The Bishops’ Cop-Out

By Michael J. Cook

Published March 05, 2004, issue of March 05, 2004.
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I n April 2003, I was invited, along with four Roman Catholic and two other Jewish scholars, by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs to offer a confidential assessment of a script for Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” that was to be sent to the filmmaker. There was concern at the secretariat, which was working in cooperation with the Anti-Defamation League, that the film might violate recent Catholic teachings on how to present Jews in dramatizations of Jesus’ last hours, which historically have often fueled antisemitism.

In 1965, the Catholic hierarchy took the first of a series of steps toward addressing this troubling history when the Second Vatican Council, in its historic declaration Nostra Aetate, formally repudiated the charge that Jews as a people are to blame for Jesus’ execution. Then, in 1988, the Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the bishops’ conference published its “Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion.” The document instructed that Jews should not be presented as bloodthirsty or as Jesus’ implacable enemies, that Jesus and his apostles be portrayed clearly as Jews, that Gospel elements with potentially negative influence on the image of Jews not be employed and that sensitive attention be paid to the best in modern biblical scholarship.

It was against this backdrop of these historic proclamations that we scholars in Catholic-Jewish relations viewed the pending release of the Gibson film. Our communities had enjoyed four decades of progress, and no one wanted to see a film sweep away our successes.

As has now been widely reported, our conclusions uniformly expressed disappointment. After details of our report were leaked (not by us) to a Rome-based Catholic news agency to which Gibson had earlier given an exclusive interview, Gibson supporters promptly attacked us as “revisionists.” Gibson’s production company threatened legal action against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Apparently not fully informed of our work, the bishops’ ecumenical affairs committee (to which the secretariat reports) withdrew from the fray, and the conference postponed its evaluation of the film until its release.

Now, of course, Gibson’s film has opened and, last week, the conference’s Office for Film and Broadcasting released its review of the movie. Both are disturbing.

The finished film justified the fears we expressed in our April 2003 review. Of the 48 motifs I myself had then identified as worrisome, 37 made it to the screen, many of them found nowhere in the Gospels. The extra-biblical elements contained in the film include images of Jews throwing Jesus off a bridge, Jews accepting bribes to show up to vote for Jesus’ crucifixion, Mary Magdalene appealing to benevolent Roman soldiers to save Jesus from malicious Jewish officials and Satan mingling among the Jewish mob as if directing them.

It is too early to gauge the movie’s full impact on Jewish-Christian relations. Still, there are discomfiting developments, including the continued reticence on the part of the senior Catholic hierarchy to speak out about the dangers presented by the film. Time and again, when Gibson’s Icon Productions cited Vatican officials who allegedly endorsed the film (including supposedly even the pope), church leaders in this country and in Rome were either slow or unwilling to issue denials or distance the church from the reported remarks.

Here in America, the bishops’ conference has responded to the film by publishing a collection of post-Vatican II documents relating to the church’s relationship to Jews. One must wonder whether this is in fact intended as cover for a strategy of intentional avoidance — of dodging the need to apply the 1988 “Criteria” specifically to this film by instead reiterating general Catholic positions. What was needed was not the reprinting of old documents so much as a press conference by church leaders demonstrating the church’s abiding commitment to the “Criteria” by applying them directly to Gibson’s film.

What has emerged instead is the bishops’ conference’s official review of Gibson’s “Passion.” The conference’s review summed up the film as “an uncompromising interpretive dramatization” that is “unflinching in its brutality and penetrating in its iconography of God’s supreme love for humanity.” It refers to the movie as “a composite of the Passion narratives in the four Gospels embroidered with non scriptural traditions as well as the imaginative inspiration of the filmmaker.” It calls the film “a deeply personal work of devotional art.”

“Concerning the issue of anti-Semitism,” the review states, “the Jewish people are at no time blamed collectively for Jesus’ death.” While admitting that the portraits of the Sanhedrin, the high priest, the Jewish mob and Pontius Pilate’s kindness may be rather overdrawn, the review does not dwell on these issues or draw much significance from them.

The review urges Catholic viewers of the film to “recall the teachings of the Second Vatican Council’s decree, ‘Nostra Aetate.’” But, incredibly, it contains no explicit mention of the 1988 “Criteria,” which were drawn up precisely to explain in elaborate detail what Vatican II’s declaration meant when applied to dramatizations of the Passion.

Have the “Criteria” been forgotten by the bishops? Or were they ignored because the film could not possibly pass their muster? Either way, the solid bridge of trust Jews thought they had with the Catholic Church now lies exposed as merely a drawbridge, readily placed in raised position when it is most needed. The bishops’ failure to stand up for the “Criteria” bearing their own imprimatur is at least as vexing as Gibson’s film. The year 2005 marks Vatican II’s 40th anniversary. What is there for Jews to celebrate when this film has sailed by as if the “Criteria” never existed?

Rabbi Michael J. Cook is Bronstein Professor of Judaeo-Christian Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

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