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Seattle Catholic is not affiliated with the Archdiocese of Seattle
Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
19 Dec 2005

The USCCB, Brokeback Mountain and The Passion of the Christ

by Michael Forrest

An arm of the USCCB has once again reminded us of the nature and depth of the problem for orthodox Catholics here in the United States. In a recent movie review, a USCCB movie-reviewer conveyed adulation for a movie that promotes homosexuality, adultery, drug use and more. At the end of the review, the reviewer chose to give the film a rating of "L", which means it is suitable for adults, even though there may be aspects to the movie that adults "may find troubling." ("Troubling", is that all sodomy and adultery have become?) However, due to the almost immediate response (i.e. pleasant surprise from the pro-homosexual lobby and anger from orthodox Catholics), they changed the rating to "O", the lowest rating, which denotes "morally offensive". Nonetheless, this arm of the USCCB kept the review itself intact (below).

Below, I have pasted the USCCB review of Brokeback Mountain and followed it with their review of The Passion of the Christ and also a statement by a committee of the USCCB about the Passion of the Christ along with an article I wrote in response to it. I invite you to determine for yourself which movie these individuals at the USCCB seem to be more concerned about. I also invite you to consider the disrespectful way the Gospels are treated in favor of modern historical criticism.

Additionally, note the way that criticism of Brokeback Mountain is offered by the USCCB reviewer. I have underlined some of these passages that caught my attention below and added commentary, where I thought it helpful or necessary.

I make another heartfelt plea to the USCCB: Please, please stay away from rating movies if this is all that can be managed. This is truly and deeply scandalous.

USCCB REVIEW OF BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN:

"Brokeback Mountain," originally rated L (limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling) has been reclassified as an O (morally offensive). This has been done because the serious weight of the L rating — which restricts films in that category to those who can assess from a Catholic perspective the moral issues raised by a movie — is, unfortunately, misunderstood by many. Because, in this instance, there are some who are using the "L" rating to make it appear the Church — or the USCCB — position on homosexuality is ambiguous, the classification has been with revised specifically to address its moral content.

Over-the-years love story between two emotionally fragile cowboys (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) who begin an intimate relationship during a solitary sheepherding assignment (My note: this kind of positive euphemism: "an intimate relationship", is akin to "pro-choice" in relation to abortion. It hides the true, ugly nature of what is occurring). Though shortly after, they try to go their separate ways, with one marrying his fiancee (Michelle Williams) and the other a former prom queen (Anne Hathaway), they continue to be drawn to each other. Director Ang Lee's well-crafted film, which is superbly acted, was adapted from a New Yorker short story by Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Proulx. It treats the subject matter — which a Catholic audience will find contrary to its moral principles — with discretion (My note: while this is certainly better than blatant sodomy on screen, the writer is here almost trying to turn the fact that it is "not as bad as it might have been" into a virtue.) . Tacit approval of same-sex relationships, adultery, two brief sex scenes without nudity, partial and shadowy brief nudity elsewhere, other implied sexual situations, profanity, rough and crude expressions, alcohol and brief drug use, brief violent images, a gruesome description of a murder, and some domestic violence. O — morally offensive. (R) 2005

Full Review
"Brokeback Mountain" (Focus), the much publicized "gay cowboy love story" adapted from a New Yorker magazine piece by Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Proulx, arrives at last, and the film itself — a serious contemplation of loneliness and connection — belies the glib description.

While it is the story of an intimate relationship (My note: same misleading euphemism) more to the point it's the relationship of two emotionally scarred souls. Ranch hands Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) share a sheepherding assignment on a mountain in Signal, Wyo., in 1963. Ennis is a man of few words; Jack is somewhat more open.

Their friendship gradually grows despite Ennis' taciturn manner. At first, it's only Jack who sleeps in the camp near the sheep (with Ennis ensconced down the mountain), but come to realize it is more practicable to guard the sheep in tandem.

Ennis resolutely insists he'll sleep outdoors, but the cold drives him into Jack's tent, where the two awkwardly, then roughly, have sex. Incidentally, that scene — short and with the men mostly clothed — is the only onscreen gay sexual encounter in the film. (My Note: Again, the writer turns the fact that it is "not as bad as it might have been" into a veritable virtue. While he feigns "criticism", he is actually DEFENDING the movie. Note also that there is no negative comment, at all here, about the fact that the two men sodomize each other. He manages to give us a couple of adjectives: "awkward" and "rough", but can manage no more than that. Compare that to the reviews on the Passion of the Christ: "brutal", "exceedingly graphic", "savagery", "horror-genre", "macabre", etc. etc...)

In the morning, both are too embarrassed to talk about what has transpired, but a bond has formed, and we are led to understand that the relationship has deepened (My note: again, the writer, who finds many places to offer his reaction, has NO REACTION about this? No attempt to contend against the idea that sodomy leads to a deepened relationship? Again, compare this to the criticisms of The Passion of the Christ) . Later, some outdoor wrestling is observed by their boss, the unsympathetic rancher Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid), who watches them with a knowing eye (My note: Why is there no comment about how it is typical in Hollywood to portray those who do not agree with homosexual behavior so negatively?)

At the end of the season, they come down from the mountain, and dismissing what happened on the mountain as a "one-shot deal," go their separate ways. Ennis is engaged to Alma (Michelle Williams, Ledger's real-life girlfriend). But we see him crumple in despair as soon as he's alone. The first human connection he's had is coming to an end (My note: "THE FIRST HUMAN CONNECTION HE'S HAD"? Note how he so positively portrays a relationship that has developed around the grave sin of sodomy. "Human Connection". That's a good and desirable thing, right? Of course it is. The problem is that is a gravely sinful, deeply disordered connection in this context, and as such can NOT be a real "human connection" in the true sense of the phrase.)

Jack, for his part, makes a tentative attempt to pick up an Ennis-like cowboy in a bar, but eventually meets former prom queen Lureen (Anne Hathaway). Both men marry and have children.

Time goes by, and Jack sends a postcard to Ennis telling him he's coming to town. The air is rife with anticipation as Ennis waits for the reunion. When Jack finally drives up, the unexpressive Ennis can barely contain his excitement, and rushes out to meet him. (My note: I believe the writer is rather transparently conveying that HE was excited for this "reunion" by his choice of words and by the deafening lack of any negative commentary as to how this is all glorifying and legitimizing sodomy.)

They embrace passionately (My note: why not say it clearly? They embrace with lust. Again, the use of euphemism is dishonest here, hiding the ugly reality of the situation) , not realizing that Alma is sadly viewing the interaction from behind the screen door. She says nothing, but understands all.

On the trip, Jack proposes that they chuck their families and buy a ranch, but Ennis — who as a child witnessed the aftermath of a hate-crime murder of two rancher neighbors who had lived together — can't bring himself to do it. (My note: again, no comment about this heinous proposal?)

Thereafter, Ennis and Jack initiate meeting several times a year for "fishing" trips where they can be alone together (My note: MORE EUPHEMISM. Be alone together? Translation: where they can engage in sodomy). Lureen, for her part, senses the importance of these trips to her husband, but remains engrossed in her own business.

As the Catholic Church makes a distinction between homosexual orientation and activity, Ennis and Jack's continuing physical relationship is morally problematic. (My note: again: "continuing physical relationship"? The writer continues, over and over, to hide or minimize the true nature of what is occurring here. Also notice: "as the Catholic Church makes a distinction". We are left to wonder, is it a valid distinction for all people, or one that only applies to "Catholics who believe this stuff"?)

The adulterous nature of their affair is another hot-button issue (My note: "another hot-button issue"? Why not say, "The adulterous nature of their homosexual actions is another gravely sinful matter"? This is how the Church officially speaks about such things. But not the reviewers at the USCCB for some reason) . But the pain Jack and Ennis cause their families is not whitewashed. (The women are played with tremendous sympathy, not as shrill harridans.) It's the emotional honesty of the story overall, and the portrayal of an unresolved relationship — which, by the way, ends in tragedy — that seems paramount. (My note: again, notice the apologia offered here...."which, by the way, ends in tragedy", in other words, "listen folks, it doesn't turn out well, so it's not like this film is defending homosexuality." )

Director Ang Lee tells the story with a sure sense of time and place, and presents the narrative in a way that is more palatable than would have been thought possible. Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana's screenplay uses virtually every scrap of information in Proulx's story, which won a National Magazine Award, and expands it while remaining utterly true to the source.

The performances are superb. Australian Ledger may be the one to beat at Oscar time, as his repressed manly stoicism masking great vulnerability is heartbreaking, and his Western accent sounds wonderfully authentic (My note: "manly stoicism masking great vulnerability"? This is a man who exhibits a GREAT DISORDER. For THAT we can give him Catholic sympathy, yes. But it is not right to paint him in this way that seems to excuse or defend his gravely sinful actions. The choice of words here is again designed to defend, to elicit sympathy..."vulnerability". But the sympathy the writer would evoke is not for the right, Catholic reasons.) Gyllenhaal is no less accomplished as the more demonstrative of the pair, while Williams and Hathaway (the latter, a far cry from "The Princess Diaries," giving her most mature work to date) are very fine.

Looked at from the point of view of the need for love which everyone feels but few people can articulate, the plight of these guys is easy to understand while their way of dealing with it is likely to surprise and shock an audience (My note: there is an almost serial refusal to make moral judgments here. Re-read that last sentence of the review again....it will "surprise and shock"? One may be surprised and shocked at a birthday party. It's neutral. How about "shock and disgust" or "shock and dismay" if "disgust" is too harsh? Again, the writer continues to bend over backwards to protect this movie.)

Except for the initial sex scene, and brief bedroom encounters between the men and their (bare breasted) wives, there's no sexually related nudity. Some outdoor shots of the men washing themselves and skinny-dipping are side-view, long-shot or out-of-focus images.

While the actions taken by Ennis and Jack cannot be endorsed, the universal themes of love and loss ring true. (My note: does this, or does this not sound like: "there are a couple of things we wish weren't in there, but on the whole, it's just a great story!"? As such, is it not obvious that the re-classification to "O", i.e. "morally offensive" is double-minded, at the very least? Why do we see no warning like this, instead: "this movie is particuarly dangerous precisely because it is so well packaged. The acting, the cinematography, the dialogue are all enticing and disarming. And it is precisly this that can almost make one miss or worse, accept, such gravely sinful behavior."?)

***

USCCB Committee Statement on the Passion of the Christ and my previous article on this same statement, almost two years ago:

Plea to the USCCB: If You Don't Want to Praise Mel, Could You At Least Stop Slapping Him?

by Michael Forrest

Recently, a USCCB committee issued the following statement after one of it's many committee meetings:

"The Consultation also discussed the state of Jewish-Catholic relations in the wake of the film, "The Passion of the Christ," which caused such deep and understandable concern within Jewish community world-wide. The film, it was noted, was in reality a modern version of the notorious medieval Passion Plays which so often over the centuries have triggered riots against the Jews of Europe. Happily, however, the film precipitated no such anti-Jewish violence. Rather, in many places it sparked discussions in which Catholics learned why Jews feared such dramatic depictions of the death of Jesus, and Jews learned that many Catholics today have taken to heart the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that the Jews collectively cannot be held responsible "then or now" for Jesus' death. It was noted as well that continuing work needs to be done among those who have not yet absorbed these official teachings of the Church."

I strenuously object to the assertion that The Passion of the Christ is "a modern version of the notorious medieval Passion Plays" and all of the negative implications that may flow from this derision as well. I find nothing substantial in this masterful work that is either contrary to the letter of Sacred Scripture or its spirit. I am, however, consternated by the drive of many to water down and filter God's Word out of a distorted and dangerous notion of charity. Surely, even in this day, one cannot fail to see that this kind of "dialogue" is reduced to mere pugnacious and condemnatory monologue, a tirade against our Lord and God at which we must cravenly acquiesce.

If the movie is a stumbling block, if it elicits a myriad of reactions that vary widely, then this is a sign of fidelity to the truth, for Christ himself evoked such response in His day, and he continues to do so even now, if He is truly allowed to speak. The fact that the liberal, milquetoast version of Christ's life, death and resurrection is so non-threatening and palatable to so many is a damning sign of its inauthenticity. It is salt without the saltiness...completely worthless and powerless to save. I also reject the implication that those who believe Mr. Gibson's work faithfully portrays Christ's Passion "have not yet absorbed" the teachings of the Church.

With all due respect, rather than continuing to besmirch the good work of Mr. Gibson and those who value it, I suggest the following to the USCCB and all of its committees :

  1. Get serious about clearing all the seminaries of perverts and deviants...including the staff and professors.
  2. Acknowledge that modern psychology and its depraved, politically correct views of sexuality got us into many of these problems and it isn't going to get us out.
  3. Start humbly and faithfully teaching the fullness of the Catholic faith, and demand that the priests, religious and laity do so as well.
  4. Obey the Holy Father and make the Traditional Latin Mass available "generously".
  5. Stop persecuting holy priests, nuns and bishops because of their fidelity to the faith.
  6. Stop the double insult of destroying the magnificent Cathedrals that raised our minds to God only to then take our money to build monstrosities in their place.
  7. Clean out the chanceries of "gate-keepers" that are hostile to Catholics serious about their faith.
  8. Stop forcing sex-ed programs on our children based on the "expertise" of the same psychologists who convinced you that homosexuals should be ordained and serial molesters could be reformed and returned to normal duty.
  9. Stop forcing programs like "Good Touch-Bad Touch" on our children in order to primarily cover your legal backsides based on the testimony of these same "psychologists"
  10. Remove the layers and layers of protective bureaucracy from between you and the laity in order that you might better get to know what is going on with the faithful first-hand.
  11. Stop the "do-it-yourself liturgy", and insist that priests adhere to the rubrics.
  12. Enforce canon law and stop the sacrilege and scandal of allowing Catholics who publicly and obstinately support grave, unequivocal sins such as abortion and euthanasia to receive Holy Communion. Understand and explain that there is no mercy at all in allowing men to bring further condemnation upon themselves by receiving the Lord unworthily (1 Cor 11:27).
  13. Be a witness to the world that you truly believe Christ is still The Life, The Truth and The Way and that He works through you, the successors to the Apostles, for the salvation of mankind.

I believe that The Passion of the Christ is a masterful work of art, and I am grateful to Mr. Gibson for willingly carrying the crosses associated with its production, including the inaccurate, unfortunate and unkind words thrown at him by those who should be most deeply grateful.

USCCB REVIEW OF THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST:

Unflinching dramatization of the final agonizing hours of the earthly life of Jesus Christ (Jim Caviezel), from the Garden of Gethsemane to his crucifixion and resurrection, intercut with flashbacks to his childhood and public ministry. Although the film's brutality poignantly conveys the depth of Christ's love by showing him freely enduring such extreme agony for the redemption of all sinners, the graphic nature of the raw visuals is played to diminishing returns. Following the basic outline of the Gospel Passion narratives, director Mel Gibson embroiders his interpretive retelling of Scripture with extrabiblical sources as well as his own imagination, to craft an at times profoundly moving movie which succeeds in stripping Christ's sacrificial suffering of its Sunday school sugar-coating. While it is the film's assertion that responsibility for Christ's torture and death rests squarely with the Roman authorities, and away from the collective Jewish populace, the movie presents a historically skewed depiction of the Temple elite's sway with their imperial overlords (My note: the writer apparently does not believe the Gospels are historically accurate and trustworthy, as Dei Verbum 19 and the constant teaching of the Church assures us, preferring "modern historical scholarship" instead. It is the Gospels themselves that convey this "sway", it is not a concoction of Mel Gibson) . Subtitles. Gory scenes of torture and crucifixion, a suicide and some frightening images. A-III — adults. (R) 2004

Full Review
"The Passion of the Christ" (Newmarket) is an uncompromising interpretive dramatization of the final 12 hours of Jesus' earthly life. Unflinching in its brutality and penetrating in its iconography of God's supreme love for humanity, the film will mean different things to people of diverse backgrounds. Co-writer, producer and director Mel Gibson has undoubtedly created one of the most anticipated and controversial films of recent times.

Like other films on Christ's life, "The Passion" does not simply translate a single Gospel narrative onto the screen. Rather it is a composite of the Passion narratives in the four Gospels embroidered with non-scriptural traditions as well as the imaginative inspiration of the filmmaker. The result is a deeply personal work of devotional art — a moving Stations of the Cross, so to speak.

However, by choosing to narrow his focus almost exclusively to the Passion of Christ, Gibson has, perhaps, muted Christ's teachings, making it difficult for viewers unfamiliar with the New Testament and the era's historical milieu to contextualize the circumstances leading up to Jesus' arrest. And though, for Christians, the Passion is the central event in the history of salvation, the "how" of Christ's death is lingered on at the expense of the "why?"

The film employs a visceral, undiluted realism in its retelling of the passion, eschewing Sunday School delicacy in favor of in-your-face rawness that is much too intense for children. That notwithstanding, the movie is an artistic achievement in terms of its textured cinematography, haunting atmospherics, lyrical editing, detailed production design and soulful score. It loses nothing by using the languages of the time, Aramaic and Latin, as the actors' expressions transcend words, saying as much — if not more than — the English subtitles.

The film opens with a distraught Jesus (Jim Caviezel) facing down evil, personified as an androgynous being (played by Rosalinda Celentano), in the mist shrouded garden of Gethsemane and progresses to his death on the cross, followed by a fleeting, but poetically economic, resurrection coda. Flashbacks of his public ministry and home life in Nazareth with his mother, Mary (Maia Morgenstern) pepper the action, filling in some of the narrative blanks.

Each flashback in the film is a welcome respite from the near incessant bloodletting, but more importantly for how it conveys Jesus' core message of God's boundless love for humanity, a love that does not spare his son death on the cross so that we might have eternal life. More of these flashbacks would have been helpful in fleshing out the life and teachings of Jesus.

Concerning the issue of anti-Semitism, the Jewish people are at no time blamed collectively for Jesus' death; rather Christ himself freely embraces his destiny, stating clearly "No one takes it (my life) from me, but I lay it down of myself" (John 10:18). By extension, Gibson's film suggests that all humanity shares culpability for the crucifixion, a theological stance established by the movie's opening quotation from the prophet Isaiah which explains that Christ was "crushed for our transgressions."

Catholics viewing the film should recall the teachings of the Second Vatican Council's decree, "Nostra Aetate," which affirms that, "though Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ, neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his passion."

Overall, the film presents Jews in much the same way as any other group — a mix of vice and virtue, good and bad. Yet while the larger Jewish community is shown to hold diverse opinions concerning Christ's fate — exemplified by the cacophony of taunts and tears along the Via Dolorosa — it fails to reflect the wider political nuances of first-century Judea. The scene of the stock frenzied mob uniformly calling for Christ's crucifixion in Pilate's courtyard is problematic (My note: Is this not in the Gospels themselves? Mark 15:1-15; Luke 23-13-25; John 19:1-16. The writer of this review either does not know the Gospels or distrusts them.) , though once Christ begins his laborious way of the cross, Jewish individuals emerge from the crowd to extend kindness — including Veronica wiping his face and Simon of Cyrene helping carry the cross, as a chorus of weeping women lament from the sidelines.

However, the most visually distinctive representatives of Jewish authority — the High Priest Caiphas (Matia Sbragia) and those in the Sanhedrin aligned with him do come across as almost monolithically malevolent. Caiphas is portrayed as adamant and unmerciful and his influence on Pilate is exaggerated. Conversely, Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) is almost gentle with Jesus, even offering his prisoner a drink. This overly sympathetic portrayal of the procurator as a vacillating, conflicted and world-weary backwater bureaucrat, averse to unnecessary roughness and easily coerced by both his Jewish subjects and his conscience-burdened wife, does not mesh with the Pilate of history remembered by the ancient historians as a ruthless and inflexible brute responsible for ordering the execution of hundreds of Jewish rabble-rousers without hesitation. (My note: again, apparently the writer has a problem with the Gospel writers themselves, for with the exception of the glass of water, this is how THEY portray events.) However, while the members of Sanhedrin are painted in villainous shades, the film is abundantly clear that it is the Romans who are Christ's executioners (a fact corroborated by both the Nicene Creed and the writings of the Tacitus and Josephus).

The Roman soldiers are unimaginably — even gleefully-- sadistic in flaying Jesus to within an inch of his life. "The Passion" is exceedingly graphic in its portrayal of the barbarities of Roman justice. According to Gibson, much of the visual grisliness of Christ's suffering sprung from his own personal meditations on the Passion. As depicted, the violence, while explicit and extreme, does not seem an end in itself. It is not the kind of violence made to look exciting, glamorized or without consequences. It attempts to convey the depths of salvific divine love. Nonetheless, viewers' justifiable reaction is to be repelled by such unremitting inhumanity. In the end, such savagery may be self-defeating in trying to capture the imagination of the everyday moviegoer.

In contrast to Jesus' physical agony is the emotional desolation seen in the figure of the Virgin Mary. When Mary utters, "When, how, where, will you choose to be delivered from this?" the viewer is pierced by the depth of Mary's understanding of Christ's divinity and her sublime acceptance of seeing her son suffer. It tears at one's heart to see Mary struggling to get close to Jesus as he walks through the winding, narrow streets carrying the cross. Seeing him suddenly fall, she is transported, along with the viewers, to Christ's childhood, to a time when she was able to scoop him up when he stumbled. When she finally reaches Jesus, and he is on the ground, crushed by the weight of the cross, it is he who comforts her with his words, "See, mother, I make all things new." Morgenstern's portrayal of Mary is beautifully rendered, never more so than in the Pieta-like tableau when Christ's body is laid in her arms.

The juxtaposition of the wounded and bleeding body of Christ on the cross with scenes of the Last Supper compellingly underscores how the Eucharist is truly the body and blood of Christ. Other indelible images include a derided Jesus faltering under the weight of the cross intercut with his earlier triumphant entry into Jerusalem and a single raindrop — a tear from heaven — heralding Christ's death. The power of the cross is also keenly conveyed. Jesus does not recoil from either the horrific scourging at the hands of the Roman soldiers or from carrying the burdensome cross. Instead, he declares his "heart is ready" and embraces the cross as if comforting a fallen sinner. These are truly moving and emotional points in the film.

Cinematically, there are flaws as well as triumphs in Gibson's film, such as a recurring tendency to slip into the horror-genre conventions, including a scene of a guilt-wracked Judas being taunted by little boys whose faces turn into those of grotesque, macabre ghouls. And close-ups of Christ's scarred and mutilated body are truly horrible.

For those coming to the film without a faith perspective it may have little resonance. But for Christians, "The Passion of the Christ" is likely to arouse not only passionate opinions, but hopefully a deeper understanding of the drama of salvation and the magnitude of God's love and forgiveness. It is not about what men did to God, but what God endured for humanity.

Due to gory scenes of torture and crucifixion, a suicide and some frightening images, the USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Subtitles.

Unflinching dramatization of the final agonizing hours of the earthly life of Jesus Christ (Jim Caviezel), from the garden of Gethsemane to his crucifixion and resurrection, intercut with flashbacks to his childhood and public ministry. Although the film's brutality poignantly conveys the depth of Christ's love by showing him freely enduring such extreme agony for the redemption of all sinners, the graphic nature of the raw visuals is played to diminishing returns. Following the basic outline of the gospel passion narratives, director Mel Gibson embroiders his interpretive retelling of scripture with extra-biblical sources as well as his own imagination, to craft an at times profoundly moving movie which succeeds in stripping Christ's sacrificial suffering of its Sunday school sugar-coating. While it is the film's assertion that responsibility for Christ's torture and death rest squarely with the Roman authorities, and away from the collective Jewish populace, the movie presents a historically skewed depiction of the Temple elite's sway with their imperial overlords. Subtitles. Gory scenes of torture and crucifixion, a suicide and some frightening images. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-III — adults. (R) 2004

The classifications are as follows:

***
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