While one evangelical leader after another has acclaimed "The Passion of the Christ" as a great evangelistic tool, a surprising group of Christians has been notably reluctant to join the cheering: the Catholic Church.
Many Catholic officials who haven't yet seen the Mel Gibson film are taking a wait-and-see approach toward it, while others have voiced concerns about the film's graphic violence, its portrayal of Jewish leaders, and its almost-exclusive emphasis on Christ's death.
That has not stopped some Catholics from grabbing the moment for evangelism-nor has it silenced critics, who are continuing to hammer away at the film. And despite the attitude of Catholic leadership, many individual Catholic laypeople and pastors have found the film moving and meaningful.
Last week, the U.S. bishops issued a booklet cautioning Catholics against blaming Jews for Christ's death, and several diocesan websites around the country have posted links to information about interfaith issues and how to understand and portray the Passion story.
New York's Cardinal Edward Egan, in an open letter to the diocese, wrote of the film's violent portrayal of Jesus' final hours that "one may legitimately question whether such a representation exceeds the limits of propriety, good taste, or artistic authenticity."
But Egan's most serious concerns revolved around interfaith issues. Noting that some who have seen the movie believe that it may incite anti-Semitism even without intending to, he wrote:
"Should this last forecast be verified all of us would, of course, be the losers. Hence we must do everything that we can to avoid such an outcome."
Though Gibson is Catholic, he belongs to a traditionalist sect. It is not clear whether Gibson rejects the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which among other things officially negated the centuries-old belief in Jews' complicity in Christ's death.
In an online Beliefnet chat, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony condemned Gibson's claim to be a Catholic who does not accept the entirety of church teachings, saying of the filmmaker, "I pray for him."
Mahony mostly avoided criticizing the film directly, but did say:
"I think it's always best to present the life of Jesus in the larger context of the entire Gospel-it's always more difficult to select one small slice of the Gospel and have it stand alone."
With Gibson claiming that the movie is straight out the gospels, and made with the Holy Spirit's help, any official comments about the film from church leaders receive intense scrutiny. Pope John Paul II was himself at the center of the debate briefly, after reportedly seeing the film last fall. After the screening, news reports quoted the pontiff as saying, "It is as it was," though the Vatican later denied he had endorsed the film. The controversy is particularly sensitive to the Catholic hierarchy because the Pope has been widely praised for vastly improving Catholic-Jewish relations.
In 1988, the U.S. Catholic bishops produced detailed guidelines about how Passion Plays should be conducted, some of which may not have been followed by Gibson. For example, the bishops' guidelines state that "crowd scenes should reflect the fact that some among the crowd and among Jewish leaders supported Jesus." Critics contend that the brief scenes of protesting Jews in Gibson's movie do not adequately meet these guidelines.
A group of Catholic and Jewish theologians were the first to raise questions about the film's portrayal of Jews after receiving an early draft of the script.
With public debate about the film intense and emotional, many Catholic officials are refraining from passing public judgment on it. "We don't necessarily endorse the film, but we don't condemn it either," said James Dwyer, spokesman for the Chicago archdiocese, echoing the feeling among several diocesan officials contacted for this article.
Several diocesan newspapers have used the film as an educational opportunity. In one example, the current issue of the Seattle weekly The Catholic Northwest Progress devotes three pages to the film without passing judgment positively or negatively: One article is by a local priest-theologian about understanding the Passion in context, and the other two are a Passion study guide produced by Boston College's Christian Scholars Group on Christian-Jewish Relations.
To true believers in the film, however, failing to seize this moment for evangelism would be a huge mistake.
"We should be doing backflips of joy that someone put up $25 million of his own money to make a film about the God man," said Matthew Pinto, publisher and president of Ascension Press, a Catholic publishing company. "We're doing wrong if we're not embracing this."
In conjunction with Catholic Exchange, Ascension Press has developed the "Catholic Passion Outreach" project around the movie, publishing a book of 100 questions and answers about the film. Pinto said he's sold all 160,000 copies and is printing more. Ascension's homepage echoes many of the enthusiastic comments evangelicals have made about the film.
Pinto also is working with about 20 dioceses-about 10% of the nation's total-providing materials to promote discussions about the film in their parishes.
Among those dioceses is Denver, where Archbishop Charles Chaput has been among the most prominent and vocal Catholic supporters of the film. The diocese awarded the film-before it was even released-its annual Imago Dei Award recognizing "a person or entity that has been inspiring in its realization of the Gospel's invitation to act 'in the image of God,'" according to the Denver Catholic Register newspaper.
On Monday, the Rocky Mountain Post reported, the diocese previewed the film for 1,400 people-as a fundraiser for the archdiocese.
But to the Rev. James Martin, S.J., associate editor of the Jesuit magazine America, the film was too disturbing to be effective for evangelism. After seeing the film in New York on Monday, he said the concerns expressed by many people were well founded.
"The violence was way over the top," he said. "I did find it in quite a few places to be anti-Semitic, and I found it so repellent as to be unwatchable."
While admiring some aspects of the film-such as its use of Aramaic-Martin cited as a major problem the film's focus on the death of Jesus, rather than his life and ministry or even his resurrection, which is portrayed only briefly. In addition, he said the Jewish leaders are shown as worse than they are in the Gospels, while Pontius Pilate is seen as a "thoughtful philosopher king."
"By wrenching it out of the context of its larger story, he renders it almost unintelligible," Martin said. "I think Mel Gibson missed the big picture, which is the first 33 years of Jesus' life."
The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the religion journal First Things, said that many Catholic critics of the film are going too far and ignoring the opportunity to evangelize. He praised what he called the "Catholic portrayal" that Gibson brought to the story, including the focus on the body of Christ, the strong role Mary plays, and Catholic elements such as the Stations of the Cross.
"It is as brutal as what in fact happened," Neuhaus said. "It basically is an invitation to stay with the suffering. Is that painful? The answer is yes."
With the film's opening, those Catholic officials who are refraining from passing judgment because they haven't seen it will get their chance. Egan, who had not seen the film at the time he wrote his letter, expressed hope that it would be a force for good, despite his misgivings.
"If a film, a book, a painting, a poem, or any other artistic expression can assist us in plumbing the depths of this greatest of all acts of self-sacrifice, we should rejoice."