A Cautious Man
January 29, 2004
The Catholic Traffic
Anybody who is a Catholic, thinks he is a Catholic, knows a Catholic or knows what a Catholic should be like, has a wonderful new topic of conversation: "The Passion According to Mel Gibson" (or whatever it's called). On the internet, in particular, there has been, and no doubt will continue to be, much posting and cross-posting on this issue (See Ut Unum Sint, in my reading list, for an excellent ongoing survey of the debate). As many have pointed out, the movie is clearly not a line-by-line retelling of the Passion narrative in the Gospels. As Richard Ostling wrote recently:
A recent viewing of the film’s nearly final cut showed why people are reacting so dramatically. It is not just that the passion was filmed, although the story has long been a delicate subject between Jews and Christians, and among Christians themselves. It’s the elaborate rendering of Christ in agony that is at the core of the reactions. Gibson’s vision is intensely violent. The depiction is close enough to the literal Gospel accounts to upset liberals, yet with imaginative additions that might trouble some biblical purists. While the film is not a collective attack upon Jews, the handling of some Jewish characters seems bound to spark still more protest.The additions to the story seem to have come originally from a book of meditations by Anne Catherine Emmerich (and which can be read online at this link). It appears that Mr. Gibson did not heed the cautionary note at the start of that book:"The following meditations will probably rank high among many similar works which the contemplative love of Jesus has produced; but it is our duty here plainly to affirm that they have no pretensions whatever to be regarded as history." And, I think that is why there is such "passion" (sorry) surrounding the release of this movie. People familiar with the Gospel narratives ought to be bothered by the additions; people unfamiliar will be given an inaccurate picture.
Compounding the problem has been the shameful attempt by the production company to claim some sort of official "Papal Approval" for their version of the Passion narrative. "It is as it was", according to them, was the "boffo rave" of the Pope upon viewing the movie. Look, even if he said that, nobody ever explained how that is a "rave", or what the context was of the remark. It certainly does not constitute any sort of absolution for the film, if the movie contains scenes which exaggerate Jewish responsibility for the Crucifixion. Then, to add insult to injury, journalist Peggy Noonan, in her attempt to explain how she was part of this "Popish Plot", writes that the Vatican should clarify exactly what the Pope feels about the film:
The answer to that question is important for several reasons. The truth matters. What a pope says matters. And what this pontiff says about this film matters. "The Passion," which is to open on Feb. 25, has been the focus of an intense critical onslaught since last summer. The film has been fiercely denounced as anti-Semitic, and accused of perpetuating stereotypes that will fan hatred against Jews. John Paul II has a long personal and professional history of opposing anti-Semitism, of working against it, and of calling for dialogue, respect and reconciliation between all religions. His comments here would have great importance.These are people who didn't give a darn about the Pope's position on preemptive war in Iraq, and now they say that what's really needed is his movie review. Please, people, give it a rest.
There are already guidelines for evaluating dramatizations of the Passion. The Catholic Bishops of the United States issued one in 1988, noting that in light of past abuses and blame of the Jews, "It is all the more important, then, that extra liturgical depictions of the sacred mysteries conform to the highest possible standards of biblical interpretation and theological sensitivity." And anybody who doesn't want to work through the language of the Bishops' guidelines can find other sources, such as a study guide from the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College. As noted in that guide, "We have a responsibility to be informed and to consider the larger picture in which the Passion is presented. Anti-Jewish images and slogans born in by-gone Passion portrayals are still used to slander Israel and the Jews. Therefore, every presenter of the story must be alert to its potential for doing 'collateral damage.'"
The movie's producers and backers will try to claim that any criticism of their work is motivated by anti-Christian bias. It's important that such claims be shown to be false.
[Update: Another Catholic League missive purporting to know the true motives of anybody who criticizes the film. And for what it's worth, while the Catholic League may be "affiliated with the Catholic Church", as discussed in the linked press release, some people may get the impression that "affiliated" is the same thing as "representing" the Church. It is an organization of people who are Catholics, expressing a particular point of view; they have every right to do that. Any other Catholics also have the right to express their views, whether individually or as part of a larger organization. The League, or any individual representing the League, is not an official voice of the Church, however. So, disagreeing with the League's opinion about something isn't necessarily "wrong", and it certainly isn't "anti-Catholic".]