Rabbi: Unchanged ‘Passion of the Christ’ was flawed
While Catholic-Jewish relations have vastly improved over the last half-century, particularly in light of the Second Vatican Council document “Nostra aetate” that clarified Catholic teaching on the death of Jesus, the U.S. bishops’ failure to offer a clear rebuke of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” was a disappointing setback, Rabbi Michael Cook told a panel at Loyola University New Orleans Nov. 23.
Cook, a professor of Judeo-Christian Studies at Hebrew Union College’s Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, was one of seven scholars selected by a staff member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in 2003 to receive an advance copy of the movie script.
The advance script was obtained by Dr. Eugene J. Fisher, then the associate director of the USCCB’s Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. With the consent of USCCB officials, Cook said, Fisher sent the script to a group of seven scholars – four Catholic and three Jewish – for their independent reviews.
“Eugene Fisher was worried that the Mel Gibson film would in some ways compromise or seem to undermine ‘Nostra aetate,’” said Cook, one of the scholars who reviewed the script.
“Nostra aetate,” which was promulgated on Oct. 28, 1965, clearly stated that Jews could not be blamed collectively for the death of Jesus and warned against any displays of anti-Semitism.
Criticism was consistent
The scholars came up with remarkably similar critiques of the film, Cook said, but when Gibson found out the group was examining the script, he threatened to sue the USCCB for having obtained an unauthorized copy.
“The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is a very big organization, and while they gave permission for the secretariat to go through this exercise, they did not know that Mel Gibson was going to sue them,” Cook said. “As a result, there was not a firm enough support for the plan that Eugene Fisher originally received the go-ahead for. We were going to talk to Gibson to get him to improve his film, but he was not interested in listening to us. Therefore, he decided to threaten a lawsuit.”
Cook said one of major flaws of “The Passion” is Gibson’s reliance on the writings of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, a 19th century German nun and stigmatic who wrote “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Some scholars have suggested that her writings were imbued with the anti-Semitism of her time.
“The major complaint about the movie was that it was based on (Sister Anne Catherine’s) visions,” Cook said. “Gibson took a lot of the anti-Catholic imagery and placed it in the time of Jesus, though he got it from the anti-Semitic visions of this nun. So, the film was bogus. It was not the most reliable, historical narrative of the death of Jesus.”
Cook said “the lack of effective criticism of the movie by the Catholic Church … left a lot to be desired.”
“So, Jews were let down,” he said.
Controversy created a buzz
However, an interesting twist was that for the next 14 months, Cook was asked to make a flurry of presentations across the country to explain why he opposed the film. Quite often, he said, evangelical Christians would flock to his talks to hear what he had to say.
“The movie did wonders for Jewish-Evangelical relations as a result of this interesting subject,” Cook said. “It was the only time in their lives that they had been inside a synagogue, and their reactions were not all negative.”
Cook said he hopes the lessons of “Nostra aetate” are not lost on young Catholics today, who may be suffering from “historical amnesia” and may be unaware of the history of anti-Semitism that existed well before 1965.
“Even if the implementation of ‘Nostra aetate’ does fall somewhat short of its supporters’ highest hopes, it’s never too late to boost what can be accomplished,” Cook said. “It signaled an important turning point.”