‘The Passion of the Christ,’ Mel Gibson and Hugging the Cactus


On Tuesday, March 11, at the entertainment-news site Deadline.com, journalist Allison Hope Weiner offered an impassioned plea to Hollywood agencies and studios to end their “quiet blacklisting” of her onetime interview subject and now personal friend, Mel Gibson.

On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of his blockbuster Gospel epic “The Passion of the Christ” – which has its first airing on commercial television on the faith-friendly UP Network on Palm Sunday, April 13, as part of the channel’s two-week Easter celebration – Weiner didn’t aim so much to defend Gibson as to explain him, and to explain why he generally is unwilling to defend himself.

Always a volatile personality, a drinker since age 13 and a reportedly recovering alcoholic, Gibson’s downward spiral, and his estrangement from Hollywood, dates primarily to his arrest for drunken driving in Malibu, Calif., in 2006.

During the incident, he launched into a booze-fueled rant in which he spewed anti-Semitic statements to the arresting officer, who is Jewish (according to Weiner, Gibson later asked the officer out for coffee to personally apologize).

More recently, after splitting from his wife of many years, the mother of his seven children, Gibson became entangled with a Russian woman, the mother of his baby daughter. The dissolution of that relationship led to the release of a recording of an angry phone call, during which Gibson made more incendiary statements.

The ensuing legal actions – detailed in Weiner’s story – found fault on both sides, with neither Gibson nor the ex-girlfriend coming out smelling like roses.

But Weiner writes of these incidents: “They made (Gibson) persona non grata at major studios and agencies, the same ones that work with others who’ve committed felonies and done things far more serious than Gibson, who essentially used his tongue as a lethal weapon.”

So, during the penitential season of Lent, what are Catholics especially to make of this appeal on behalf of a man who made one of the most powerful, controversial and transformative films about Christ, but whose personal life is shot through with rage, verbal abuse, apparent bigotry and sexual transgression?

Adding to the muddle is Gibson’s, to put it mildly, confused relationship with the Catholic Church. Gibson’s father, Hutton Gibson, is a sedevacantist, one of a number of breakaway schismatic Catholics who reject Vatican II and don’t consider any popes after that to be legitimate (or worse, to be antipopes).

In 2010, British journalist Damian Thompson of the U.K. Telegraph outright said Gibson was a sedevacantist like his father and was “not a Roman Catholic.”

What’s known for sure about Gibson is that he was a supporter of the Traditional Latin Mass, which was once a lot more controversial than it is now, since the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum in 2007, allowing the Tridentine Mass to once again be celebrated at local parishes.

Gibson also paid for the construction of an independent chapel called the Church of the Holy Family, in Agoura Hills, Calif. It’s not affiliated with any Catholic archdiocese or with the Holy See and operates, reportedly with continuing support from Gibson, outside communion with the Church.

Apparently this is another problem for Hollywood, according to a piece that came out on the heels of the Deadline story, from the site Showbiz 411, with the headline “Mel Gibson Defense Omits His $70 Million Private Church That’s Anti-Pope, Modern Catholic Beliefs.”

Writer Roger Friedman says, “Weiner conveniently leaves out the issue that first brought Gibson to our attention.”

Friedman is referring to Holy Family, writing, “Holy Family doesn’t believe in the Pope – any pope. Its main theological thrust refutes the Second Vatican Council of 1965, which denounced anti-Semitism. I doubt Allison Hope Weiner has been invited up to Gibson’s private church and met with his parishioners.”

Apparently for some, Gibson isn’t Catholic enough.

But as Father Robert Barron notes in a 2010 video, the strong animus against Gibson in Hollywood may spring from the opposite view, that he’s too Catholic (by whatever standard Hollywood judges such things).

Barron says, “I’ve suspected that the obsessive interest in Mel Gibson’s dysfunction might be a function of (anti-Catholic) prejudice. Let’s face it, Hollywood is filled with dozens, hundreds, of dysfunctional people. All the stories you could tell about misbehavior out in Hollywood, why has there been this nearly obsessive interest in Mel Gibson’s problems?

“At least for some people, it’s the implication that Catholicism is a sign of his dysfunction.”

While not defending Gibson at all, Barron says, “I am calling into question this tendency to use his dysfunction as a club to beat up on Catholicism.”

So while Gibson may on balance be no worse than any ten people one could round up at random at an average Oscar party, the unwillingness of Hollywood to live and let live may have much more to do with its own bigotry than his.

Gibson does, though, still have some friends in the business. A few years ago, one of them went straight to the Gospels to challenge his industry to judge Gibson not by his sins, but by the fruit of his kindness to another.

In October of 2011, Robert Downey Jr. – an actor whose struggles with addiction, the law and personal demons are well-documented – was honored at the 25th American Cinematheque Awards. Downey, currently the star of the very successful “Sherlock Holmes” and “Iron Man” movie franchises, chose Gibson to present him with a lifetime achievement award.

Downey, who has described his religious beliefs as “Buddhist-Jewish,” was less interested in talking about his own achievements than admonishing the audience about the quality of mercy and forgiveness.

After his well-publicized legal troubles and imprisonment, Downey couldn’t get hired because the cost to insure him was too great. Gibson footed the bill for an insurance bond so that Downey could star in the 2003 film, “The Singing Detective” – a role Downey said was developed for Gibson.

Said Downey, “He kept a roof over my head and food on the table and, most importantly, he said if I accepted responsibility for my wrongdoing and embraced that part of my soul that was ugly – ‘hugging the cactus’ he calls it – he said that if I hugged the cactus long enough, I’d be a man.”

Downey concluded by saying, “I humbly ask that you join me, unless you are completely without sin, and in which case you picked the wrong f***ing industry, in forgiving my friend of his trespasses and offering him the same clean slate that you have me and allowing him to continue his great and ongoing contribution to our collective art without shame.”

Whether or not Hollywood forgives Gibson, there is one institution that will.

Catholics know that the best place for Gibson would be back in the fold of the Church, confessing his sins and living out his repentance. For all we know, he’s doing that in some way, and if he’s not, he’s deserving of our prayers and best wishes that he finds his way home.

As for “The Passion of the Christ,” some see it as too violent and graphic, preferring instead the somewhat more restrained current – and successful, though not at the level of “The Passion” — Christ-centric film, “Son of God,” edited from the New Testament portion of “The Bible” TV miniseries.

On a personal note, when I saw “The Passion,” many in the audience were crying – and not discreet sniffles, but wrenching sobs. Afterward, as I was standing by the exit, getting the kinks out after the long movie, three young men decked out with baggy clothes, chains hanging from their pockets, backwards baseball caps and tattoos, came down the stairs.

All were visibly shaken, and one sniffling fellow caught my eye just as he reached up to rub his nose. When I smiled, he smiled back and shrugged, as if to say, “What can I say, it got to me.”

For some, “The Passion” may be a subtle as a sledgehammer, and Gibson the blunt instrument behind it, but if one troubled older man can reach one younger man, he’s done God’s work indeed.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org


About Author

A native of the Adirondacks and Saratoga Springs in northern New York State, journalist and fiction writer Kate O'Hare now lives in Los Angeles, where she's on a neverending quest to find a parish in the L.A. Archdiocese with orthodox preaching, excellent traditional music and parking.

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