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
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
I sympathize with those weary of the controversy surrounding the alleged papal reaction, It is as it was, to Mel Gibsons 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 popes alleged comment, and Im afraid it doesnt reveal much flattering about anyone.
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 popes 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, Gibsons 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 popes positive reaction.
In a Jan. 22 column, Catholic writer Peggy Noonan, who originally reported the popes 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 movies producer, to use the papal comment again and again and again. She said, however, that in response to a colleagues 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.
Theres some Vatican-speak here, but the thrust seems clear. Navarro is saying the film depicts whats in the Gospel, which was the essence of the It is as it was, remark, and while the pope doesnt make public statements on such matters, Navarro is not denying that John Paul may have passed along a private reaction.
Heres 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, Jans father. Their conversation took place largely in Italian, a language McEveety and his wife dont speak. The Michelinis afterwards translated for McEveety what they believe they heard Dziwisz say, namely, that the popes 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 popes 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.
Heres 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:
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 couldnt 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 Navarros 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 popes comment, or abusing John Pauls 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 someones dishonesty. If nothing else, its 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 popes alleged comment because theyre favorably inclined to the movie, and those who shot it down because theyre 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 its 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 churchs 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 thats true. Well see when it opens Feb. 25 on 2,000 screens in the United States. But if this is someones idea of good luck, Id hate to see bad.
John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Catholic Reporter, January 30, 2004
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