Vatican Distances Itself From Praise Of Gibson’s Movie

By Marc Perelman

Published September 26, 2003, issue of September 26, 2003.
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The Vatican is distancing itself from the comments of two Catholic officials who recently praised the controversial Mel Gibson movie “The Passion.”

In a letter sent to the Anti-Defamation League, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the top Vatican liaison to the Jewish community, said that any endorsements of the film from top church leaders represented “purely personal” views and bore “no official status.” Jewish groups have warned that the film, which was directed by Gibson, could end up drawing on antisemitic stereotypes in its depiction of the last moments of the life of Jesus.

Kasper’s September 20 letter was sent after Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, the prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy at the Vatican, told the Italian daily La Stampa last week that all priests and Christians should see Gibson’s cinematic depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus and denied that the film conveyed an antisemitic message. A few days earlier, Archbishop John Foley of the Vatican’s social communications office also lavished praise on the $30-million movie, which is scheduled to be released next spring.

The recent comments by the Vatican officials have fueled speculation that the Holy See had endorsed the views of the movie and that this put it at odds with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which, among other things, forcefully repudiated the idea of collective Jewish responsibility for Jesus’ death. The pope’s ailing health has only added to the sensitivity of the debate.

“This is distressing because there is a battle between the more traditional and the more liberal wings within the Catholic Church, and the relationship with the Jewish community has become a football in this fight,” said Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee.

Gibson, who is member of an ultraconservative Catholic movement that rejects Vatican II and does not recognize the pope’s authority over the church, has defended his work as faithful to the Gospels and said it is intended “to inspire, not offend.”

In a recent interview with the New Yorker, Gibson said he had been persecuted like Jesus for making the film. He also said that he cut a scene involving the Jewish high priest Caiaphas from the film because if he hadn’t “they’d be coming after me at my house, they’d come to kill me.”

The film star’s recent remarks have drawn sharp rebukes in the past week from ADL national director Abraham Foxman, who publicly suggested that Gibson is an antisemite, and New York Times cultural columnist Frank Rich. In a September 20 column, Rich accused Gibson of promoting his film by “baiting Jews.”

Kasper, the Vatican liaison to the Jewish community, was told of the brewing controversy over Gibson’s film in early September during a meeting in Rome with Jewish organizational leaders. He reportedly told his hosts, which included World Jewish Congress chairman Israel Singer and former Israeli ambassador to the Holy See Samuel Hadass, that it was an American problem that should be handled by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. But the furor provoked by the comments from Foley and Hoyos have forced Kasper to speak out publicly.

In the letter to the ADL, addressed to the organization’s director of interfaith affairs, Rabbi Eugene Korn, Kasper wrote: “When the film will be released it may be up to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to take a position and to clarify the continuing commitment of the Catholic Church to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council in promoting understanding and reconciliation with the Jewish people.”

Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, the communications director of the bishops’ conference, told the Forward that the body would review and take a position on the film only when it is released. The top church official in charge of relations with American Jews, Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, has not seen the movie and will wait for the bishops’ conference to review it before commenting, according to his aide, Steve Carney.

As for the Vatican, Kasper wrote in his letter that no official position will be taken until church officials in Rome see the film. Kasper’s letter was in response to one he received from Korn two days earlier urging the church official to weigh in on the debate about the movie.

Kasper’s claim that Hoyos was not speaking for the Vatican when he praised the film was seconded by Father John Pawlikowski, director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union. Pawlikowski, who was part of an independent commission of Catholic and Jewish scholars that had criticized the script of the movie, insisted that Hoyos’s comments “were his personal evaluation, nothing more.”

“Cardinal Hoyos does not have any direct responsibility within the Vatican Curia for Catholic-Jewish Relations,” Pawlikowski wrote in an e-mail to the Forward. Pawlikowski also argued that while defending the film, Hoyos had failed “to address the principal critique” of our scholars’ group.

“The main story line of the rough cut, as of the script we evaluated, remains the notion that a vicious and blood-thirsty Jewish Cabal headed by Caiaphas forced a weak Pilate through blackmail to execute Jesus,” Pawlikowski’s e-mail stated. “This is contrary to the Catholic Church’s post-Vatican position and to sound contemporary biblical scholarship where the principal responsibility is put on Pilate and the Roman imperial government.”

Out of concern that the movie might undercut the official Catholic teaching, Pawlikowski said, the bishops’ conference has posted guidelines on Passion plays on its Web site. In addition, Pawlikowski said, plans are being drafted for a more comprehensive educational effort in case the film “erodes the official Catholic position on Roman responsibility for the death of Christ.”

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