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Published: 2/1/2004

A papal 'thumbs up'?

Don't call it a movie review. The Vatican is denying reports that Pope John Paul II endorsed Mel Gibson's controversial film about the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus. The Passion of the Christ is scheduled to open worldwide on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25, but the producers, try as they might, aren't about to work anything that resembles the pontiff's blessing into their promotions for the film.

A column last month in the National Catholic Reporter by correspondent John L. Allen, Jr., noted that "a senior Vatican official" said the Pope had watched the movie and afterwards said, "It is what it is," suggesting he viewed it as a faithful depiction of the suffering of Christ.

The papal "thumbs-up," as some might interpret it, gained wide play from others, including pundit Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal. New York Times columnist Frank Rich blasted Mr. Gibson, who directed the production, for drawing the Pope unwittingly into a campaign to promote a film that many fear will reflect an anti-Semitic interpretation of events.

That being the case, it's understandable that the Pope, or at least his close advisers, would think it unwise to give his imprimatur to a work that could reopen old religious conflicts.

More than any of his predecessors, Pope John Paul II has striven consistently to heal the centuries-old rift between Catholics and Jews. The Pope's trips to the Holy Land, the warming of relations between the Vatican and Israel, and his forceful denunciations of anti-Semitism within the church, attest to his affection for world Jewry.

Assuming The Passion of the Christ kicks up half the controversy that its critics anticipate, the Pope's reputation for tolerance could slip if he's perceived as having praised a film with dubious historic or biblical value.

To date, however, most of the criticism has been aimed at Mr. Gibson. Last fall, he insisted: "Neither I nor my film are anti-Semitic."

Whether the director has a skewed interpretation of history or theology will become obvious soon enough. In a month The Passion will speak for itself in multiplexes around the world. It's possible, and even likely, that people of good will are going to have vastly different opinions about it.

Before joining the debate, though, would-be critics should consider actually seeing the movie. Then proceed with Christian charity.



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