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Saturday, September 20, 2003

A House Dividing: The Passion as Uncle Tom's Cabin.

A fellow Catholic blogger has titled the current clashes in the U.S. church "the American Catholic Civil War." Rabbi Eugene Korn of the ADL voiced similar thoughts, noting:

“We have ridden into the middle of ideological war between conservative Catholics and Vatican II progressive Catholics....”

Rabbi Daniel Dalin recognized much the same thing in his assessment of the literature surrounding the actions of Pope Pius XII during the Shoah:

Almost none of the recent books about Pius XII and the Holocaust is actually about Pius XII and the Holocaust. Their real topic proves to be an intra-Catholic argument about the direction of the Church today, with the Holocaust simply the biggest club available for liberal Catholics to use against traditionalists.

[Parenthetically, the most obvious difference between the rabbis on the subject is that the former entered the fray guns blazing, taking sides and hurling anathemas while the latter was considerably more circumspect.]

While intriguing, I think "civil war" is a little overblown--for now. At the moment, it looks more like the struggle between "progressive" and "conservative" camps has entered its "bleeding Kansas" stage. As in the analogous 19th Century American crisis, I think there will have to be an election before the matter comes to a head.

All of which leads me back to the conflagration over the Gibson film. In the looming conflict, The Passion is Uncle Tom's Cabin--a work whose symbolic import may well outweigh its artistic merits. Stowe's book was effectively a fiery sermon against slavery--dropped into a culture growing more and more divided over the impact of the brutal institution on the nation. At the time, the clamor over slavery was inescapable and getting louder--from Congress, to the papers to the pulpits--it was the issue and UTC was a bombshell.

As with Stowe's book, Gibson's film, too, is a sermon--in this case, about the central event of Christianity--the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. An additional factor is that the film is made by a devout Catholic who is himself controversial. It, too, is dropped into the midst of a period of increasing polarization in American Catholicism. It is being filmed after two generations of exhausting, inescapable battles in American Catholic life, where everything--from participation in politics to the liturgy to the authority of clergy to biblical studies to moral theology to religious education to what to eat on Friday--has been the subject of confusion (sometimes deliberate), debate and conflict. Calling it a maelstrom is not an exaggeration. All of the fighting boils down to one essential issue: what is the Church? The answer to that question necessarily determines its role and where it is going.

As a result, it is clear that the ferocious battle over The Passion is not particularly about the alleged failings in the depiction of first century Jews at all. Surprising as this sounds, the controversy over that issue, while the loudest, may be the least important aspect of the debate. In reality, the fight is over the direction of American Catholicism itself.

In other words, the film has become the focus of those battling for the soul of the Church in America.

In one corner stand the film's supporters, a hard-to-categorize group that runs the gamut from traditionalism (yes, some "fringe") to a loosely-defined "conservatism" that cares little for the Latin Mass or the perceived rigidity of the pre-1965 Church. It includes scholars, members of religious orders, Vatican officials and a lot of energized lay Catholics. It even includes a healthy cross-section of non-Catholics, but that's not relevant here. If there is a uniting thread among Catholic supporters of the film, it appears to be a love of the Gospels, a hunger for an authentic, faithful depiction of the fearful cost of the Redemption, and a growing anger at an elite too willing to redefine the faith.

In the other is a home-grown magisterium of progressive scholars, ordained, religious and lay, connected to the universities, institutions and bureaucracies of the American church. They speak in the assured patter of academia, advocating sweeping change under the title of "education." As the Jewish Weekly article noted, they can get personal audiences with the episcopate (however tepid). These individuals are emblematic of the strain of Catholic thought that has used the Second Vatican Council as the banner for sweeping reforms of all facets of Catholic life--and is increasingly resented for it. They want to impose "new" understanding of the Gospels (under the rubric "modern biblical scholarship" (see section VIII of the linked essay)) in the same way their like-minded brothers and sisters imposed "new" understandings of liturgy, architecture, religious education, moral theology, seminary formation, etc.--also citing the Council. It is open to serious doubt whether the critics of the film are correct in their construing of the relevant Vatican II documents, much less whether the film actually contradicts those documents. But it's more important to recognize it as part of the same school of thought, and as the prime contributor to the conflict over the film.

Hence the fire and fury over an incomplete roll of celluloid, and why Catholics (including me) are passionate (!) about the film. The same arguments have been heard before, when churches are "renovated," liturgies are mangled, nominally Catholic universities teach that pretty much anything goes--the list goes on, ad nauseum. The usual suspects behind such "reforms" have now trained their guns on a film they haven't seen, in large part because it's too faithful. As with the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a breaking point has been reached.

In a way, it's rather amusing watching a self-identified traditionalist tell clergy and religious to get bent and progressives demanding censorship and appealing to favored cardinals for what amounts to a reinstitution of the Index, at least as far as this film is concerned. Free speech for me but not thee.

But it's far less amusing when considered in the context of a widening and increasingly contentious conflict over the fate of the Catholic Church in America: a battle for which the ultimate resolution is in doubt.

[Note: part of the post's title was borrowed from the headline title for the first two volumes of Allan Nevins' groundbreaking history of the Civil War period, The War for the Union. If you'd like to send me all eight volumes, contact me in the comments box.]

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