National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
The Word from Rome
Issue Date:  January 30, 2004

Pope on Gibson movie: Was it as it was?

Sifting through spin and Vatican speak


I sympathize with those weary of the controversy surrounding the alleged papal reaction, “It is as it was,” to Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ.” Not even the most rabid ultramontanist believes papal infallibility extends to movie reviews, so the film will rise or fall on its own merits, apart from anything John Paul thinks. Moreover, the increasingly farcical “he said, she said” nature of the story is hardly edifying.

Yet there are times when a story is important not so much for its content as for what it reveals about the players involved, and the institutions they serve. Such is the case with the pope’s alleged comment, and I’m afraid it doesn’t reveal much flattering about anyone.

Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz stands behind Pope John Paul II during an interfaith concert at the Vatican Jan. 17.
-- CNS/Alessia Giuliani

The developments this week began with a scoop on the part of Cindy Wooden, a veteran Vatican writer for Catholic News Service. On Jan. 19, she filed a story based on exclusive comments from Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope’s private secretary, denying that the pope had made the lapidary comment ascribed to him by Vatican sources in NCR and elsewhere: “It is as it was.”

In response, Gibson’s production company issued a statement saying it had communications from Joaquín Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesperson, confirming the alleged comment and authorizing its use. Icon Productions, however, refused to release any documents and declined further comment.

Another wrinkle came Jan. 21, when the assistant director of the movie, an Italian named Jan Michelini, released a statement to NCR insisting that he heard Dziwisz confirm the pope’s positive reaction.

In a Jan. 22 column, Catholic writer Peggy Noonan, who originally reported the pope’s comment in The Wall Street Journal more or less simultaneously with NCR, said she had seen an e-mail allegedly from Navarro advising Steve McEveety, the movie’s producer, to use the papal comment “again and again and again.” She said, however, that in response to a colleague’s query, Navarro had denied that the e-mail is authentic. Dallas Morning News columnist Rod Dreher, the colleague mentioned by Noonan, wrote about the e-mail Jan. 21.

I too have seen the e-mail allegedly from Navarro, which reads: “The piece on the WSJ was something and it remains ‘the’ point on our position. Nobody can deny it. So keep mentioning it as the authorized point of reference. I would try to make the words ‘It is as it was’ the leit motive [sic] in any discussion on the film. Repeat the words again and again and again.” The e-mail is date-stamped Sunday, Dec. 28, at 6 a.m.

Finally, on Jan. 22, Navarro-Valls finally broke his long public silence on the controversy with a statement released by the Vatican press office.

“After having consulted with the personal secretary of the Holy Father, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, I confirm that the Holy Father had the opportunity to see the film ‘The Passion of Christ,’ ” the statement said. “The film is a cinematographic transposition of the historical event of the Passion of Jesus Christ according to the accounts of the Gospel. It is a common practice of the Holy Father not to express public opinions on artistic works, opinions that are always open to different evaluations of aesthetic character.”

There’s some Vatican-speak here, but the thrust seems clear. Navarro is saying the film depicts what’s in the Gospel, which was the essence of the “It is as it was,” remark, and while the pope doesn’t make public statements on such matters, Navarro is not denying that John Paul may have passed along a private reaction.

Here’s how we got here.

On Dec. 5 and 6, a Friday and Saturday, John Paul II watched “The Passion of the Christ” in his private apartment along with Dziwisz. On Monday, Dec. 8, Dziwisz received McEveety and his wife along with Jan Michelini and Alberto Michelini, Jan’s father. Their conversation took place largely in Italian, a language McEveety and his wife don’t speak. The Michelinis afterwards translated for McEveety what they believe they heard Dziwisz say, namely, that the pope’s reaction to the film was, “It is as it was.” Later that night, McEveety screened the movie for Navarro.

That the Michelinis had access to the pope is not difficult to explain. Alberto Michelini is a well-known Italian journalist and politician, who in 1979 accompanied the pope on his first trip to Poland. Chatting with the pope during the visit, Michelini expressed regret that he was away from home and thus missing the birth of Jan and his twin sister. John Paul volunteered to make it up to Michelini by doing the baptisms himself, so Jan and his sister were the first two babies John Paul baptized as pope. The fact that the pope baptized the assistant director 24 years ago certainly helps explain why John Paul wanted to see the film.

For the record, both Alberto Michelini and Navarro are members of Opus Dei.

On Dec. 17, the National Catholic Reporter and The Wall Street Journal independently reported that John Paul II had said, “It is as it was.” The Wall Street Journal cited Dziwisz as its source, relayed through McEveety. NCR cited an anonymous “senior Vatican source.” Reuters and the Associated Press ran stories confirming the quote the next day.

On Dec. 24, Catholic News Service cited two anonymous Vatican officials to the effect that the pope had not made any such remark. Other news agencies jumped into the fray, some citing anonymous sources confirming the pope’s comment, others casting doubt. I went back to the original source of the NCR story, who repeated that the pope said, “It is as it was.”

After the Jan. 19 CNS piece, other news outlets, including The New York Times, cited Vatican officials anonymously who maintain the pope probably said it.

Here’s what CNS quoted Dziwisz as saying: “I said clearly to McEveety and Michelini that the Holy Father made no declaration. I said the Holy Father saw the film privately in his apartment, but gave no declaration to anyone. He does not make judgments on art of this kind; he leaves that to others, to experts.

“Clearly, the Holy Father made no judgment of the film,” he said.

On Jan. 21, a senior Vatican official suggested to me that the word “declaration” was important, since in Vatican argot it usually means a formal public statement. If so, it would leave open the possibility that the pope had said something privately.

Whatever Dziwisz intended, why issue a public denial? Observers see three motives, all falling under the heading of “protecting the pope”:

  • Dziwisz doesn’t want the pope drawn into the controversy over whether or not “The Passion” is anti-Semitic.
  • The pope is not supposed to give commercial endorsements.
  • The leak, whether true or not, represents an invasion of the pope’s privacy.

Finally, here is the full text of the statement Jan Michelini released to NCR Jan. 21:

“I confirm what I have already stated: The pope has seen the ‘Passion’ by Mel Gibson and has appreciated it because it represents a faithful transcription of the Gospel. He has seen the movie together with his secretary, [Archbishop] Stanislaw Dziwisz, in his apartment during a strictly private and informal screening. For this reason there never was, nor could there ever have been an official communiqué, nor a public statement about the screening. Faced with some specious criticism, the secretary of the Holy Father couldn’t but deny. It is upsetting to see how the semantic interpretation of the few words said during a private conversation between the secretary of the pope, the producer Steve McEveety, and myself have been incorrectly used by some journalists. This is what I have finally to say regarding this issue.”

Where does all this leave us?

No one can have ironclad certainty about what the pope said. Based on Navarro’s Jan. 22 statement, it is possible that the pope said something like “It is as it was,” but intended this as a private reaction. My original source continues to insist this is the case. On the other hand, there is no clear confirmation of the remark.

No one comes out of this mess looking good.

The makers of the film have been widely accused of either lying about the pope’s comment, or abusing John Paul’s confidence by publicizing a private remark. If either of those charges is true it would be reprehensible, but if not, their reputation has been done a serious injustice.

Reporters, myself certainly included, look like naifs who have been spun every which way, or worse yet, like willing partners in someone’s dishonesty. If nothing else, it’s a wake-up call about the dangers of reliance on anonymous sources, a fact of reporting life in the Vatican. Officials here rarely speak on the record, so those of us who cover the Vatican are constantly dealing with unnamed sources. This incident undoubtedly has raised the bar on caution for all of us.

Pundits in the United States who have confidently pronounced on the story -- both those who embraced the pope’s alleged comment because they’re favorably inclined to the movie, and those who shot it down because they’re not -- look like spin doctors more interested in scoring ideological points than establishing the truth.

The Vatican has made, as the expression goes here, the worst brutta figura. It comes off looking bad. Even if officials were acting for the noblest of motives, they have stretched the meaning of words, on and off the record, to their breaking point. Aside from the obvious moralism that it’s wrong to deceive, such confusion can only enhance perceptions that the aging John Paul II is incapable of controlling his own staff, that “no one is in charge” and the church is adrift. These impressions are not healthy in a time when the church’s public image, especially in the United States, has already taken a beating on other grounds.

A cynic might say that all this free publicity can only help the film, and perhaps that’s true. We’ll see when it opens Feb. 25 on 2,000 screens in the United States. But if this is someone’s idea of good luck, I’d hate to see bad.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, January 30, 2004

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