Is the Pope Catholic...Enough?

New York Times/March 9, 2003
By Christopher Noxon

The first sign that something unusual was going on up the hill was the appearance of a fleet of brand-new Volkswagen bugs, lined up on a muddy bluff like a row of oversize Easter eggs. It was a local handyman who spotted them while he was out on a walk through this little valley in the mountains northwest of Los Angeles, near Malibu. Neighbors had already been talking about the 16-acre property on the valley's south slope, and soon word spread that a church group called Holy Family had purchased the site with plans to break ground for a 9,300-square-foot Mission-style church complex.

Among the neighbors who wondered about the new arrival was my father, a recently retired documentary filmmaker who joined the local homeowners association when he moved to the area two years ago. This latest project, however, wasn't the usual commercial complex or instant enclave of luxury homes that tended to attract the association's attention. It was a church, that much was clear, but it didn't sound at all like your garden-variety community parish. A representative for the property owner explained that the church was Catholic, but it wasn't affiliated with the Roman Catholic archdiocese. While the church building was relatively large, the congregation was quite small, with about 70 members. And though religious practices and rituals would be familiar to Catholics, there was one big difference: Sunday Mass, it was reported, would be conducted entirely in Latin.

Lest anyone get the impression that this band of spiritual seekers might disperse if the collection baskets were to run dry, a church representative assured the neighbors that the church was supported by an unnamed individual congregant with ''tremendous financial viability.''

Would that explain the VW bugs? The handyman recalls posing the question at an early community meeting. He was told that the congregant financing the church ''had given them as gifts to his nieces and nephews,'' he says. ''I remember thinking, 'That's some generous uncle.'''

The person behind the unusually well-endowed chapel turned out to be the actor Mel Gibson, star of ''Mad Max,'' ''Lethal Weapon'' and ''Braveheart.'' The church is operated by a nonprofit corporation; according to public financial records, Gibson is its director, chief executive officer and sole benefactor, making more than $2.8 million in contributions over the past three years.

The fact that Gibson is building a church in the hills near Los Angeles should come as no huge surprise. Gibson's Catholicism has never been a secret, and in fact gives him a sort of reverse-exoticism in a town where other stars dabble in Buddhism, kabala and Scientology. An avowed family man still on his first marriage, with seven children to show for it, Gibson smokes, raises cattle, publicly shuns plastic surgery and seems wholly unmoved by most of the liberal-left causes favored by industry peers. Recently, however, something beyond the impulse to entertain has been showing up in Gibson's work. Last year he played a former minister who rediscovers religion amid an alien invasion in ''Signs'' and a reverent Catholic lieutenant colonel in the war drama ''We Were Soldiers.'' In these films, but especially in a new movie, a monumentally risky project called ''The Passion,'' which he co-wrote and is currently directing in and around Rome, Gibson appears increasingly driven to express a theology only hinted at in his previous work. That theology is a strain of Catholicism rooted in the dictates of a 16th-century papal council and nurtured by a splinter group of conspiracy-minded Catholics, mystics, monarchists and disaffected conservatives -- including a seminary dropout and rabble-rousing theologist who also happens to be Mel Gibson's father.

Gibson is the star practitioner of this movement, which is known as Catholic traditionalism. Seeking to maintain the faith as it was understood before the landmark Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, traditionalists view modern reforms as the work of either foolish liberals or hellbent heretics. They generally operate outside the authority or oversight of the official church, often maintaining their own chapels, schools, seminaries and clerical orders. Central to the movement is the Tridentine Mass, the Latin rite that was codified by the Council of Trent in the 16th century and remained in place until the Second Vatican Council deemed that Mass should be held in the popular language of each country. Latin, however, is just the beginning -- traditionalists refrain from eating meat on Fridays, and traditionalist women wear headdresses in church. The movement seeks to revive an orthodoxy uncorrupted by the theological and social changes of the last 300 years or so.

Michael W. Cuneo, a sociology professor at Fordham University who reported on right-wing Catholic dissent in his 1997 book, ''The Smoke of Satan,'' wrote that traditionalists ''would like nothing more than to be transported back to Louis XIV's France or Franco's Spain, where Catholicism enjoyed an unrivaled presidency over cultural life and other religions existed entirely at its beneficence.''

While traditionalists agree on the broad outlines of correct religious practice, the movement is hardly united. Its brief history is the story of a movement branching off into ever-smaller submovements. Today there are approximately 600 traditionalist chapels, representing a number of theological streams, including the more Vatican-friendly Society of Saint Pius X, the more strident Society of Saint Pius V, the militantly traditional Mount St. Michael's community and the Apostles of Infinite Love, a monastic community in Quebec led by a onetime Catholic brother who claims to be the incarnation of the one true pope. All told, there are an estimated 100,000 traditionalists in the United States.

Gibson's church may be the most comfortably endowed traditionalist house of worship in the country, but in other respects it is quite typical. Most of the congregation met while attending services held by a traditionalist priest, whose church in the San Gabriel Valley was eventually taken over by the Society of Saint Pius X. A group of congregants, including the Gibson family, left in protest. They gained approval from Los Angeles County to build their own church early last year after agreeing to a set of operating guidelines -- covering such issues as parking, lighting, signage and hours of services -- with the regional planning commission and neighbors (including my father).

When I called the church elder who was Holy Family's representative at the county meetings, he agreed to an interview and accepted my request to attend a service, on the conditions that I not identify him or any member of the congregation beyond Mel Gibson, and that I withhold details that might invite the interest of fans or paparazzi. He also asked that I refrain from speaking to the priest, the congregants or anyone else during my visit. He told me that anyone seen speaking to me ''will not be welcome back at our church again.''

After all the warnings, I was a little surprised to find Sunday Mass at Holy Family an almost entirely ordinary experience. The service itself was remarkably similar to what I remember from parochial school -- that is, until a homily delivered near the end of the two-hour Mass. The priest read a parable from St. Matthew about a farmer whose fields are raided in the night by an enemy who spreads a noxious weed in his wheat. The evil in the story, the priest said, is ''the modern church,'' whose wickedness will be dealt with on Judgment Day.

''The wiping out of our opposition must wait until harvest time,'' he concluded. It suddenly became clear why Gibson isn't worshiping with his fellow Catholic Martin Sheen down at Our Lady of Malibu.

Gibson is widely known in traditionalist circles, and he has made no secret of his religious affiliation. ''I go to an all-pre-Vatican II Latin Mass,'' he told USA Today in an interview two years ago. ''There was a lot of talk, particularly in the 60's, of 'Wow, we've got to change with the times.' But the Creator instituted something very specific, and we can't just go change it.'' More recently, the Italian newspaper Il Giornale reported that Gibson made a ''scathing attack against the Vatican,'' calling it a ''wolf in sheep's clothing.''

While many traditionalists can't abide some of Gibson's career choices -- the onscreen baring of his bottom is a particular source of concern -- most are content to overlook his occasional wild streak. ''Gibson should get the tsk-tsk award for lowering his impressive acting talent on occasion,'' wrote a priest known as Father Moderator on the Internet posting board Traditio. Nonetheless, the priest continued, Gibson ''never ceases to project his traditional Catholic faith to the public. Who else in such a prominent position ever does?''

Mel Gibson is also known in traditionalist circles as the most famous son of Hutton Gibson, a well-known author and activist who has railed against the Vatican for more than 30 years. His books on the topic include ''Is the Pope Catholic?'' and ''The Enemy Is Here.'' (Precisely where is indicated by a map on the dust jacket -- it's a cartoon of Italy, drawn by one of his 49 grandchildren). Gibson père also publishes a quarterly newsletter called ''The War Is Now!,'' which includes all manner of verbal volleys against a pope he calls ''Garrulous Karolus, the Koran Kisser.''

Now living in suburban Houston, Hutton Gibson invited me for a weekend visit after an initial phone conversation. When I arrived, he was wrapping up an interview with a syndicated radio program. Hutton Gibson is 84 but seemed a good deal younger (which he credited to his abstinence from drinking, daily doses of vitamins and ''never going near a doctor''). He is energized by an abiding love of corny jokes and lively debate, and he peppered a commentary on the scandals facing the Catholic Church with jokes about Texans, the Irish and, inevitably, the pope.

He said he speaks to his son frequently and knows all about Mel's chapel in the hills. ''Mel wasn't raised in the new church, and he wouldn't go for it anymore than I would,'' he said. ''I've got to say that my whole family is with me -- all 10 of them.''

While his rhetoric showed no signs of mellowing, the elder Gibson had plenty of reasons to be satisfied. For one, he is a newlywed. His doting bride, Joye, is a statuesque Oregonian who playfully addressed him as ''Mr. G.'' Surrounded by ceramic knickknacks and photos of his grandchildren, he seemed entirely at ease with himself and the world.

Which made it all the odder when he launched into one of his complex conspiracy theories. On our first night together, he nursed a mug of sassafras tea while leading a four-hour tutorial on so-called sedevacantism, which holds that all the popes going back to John XXIII in the 1950's have been illegitimate -- ''anti-popes,'' he called them. As Hutton explained it, the conservative cardinal Giuseppe Siri was probably passed over for pope in 1958 in favor of a more reform-minded candidate. Hutton said Cardinal Siri was duly elected, but was forced to step aside by conspirators inside and outside the church. These shadowy enemies might have threatened ''to atom-bomb the Vatican City,'' he said. In another conversation, he told me that the Second Vatican Council was ''a Masonic plot backed by the Jews.''

The intrigue got only murkier and more menacing from there. The next day after church, over a plate of roast beef at a buffet joint off the highway, conversation turned to the events of Sept. 11. Hutton flatly rejected that Al Qaeda hijackers had anything to do with the attacks. ''Anybody can put out a passenger list,'' he said.

So what happened? ''They were crashed by remote control,'' he replied.

He moved on to the Holocaust, dismissing historical accounts that six million Jews were exterminated. ''Go and ask an undertaker or the guy who operates the crematorium what it takes to get rid of a dead body,'' he said. ''It takes one liter of petrol and 20 minutes. Now, six million?''

Across the table, Joye suddenly looked up from her plate. She was dressed in a stylish outfit for church, wearing a leather patchwork blazer and a felt beret in place of the traditional headdress. She had kept quiet most of the day, so it was a surprise when she cheerfully piped in. ''There weren't even that many Jews in all of Europe,'' she said.

''Anyway, there were more after the war than before,'' Hutton added.

The entire catastrophe was manufactured, said Hutton, as part of an arrangement between Hitler and ''financiers'' to move Jews out of Germany. Hitler ''had this deal where he was supposed to make it rough on them so they would all get out and migrate to Israel because they needed people there to fight the Arabs,'' he said.

Whether any of this has rubbed off on Hutton's son Mel is an open question. A church elder at Holy Family says that while the two share the same foundation of faith, Mel Gibson parts company with his father on many points. ''He doesn't go along with a lot of what his dad says,'' he says. And beyond claiming to have seen the plans for Holy Family and attended services with the congregation, Hutton Gibson has no apparent connection to his son's church in California.

Still, Mel Gibson has shown some of his father's flair for conspiracy scenarios. In a 1995 Playboy interview, he related a sketchy theory that various presidential assassinations and assassination attempts have been acts of retribution for economic reforms that challenged the powers-that-be. ''There's something to do with the Federal Reserve that Lincoln did, Kennedy did and Reagan tried,'' he said. ''I can't remember what it was. My dad told me about it. Everyone who did this particular thing that would have fixed the economy got undone. Anyway, I'll end up dead if I keep talking.''

Perhaps nothing Gibson has done will serve as a more public announcement of his faith and worldview than the project he's now completing in Rome. ''The Passion'' is a graphic depiction of the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus Christ, based on biblical accounts and the writings of two mystic nuns. Gibson is returning to the director's chair for the first time since ''Braveheart'' in 1995, but he will not appear on-screen. There will not, in fact, be any big stars. Nor will there be subtitles, which might prove a challenge for many moviegoers, since the actors will speak only Aramaic and Latin. Gibson has said that he hopes to depict Christ's ordeal using ''filmic storytelling'' techniques that will make the understanding of dialogue unnecessary.

The idea came to him a decade ago, he announced at a news conference last September, and he is soldiering on now without the backing of a studio or a U.S. distributor. ''Obviously, nobody wants to touch something filmed in two dead languages,'' he said. ''They think I'm crazy, and maybe I am. But maybe I'm a genius.''

In Hollywood, the astonishment many felt upon hearing about the project has been heightened by reports that his production company is paying the film's estimated $25 million cost itself. Making a movie that has anything at all to do with religion is risky enough -- remember ''The Last Temptation of Christ''? But spending your own money to help pay for it?

''It's a very gutsy thing to do -- I certainly wouldn't do it,'' says the veteran producer Alan Ladd Jr., who chose Gibson to star in and direct ''Braveheart.'' ''But he wouldn't do it if he couldn't it pull off, at least in his own mind. He's obviously satisfying some deep personal need in himself.''

Only Gibson knows the precise nature of that personal need, and he declined numerous requests for an interview, limiting his public comments to a January appearance on the Fox news program ''The O'Reilly Factor,'' in which he complained about inquiries regarding his faith and suggested that any reporter asking such questions might be part of a plot to undermine his message of salvation. ''I think he's been sent,'' he told Bill O'Reilly. ''When you touch this subject, it does have a lot of enemies.''

Many traditionalists, meanwhile, hope the graphic approach Gibson is taking -- production stills show the star, James Caviezel, beaten to a pulp and drenched in blood, fresh from a flagellation -- will serve as a big-budget dramatization of key points of traditionalist theology. After waging a quiet war against what they see as the Vatican's overly accommodating theology, traditionalists suddenly find themselves equipped with a most unfamiliar weapon: star power. ''I'm delighted he's getting more involved,'' says Bishop Daniel Dolan, founder of more than 30 Latin Mass churches and one of the most influential traditionalists in the country. ''To put the weight of his Hollywood celebrity behind the truth that the whole modern church structure is rotten to the core is excellent. I welcome it.''

A friend of the Gibson family has his own ideas about how traditionalist thought is informing ''The Passion.'' Gary Giuffre, a founder of the traditionalist St. Jude Chapel in Texas, says Gibson told him about his plans for ''The Passion'' on a recent visit. ''It will graphically portray the intense suffering of Christ, perhaps as no film has done before.'' Most important, he says, the film will lay the blame for the death of Christ where it belongs -- which some traditionalists believe means the Jewish authorities who presided over his trial and delivered him to the Romans to be crucified.

In his conversation with Bill O'Reilly (who prefaced the interview by disclosing that Gibson's production company has optioned the rights to O'Reilly's mystery novel), Gibson was asked whether his account might particularly upset Jews. ''It may,'' he said. ''It's not meant to. I think it's meant to just tell the truth. I want to be as truthful as possible. But when you look at the reasons why Christ came, why he was crucified -- he died for all mankind and he suffered for all mankind. So that, really, anyone who transgresses has to look at their own part or look at their own culpability.''

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