As Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” draws cinema crowds amid accusations it revives ancient anti-Jewish hatreds, U.S. Catholic leaders have stepped in with a book repeating a firm stand against anti-Semitism.
The book, whose release this week coincides with the debut of Gibson’s film Wednesday, reminds readers of the Roman Catholic church’s view that the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus Christ as portrayed in the Bible should not be blamed on Jews.
“Neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during the Passion,” the book says in a centerpiece statement first issued by the church’s Second Vatican Council 40 years ago.
The controversy over Gibson’s film is a fresh chance to instruct followers and open discussions among Jews and Christians, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said earlier in announcing publication of book, “The Bible, the Jews and the Death of Jesus.”
The bishops made no mention of Gibson’s graphically violent film portrayal of the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus, nor indicated that the book was designed to coincide with its release. However, it was obviously published because “so many people are talking about anti-Semitism today,” William Ryan, a spokesman for the bishops’ conference, said this week.
The book also contains a 1988 instruction from the U.S. bishops on how to evaluate dramatizations of the Passion. The document says Jews should not be portrayed as “implacable enemies of Christ.”
Anti-Semitism throughout history
While critics of Gibson’s movie disagree on whether it is anti-Semitic, there is no doubt that across history Passion plays have been linked to violence against Jews, experts said.
Doris Bergen, a professor of history at Notre Dame, said pogroms against Jews often occurred at Easter time, the same time of year that Passion plays were being staged, so a connection between the two seems to be widely accepted.
It was well documented, she added, that German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in 1934 visited the Oberammergau Passion Play, now in its fourth century, and used it to further justify his then already well-articulated anti-Semitism, speaking of how the play showed “the muck and mire of Jewry.”
While the Second Vatican Council may be remembered today more for the liturgical changes it brought, the anti-Semitism stand was a major development at the time, according to Lawrence Cunningham, acting chair of the theology department at the University of Notre Dame.
“There was a huge discussion about the question of whether there was going to be a separate document on the Jews, and then the whole question of anti-Semitism (came up),” he said.
Cunningham said that document showed that “the modern church was vividly aware, especially in the post-Nazi era, how anti-Semitism could result from the ways the Gospels and Passion could be presented.”
The church later removed from Good Friday services a prayer that spoke of “perfidious Jews,” he noted.
The Vatican also came under criticism after the Second World War by some who claimed it knew about the extent of the Holocaust in heavily Catholic Germany, Austria and Poland but failed to act.