Crisis Magazine 2004

Passion, Not Prejudice-Mel Gibson’s Christ

By Deal W. Hudson

Mel Gibson’s Passion is finally in movie theaters. Now people can see for themselves what all the hubbub is about. Most, I believe, will leave the theater shaken to the core by the terrible beauty of Gibson’s masterpiece. The media-driven expectation of an anti-Semitic portrayal of the Jews will be swept away by the spectacle of a man of peace abused, scourged, crucified, betrayed, and abandoned by all but a few of his family and friends.

When the ridiculous charges of anti-Semitism have finally passed, two questions will have to be asked. First, why was the attack on Gibson so pro-longed, so vicious, so multifaceted? Second, why did none of the liberal crowd who joined in the public hounding of Gibson ever concern themselves with his artistic freedom?

It was not that long ago when Andres Serrano was dipping a crucifix in urine to the delight of the New York Times and the anti-Catholic elites of the art world. Catholics who were offended at such vulgarity on display in an exhibit funded by public dollars were accused of censorship and the Philistine refusal of artistic license. Indeed it has been a virtual calling card of the left to place unflattering portrayals of Christianity in the arts beyond criticism. How, they ask, can the imagination of the artist be measured by the traditional religious creeds?

But what happens when an artist puts the central fact of the creed—”He suffered, died, and was buried”—on a movie screen? Apparently, concern for Gibson’s freedom as an artist no longer applies. When a major movie star employs all his talent and celebrity to put a conventional Passion play on film, everyone from seminary professors to movie critics and liberal pundits forget their defense of film director Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ a generation ago.

Once we acknowledge that the intelligentsia defends anything religiously heterodox, it then becomes apparent why Gibson’s film has drawn so much heavy fire. It’s perfectly fine if the meaning of Christianity is seen through the humanist vision of a Martin Scorcese or a Martin Sheen. Soon we’ll have a film version of The Da Vinci Code with its preposterous thesis about the marriage of Jesus to Mary Magdalene and about which liberal scholars and critics will say nothing.

But a film about Jesus Christ by Mel Gibson simply cannot be allowed. First, he’s a genuine celebrity, a mega-star whose film will be influential for that very fact. Second, he really believes Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that his death was not simply an example of love for his fellow man but the redemption of humankind. Third, as witnessed in Braveheart, Gibson is capable of making a classic film sure to be admired as long as film endures.

All this adds up to a movie that will be a powerful witness to the truth of traditional Christianity, precisely the force that liberal elites have been trying to still for decades. It’s Christianity—and especially orthodox Catholicism and evangelicalism—that denies them their total victory in the culture wars. Proponents of abortion, gay marriage, radical feminism, multiculturalism, and postmodernism all harbor a deep fear of the truth claims of Christianity about the fixed nature of God’s creation.

Gibson surely knew that making a film about Christ was scandalous to the unbelievers in Hollywood, but I doubt if he realized the threat it represents to the intellectuals who employ a neutered Christianity for their own ideological enterprises.

One final word on the question of anti-Semitism (an ugly and destructive force both here and in Europe): It’s possible that some bigots may have their prejudice reinforced by Gibson’s film. But that doesn’t make the movie anti-Semitic, nor does it justify the attacks on Gibson. Films are released every week that exacerbate the sick tendencies of child molesters, rapists, murderers, and Rambo wannabes. We can’t censor ourselves just because some nut somewhere may be influenced negatively by our work.

I thank Mel Gibson for his film and for all he was willing to endure in making his faith public. His life and career will never be the same—would it were that more men had such courage.

Addendum: Subsequent events in Mel Gibson’s life did reveal his anti-Semitism. His film, however, does not, in my opinion, express an anti-Semitic point of view, an opinion I am prepared to defend as I have in the past (June, 2016).

Published in Crisis Magazine, March 1, 2004

Mary’s Shadow and Protection

By Deal W. Hudson

Having never been to a ma­jor Marian shrine, I didn’t know quite what to expect. So on my way to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, I consciously put aside all preconcep­tions about what I should experience. I wanted just to let it happen.

Over the years I’ve become in­creasingly aware of the importance of this shrine, only a few kilometers from the heart of the city. The image of Mary given to Juan Diego through an armful of flowers holds immense significance for Catholics around the world—es­pecially in Hispanic regions. But Our Lady of Guadalupe is the Lady for all the Americas, and it was well past time for me to pay my respects.

Mexico City, if you’ve never been there, is filled with both the worst traffic and the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Each day there I marveled that people could remain so kind, so generous and smiling, when it took forever to drive even short distances. And yet I would return to the city just for the pleasure of spending time among them.

The shrine, when you first ap­proach it, appears as a cluster of old and new church buildings sitting on Tepeyac Hill, surrounded by the har­um-scarum sprawl of one of the largest cities in the world. Like most pilgrims I tried to visualize the moment nearly five centuries ago when this rocky hill stood far apart from the palaces of the Aztec empire.

The words I particularly kept in mind were those that Mary spoke to Juan Diego on the day he was avoid­ing her and seeking a priest for his dy­ing uncle, Juan Bernardino:

Listen, and let it penetrate your heart, my dear little son. Do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain. Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there any­thing else you need?

Among the many aspects of this story, this was the one most meaningful to me: How can any of us be so consumed by life’s tasks—even a task as impor­tant as tending a dying relative—that we forget to ask for divine help?

The shrine itself and the plaza that fronts it bear the stamp of Sev­enties utilitarianism in architecture, but once you enter the sanctuary that houses the sacred tilma (cloak), all those concerns are swept aside by the peace that descends upon the pilgrim. I arrived just in time to light my can­dles, ride the moving sidewalk under the tilma, and join the other pilgrims for Mass.

Perhaps you’ve experienced the sense of total comfort in an otherwise strange place. I had been advised by a bishop who loves the shrine to “ask for something big.” But Mary gave me something I didn’t ask for—an ease in prayer that was totally unexpected, as if something that had been clogging the lines of communication had been suddenly removed.

After Mass I went back down be­hind the altar for another look at the tilma but stepped aside to observe in­stead the faces of those pilgrims gaz­ing up at it. The radiance of piety transcends language and culture—its impact is universal. No wonder our Holy Father has been commending Marian pilgrimages from the earliest days of his pontificate. I’m sorry it took me so long.

I walked up the lovely ceramic-lined steps to the top of the hill and down to the gardens on the other side. But I didn’t want the solitude offered by the gardens; I went back to the plaza to look at the pilgrim faces and become one more face among them, transport­ed by the sense that nothing needs to be withheld from Mary’s care.

Published in Crisis Magazine, October 1, 2004

Dominant-Issue Voters

By Deal W. Hudson

Several Catholic leaders have recently commented that Catholics should not be “single issue” voters, meaning that they shouldn’t vote exclusively on the abortion issue. I agree. But it’s not necessary to be a single-issue voter to give the life issues the priority they deserve. Catholics should be “dominant issue” voters.

The Catholic Church proposes a vertical—not horizontal list of moral and social issues for political consideration. The life issues—including abortion, euthanasia, fetal stem-cell research, and cloning—are at the top of that hierarchy. These issues should be considered dominant in determining how to vote for two simple reasons: First, the protection of life—the right to life—is a moral principle that sits at the foundation of morality itself. And it’s one of the three foundational rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. There could be no right to liberty or happiness unless there were a living person in the first place.

Second, the Catholic injunction to oppose abortion is unqualified: Individuals are not required, or allowed, to make prudential judgments of the principle to a specific case. Appeals to private “conscience” cannot override this infallible teaching. In the Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Public Life, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger writes:

In this context, it must be noted also that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals. The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility towards the common good.

Opposition to abortion, therefore, binds every Catholic on pain of mortal sin; it admits of no exceptions. There is no question, then, that as the dominant issue, a politician’s position on abortion qualifies him or her for the Catholic vote. From the perspective of the Church, not all the policy positions taken by candidates are of equal importance. Catholics, by understanding themselves as dominant-issue voters, can preserve the hierarchy of values at the core of Church teaching while not ignoring the legitimate spectrum of issues important to political consideration.

Furthermore, by understanding the dominance of life issues, Catholics will overcome their confusion about the difference between moral principle and prudential judgment. Unlike the admonition against abortion, most of the general principles proposed in Church teaching can be implemented in a variety of ways; it’s simply a mistake to assume—as the left often does—that one kind of implementation is more “Catholic” than another.

(The bishops’ conference issues dozens of policy recommendations every congressional session on issues ranging from broadband legislation to minimum wage and partial-birth abortion. Unfortunately, the average Catholic doesn’t discriminate between simple policy recommendations made by the conference and doctrinal statements and often wrongly assumes that they have equal authority.)

One final advantage to the dominant-issue approach is that it can help close the unnecessary divide between pro-life Catholics and “social justice” Catholics. There’s a clear continuity between providing someone with food and shelter and the willingness to defend his life when it’s threatened. The Church often employs the phrase “social justice” when addressing “the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1928).

The demands of social justice, then, begin with the right to life and end with the right to be protected from euthanasia or the temptation of assisted suicide. It’s a mistake to detach the idea of social justice from the protection of vulnerable life: The source of moral obligation to protect the unborn and to feed the hungry is one and the same—the inherent dignity of the human person.

Published in Crisis Magazine, June 1, 2002