Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

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Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
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The furor over Mel Gibsonís ĎThe Passioní: What is this all about?

by Father Bruce Williams OP, for the Inland Register

(From the Nov. 13, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

Does Mel Gibsonís upcoming film, The Passion, promote anti-Semitism?

As a Catholic priest who cherishes the heritage of a Jewish mother, my concerns here are deeply personal. I have not seen either a script or a preview of the film, so Iím in no position to comment either favorably or adversely on the content of Gibsonís work. Reputable Christians who are better informed have evidently arrived at differing assessments, and the same appears true among informed Jews. I look forward to seeing the movie myself, and shall reserve judgment and comment until then. Meanwhile, however, I venture to point out some confusions and anomalies in the pre-release controversy.

First, several distinct issues tend to be lumped together inappropriately under the umbrella of anti-Semitism. One such issue has to do with responsibly critical exegesis of the Biblical narrative. Virtually all Christian leaders (including the Roman Catholic magisterium) now acknowledge that gospel passages underlining Jewish opposition to Jesus are apt to reflect later controversies between the synagogue and the nascent church. Another distinct though related issue concerns the respect owed to Jewish sensibilities in light of the scandalous Christian teaching of contempt toward Jews over almost two millennia, a teaching purportedly based on the Gospels and only recently repudiated by the church.

Confusion among these issues is evident in some of the Passion commentary Iíve seen. For instance, critics allege that Gibson demonizes the Jewish high priest Caiaphas while portraying Pilate as a more or less helpless pawn of the high priest and his minions. To repeat, I disclaim competence at present to assess the merits of this criticism. My point is that Gibson might well be guilty as charged here, without being guilty of personally harboring anti-Semitic attitudes or intentionally promoting an anti-Semitic agenda. The failure here, if such it is, could stem from a naively simplistic reading of certain elements of the Passion accounts. (It would also be a highly selective reading, since, for example, Johnís gospel clearly indicates that Caiaphasí move against Jesus was at least fueled by fear of Pilate [11:47-53] and that Roman soldiers were in the arresting party at Gethsemane [18:3].) Likewise, without really being anti-Semitic himself, Gibson might be failing to appreciate the sensibilities of Jews about the Passion stories based on their sorry history in Christian Europe.

In sum, Gibsonís critics need to avoid suggesting that the faults they allege in his film are expressive of anti-Semitism, and likewise Gibson and his defenders need to avoid dismissing criticisms of the film by simply portraying him as the victim of baseless charges of anti-Semitism. My overall impression thus far is that Gibsonís critics have been more careful on this score than he and his defenders have been.

Much is made of Gibsonís particular brand of Catholicism, an ultra-traditionalist outlook that rejects in general the theological and liturgical modernizing of the church which the Second Vatican Council promoted. A more scientific approach to the study of Scripture was one element in this modernizing; the move toward making amends to the Jewish people was another. Quite evidently, Gibson is not at all receptive to the first of these; his attitude toward the latter is far from clear, beyond his repeated insistence that he is not anti-Semitic.

But it strikes me as particularly anomalous that so many other mainstream Catholics of a conservative bent, who, unlike Gibson, accept Vatican II and pride themselves on enthusiastically following the lead of Pope John Paul II, feel compelled to enter the lists in defense of the current Gibson project. The ardor of their support for his film, and their ferocity toward his critics, is bewildering to me and also disquieting. I sense an animus here, which I am hard put to characterize. I donít want to presume that itís an animus against Jews, even though I canít help noticing that some of these Gibson defenders are also extraordinarily shrill and carping in their onesided criticisms of Israel in her ongoing struggle with the Palestinians. Ė No, Iím not ascribing this conservative Catholic posture to an unacknowledged anti-Semitism. But I would gratefully welcome a plausible alternative explanation for it.

(Father Bruce Williams, a Dominican priest, teaches moral theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas ó also known as the Angelicum ó in Rome. He is based at St. Stephen Priory in Dover, Mass., where he participates in the Dominican communityís preaching ministry.)

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