Bishops Slammed for Support of ‘Passion’

By Eric J. Greenberg

Published March 05, 2004, issue of March 05, 2004.
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The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is drawing harsh condemnations in some circles over its much-anticipated review of “The Passion of the Christ.”

Using terms like “outrage” and “betrayal,” several Jewish and Catholic interfaith leaders are saying that in praising Mel Gibson’s film on Jesus’ last 12 hours, the bishops’ conference, the top Roman Catholic Church body in America, is guilty of ignoring its own guidelines for putting on Passion plays. In particular, these critics say, the movie violates the guidelines by failing to avoid excessive violence and anti-Jewish stereotypes.

They are warning that the positive review could help Gibson’s film become the standard version of the Passion accepted by tens of millions of people around the world for generations to come — an outcome they call dangerous and potentially damaging to future Jewish-Christian relations.

“This movie is a defining moment for Christian leadership, particularly Catholic but also Protestant,” said Rabbi James Rudin, senior interfaith adviser to the American Jewish Committee. “If they don’t speak out and point out the distortions and the errors and the extra-biblical additions and anti-Jewish stereotypes — and it may already be too late — this movie will be the benchmark for the Passion story for the next decades.”

Rudin added: “If Christian leaders allow Gibson to hijack their story and define it, then they have abdicated their teaching authority, and it is very, very upsetting.”

The conference’s review, issued by the organization’s Office for Film & Broadcasting, dismissed claims — made by many professional film critics, as well as Christian and Jewish scholars — that the movie blames the Jews collectively for the death of Jesus. Written by Gerri Pare, director of the film and broadcasting office, staff member David DiCerto and office consultant Anne Navarro, the review stated: “Concerning the issue of anti-Semitism, the Jewish people are at no time blamed collectively for Jesus’ death, rather Christ himself freely embraces his destiny.”

The trio of reviewers argued that “overall the film presents Jews in much the same way as any other group, a mix of vice and virtue, good and bad,” adding that the movie “suggests that all humanity shares culpability for the Crucifixion” and “makes it abundantly clear that it is the Romans who are Christ’s executioners.”

Regarding the film’s bloody violence, the reviewers wrote: “The film employs a visceral undiluted realism in its retelling of the passion, eschewing Sunday school delicacy in favor of in your face rawness that is much too intense for children.

“That notwithstanding, the movie is an artistic achievement in terms of its textured cinematography, haunting atmospherics, lyrical editing, detailed production design and soulful score.”

Mel Gibson’s spokesman, Alan Nierob, praised the bishops’ conference, saying, “I thought the USCCB review was surprisingly good.”

The review drew harsh criticisms, however, from several members of a highly publicized ad hoc interfaith scholars group assembled last year by the ecumenical specialists at the bishops’ conference and the Anti-Defamation League to analyze an early version of Gibson’s script. Among those objecting to the review were the Rev. John Pawlikowski, director of the Catholic-Jewish studies program at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago; Philip Cunningham, executive director of the Center for Christian Jewish Learning at Boston College, and Hebrew Union College professor Michael Cook.

“It’s a weak and somewhat evasive review,” Pawlikowski said. “I have to say I am very disappointed it didn’t deal adequately with the issue of the presentation of Jews and Judaism in the film, and didn’t deal adequately with the violence issues.”

The review fails to identify any of what critics describe as the film’s violations of 40 years of Catholic guidance on how not to present the Passion. According to Cunningham, the review is “deficient in applying Catholic teaching” on the Passion story.

Cunningham posted his own detailed, highly critical review of the movie to his center’s Web site outlining what he sees as the film’s violations of the 1988 guidelines issued by the bishops’ conference. For example, Cunningham argued, Gibson’s film violates the guideline stating that Jews should not be portrayed as avaricious, bloodthirsty, or implacable enemies of Jesus. According to Cunningham, the movie also poses problems by depicting a universe “where one is either a follower of Jesus or a pawn of Satan.”

This is not the first time that the scholars have clashed with the bishops’ conference. Last June, the interfaith group said they also felt betrayed when the bishops refused to back them after Gibson threatened a lawsuit accusing the scholars of stealing his script — a charge the scholars flatly deny. Nevertheless, the bishops publicly apologized to Gibson, creating the impression that the scholars had done something wrong.

Some Jewish leaders are praising the bishops’ conference for distributing a book to dioceses and parishes around the country consisting of key documents relating to Catholic teaching on Jews, the death of Jesus and the “sin” of antisemitism.

“It is heartening,” said ADL national director Abraham Foxman of the 110-page book, titled “The Bible, the Jews and the Death of Jesus.” Foxman urged for the book to be made available in other countries and languages.

Foxman expressed concern, however, about the conference film review. “I wish it was more direct,” he said. “I think it is too diffuse.”

The ADL leader said he is haunted by a quote from a father who took his 13-year-old daughter to see the film, but was unable to answer her question about “why the Jews so hated Jesus.”

“I worry,” Foxman said, “how this [film] will poison young minds.”

In recent weeks several Catholic leaders, including Baltimore’s Cardinal William Keeler, considered the top ecumenical liaison in America, and New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan, have reminded their flock about the official church position that Jews are not collectively responsible for Jesus’ death. But Egan also urged Catholics to see the film because it is “very beautiful.”

“It’s good we see it because it tells us about the greatest prayer that was ever prayed,” Egan told worshippers Sunday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

The film has also been hailed by many evangelical Christians as a work that promotes love, not hate.

But the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Christodoulos Paraskevaides, reportedly blasted Gibson’s movie, calling it “an obscene and blasphemous insult to the memory of Jesus which could also incite antisemitism.”

The controversial archbishop, who once accused Greek Jews of forcing the authorities to remove religious affiliation from Greek identity cards, declared, according to the Macedonia Press Agency, that the movie contradicts what is written in the Gospels.

Christodoulos was quoted as calling the film “an icon of religious violence.”

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