Friday, March 05, 2004

"The Passion" is rooted in controversy

The National Catholic Reporter has tried to put paid to one of the controversies over actor Mel Gibson's reportedly reactionary movie, "The Passion of the Christ." Gibson and others in his circle claim the Pope, John Paul II, approved the film's interpretation of the death of Christ, saying: "It is as it was." However, other persons in positions to know deny the Pope made such a statement.


Vatican reporter John Allen explains the episode from its beginning.


I sympathize with those weary of the controversy surrounding the alleged papal reaction, "It is as it was," to Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ. Not even the most rabid ultramontanist believes papal infallibility extends to movie reviews, so the film will rise or fall on its own merits, apart from anything John Paul thinks. Moreover, the increasingly farcical he said, she said nature of the story is hardly edifying.


Yet there are times when a story is important not so much for its content as for what it reveals about the players involved, and the institutions they serve. Such is the case with the pope's alleged comment, and I'm afraid it doesn't reveal much flattering about anyone.




Allen explains how he believes the 'confusion' arose.


Here's how we got here.



On Dec. 5 and 6, a Friday and Saturday, John Paul II watched “The Passion of the Christ” in his private apartment along with [papal secretary Archbishop Stanislaw] Dziwisz. On Monday, Dec. 8, Dziwisz received [Steve McEveety, the movie's producer] and his wife along with Jan Michelini and Alberto Michelini, Jan’s father. Their conversation took place largely in Italian, a language McEveety and his wife don’t speak. The Michelinis afterwards translated for McEveety what they believe they heard Dziwisz say, namely, that the pope’s reaction to the film was, “It is as it was.” Later that night, McEveety screened the movie for Navarro.


That the Michelinis had access to the pope is not difficult to explain. Alberto Michelini is a well-known Italian journalist and politician, who in 1979 accompanied the pope on his first trip to Poland.


. . .For the record, both Alberto Michelini and Navarro are members of Opus Dei.


Members of Gibson's inner circle promoted the claim the Pope had smiled on the film. The Vatican, through Dziwisz, issued a statement Jan. 19, denying that had occurred. Gibson's people still say they have information proving their claim of approval by the Pope is true, but haven't released it.


Allen is inclined to hold the Vatican more responsible for the controversy over the alleged statement by the Pope, than reporters, who he feels were misled.


The Vatican has made, as the expression goes here, the worst brutta figura. It comes off looking bad. Even if officials were acting for the noblest of motives, they have stretched the meaning of words, on and off the record, to their breaking point. Aside from the obvious moralism that it’s wrong to deceive, such confusion can only enhance perceptions that the aging John Paul II is incapable of controlling his own staff, that “no one is in charge” and the church is adrift. These impressions are not healthy in a time when the church’s public image, especially in the United States, has already taken a beating on other grounds.


Dean of religion Dwight Moody has been thinking about another controversy related to the film -- the claim that it is anti-Semitic because it assigns blame for the death of Jesus to Jews. He warns readers the relationship between passion plays and hatred of Jews is well-established.


“The Passion of Christ” hits the big screens Feb. 25. Mel Gibson is the writer, director and producer of this movie. He weaves material from a medieval mystic into the biblical narrative of the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life.


The Gibson movie has received much more attention than the Bratcher movie. Many Catholic and Evangelical leaders have attended preview showings and have come away with glowing endorsements.



Others are not so sure.


Passion plays have a long history of anti-Jewish bias. For centuries, the worst time to be a Jew in a Christian community was during Holy Week, when passion plays incited the religious fervor of the people. Too often this fervor was directed against the Jews who were called “Christ killers.” About a decade ago, the Vatican released new guidelines on passion plays, including a prohibition on assigning blame for the death of Jesus.


Moody prefers to view the death of Christ as multi-faceted. According to how one approaches it, responsibility can be placed on all the parties, humankind and even Christ himself.


Religion scholar James Martin has been interested in Opus Dei for years. He is considered an authority on the organization. Understanding OD may mean understanding why and how these controversies arose.


Opus Dei Is the most controversial group in the Catholic Church today. To its members it is nothing less than The Work of God, the inspiration of Blessed Josemaría Escriva, who advanced the work of Christ by promoting the sanctity of everyday life. To its critics it is a powerful, even dangerous, cult-like organization that uses secrecy and manipulation to advance its agenda. . . .


His [Escriva's] group grew rapidly, spreading from Spain to other European countries, and in 1950 received recognition by the Holy See as the first “secular institute.” Over the next two decades The Work, as members call it, moved into Latin America and the United States.


Escriva, who was sainted shortly after his death, is said by his critics to have been anti-Semitic and have ". . . pro-Nazi tendencies."


Martin's criticisms of the sect, based on interviews with members and former members, emphasize the secretive, cult-like behavior of Opus Dei and its manipulation of college students.



The controversies that have dogged the movie reflect those that have been associated with Opus Dei. The unsubstantiated claim of approval by the Pope seems typical of Opus Dei leaders' arrogance and overreaching. Nor is the charge of anti-Semiticism new.


It is tempting to say the allegation of anti-Semitism will be resolved when the film is released. However, that platitudinous perspective is not necessarily so. Instead, the matter may become more pregnant than it is now.


Note: This entry also appeared at Mac-a-ro-nies.


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