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Clues dismissed in time of ‘Passion’

GIVEN all that’s been written and broadcast about the anti-Semitic tirade Mel Gibson delivered when he was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving, it’s interesting that the story’s most significant implication barely has been touched.

If Gibson were not a wealthy and widely admired celebrity, he’d be just another lush dragging around a mental rat’s nest of kooky opinions and morbid animosities. However, he’s not a noxious nobody; he’s a noxious actor and filmmaker dragging around a mental rat’s nest of kooky opinions and morbid animosities -- and the only part of this affair that legitimately concerns anyone but Gibson and his family is whether any of those views made their way into his work.

More to the point, why hasn’t the press reopened the discussion of Gibson’s financially successful but controversial movie, “The Passion of the Christ”? When it was released two years ago, there were some who argued that, apart from its lurid sadomasochistic aura -- critic Leon Wieseltier called it “a sacred snuff film” -- Gibson’s narrative was studded with the kinds of anti-Semitic caricatures once associated with medieval passion plays. A much larger number of commentators and clergymen, particularly those hand-selected by the filmmaker and his people for private screenings, solemnly assured their readers, audiences and congregations that this was all a lot of anti-religious nonsense. More important, many of them personally vouched that Gibson is not an anti-Semite.

Looking back, it’s hard to see how so many people could have so completely overlooked the obvious warning signs.

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From the outset, Gibson was clear that the principal sources for his retelling of the crucifixion story were the Gospel of Matthew, the most problematic of the four Christian passion narratives, and the writings of Anne Catherine Emmerich, a 19th century nun and mystic who recorded her anti-Semitic “visions” of Jesus’ arrest and execution. The filmmaker, in fact, reportedly keeps a relic of the nun.

Then there was Gibson’s repeated refusal to disavow the views of his father and spiritual mentor, Hutton Gibson, a notorious anti-Semite and Holocaust denier, who cheerfully shares public platforms with unrepentant neo-fascists like the odious Willis Carto. No one can demand that another person repudiate their father, but it’s perfectly possible to say, “I love my father, but I don’t agree with his ideas.” Somehow, Gibson’s refusal to do that never bothered “The Passion’s” fans.

Finally, there’s the matter of the faith Mel Gibson inherited from that father -- his so-called traditional Catholicism. Without making a tedious detour into the fetid theological swamp in which this movement was spawned, it should be clear to anybody who looks that it involves a lot more than simple nostalgia for the Latin Mass. Spend 15 minutes with literature of the independent traditionalists -- like Gibson father and son -- or their more organized brethren in the Societies of St. Pius X or St. Pius V and what jumps out at you is a pervasive, actually obsessive antagonism toward Jews and Judaism. Moreover, traditional Catholicism’s American variants all are infected to one degree or another with the ideas of the Jew-baiting Boston Jesuit Leonard Feeney, who was excommunicated by Pope Pius XII. Yet the commentators and clergy who applauded “The Passion of the Christ” treated Gibson’s traditionalism as a kind of minor eccentricity -- sort of like a guy still holding onto his eight-track tapes.

How involved in this movement is Mel Gibson?

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This was posted on a leading independent traditionalist website this week: “Mel Gibson may have a personal drinking problem, but he sure puts his money where his mouth is when it comes to his deep traditional Catholic Faith. The World Faith Foundation, a nonprofit corporation, of which Gibson is a principal benefactor, has purchased a church complex in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, for $750,000. The existing church will be converted into a traditional Catholic Church, which will serve as a regional center for the Traditional Latin Mass and Sacraments ... WFF had already purchased a ranch-style house earlier in 2006 for $315,000. An independent traditional Catholic congregation, St. Michael the Archangel, pastored by an independent priest, will move ... to the new location.... The producer-director’s father, Hutton Gibson, a traditional Catholic writer and publisher associated with the WFF, has already moved to the Greenburg area to oversee the complex for the foundation.”

The writer goes on to point out that Gibson spent $5 million to build a similar traditionalist church near his home in Malibu.

So why was all this ignored -- or worse, dismissed -- when so many conservative commentators and clergy were busily putting their collective imprimatur on Gibson’s “Passion”?

It’s a question the press ought to be asking them now. Given the state of the commenting class in today’s news media, there’s little point reopening the issue with commentators. They are, by and large, locked into ideological categories that simply preclude an admission of error. But it’s worth raising the issue with the clergy and religious activists who made “The Passion of the Christ” a box office hit.

National Assn. of Evangelicals President Ted Haggard fulsomely endorsed Gibson’s film. How does he feel about it now? More than 5,000 other Evangelical pastors gave Gibson a standing ovation when he screened the movie for them in Florida. It would be good to hear from a few of them, particularly the ones who sent their congregations surging into the theaters.

Father William J. Fulco S.J., the National Endowment for the Humanities professor of ancient Mediterranean studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, did the Aramaic and Latin translations for Gibson’s movie and said at the time, “I would be aghast at any suggestion that Mel is anti-Semitic.” And now. . .?

In a column he wrote for his diocesan newspaper defending “The Passion,” Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said of Gibson, “between a decent man and his critics, I’ll choose the decent man every time -- until the evidence shows otherwise.”

OK.

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In the few cases in which those who expressed such views two years ago have been asked to account for their opinions, the answers have been instructive. At the time, William Donahue of the Catholic League for Civil Rights not only defended Gibson’s film, but also said the filmmaker is “the Catholic League’s kind of guy.” This week, he had this exchange with MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough:

Scarborough: When [New York Times columnist] Frank Rich was saying Gibson was an anti-Semite and others were saying Gibson was an anti-Semite, you and I were attacking them, saying they didn’t know Mel Gibson’s heart. But now, it’s a little bit easier to read Mel Gibson’s heart. I mean, the guy seems like he’s an anti-Semite, right?

Donohue: Oh, I don’t know if you can say that. I mean, clearly, what he said was bigoted and anti-Semitic .... Well, there’s a difference between -- did he make an anti-Semitic comment? Obviously, he did. It was irresponsible, it was vituperative, and he’s apologized for it, as he should apologize for it. There’s a lot of people who have made comments which are bigoted who are not necessarily bigots.

Really?

Here’s what’s at issue here: Anti-Semites are a Jewish problem. Anti-Semitism, on the other hand, is a gentile problem. Jews are the objects of anti-Semitism. Gentiles are its agents.

We have the indelible smoke of the crematoria to remind us of what can happen when Jews are left to contend with that reality on their own. In this, as in all such cases, the press has a responsibility to conduct itself according to that tragic insight.


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