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Mel Gibson’s Film Stirs ‘Passion’ in Faith Communities

Mel Gibson is fending off charges of anti-Semitism in his yet-to-be-released movie, even as groups concerned about the script try to clarify their role in Gibson’s faith-filled endeavor.

“The Passion,” a movie about the last hours of Jesus Christ’s life, just wrapped principal photography in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Italy. The film, directed by the Catholic Gibson and reportedly using only Latin and Aramaic dialogue (with no subtitles), is slated for release in spring 2004, though a distributor still has not been found, according to various news agencies.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Reports about the film’s tone and take started appearing in mainstream media earlier this year, with Gibson himself appearing on FOX News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” Jan. 17.
 
When host Bill O’Reilly asked Gibson if the film would “upset any Jewish people,” Gibson responded: “It may. It’s not meant to. I think it’s meant to just tell the truth.”
 
Gibson also bemoaned “people sent from reputable publications” to dig into his private life because, he said, he was making a movie about Jesus.
 
One of the reporters to whom Gibson was referring was Los Angeles writer Christopher Noxon, whose story about Gibson appeared in the New York Times on March 9.
 
Noxon claimed that: Gibson was financing a Malibu-area Catholic church that wasn’t affiliated with the Roman Catholic archdiocese; Gibson is a “Catholic traditionalist,” meaning that he practices a pre-Vatican II form of the faith; and Gibson’s father, Hutton, is fond of conspiracy theories, including one purporting that the Holocaust has been severely overblown.
 
Noxon also paraphrased a Gibson family friend, Gary Giuffre, as saying that “The Passion” would “lay the blame for the death of Christ where it belongs,” which many interpreted as fingering Jews and Jewish authorities.
 
The Anti-Defamation League sent a letter to Gibson on March 24, saying that “initial media reports” had prompted “serious concerns” about the new film.
 
“Given your talent and celebrity, how you depict the death of Jesus will have widespread influence on people’s ideas, attitudes and behavior towards Jews today,” the letter continued.
 
According to a recent article in Jewish Week, it was also in March that the ADL and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops formed an “ad hoc” committee of five Catholic and four Jewish scholars to review a version of the script.
 
Jewish Week further reported that it had obtained a copy of the committee’s 18-page report, which has not been made public. The report, which concluded that the then-current script would promote anti-Semitism, was delivered to Gibson and his Icon Productions on May 2, according to the publication.
 
Information about the report and who was responsible for it began spinning out of control and has only added to the controversy surrounding an already contentious subject.
 
In late May, Zenit—an international news agency covering the Catholic Church—reported that the bishops’ Ecumenical and Religious Affairs department was responsible for the ad hoc report.
 
The report prompted the bishops’ communications office to issue a statement on June 11 saying the critique of Gibson’s script was compiled by “an independent group of scholars.”
 
“Neither the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, nor any other committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, established this group, or authorized, reviewed or approved the report written by its members,” the statement read. “The Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs knew only that the scholars’ group intended to offer comments for the private consideration of the producers.”
 
“It is the policy of the Bishops’ Conference to critique films only after they have been presented for review,” the statement read.
 
But the Jewish Week article of June 13 reported that the committee’s work was prefaced by “a cover letter on Bishops Conference stationery signed by Dr. Eugene Fisher, the conference’s associate director for ecumenical and interreligious affairs, and Rabbi Eugene Korn, the ADL’s director of interfaith affairs.”
 
The USCCB’s office of communications did not return a call seeking clarification about sponsorship of the report.
 
However, four of the Catholic scholars from the ad hoc group issued a statement June 17 through Boston College’s Center for Christian-Jewish Learning.
 
The scholars—Mary C. Boys, Philip A. Cunningham, Lawrence E. Frizzell and John T. Powlikowski—said they were “recently called together by expert staff members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Anti-Defamation League.”
 
“We understood from the outset of our review of the script that our report did not represent an official statement of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, nor was it ever represented as such,” the scholars continued.
 
The scholars did indicate, however, that in addition to being members of various professional Catholic organizations, they are also members of USCCB’s Advisory Committee for Catholic-Jewish Relations of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
 
“Our report was assembled under the leadership of a staff person in that office,” they wrote. 
 
The statement also listed guidelines—”official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church”—the group used when assessing the script’s handling of the death of Christ.
 
Amy-Jill Levine, Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University, also served on the committee that produced the report. Levine was unable to comment about the specifics of the report because of legal restrictions, but she did offer the following statement in an e-mail exchange:
 
“What I can tell you is that the goal of the scholars who reviewed the script was to provide Mr. Gibson information on such matters as the historical setting of the Passion (e.g., Roman authority at the time) and the Vatican teachings on how to present Jews and Judaism (you can see a reference to this as well in the Bishops’ letter concerning the report and the committee).”
 
The upshot is that Gibson, whose production company is financing the reported $25-million picture, is speaking out against accusations that the film is anti-Semitic.
 
“To be certain, neither I nor my film is anti-Semitic,” wrote Gibson in a statement to Hollywood trade publication Daily Variety on Friday, June 13.
 
“If the intense scrutiny during my 25 years in public life revealed I had ever persecuted or discriminated against anyone based on race or creed, I would be all too willing to make amends,” he said. “But there is no such record.”
 
Gibson said the movie is meant “to inspire not offend.”
 
“My intention in bringing it to the screen is to create a lasting work of art and engender serious thought among audiences of diverse faith backgrounds (or none) who have varying familiarity with this story,” Gibson said.
 
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.