Monday, February 09, 2004

Mel Gibson: Targeting Catholics

Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times had an incisive analysis recently of Mel Gibson's forthcoming film The Passion of the Christ that drills down to the core issue -- namely, that the problem with the film isn't so much the innate anti-Semitism. Rather, it is the radical brand of Catholicism that Gibson practices -- and which is, in reality, the real product that is being peddled in this film.
Critics debate 'The Passion,' Gibson evades the debate

Rutten identifies how the debate has been skewed by the uproar over its fairly transparent Jew-bashing:
Start with the fact that, from the outset, Gibson has allowed himself to be characterized as a Catholic and has reinforced that impression by seeking the Vatican's approval of his film and then publicizing a purported papal endorsement. Reams of sympathetic publicity continue to describe Gibson as "a devout Catholic."

In fact, he is not. Catholics belong to churches that recognize the pope as their religious leader. If you don't, you're not a Catholic. It's as simple as that. What Gibson would rather not discuss is his membership in a schismatic group that has appropriated various pious practices and sacramental rites from preconciliar Roman Catholicism, but which rejects the contemporary church's leaders and teachings. Among the most important of those teachings is a complete rejection of any interpretation of the Passion that attributes a particular or continuing responsibility for Christ's execution to the Jewish people.

Rutten goes on to point out Gibson's recent quotes in an interview with Peggy Noonan about how his father, Hutton Gibson -- a notorious Holocaust denier -- has been his spiritual mentor:
"My dad taught me my faith, and I believe what he taught me. The man never lied to me in his life."

Bill Berkowitz, in an article last year in Working for Change, outlined some of these beliefs:
News about the new church came on the heels of reports about the actor/director's latest film project -- the making of "The Passion" which, according to ABC News, is "rooted in a theological movement known as Catholic traditionalism that seeks to return the faith to its pre-1962 period, before the Pope issued what is known as Vatican II, a series of proclamations that did away with the notion that Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus."

Gibson's theology, writes Christopher Noxon in the New York Times, "is a strain of Catholicism rooted in the dictates of a 16th-century papal council and nurtured by a splinter group of conspiracy-minded Catholics, mystics, monarchists and disaffected conservatives -- including a seminary dropout and rabble-rousing theologist who also happens to be Mel Gibson's father."

In the 1992 El Pais interview, Gibson said that "For 1,950 years [the church] does one thing and then in the 60s, all of a sudden they turn everything inside out and begin to do strange things that go against the rules.

"Everything that had been heresy is no longer heresy, according to the [new] rules. We [Catholics] are being cheated. ... The church has stopped being critical. It has relaxed. I don't believe them, and I have no intention of following their trends. It's the church that has abandoned me, not me who has abandoned it," he said.

Frederick Clarkson, the veteran right-wing researcher and author of "Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy" (Common Courage Press) told WorkingForChange in an e-mail that "Traditionalist Catholics describes those who insist on practicing the Latin mass and other features of the church prior to the reforms of Vatican II. Some Traditionalists operate within the Church; others belong to a faction, the Society of Saint Pius X that has been excommunicated en mass for disobedience to the Pope. Its far right views include conspiracy theories that the Catholic Church is controlled by liberals as a result of an ancient conspiracy of Freemasons."

According to, a web site that aims "to foster devotion to the Tridentine Latin Mass and traditional forms of Roman Catholic piety, and to propagate the orthodox Faith of the Church," Gibson "attends the Tridentine Mass exclusively."

Furthermore, it is clear that Hutton Gibson adheres to an extraordinarily radical brand of these beliefs, as outlined in a speech he gave to a Holocaust-denial conference:
Gibson makes clear in this address that he believes the Catholic Church itself is the "foundation of Western civilization" and that its "destruction" is entirely for the purposes of bringing civilization under the control of unnamed "others," though it is clear he is referencing Jews. (Much of the rest of the Barnes Review conference was specifically devoted to attacking Jews.)

According to Gibson, the Catholic Church, because of Pope John XXIII (who had a "background in Freemasonry" and was "the first anti-Pope") and the "heresies" of Vatican II, has "fallen into utter depravity." All subsequent popes, he says, have in fact been "anti-Popes."

"For whose benefit?" he wonders. And then answers: "The New World Order," of course.

"Most Catholics today do not realize they have been robbed." And who has robbed them? The "international bankers" who have "subjected us to the usury which our Church formerly condemned."

Gibson adds that "our entire national monetary system is based upon a palpable fraud, and an unconstitutional one."

Echoing his previous note, he propounds: "Most Americans today do not realize they have been robbed." Again, it is those same evil "others" who have conspired to rob us, and for the same purposes.

The current Pope, he says, is "an absolute apostate heretic" who he claims does not even belong to the Church.

These beliefs do not merely fall into the category of so-called "Traditionalist Catholics" who object to Vatican II. This is extraordinary extremism, fully in line with the excommunicated Society of St. Piux X -- and in fact, is even more radical.

My friend Jean Rosenfeld, a Senior Research Associate at UCLA's Center for the Study of Religion, recently e-mailed me her thoughts on Gibson's film:
My sense of things is that Mel Gibson is marketing this movie brilliantly primarily through the Christian evangelical churches and fundamentalist venues. Religious films generally do not make much money or play in general release to first-run movie houses. There have been a number of articles just in the past week in major newspapers, such as the LA Times (in both the "entertainment" and "national news" sections), about Gibson's marketing campaign. Apparently, he put $25 million of his own money into the film. He needs to recoup that and make a profit.

I noticed this weekend when we went out to Hemet, CA, which is a very conservative Christian region, that the local multiplex theatre had a big sign on its marqee offering to accept reservations now for the future screening of "Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ." This is marketing with Gibson's name in a first-run theatre and is probably being replicated now in other regions.

A few days ago, Gibson spoke at a gathering at Azusa Pacific University, one of the best-endowed Christian colleges, about the film and allowed a limited screening of the film. Again, he is targeting and marketing through the fundamentalist Christian network. I have not heard of his conducting these advance screenings, meetings, and offerings of reservations at Catholic Universities and venues -- at least lately.

In fact, a lay committee set up by the the US Conference of Catholic Bishops was critical of the film in its report, and this early response was probably not too welcome to the marketers.

Since Gibson's father is a Holocaust denier and Gibson is funding the building of a Pius X church, I think it is fair to assume that they are not mainstream Catholics. Gibson has recognized that conservative Christians have an impressive and connected network through which film as product can be marketed to a vast audience. This allows Gibson to bypass moviegoers who would be less likely to see the film anyway -- secular and Jewish Americans.

So, what about Catholics? Why not aggressively market to them? Well, he tried to put the Pope's imprimatur on the film after arranging to screen it at the Vatican. As a result, he aroused criticism. Much was made of the fact that Pius X Catholics do not accept the reforms of Vatican II. One of those reforms was the declaration that the Church does not hold Jews responsible for the crucifixion. This caused critical Jews, like Foxman and Hier, and pro-Vatican II Catholics to join in airing their suspicions about the film's anti-Semitic message. (In response, Gibson now says he has removed an anti-Semitic verse from the gospel of Matthew from the film and has toned down the violence.) It appears that the film finds approval among conservative Christians, both Catholic and non-Catholic. It encounters wariness among Jews and mainstream Catholics.

This does not surprise me. If Gibson intended to make a "Catholic" film about Christ's trial and execution, his perspective turned out to be a schismatic one.

He tried to market it with a Vatican seal of approval. This means that he was intentionally presenting a pre-Vatican II treatment of the Passion as how Catholics would present it. Gibson claims his film is "faithful" to the gospels, he claims that a Pius X view is authoritative from a faith perspective. It is his word against that of the contemporary church. It is the claim of one who dissents from the articles of Vatican II, among which is the church's apology for its treatment of the Jews.

The irony is, as a Religion in the News article points out, that Pius X Catholics consider their way to be the only way to salvation. They regard fundamentalist Christians as false Christians. It is these "false Christians" who will make this "Catholic" film a financial success and who will use Gibson's film to convert other to their "false" Christianity.

The Pius X movement and the Christian fundamentalist movement have one thing in common that they do not share with Jews and mainstream Catholics: both exclude Jews from salvation unless they convert to their particular brand of inerrant Christianity. Mainstream Catholics and liberal Protestants make no such claim.

Gibson, Rosenfeld believes, is not gearing the film so much at anti-Semitism, which is simply latent in his radical belief system. Rather, he is targeting mainstream Catholics, with the intent of propagandizing them into believing that the Pius X churches are more valid than those in mainstream Catholicism.

[Note: Bill Cork's blog Ut Unum Sint is an excellent reference source for a broad range of information on the Passion and related controversies. Be sure especially to catch his superb post on the scenes in The Passion that exaggerate the role of the Jews -- none of which are based in actual Scripture.]

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