Catholics Greet Gibson’s ‘Passion’ With a Cacophony, Not a Chorus

By Andrew Greeley

Published January 30, 2004, issue of January 30, 2004.
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If I were Jewish, I’d be worried about Mel Gibson’s film on the Passion of Jesus. I’d remember the blatant antisemitism of the Oberammergau Passion play and wonder whether Catholics were not up to their old tricks again. Hopefully I’d also remember that, while some Romans and some Jews were involved in the death of Jesus, even they were forgiven by the words “Father, Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” I might even remember that Catholicism rejects collective guilt. Yet, for all of that, I wouldn’t completely trust Catholics, not for a long time to come.

The critical question about the film, it seems to me, is how the Jewish leaders are portrayed. Are they crude and vicious stereotypes? If they are, then the film is clearly marred by antisemitism, be it conscious or unconscious. Contemporary commentators on St. John’s Gospel interpret “the Jews” to which the author refers as the leaders who demanded the execution of Jesus, not all Jews who were alive then and not all Jews who have been alive ever since. St. John’s story was not inherently antisemitic but was easily distorted in later years by those who came to it with antisemitic predispositions. A film made today must be very careful to keep that in mind. Whether Mel Gibson’s effort does that or not remains, quite literally, to be seen.

If it slips into conscious or unconscious antisemitism, then many Catholics will join Jews in condemning it, as some Catholic scholars already have. Others will smirk. Many Catholics won’t see it, which will not prevent them from having opinions about it. But what, Jews may wonder, is the “Catholic position” on the film? The answer is that there won’t be a Catholic position. Catholic positions are hard to come by in these days of free-floating Catholic responses.

Didn’t the pope approve it and then the Vatican scramble to cover up what he said? Or, alternatively, didn’t the film’s publicists invent a comment from the pope that the Vatican had to repudiate?

The irony here is that Gibson is linked to a schismatic Catholic sect that believes there hasn’t been a valid pope since the death of Pius XII. For almost a half-century the Holy See has been vacant (sede vacante in Latin)! However commercial reasons might persuade the publicists of the film to pretend that John Paul II is, for the sake of publicity, a valid pope.

Catholics should be blamed for a film made by people who don’t think John Paul is a valid pope? Gimme a break!

But even if the poor sick pope did mutter a few words about the film, that would only be his personal opinion, which along with two dollars would get you a ride on Mayor Daley’s subway. Catholics who do not accept his official teaching on birth control are hardly likely to rush off to the local multiplex to see a film that he may have liked.

Nor are Catholics in Denver likely to desert the ski slopes and swarm to the movies because their archbishop thinks it’s spiritually moving. Disgraced by the sexual abuse crisis, Catholic bishops these days would be hard put to deliver a pack of starving vampires to a blood bank. Even before their folly in reassigning abusive priests, bishops had less clout on films than Catholic film critics like Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper — which is as it should be. If Jews are looking for a Catholic position (as opposed to the Catholic position) they would do well to check out the reactions of these two gifted and charming men.

My point here is not trivial. Catholics make up their own minds and do not, lemming-like, swarm after their leaders. Other Americans must finally give up the notion that sweeping generalizations about Catholics are any less bigotry than are similar generalizations about blacks or Jews or gays or Muslims. Though a large majority of Americans still believe that Catholics think what their leaders tell them to think, it ought to be evident that such a prejudice is not true.

Hence there will be various Catholic responses to the Gibson film. Some will join with their Jewish friends in condemning it. Others will see it and like it, but not necessarily because they are antisemitic. Yet others will revel in whatever antisemitism may be there. Still others will want to see it because it is controversial and will make up their own minds.

But, for the love of the Holy One (His Name be praised), my Jewish friends, let’s not make this another Jewish-Catholic conflict. That would only sell more tickets.

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