Fall 2003, Vol. 6, No. 3

Table of Contents
Fall 2003

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Under Whatever

The Anglican Crackup

The View From Lagos

Special Supplement:
Religion and the 2004 Election

The Case of Chaplain Yee

Instructions From the Vatican

The Social Gospel Lays an Egg in Alabama

God and the EU Charter

Mel Gibson, the Scribes, and the Pharisees

Gibson and Traditionalist Catholicism

The Religion of Country




Gibson and Traditionalist Catholicism
by William Dinges

While it is hardly surprising that public controversy would arise over an attempt at a literal depiction of Christ’s torture and death, the conflict over The Passion of Christ has been exacerbated by Mel Gibson’s association with what’s known as Roman Catholic Traditionalism. This association has implicitly legitimated allegations of anti-Semitism against the film because of traditionalists’ rejection of the Second Vatican Council, which officially repudiated collective Jewish responsibility for the death of Christ in its declaration Nostra Aetate.

The connection between the actor-director’s religious sensibilities and a reactionary movement of “remnant faithful” Catholics warring against Vatican II assumed front-stage status early in the controversy. Christopher Noxon’s March 9 article in the New York Times Magazine, “Is the Pope Catholic . . . Enough?,” drew unflattering attention to Gibson’s form of Catholicism and accused him of producing little more than a “big budget dramatization of key traditionalist points.”

Traditionalism is a small, diverse, and global movement that arose primarily in opposition to the Vatican II’s embrace of religious liberty and ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. Traditionalist dissent was galvanized internationally with the implementation of liturgical reforms—notably the introduction of a new rite of the Mass and, in 1971, the official prohibition of the Latin Tridentine rite.

Although often portrayed in the media as paleo-Catholics fixated on retaining the old Mass, traditionalists represent a broader and more ideologically driven repudiation of Vatican II aggiornamento in general. Because of its schismatic potential, the movement has been a long-standing and troubling concern to the Vatican.   

The flagship of the traditionalist cause is the Society of St. Pius X, a priestly fraternity founded in 1971 by the dissident (and excommunicated) French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Although Lefebvre’s organization represents the most visible threat to Vatican authority, there are other traditionalist organizations and initiatives, including groups of individual priests and laity who have established networks of independent traditionalist chapels.

True to the dynamics of sectarian virtuosi, traditionalists are a contentious and divided lot. Most agree, however, that the Second Vatican Council was “false” and that its fruits have been a catastrophe. The most radicalized traditionalists savor an array of bizarre conspiracy theories, the most striking of which is “sedevacantism”—the conviction that the See of Peter is vacant and that all of the popes since Pius XII have been false ones.

In spite of his ornery good looks (People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man of the Year” in 1985) and the Mad Max persona of his earlier films, Mel Gibson is a religious re-vert, or what Judaism calls a “baal tschuvah.” In the wake of a personal spiritual crisis he returned to the traditionalist Catholicism of his youth. He doesn’t like Vatican II and besides financing The Passion has spent several million dollars of his own money building a traditionalist church near his home in Agoura, California. 

The fact that Gibson is a traditionalist Catholic would probably have been enough to ignite a media brush fire over his efforts to “tell the truth” about Christ’s death, but then there’s the fact that Gibson’s 85-year-old father, Hutton Gibson, is a rabid traditionalist Catholic, a sedevacantist, and a Holocaust denier to boot—all of which Noxon brought to light in his New York Times Magazine article. In so doing, Noxon seriously overstated the actual number of traditionalist Catholics in the United States (claiming 100,000—more than twice as many as I estimate there to be) and tainted the son with the sins of the father.

In addition to his church-building initiative and the assumed ideological affinity with his father’s heterodoxy, the image of Gibson the traditionalist anti-Semite has been enhanced by accusations regarding his use of the mystical writings of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824) in preparing The Passion script.

Emmerich was an impoverished farm girl and visionary stigmatic nun whose writings, which enjoy some popularity in traditionalist quarters, include detailed narratives from Christ’s Passion. Paula Fredriksen, a professor of Bible studies at Boston University and one of the members of the committee of scholars whose critique of Gibson’s film precipitated an imbroglio at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), repeated the charge that Emmerich’s writings contain anti-Semitic themes.

In her July 28 New Republic apologia for the committee’s work, Fredriksen noted that “Emmerich’s fantasies” included the high priest ordering the cross to be made in the courtyard of the Temple itself. The inclusion of such modern non-scriptural material, Fredriksen charged, contravened Gibson’s contention that his film was historically authentic.

As might be expected, traditionalist endorsement of The Passion has verged on canonization. In a lengthy article (“The ‘Passion’ Debacle: Mammon Meets the Gospel-Haters”) in the September 30 issue of The Remnant, a bi-monthly that is one of the more widely-circulated traditionalist papers, Mark Alessio cast the harried Gibson in a martyr’s role, castigated critics of the film for hysteria and hypocrisy, and spun the controversy over the film into an “all out attack on the Gospels and the Church.”

Perhaps more surprisingly, a number of conservative Evangelical voices have come out in support of The Passion and its creator. Ted Haggard, pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs and president of the National Evangelical Association—and one of those who saw a select screening of the film—told a CNN Monday Night broadcast audience that The Passion was a “beautiful portrayal” of what happened to Christ.

The evangelical movie critic, Ted Baehr, thrashed Noxon’s article for its “sarcasm” as well as for the author’s failure to appreciate Gibson’s support for Catholics who “share a love for the Latin Mass, vibrant Christian faith, traditional values and remnant theology” (“A Mere Christian Commends Mel Gibson’s Traditional Catholic Beliefs,” in

The irony of these evangelical testimonials is that, from the hard-line traditionalist perspective, Protestants are still “heretics” and religious miscreants. This is, in fact, an unrelenting theme in nearly four decades of traditionalist invective against the stain of “ecumania” legitimated by Vatican II.

The most thorough and intellectually nuanced treatment of Gibson’s traditionalism came in Peter Boyer’s 9,800 word story in the September 15 New Yorker—an effort that has been construed in some quarters as a tempered but crucial endorsement of Gibson’s film, from an influential media commentator no less. Boyer’s treatment of the rise of the traditionalist movement and the Catholic controversies animating it was insightful and devoid of the caricature-like images of traditionalist Catholics (“strange religious order,” “fundamentalist sect”) appearing in other media reports on the controversy.

Gibson’s film has also received approval from a number of conservative Catholic pundits. Deal W. Hudson, editor of the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis, characterized the reaction to The Passion as the work of “overwrought ecumenists and conspiracy theorists.” Writing in the editorial pages of The Gazette September 1, Hudson also pointed to a double-standard in the rush of liberals to defend Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ—a film that depicted an insipid and sexually troubled Jesus—but to distance themselves from Gibson’s efforts because he holds unfashionable beliefs. Newspaper columnist Michael Novak also weighed in with a laudatory and what’s-the-big-deal piece in Weekly Standard August 25, asserting that The Passion was “wholly consistent” with the Second Vatican Council’s presentation of the relations between Judaism and the Church.

Endorsements from these sources are of interest in light of the traditionalist disdain for conservatives (“neo-Catholics”). For while the latter share many traditionalist concerns over Vatican II changes and the moral malaise of American culture, they eschew traditionalist conspiracy theories, refuse to support an institutional assault on church officialdom, espouse a more positive if “strict constructionist” view of Vatican II, and critique the new liturgy more on aesthetic and performative grounds than on theological and ideological ones typical of traditionalist apologists. 

More significantly, Gibson’s film has received at least one public Vatican nod. On September 18, Zenit News reported that no less than Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, having viewed a rough-cut of the film, proclaimed it a “triumph of art and faith” that would bring people “closer to God, and closer to one another.” What is not generally known is that Hoyos is the Vatican official currently charged with bringing traditionalist Catholics back to the fold.

Nor has Gibson been without guarded support from the Catholic hierarchy in the United States. Denver archbishop Charles Chaput, one of several American prelates who saw an early preview of The Passion, was reported by Zenit News May 31 as saying, “Between a decent man and his critics, I’ll choose the decent man every time—until the evidence shows otherwise.” Even so tame an endorsement is somewhat ironic in light of the traditionalist repudiation of official Church leadership.

Thus far there has been no official response from the USCCB since the faux pas over the acquisition by the Committee for Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Affairs of a copy of Gibson’s script. As reported by Thomas Szyszkiewicz in the national Catholic paper Our Sunday Visitor September 21, the USCCB returned Gibson’s script, apologized, and stated that neither the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Affairs, nor any other committee had established the scholarly group or “authorized, reviewed or approved the report written by its members.”

The posture of the American bishops in the controversy over The Passion is a difficult one. Charges are now public that the film contravenes Gospel material, violates official Church norms regarding depictions of the Passion, and raises the specter of reviving the deicide charge against Jews. These allegations have come from Catholic scholars themselves.

Some are likely to read the church’s current reticence about the film as an implicit endorsement of an old-style passion play explicitly hostile to the spirit of Vatican II. It is more likely that the American hierarchy, especially in light of the disarray caused by the abuse crisis, simply do not want another media fiasco, or to become embroiled in a preemptive and high-octane public conflict over a yet-to-be-released film. As Mark E. Chopko, the bishops’ lawyer, noted in a written apology to Gibson (cited in Boyer’s New Yorker article), “When the film is released, the USCCB will review it at that time.”

Nor is there any percentage for the bishops to antagonize publicly a high-profile traditionalist like Gibson. To do so would fuel further alienation on the Catholic right, particularly in a movement that strikes so unambiguously at the image of the Church’s unity and which the Vatican seeks to woo back to the fold.

Whatever the issues and tensions between Christians and Jews raised by the current controversy, the conflict is also a cultural idiom of the post-Vatican II travails among Catholics themselves. As one of the “remnant faithful,” Mel Gibson—along with many other elements in the traditionalist movement—is a symbolic and (sometimes) troubling reminder to his co-religionists of what was normative Catholic practice and belief in the not too distant past.








Hit Counter