For years, conservatives have wondered if there was any movie Hollywood would balk at showing. Blasphemy, incessant profanity, graphic sex, obscene violence—none of these has proved an obstacle to Hollywood, and numerous films containing some or all of these elements have enjoyed widespread critical acclaim.
We have finally found out what sort of movie will make Hollywood blanch. It must be made by an Oscar-winning director and acclaimed actor. It must be filmed on a set where Mass was offered daily and where the leading actor received Holy Communion every day. And it must be based on the most important books in history—the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
The movie, of course, is Mel Gibson’s The Passion, a film that has yet to find a distributor and has been the object of an unprecedented campaign of vilification, beginning before any of its critics had even seen it and months before its scheduled release. The open campaign to censor Gibson’s script has elicited not a word of protest from the advocates of artistic freedom who thought taxpayers should have to subsidize “art” consisting of a crucifix submerged in urine, and some are predicting the film will mark the end of Gibson’s career. As entertainment publicist Michael Levine noted, “in liberal Hollywood, it’s easier to declare yourself a gay drug-addicted kleptomaniac than a born-again Christian.”
The real enemies of Mel Gibson’s Passion, however, are not Hollywood liberals. They are an assortment of subversive academics, ecclesiastical apparatchiks, and heavy-handed enforcers of political correctness, whose opinion of traditional Christianity is so negative that they hope to silence Gibson because he professes it.
The attack has been vicious, including an unfavorable piece in the New York Times based on an interview with the artist’s octogenarian father. The public attack began in earnest with an article by Boston University academic Paula Fredriksen in America’s premier organ of anti-Catholicism, the New Republic. Fredriksen was part of a group of professors who reviewed the script of Gibson’s film at the behest of Eugene Fisher, a bureaucrat at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Eugene Korn, a functionary at the Anti-Defamation League.
Fredriksen’s screed was both misleading and revealing. She directly attacks Gibson’s pre-Vatican II Catholicism and quotes with approval a sneering description of The Passion as a “high-budget dramatization of key points of traditionalist theology.” The piece also revealed a process reminiscent of the Roman Inquisition in the days of Fredriksen’s despised “traditionalist theology.” Fredriksen’s group wanted Gibson essentially to scrap his script and to provide one to their liking. If Gibson failed to comply, condemnations intended to kill the film would follow. Based on the work of Fredriksen’s group (and Korn’s viewing of the film), the ADL has already denounced The Passion in the strongest terms, and Fredriksen wants the bishops to follow suit: “I hope that they bring to their eventual review of this unfortunate film the full weight of their unique moral authority.” The stakes are high because Fredriksen knows that, if anyone is allowed to see Gibson’s film, bloodshed will follow: “When violence breaks out, Mel Gibson will have a much higher authority than professors and bishops to answer to.”
Aside from providing a prime example of the intolerance, hysteria, and arrogance characteristic of the leftist mind at work, Fredriksen’s piece is fundamentally disingenuous. She complains that Gibson’s work cannot be historically accurate, because the Gospels differ on the details of Christ’s Passion. But the ADL and Fredriksen are assailing Gibson precisely because his script is based on a harmony of the Gospels. The first point of the ADL’s criticism is that the movie “portrays Jewish authorities and the Jewish ‘mob’ as forcing the decision to torture and execute Jesus, thus assuming responsibility for the crucifixion.” The Gospels do state that the Romans crucified Jesus and that the legal authority for the crucifixion came from Pontius Pilate. Each of the evangelists also wrote that the plot to kill Jesus originated with the chief priests, however, and each states that Pilate decided to crucify Jesus only after a mob controlled by the chief priests demanded His death. And Saint Matthew famously wrote:
When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all, but that a riot was breaking out instead, he took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. Look to it yourselves.” And the whole people said in reply, “His blood be upon us and upon our children” [New American Bible].
The real quarrel of those attacking The Passion is not with Gibson but with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Fredriksen tries to conceal the radical nature of the attack on The Passion by appealing to history: “the historical fact behind the Passion narratives—Jesus’s death on a cross—points primarily to a Roman agenda.” But Fredriksen did not always regard this conclusion as self-evident. In her Introduction to From Jesus to Christ, Fredriksen wrote that she once believed that, “shortly after arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus became the target of fatal priestly hostility, which ultimately leads him to Pilate, and the cross.” By upsetting the money changers, “he moved himself into the cross-hairs of the priests.” It was only when Fredriksen walked around Jerusalem and saw how really, really big the Temple was that she concluded that no one would have even noticed Jesus and the money changers. From this “insight,” she ultimately concluded what she now presents as the unassailable truth that must be enforced against errant filmmakers: Pilate, not the chief priests, is the one who really wanted Jesus dead. This “insight” seems a slender reed on which to overthrow the Gospels and decide who gets branded an “antisemite”—the equivalent of anathema sit in today’s age of mandatory “tolerance.”
Fredriksen’s attack on Gibson is also disingenuous because—unless her views have dramatically changed—it paints a misleading portrait of what she believes. Her agitation over Gibson’s alleged lack of fidelity to history would seem to indicate that Fredriksen would want historicity in movies about Jesus. However, in a 1998 interview in the Boston Globe Magazine, she gushed,
I loved The Last Temptation of Christ, the movie. I’ve shown it in my theology class, because it’s such a tormented construction about what bothers 20th century people, using Jesus as a screen on which to project those things.
It is difficult to get further from history than Martin Scorsese’s blasphemous, silly, and now mostly forgotten film, but since Scorsese, unlike Gibson, isn’t an adherent of “traditionalist theology,” he passes Fredriksen’s litmus test. Fredriksen continued:
I’d love to do my own movie. I would get whoever is like Robert DeNiro, but a 30-year old, somebody who is intense and Italianate, to play Jesus. I would stage it in a context thick with magical powers and demons, and have it embedded realistically in the Judaism of his time, where Jews are just arguing with each [sic] other all the time about “you don’t do it right. I do it right.”
From her New Republic references to the “unique moral authority” of the Catholic bishops and the “higher authority” that will judge Gibson for making this movie, we might assume that Fredriksen acknowledges the authority of the Catholic bishops and believes that God does indeed judge our actions. When asked in the 1998 interview whether she was a believer, however, Fredriksen replied, “To get people to attend to what I’m saying, I often, in principle, don’t share this information.” She later declared that “the problem of evil in a monotheistic system, I think, is always going to be a tough one: Either God is not all-powerful or not all good. Either option is not satisfying.” When asked if antisemitism was integral to Christianity, she replied that
anti-Semitism has been integral to Christianity. When you think about it, the Holocaust was the greatest, most energetic, most spontaneous Christian ecumenical movement since the Crusades: Lithuanian Orthodox [sic], German Lutherans, Catholic Frenchmen—everyone pitched in to kill Jewish civilians, children.
That Lithuanians are actually Roman Catholic is the least problem with this amazing statement. That someone who essentially equates Christianity with Nazism is being asked to consult with Catholic theologians is mind-boggling.
The Catholic theologians who consulted with Fredriksen also hold troubling views. Fisher and the scholars involved in the attack on The Passion were the same group that, last year, succeeded in placing on the website of the Catholic Bishops Conference a statement saying that Catholics may no longer attempt to convert Jews. The embarrassed bishops quickly withdrew the statement, which was the subject of criticism from many theologians, including an incisive critique in America by the only American theologian to receive the red hat from Pope John Paul II, Avery Cardinal Dulles.
The scholars’ website suggests an even more radical agenda. A section devoted to a book on Christian-Jewish relations, A Sacred Obligation, reveals that the scholars want to excise certain New Testament texts—including, presumably, the Passion narratives—from the Mass:
The New Testament contains passages that have frequently generated negative attitudes toward Jews and Judaism. The use of these texts in the context of worship increases the likelihood of hostility to Jews. . . . A reformed Christian liturgical life would express a new relationship with Jews and thus honor God.
Even more amazingly, the scholars renounce what “Christians have . . . taught for centuries,” namely, “that salvation is available only through Jesus Christ.” Judaism, to the scholars, is not merely Christianity’s “elder brother” and deserving of respect but as valid as Christianity, meaning that Jesus’ death had no salvific effect on Jews and that those first-century Jews who followed Christ, founded the Church, wrote the New Testament, and often died martyrs’ deaths were seriously misguided, to say the least.
The ADL’s arguments against Gibson are also troubling. On its website, the ADL trumpets the antisemitic e-mails it has received since the controversy began and offers them as proof that Gibson’s movie is antisemitic. Of course, these e-mails prove no such thing, since none of the senders has even seen Gibson’s film. They are reacting not to The Passion but to the ham-handed attempt to censor the film and, in essence, the Gospels.
The critics’ fears are based on the belief that Christians are drooling proto-Nazis, needing only the slightest provocation to burn a synagogue. Aside from its sheer offensiveness, this fear overlooks the fact that, every Good Friday, millions of Roman Catholics around the world hear Saint John’s Passion. Every Palm Sunday, another of the Passion narratives is read to tens of millions of Roman Catholics. Other Christian denominations also read the Passion narratives regularly, resulting not in violence but in spiritual reflection and, one hopes, behavior closer to that of Christ.
There is no reason to believe Gibson’s portrayal of the Passion will have a different effect from the annual reading of the Passion narratives in countless churches around the world. The famous Passion play at Oberammergau, Germany, has never inspired violence. Today, antisemitism is very much a fringe phenomenon everywhere—except, perhaps, in the Islamic world. And the fringe characters attracted to antisemitism are not Christians. In all probability, the only antisemites who will go to see Gibson’s film will be those excited by the denunciations it has received.
I fully agree with Paul VI’s pronouncement in Nostra aetate that “what happened in [Christ’s] passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” Nothing I have read about The Passion suggests that Gibson is making this movie to blame anyone. I was moved by the interviews Gibson and Jim Caviezel, the actor who plays Christ, gave to EWTN, in which they spoke of their desire to use the film to glorify Christ. As Deal Hudson has written,
one of the two glimpses of Gibson in the movie is when you see his hand placing the stake on Christ’s palm—thus underlining Gibson’s own guilt, which in Christian theology he shares with all mankind, for the death of Christ.
I resent those whose animus against “traditionalist theology” is so great that they want to suppress it. A belief in the Gospels’ Passion narratives and a pride in the history of the Church is not synonymous with hatred of Jews. Indeed, “traditionalist theology” is the theology that animated every canonized saint as well as those Christians (including Pius XII) who saved Jews from the holocaust.
This assault on Gibson’s film is just another in a long series of tedious and increasingly obnoxious attempts by leftists of all faiths (or of none) to eviscerate our Western heritage. Gibson is working in the mainstream of the Western artistic tradition concerning the Passion. If Fredriksen’s clique actually wielded the power they desire, it is hard to see how either Michelangelo’s Pietà or J.S. Bach’s Passions could pass muster. After all, the scene portrayed in the Pietà is contained nowhere in the Gospels, and Bach’s Passions employ texts that those assailing Gibson claim “have frequently generated negative attitudes toward Jews and Judaism.” Neither the Pietà nor Bach’s Passions has ever inspired violence, but both continue to awe believers and unbelievers alike. That is what Gibson, a great Catholic artist at the height of his ability, aspires to do, and he should be given the chance to try.