holy Land” – which is itself a term invented in the nineteenth-century – during the Kaiserreich. I believe this topic has the potential to produce multiple articles, or become a full book.
Secondly: I recently learned that there was a fairly extensive network of German POW camps throughout Idaho, my home state, from 1942-46. Having done some preliminary groundwork, it appears that there is a significant body of sources relating to this camps, from German-language newspapers published by the prisoners to oral histories of Idahoans who contracted with the government for these POWs to help work their farms. From what I gather, many Idahoans complained to the government that the German prisoners were treated too well. Many of the POWs, after returning to Germany, emigrated to the US and and returned to Idaho.
On the one hand, this story strikes me as a forgotten chapter in the history of U.S. detention camps, which could be interestingly juxtaposed with the contemporaneous internment of Japanese Americans, as well as camps for emigrants and POWs today. On the other hand, however, I think this story is also a German one: a story of how the formation of Germans’ postwar ideas about America did not derive from “doughboys” alone, but also from civilians left behind to harvest potatoes and sugar beets. It is hard to say more about the scholarly implications of this topic without further research, but it strikes me in any case as a forgotten history on a regional, national, and transnational level, and one that is worth recovering.