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60Is Ross Douthat Qualified to Write About Religion?https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2015/11/is-ross-douthat-qualified-to-write-about-religion
Thu, 05 Nov 2015 15:53:00 -0500This commentary first appeared on the author’s Facebook page and appears here in an edited version with his permission. –Ed.
A Joust with Mario Cuomohttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/03/a-joust-with-mario-cuomo
Sun, 01 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0500The first time I met Mario Cuomo, the first words out of his mouth were “Teilhard de Chardin.” It was early September 1984 and
’s editors had invited the governor of New York over for an off-the-record lunch. Cuomo’s rousing keynote address to that year’s Democratic National Convention (though he was out-roused that night by Jesse Jackson) had vaulted him onto the party’s list of future presidential candidates.
was preparing a cover package on religion and the presidential race for which I was to write the concluding essay. We were waiting at the elevator on the fortieth floor for Cuomo, and when the doors opened the name of his favorite Catholic theologian were the first words we heard from his lips.
]]>My Memories of Fr. Benedicthttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/11/my-memories-of-fr-benedict
Tue, 04 Nov 2014 00:00:00 -0500My memory of Fr. Benedict Groeschel goes back to 1964, when he was the Catholic chaplain at Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, New York where my wife and I lived for a year right after I was appointed Religion Editor of Newsweek. Friends told us we should attend his masses there if we wanted to hear good preaching. The children, orphans all, loved him, of course. But what I remember are the times when Benedict would clear the altar of its Catholic liturgical artifacts and preach the Protestant service as well whenever the Protestant chaplain was unable to do it himself. When our new house was finished, Benedict spent a day helping us move our furniture.
]]>The Making of a Misleading Metaphorhttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/04/the-making-of-a-misleading-metaphor
Wed, 30 Apr 2014 13:30:00 -0400 The sturdiest storyline in the coverage of the canonization of two popes last Sunday was a narrative that claimed that Pope Francis yoked the two in a single ceremony because he wanted to unite the conservative and progressing wings of the Catholic Churchas represented by John XXIII (favored by progressives) and John Paul II (ditto by conservatives). That was the narrative in the
, and among several Catholic pundits who really should have known better. Call it the “Big Tent” metaphor, which is what Jeffrey Goldberg did on Meet the Press, adding that he wished U.S. politicians would go do in like manner. Alas, the U.S. Constitution does not grant anyone the power to canonize saints.
]]>Reflections on the Revolution in Romehttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/02/reflections-on-the-revolution-in-rome
Fri, 01 Feb 2013 00:00:00 -0500 As mediated by the journalists, the story of the Second Vatican Council was framed as a battle between traditionalists centered in the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s bureaucracy, and a core of progressive bishops, mostly from northern Europe. It was a facile political trope but one that did in fact mirror how important factions within the council understood themselves. Of the two, the progressives were far more open to journalists than the curial conservatives, who treated most reporters—Catholic or secular—as prying adversaries. It was a tactical mistake on their part, but one that did not materially alter either the coverage or the outcome of the council itself.
]]>Memories of a Catholic Boyhoodhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/04/memories-of-a-catholic-boyhood
Fri, 01 Apr 2011 00:00:00 -0400 On the wall of my
office, I kept a large map, in a mosaic of colors, of the United States. When you are a writer working in New York City, you need something to remind you of what the rest of the country is like: This was mine. There are no place names on the map, only the boundaries of the states, and within them the spidery outlines of each county. Its a relief map of sorts: Any county in which 25 percent or more of the citizens identify with a single religious denomination is shaded in a color representing that tradition. Counties where more than half the people are of one persuasion”more than half the map”are colored more deeply.
At a glance, the map yields a rough religious geography of America. Across the South, where it sometimes seems there are more Baptists than there are people, the counties are awash in deep red. Utah and Idaho are solidly grey: the Mormon Zion. There are swaths of Lutheran green in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Belt high from Delaware to central Kansas, especially in rural areas, the map shows streaks and potholes of blue where the Methodists and their nineteenth-century circuit riders planted churches. Catholic purple blankets the Northeast, the Great Lakes region, the Gulf Coast, and nearly all of California.
When colleagues stopped by my office theyd often stare over my head at the map. Where are
people? was the usual question. Some Episcopalians, thinking of all their co-religionists elected to Congress and the White House, assumed the nations capitol to be theirs. But the District of Columbia is heavily African-American and so it is dyed a deep Baptist red. According to the map, Episcopalians do dominate a half-dozen counties”all of them tribal reservations in North Dakota where the church made converts of the Native American inhabitants. Most Jewish colleagues thought New York City and its environs (home to half the nations Jews) was surely theirs to claim, but the whole metropolitan area is deep Catholic purple. Jews do own a plurality in one Florida county, Dade, which encompasses Miami.
For me, the map was a visual reminder that religion in America has never been just a matter of personal choice. It has also been about community and connection”to places, to people, and to what religiously convicted Americans have made of the places where they chose to live. Which is to say that religion, as a way of belonging as well as of believing and behaving, is always embedded”in institutions, yes, but also in the landscape. Habitations foster habits.
I grew up in Ohio where, a glance of my office map reminded me, almost every kind of Protestant denomination could claim a town or county as its turf. Even after their children moved on, these immigrants from elsewhere left behind brick-and-mortar evidence of their hegemony in the form of church-related colleges”more of them, when I was college-age, than any other state. The Methodists established Ohio Wesleyan and Otterbein, the Episcopalians Kenyon College, the Congregationalists Oberlin and Marietta, the Presbyterians Wooster, the Quakers Wilmington College, the German Reform Church Heidelberg, English Evangelical Lutherans Wittenberg, the Mennonites Bluffton, and so on. Students at these small liberal-arts colleges not only learned together; they also worshipped together at chapel, and the faculty was hired to ensure that the distinctive character of the founding church tradition was passed on whole and intact.
Catholics, of course, had their own colleges on their own urban turf in cites like Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Dayton. There, as in the Protestant colleges, the goal was to provide an education that included solid formation in the faith. For that reason, if a graduate of a Catholic high school wanted to stay near home and attend a near-by Protestant college, he usually had to forward his transcripts himself because Catholic school officials discouraged journeys beyond the pale.
My father was born in the last November of the nineteenth century on what was to become Veterans Day. He was raised among hymn-singing, family-reunion-gathering, Sunday-dinner-making, small-town Ohio Protestants of Welch and Scotch-Irish stock. An only child, he was never one to talk about his youth. But he did reveal one important detail of his early life: in Youngstown, where he lived, he stepped forward at a revival by evangelist Billy Sunday and at age sixteen declared himself for Christ. It was during the Wobblies strike against the Youngstown Steel Works in 1916, and the conjunction of these two emotional events, Ive always thought, is why he was anti-labor all his life. In any case, my job as a religion writer never impressed him more than when, on a Sunday afternoon while my parents were visiting, another evangelist, Billy Graham, called me”at home”just to have a chat.
My mother was from an Irish-Italian family in Detroit. She was the first in the extended Brady-Cauzillo family to go to college”a leap from a one-room schoolhouse to the University of Michigans vast Ann Arbor campus”and that was the pivotal experience of
youth. When we were kids she used to reprise her sorority song for us: It was a sorority just for Catholic co-eds. Heres the kind of Catholics my mothers siblings were. Her brother, my only uncle, kept copies of the
Imitation of Christ
by Thomas a Kempis on his desk and passed them out to vendors who called on him for business. It didnt matter whether they were Catholic or even Christian. One sister was a cloistered nun who snuck away from college one day, without my grandmothers permission, and crossed the border to join her friends in a Canadian convent. Two others, both English teachers in mostly black inner-city public high schools and never married, shared a tidy house with a crucifix hung in every room. On a bookshelf they kept a series of books by Catholic intellectuals published by Sheed and Ward. Whenever they drove their car, they paused first to dip their fingers in holy water founts mounted on each side of the garage doorframe. On the road they routinely recited the rosary. Even on short trips to the grocery, they measured distances by how many decades they could finish before they reached their destination.
How my parents met and married across religious boundaries was never explained to us. We did know, though, that the ceremony was held in the parish rectory because religiously mixed couples were not allowed a wedding inside a Catholic Church. At that time, my father pledged to raise the children Catholic, as the church required, and though he never became a Catholic himself, he never wavered in his pledge.
I have ventured this brief family biography for just one purpose. Growing up where and when I did, I want to argue, I experienced an America that was highly diverse, though not in the ways we think of diversity today. What region of the country you inhabited mattered greatly, and so did ethnic background. But the primary source of diversity in those days was religion.
The immigrant communities then were mostly white and European. In cities like Cleveland, the place I knew best, each had its own neighborhoods and social clubs, funeral parlors, corner bars, and restaurants, as well as churches. At home, adults cooked and talked Greek and Italian, Polish and Slovak, just as more recent immigrants now speak Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, or Arabic. They read and discussed newspapers in Ukrainian, Czech, Armenian, Romanian, and Yiddish. Yes, they were mostly Christian, but that only made differences in church doctrine and tradition more pronounced: Muslims and Hindus are intriguing in their obvious otherness, but none of the religions new to America today challenge Christians like other Christians claiming to be the One True Church of Jesus Christ.
In urban neighborhoods, therefore, no less than in small towns, where you worshipped”and how”said much about who you were. Even the ecumenically inclined and the non-religious observed their social boundaries and kept their social distance. Within all these ghettos (though no one called them that), religion was free to form individual and group identities through shared habits of the heart and acquired sensibilities. Even in the more open spaces of the suburbs, where I grew up, the families you knew best belonged to the same church. But like the vaccinations doctors gave us to ward off polio, group inoculations against other religions produced various reactions. My parents marriage was proof to me that the boundaries created by religion could amicably be breached. Nonetheless, among those who took it very seriously, religion remained a powerful symbol system that defined reality for all who lived in its embrace.
The time this narrative covers begins in the middle of the last century. For the record, I was born in 1935 and passed through childhood while the nation was at war. My mother planted a low-yield Victory garden (thin carrots, limp bean stalks, lettuce the size of baseballs) and at the store bought meat and butter with ration stamps. Because he was a salesman, and his car was his living, my father got extra ration stamps for gas. At home, he did civil duty as a suburban air-raid warden: One night a month, when the warning siren sounded, he put a metal helmet on his head and went about making sure the neighbors had turned out all their lights, lest enemy bombers should penetrate the airspace over Lake Eries southern shore. My older brother and I followed the battles overseas by pasting newspaper headlines in scrapbooks. From inside cereal boxes we collected colorful arm patches worn by the men in uniform, and from strips of balsam wood and glue built models of the airplanes the American pilots flew.
It was a good time to be a child. Despite the separations caused by the war, even young families were remarkably stable. Divorce was rare: Most marriages lasted until the death of a spouse. In the families I knew only the father worked and all the fathers seemed to arrive home in unison by 6:00 p.m. The mothers not only reared the children and did the housework; they also made the schools and churches hum.
Weekends were strung like hammocks between the fathers Friday evening arrivals and their going off on Monday mornings. In their absence, life on the block unrolled as regular as church ritual. Once a week the iceman delivered a chiseled block to keep our food refrigerated, and cut cold slivers for us to suck; the uniformed milkman delivered full bottles on his scheduled route and took away clinking empties. And when the bread man arrived curbside we rushed inside to inhale the concentrated aroma of fresh-backed jellyrolls and warm pecan buns. Life on the home front was predictable. The war and its restrictions gave even kids a sense of unity and national purpose. Then the war was over.
All of us come from a place we mistake for universal. The place I called home was a suburb that mushroomed a century earlier out of farms and orchards and shoreline summer cottages sixteen miles west of Cleveland. Rocky River, as it came to be called, spread out from a tavern overlooking a river (hence the name) that rolls through a deep gorge on a meandering path south from Lake Erie. It was our Grand Canyon. Rocky River had 22,000 inhabitants then and called itself a city only because it was governed by its own mayor and city council. By my definition, though, a city was place with a choice of movie theaters and Rocky River had only one: the Beach Cliff.
My earliest memories are of the water. Our first house was three blocks from Lake Erie, which we reached along a sidewalk lined with blackberry bushes and down a plunge of stone steps, more than fifty of them. Mother took the three of us, Nancy, Bill and me, to the beach early on summer weekdays, slathering us with oil against the sun and watching as we paddled in the slowly lapping low-tide morning waters. Every day during the summer, the newspaper posted a polio count and when it was high we knew there would be no beach for us that day.
If our fathers were incipient Organization Men, as social critics later said they were, they never imposed those stringencies on us. Though my best friend was a Boy Scout, we camped out overnight on our own, pitching tents in the woods and warming to fires built and extinguished without the superintending presence of Scout leaders in short pants. Evenings in the fall, we raked leaves to the curbside and burned them, the sweet smell of smoke curling up like incense under street lights, between the houses and above the trees as if in oblation to some benign suburban deity. Our playgrounds were empty lots where we traced out baseball diamonds and football fields like seasoned groundskeepers, and whenever a new house went up we dangled from the risen joists once the workers left; after dark, we pilfered discarded lumber to build tree huts or to cover secret underground meeting places we shoveled out ourselves. For spending money we cut lawns, shoveled driveways, and delivered newspapers. From sidewalks to shoreline, Rocky River was one vast neighborhood and, we figured, it belonged to us.
Suburban life as I experienced it, therefore, was open and unfettered and not at all like the caged dystopia I later read about in books. Nor was it boundaried by religion or ethnicity, as small towns and urban neighborhoods tended to be. Rocky River was white, broadly middle class, and mostly Protestant (Jews collected in the more cultured East Side suburbs, blacks in the central city neighborhoods) with a pronounced Methodist flavor: They tolerated the tavern, which had preceded their arrival, but also sustained blue laws that meant only the Beach Cliff was open on Sundays. Decades went by before the first Catholic, Miss Case, was promoted to principle of a Rocky River public school. The Protestant clergy were none too happy, then, when the Catholics built St. Christophers church and school, right across from the public junior high. The school was especially galling”a divisive breach of faith in the American system of common education. But as first pastor the bishop wisely sent out a gentle Irish priest who looked like God would if He were a grandfather. And when Father Patterson died in 1947, a quarter-century later, the local Protestant ministers were his willing pallbearers.
In the fifties half of all American Catholic kids attended parochial schools, a figure unequalled before or since. Nancy and Bill and I were three of them. First grade was more than just the beginning of formal education. It was above all an initiation into a vast parallel culture.
As I have already noted, every religious group formed its own subculture, some more closed to the outside world than others. Lutherans, Adventists, and some (mostly Orthodox) Jews also operated their own religious schools, and in Utah, as in much of the South, Mormon and Southern Baptist majorities effectively determined the religious ethos of public classrooms. But at mid-century only Catholics inhabited a parallel culture that, by virtue of their numbers, ethnic diversity, wide geographical distribution, and complex of institutions mirrored the outside public culture yet was manifestly different. We were surrounded by a membrane, not a wall, one that absorbed as much as it left out. It was, in other words, the means by which we became American as well as Catholic.
Catholic education was the key. Through its networks of schools and athletic leagues, the church provided age-related levels of religious formation, learning, and belonging that extended through high school and, for some of us, on into college. Church, therefore, always connoted more than just the local parish: kids experienced it anywhere, including schools, where the Mass was said. In this way, Catholicism engendered a powerful sense of community”not because it sheltered Catholic kids from the outside world, as sectarian subcultures try to do, but because it embraced our dating and mating and football playing within an ambient world of shared symbolism, faith, and worship. In my adolescent years, for example, St. Christophers transformed its basement on Saturday nights into the R Canteen where teenagers from all over Clevelands West Side danced to juke-box music; a muscular young priest from the parish roamed the premises to prevent fights and keep the drunks at bay. Yes, Catholics felt like hyphenated Americans, but nothing in human experience, we also came to feel, was foreign to the church.
In 1971, I looked back on that Catholic parallel culture and tried to capture for the readers of
the contours of a world that was already by then receding into history:
]]>Imus and Mehttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2007/04/imus-and-me
Tue, 17 Apr 2007 00:00:00 -0400The spectacle of Don Imus prostrating himself before the Rev. Al Sharpton, as if he were the Holy Roman Emperor on bent knee to the pope, should have pleased me. A few years back, Imus hazed me on his program for weeks after I objected during an interview to a segment he’d just aired burlesquing Catholic priests. But I cannot enjoy his firing by CBS because there is so much hypocrisy among all the participants in this tacky media affair. The host of “Ego in the Morning” is the least of them.
]]>The Passion’s Passionate Despisershttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2004/06/the-passions-passionate-despisers
Tue, 01 Jun 2004 00:00:00 -0400 What are we to make of
now that his film has turned out to be a huge box-office success? Those who, like me, were deeply moved by
The Passion of the Christ
and judged it to be not anti-Semitic have no reason to gloat. The cultural clashes over the film opened wounds we thought had healed, and they exposed currents of hostility toward Christianity that one would have hoped had disappeared. The freewheeling commentary in the general media, with a few notable exceptions, was pitched at too low a level to call this a teaching moment. But it certainly was a moment to listen and learn”and, at times, to laugh.
Last summer, it should be recalled, Gibsons project was on very shaky legs. He had not as yet found a distributor for a film in which he had invested twenty-five million dollars of his own money. After reading a received copy of the script, a self-selected group of six scholars, most of them veterans of Jewish-Christian dialogue, complained of un-Biblical and anti-Semitic stereotypes. One of the group, Paula Fredriksen of Boston University, wrote a long and fearful essay, Mad Mel, in the
, predicting that violence would break out upon the films release. Immediately, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, orchestrated a campaign to label the film anti-Semitic. That really got Mel mad, and he responded by showing nearly finished versions of the movie to selected audiences, most of which consisted of politically conservative pundits and evangelical Christians. None of them seemed to find the film anti-Semitic”but then few of them were Jews. To columnists such as Frank Rich of the
New York Times
, Gibsons screening strategy was part of a political-cultural war pitting Jews against Christians, including the Bush White House and the whole conservative wing of the chattering classes.
Thus began an opéra bouffe that eventually involved a huge cast, including, on the pro-Gibson side, the pope (apparently) and Billy Graham and his son Franklin (certainly), and featuring Gibson-denouncing appearances by Andrew Greeley and Elaine Pagels, among many others. It also featured Foxman and his competitor in Jewish defense, Rabbi Marvin Heir, director of the Simon Weisenthal Center in Los Angeles, surreptitiously slipping into pre-release screenings. Gibsons publicity people countered their reports with stories of miracles and conversion experiences on Gibsons set in Italy. The Catholic League came to Gibsons defense, while a Jewish website, Messiah Truth, called on Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate Gibson for hate crimes. As prophylactics against a possible outbreak of anti-Semitism, the Catholic bishops and the National Council of Churches published guidelines for watching the film. Appealing to higher authority, Foxman flew to Rome to ask the Vatican to tell all bishops that Gibsons movie is not the gospel truth.
Hollywood, predictably, backed away from Gibson, thinking him toxic. But once he found a distributor the effort to render the film financially dead on arrival turned into a boon. Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, scrutinized the film for signs of creeping excessive Catholicism and found none, thus clearing a path to the theater door for ten million Southern Baptists. Other Evangelicals also rallied to Gibson and his film, not because they lack Jesus films of their own, but because they saw the clash over his film as part of a battle between Christianity and secularism. It is likely that those who tried to paint Gibson and his work as anti-Semitic guaranteed, ironically, his unexpected box office success. With enemies like these, who needs friends?
In any case, long before his film opened, Gibsons every comment was closely examined for signs of anti-Semitism. He was denounced by Rich of the
and others as a Holocaust denier because he noted in one interview that Jews were not the only people victimized by the Nazis. Gotcha, Mel! was the collective response. Gibsons disposition as a traditionalist Catholic who loves the Latin Mass and is critical of liberal trends since the Second Vatican Council was routinely interpreted as meaning that he therefore rejects the Churchs formal repudiation (in
, 1965) of the charge of deicide against the Jews. Gibson was repeatedly visited with the sins of his father, the aged, addled, and frankly anti-Semitic Hutton Gibson. Admirably, Gibson did not allow Diane Sawyer to provoke him into denouncing his father during his hour-long interview on CBS, and with great patience entertained Ms. Sawyers headline-seeking question: Are you anti-Semitic?
So what is to be learned from all of this? First, Christians and Jews alike can rejoice over the dog that did not bark. Except for one unsettled Pentecostal pastor in Colorado there have been no reported incidents of anti-Semitism related to Gibsons film. That is remarkable, considering how many millions of Americans have seen the film, and more so because the media have been primed to report any such incidents. Indeed, it was a golden opportunity for any crank looking for headlines to make his voice heard. The lesson, though, is not that in tolerant America Jews and Christians now understand each other. As their widely different reactions to the film suggest, theres a lot of misunderstanding yet to confront.
No question, Christians and Jews saw two different films. As John Leo astutely observed in his syndicated column, they walked into the film with different emotions and different preconceptions”and walked out with them intact. Christians know the plotline and most assume as fact that Jesus died for their sins. No wonder so many wept”for Jesus the suffering servant and for themselves as sinners washed in the blood of the lamb. Jews who have seen the film (including professional film critics) arrived wary, alert for evidence of anti-Semitism and armed with some knowledge of passion plays past. The story Gibson filmed is not, as one Orthodox rabbi rightly wrote on his website, our story.
critic David Denby, who identifies himself as a secular Jew, bemoaned in his acerbic review the absence of the electric charge of hope and redemption Jesus Christ brought into the world. But had this been his story, Denby might have realized that that Jesus was right before his eyes, in every frame. Gibsons Christ is not the parable-telling,
-defying rabbi that Reform Judaism at its origins more than a century ago promoted as a figure closer to its own tradition than to Christianity. Rather, he is in this passion”as in the Gospel passion narratives”the obedient son of the Father. As I pointed out in an op-ed piece in the
New York Times
on Ash Wednesday, the death of Jesus is the one aspect of the Gospels that no other religion can accept. But without
Jesus there would be no resurrected Christ, and without
Christ there would be no Jesus available to make a film about”whether by DeMille, by Pasolini, by Scorsese, or by Gibson.
In sum, in the months leading up to the release of
The Passion of the Christ
the only issue that seemed to matter in the media was whether the director was guilty of anti-Semitism. In attenuated form, anti-Semitism was also the subject of the February 16 cover story in
, which had won the heated competition among the three newsweeklies for the exclusive right to screen the film early (I was among those admitted) and to feature it on its cover. The question in its cover line, Who Really Killed Jesus? introduced writer Jon Meachams earnest and careful exploration of whether Gibson had been faithful to the Gospels and whether the Gospels themselves were trustworthy as history. On the first point, it was obvious that Gibson had gone beyond the Scriptures at several points, as film directors, and all artistic interpreters, are wont to do. To address the second point, however, is to scamper down a hole that no prudent rabbit would dare enter, given the long and complex history of biblical scholarship itself.
The consensus of New Testament scholars is that from Mark to Matthew and Luke, the Gospel writers shifted the burden of responsibility for the death of Jesus from the Romans to the Jews. But as the late Raymond Brown demonstrated in detail in his magisterial two volumes,
The Death of the Messiah
, the theory that the Gospels exculpate the Romans by creating a totally fictional, sympathetic Pilate has been overdone. In particular, Brown shows that the assessments of Pilate in the writings of Tacitus and especially Philo of Alexandria are not to be taken at face value”as Meacham takes them”because both writers had political axes to grind. In short, while Gibson surely overdraws the role of Caiaphas, Meacham underestimates the political vulnerability of Pilate, who stands vilified in Christian tradition as a weak magistrate who condemned a just man to death.
None of this would matter if the
story, published two weeks before the films Ash Wednesday opening, had not become received wisdom to the Scripture-lacking and symbol-impaired commentators who followed in Meachams wake. Bowing to Meacham, Denby in the
charged Gibson with serious mischief in assigning responsibility for the death of Jesus, failing to recognize any of the scenes that place responsibility for Jesus death on all sinful human beings. In an equally clueless review in the
, Ann Hornaday asserted the films startling lack of historical context and declared: That Jesus and his followers were themselves Jewish is a fact either elided or ignored by the director. Was she looking for identification tags? Christ”need anyone be reminded?”was not a Christian.
The word medieval occurred quite frequently in reviews as a pejorative. In a discussion of the film with this writer on National Public Radio, Denby complained of Gibsons odd medieval touches like Satan hanging around among all the Jews through the scourging and all through the Crucifixion, which is not in the Gospels. Thats an anti-Semitic medieval hangover that I found very disturbing. One should not have to remind a man who makes his living reviewing movies that Gibsons Satan”a figure out of an Ingmar Bergman film, as
s film reviewer David Anson aptly noted”functions throughout this film as the visual and constant reminder of the temptation to terminal despair that tortures Jesus even more than his physical punishment. Note to Mr. Denby: Satan is not a medieval invention; he figures prominently as the Adversary in the Gospels. Similarly, those reviewers who thought they saw cinematic translations of paintings by Caravaggio (Denby) and Jackson Pollack (Gary Anderson in the
) missed in the long scene with Pilate Gibsons most obvious visual borrowing: the now classic suffering savior painted by Georges Rouault.
The day the film opened, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie was in the audience in a sold-out theater in Times Square watching
The Passion of the Christ
unfold. Yoffie was deeply offended by what he saw as Jewish stereotypes. The Jews in this film are evildoers, he later wrote to his colleagues on Reform Judaisms website. But he also noticed the woman next to him sobbing throughout the film, and gradually came to the conclusion that such Christians are responding out of deep belief and really do not understand the charge of anti-Semitism and what Jews are talking about.
Yoffies modest exercise in what literary types call reader-response theory is a useful way to survey the reactions of the nations celebrity pundits. In
, everybodys favorite urban atheist, Christopher Hitchens, called Gibson a fascist and the movie an exercise in lurid masochism. In the
, Leon Wieseltier let loose with another of his contemptuous screeds against Christianity in general, medieval Catholicism more generically, and Gibsons wretched hero in particular. A sacred snuff film was his most inelegant shot. From the other side of the political aisle, columnists William Safire (
New York Times
) and Charles Krauthammer (
) found the movie sadistic as well as anti-Semitic. Indeed, sadist, masochistic, pornographic, and their variants were the most common adjectives in the lava-laden commentaries published in the
. Then there were the efforts to trivialize: A. O. Scott in the
New York Times
led his review with a Mel Gibson appearance on The Simpsons, eventually getting around to comparing
to a slasher film, and Garry Wills in the
New York Review of Books
reported that he and his wife had to keep from laughing while watching the movie.
There were also many warnings from the critics that children watching the film would be traumatized. Never mind the fact that the movie is R-rated; adolescents who do make it into the theater will discover an adult film whose violence might actually be good for them. For sure, Gibsons film is brutal, as he promised it would be. Every biblical film is necessarily a new translation, and Gibsons visual vernacular is violence. On this score he risks much in his effort to do through violence what other directors have done by other, sometimes ideological, means”to jolt the viewer into a fresh understanding of an all-too-familiar story. Not all of his risks pay off. Critics are right to complain that the central scene of Christs scourging goes on far too long, straining belief that any human being could survive such a brutal whipping and overwhelming the viewers ability to empathize. Worse, the flashbacks to pre-passion moments in the life of Jesus fail to provide sufficient context for understanding why the Jewish religious establishment wanted to see Jesus put out of the way”a nearly fatal flaw in Gibsons conception.
Above all, Gibson misled both critics and supporters of his film by proclaiming his fidelity to Scripture. As
demonstrated in its very alert analysis, for almost all of his excessive”and artistically unnecessary”additions to the biblical materials Gibson relied slavishly on one book dear to traditionalist Catholics:
The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ
, written by Clemens Brentano in the early nineteenth century and purporting to be the mystical visions of an illiterate nun and stigmatic, Anne Catherine Emmerich. As Paula Fredriksen and others pointed out, many of the utterances attributed to Emmerich are indeed anti-Semitic, though none of these find their way into Gibsons film. What no one mentioned is that the Vatican halted Emmerichs canonization process in 1928 over concern that Brentano probably embellished her visions considerably. In other words, Gibson drew from a book that the Church considers dubious enough to exclude from material it will consider in her cause for sainthood.
Finally, what can one say about the dark warnings from Frank Rich and others that
will surely inflame anti-Semitic violence in the Middle East, once it reaches theaters there? Well, there arent many theaters left in Iraq, but knock-off DVDs of the film have been on sale there for more than a month at this writing and so far there has been no disturbance. Nor in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, or the United Arab Emirates, where the film was released uncensored, according to a report from Cairo by Charles Levinson in the
San Francisco Chronicle
, April 1.
It would be nice, but too much to expect, if Jews and Muslims as well as Christians could see
The Passion of the Christ
and recognize a larger theme: that like Jeremiah and Mohammed, prophets are rarely welcomed among religious establishments. Were I a Jew, I admit, this is one film I would skip. But as the nonviolent responses to
so far demonstrate, this is a film that Jews should realize is not about them. It is about Jesus. As a creative interpretation of sacred texts rather than a straightforward reading of a scriptural story, it deserves to be treated with the respect we normally show to all sincere attempts to search out the fullness of Gods intention. Sadly, such respect was shown by few critics of Gibsons
Kenneth L. Woodward is a Contributing Editor at
, where he was Religion Editor for thirty-eight years.
]]>The Last Respectable Prejudicehttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2002/10/the-last-respectable-prejudice
Tue, 01 Oct 2002 00:00:00 -0400 Does anti-Catholicism exist? Yes it does. Can we define it? Yes we can. Its repugnance for things Catholic, both real and imagined. Its the sort of thing Catholics and non-Catholics alike recognize when they see it.
Is anti-Catholicism, historically, as virulent as anti-Semitism, to which it is often compared? Not then. Not now. And likely not ever. But in the American experience anti-Catholicism is older than anti-Semitism, and it is still the more acceptable prejudice among academics and their illegitimate offspring in the chattering classes, among whom anti-Catholicism is less conscious, less stigmatized, and therefore less noticed.
Is anti-Catholicism as important to American Catholics as anti-Semitism is to American Jews for the maintenance of group identity? Not by another long shot. Jews are the least religious religious cohort in American society, if we exclude the Jewish Unitarians, Ethical Culturalists, and Buddhists, and so the most in need of prejudice, real or imagined, for the maintenance of group identity. Their only rivals are the Mormons, manqué Jews themselves. And I say that in full realization that my statement may be construed by some as itself anti-Semitic, if only because an outsider is saying it. Be that as it may, the American Jewish Committee and other communal organizations recognize its truth. They are my sources.
Some manifestations of anti-Catholicism are obvious. For example, I think Daniel Jonah Goldhagens diatribe in the
last January”What Would Jesus Have Done? Pope Pius XII, the Catholic Church, and the Holocaust”was a blatant example. But he is a known academic nut. More blameworthy, in my view, is Leon Wieseltier, the magazines powerful literary editor and the man who decided to run Goldhagens venomous piece, giving him more space than anyone has ever been allotted in the magazine.
Has some of the coverage of the current scandal in the Catholic Church been driven by anti-Catholicism? Indeed, in style, intensity, and the unrelenting nature of the coverage, some of it has. ABCs prime-time news special, Father Forgive Me, for I Have Sinned, is a prominent example of what happens when producers choose a story line beforehand and use only the interview material that furthers it. Peter Jennings, who is usually sensitive to religious nuance, should have known better. Similar examples could be drawn from
, which, especially under Tina Brown, has been unblushingly anti-Catholic to such an extent that its editors must assume that the magazines readers are too.
And then there is the
New York Times
. Compared to the way the current crisis in the Catholic Church has been covered by, say, the
Los Angeles Times
, the coverage in the
has been excessive and almost gleeful, revisiting old stories when no fresh news has been forthcoming and even treating parish councils as if they were radical innovations. No editor in his right mind would have printed the rant a while back by columnist Bill Keller, in which he likened Pope John Paul II to Leonid Brezhnev, unless that editor”Howell Raines”were himself anti-Catholic. It says much about the newsroom culture of the
that it finds the views of a bitter ex-Catholic worth featuring on the op-ed page. But then, compared to other national newspapers, the
op-ed page is the least ideologically diversified, with most of its columnists products of the papers own hothouse institutional culture. And the outside opinions they publish are almost equally narrow in standpoint. For example, when abortion is in the news, it is not unusual to find three or four pieces a week defending its legality. But in thirty-eight years of reading the
I can recall”at most”only three op-ed pieces arguing a pro-life position.
Anti-Catholicism comes in different packages. By its own reckoning, the
is an institution, not just a newspaper: in its own secularist fashion it is a kind of church, complete with its own hierarchy and magisterium. For many of its readers, the
defines what is real and what is not, what is acceptable thought and behavior and what is not, thereby setting the boundaries between the secular polis and the religious barbarians pounding at the gates. In short, the
evangelizes a wholly secular worldview, which bleaches out whatever”even in New York City”does not conform to that perspective. For instance, where a newspaper like the
routinely includes parochial schools in its annual education supplement, the
in its annual supplement has mentioned them only once in all the years that Ive been reading it. Similarly, when it does its roundup of the years notable books”at Christmastime, yet”it includes no category for religion. Its news coverage of religion is spotty, though sometimes well done, but it frequently displays considerable uncertainty about what is important in this area. In short, to use David Tracys categories, if the Catholic imagination is analogical and the Protestant imagination dialectical, the religious imagination of the
is dermatological”that is, skin-deep.
It is common for defenders of the Catholic Church such as Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, to substitute Jews or blacks or gays for Catholics and ask those who smear Catholics if they would dare ridicule these other identity groups in the same fashion. In general, I think that this is a fair test, and I am astonished to learn that his adversaries find his question repulsive. Clearly, Catholics
fair game, but why should this be so?
My guess is that most Americans”including most Catholics”do not know the history that John McGreevy has outlined for us in his forthcoming book on Catholicism and American liberalism. Harvard University, to take but one example, has courses dealing with anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and the like, and you can be assured that preoccupation with these sins is central to the not-so-informal curricula in the nations major divinity schools. But as a rule, the countrys elite institutions do not offer courses devoted to anti-Catholicism. Our elites have thus been shaped by institutions that exclude anti-Catholicism as part of the American experience. Charitably, we might say that in some cases we are dealing with vincible ignorance, not outright prejudice.
Some attempt to distinguish between religious anti-Catholicism and cultural anti-Catholicism. I can accept the former: there are doctrines and beliefs of various religious traditions that I personally find odious, and as a Catholic I am in no way bothered by the residual Reformation-style anti-Catholicism of, say, Bob Jones University”especially when I see that Bob Jones III, the universitys putative heir-apparent, chose to do post-graduate work at Notre Dame. But I must say that I am struck by the fact that Protestants”including evangelicals”have been noticeably sympathetic toward Catholics during the recent scandal. As well they might, since a recent story of child abuse in Protestant churches shows an average of seventy such allegations a week, though you wont find that mentioned in the
As for cultural anti-Catholicism, I am surprised by the persistence of old stereotypes. One expects such crudities among academics, because the academy, particularly in the humanities, has become so ideologically driven and allergic to institutions and forms of authority other than its own. But Id be surprised if it were prevalent in the business world”or even in country clubs”and I must say I have not found much of it at
. Quite the opposite.
Looking back over some 750 articles I have written for the magazine, I find that less than four percent deal with mainline Protestants. Over these years,
s top editors”all of them but one in the past forty years Protestant or Jewish by background”have manifested certain preferences in the coverage of religion. (Religion covers, by the way, have for twenty-five years always been among the annual best-sellers on the newsstand, though the biggest draws are usually cover stories about some aspect of the figure of Jesus.) In order, the editors have preferred: First, stories about Catholics. Second, stories about Catholics. Third”at least since the rise of Jerry Falwell in the late 1970s”stories about evangelicals. Fourth, Catholics. Fifth, everyone else. Yet Protestant readers, including clergy, very often compliment the magazine on its coverage of religion”even though their own traditions are rarely covered. Here, I think, we can get into some of the ambiguities of cultural anti-Catholicism, ambiguities that make the Catholic Church at once attractive and suspect in a nation that is still, historically and numerically, more Protestant than anything else.
. A quarter of Americans identify themselves as Catholics. And like evangelicals, they are perceived as having political weight, at least in local elections. This is reason enough to pay attention, and certainly reason enough to worry if you dont like what the Church teaches.
. Friends would say authoritative, foes would say authoritarian, and in the Church you can find Catholics in both camps. Authority means that the Church makes truth claims that some elites find onerous”including many Catholics. It also means there are moral norms”a claim that some elites, especially those who came of age since the 1960s, refuse to accept, unless they are thought of as being the product of human agency. Hence the popularity of the word choice.
Authority also implies
, another structural mark of the Church that antagonizes many. The irony is that Americans readily accept the need for hierarchy in corporations, the military, and even to some degree in sports. But in religion, most Americans are female in the sense in which Carol Gilligan uses the term: we like circles, not pyramids. That the Catholic Church is a pyramid that allows a lot of circles to be formed inside it seems to escape most observers.
And then there is
. The Catholic Church also takes sex and gender seriously”maybe too seriously”which means it holds that here, too, norms ought to be observed. But on matters of sex and gender, our society has by now become normless”a society that, on both the popular and elite levels, also takes sex too seriously, but for very different reasons. Here there really is a culture war”and institutionally, the Catholic Church is the biggest, easiest target.
. Despite qualifiers like liberal and conservative, progressive and reactionary, lapsed, collapsed, and relapsed, the public at large still thinks that the word Catholic has explanatory value that words like Protestant, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist, and even Jewish do not. The word may conjure stereotypes, but at least Catholics and their Church get noticed. Put another way, when was the last time”at least since the novels of Peter DeVries”you saw the rituals and symbols of, say, Congregationalists burlesqued? For the media, Catholic means, in words said of Willy Loman after his suicide, attention must be paid.
. The Church stands for something”many things”and is not afraid to speak out in the public square. The Catholic Church is certainly not alone in this regard, but it is not in the nature of Catholicism to privatize religion in the ways that some others, especially secularists, would prefer. And when it fails, as its bishops most spectacularly have, its dirty underwear is there for all to see.
For all of these reasons, there will always be anti-Catholicism, intermittent but enduring in its manifestation. What we see today is not as virulent as it has been in the past. Speaking for myself, I am always nervous when too many people agree with me, which doesnt happen often. I think the Church should be the same way, or else it will cease to be the Church. Anti-Catholicism isnt always hatred and prejudice; sometimes its being liked for all the wrong reasons. The challenge for any tradition that claims to be Christian is accepting dislike for all the right reasons. On this view, ironically enough, some anti-Catholic prejudices are not only acceptable but welcome.
Kenneth L. Woodward is a Contributing Editor at
, where he has been Religion Editor for thirty-eight years. This essay is adapted from an address given at a conference on anti-Catholicism at Fordham University, hosted by the Center for American Catholic Studies and