Old-time Catholics: Gibson film casts light on traditionalists

Associated Press/February 15, 2004

They attend Mass in Latin, using a liturgy Rome abolished. They abstain from meat on Fridays and women cover their heads in church. For more than three decades, a small group of American Roman Catholics has been quietly worshipping in ways the Vatican told them to abandon.

Now their ultraconservative beliefs are under scrutiny as the man they count as their most famous adherent, actor-director Mel Gibson, prepares to release a movie about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ that's already stirring controversy.

The movement, known as traditionalist Catholicism, grew worldwide from opposition to the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council, a series of meetings held from 1962-65 that dramatically changed the church.

The council altered Catholic practices and teachings in myriad ways to make it more relevant to the wider world, such as having Mass said in local languages after centuries in which it was recited in Latin, having the priest celebrate Mass facing parishioners and distributing communion in the hand instead of the mouth.

The council decreed that Christians other than Catholics can be saved. It also declared that Jews were not collectively responsible for Christ's death: The notion of Jewish guilt had fueled anti-Semitism for centuries.

But traditionalists reject what the council decided.

Traditionalists believe that only Catholicism is the true path to salvation - and that by adhering to church teaching as it was before the council they are the only true Catholics, according to William Dinges, an expert on traditionalists and a professor at Catholic University of America.

"They are the Roman Catholic analog to Protestant fundamentalism," Dinges said.

Gibson keeps views to himself

Gibson has refused over the years to describe his exact religious affiliation and declined to do so in an interview by e-mail with The Associated Press for this article.

He has said previously that he attends Latin Mass and recently even built his own chapel near Malibu, Calif., so he could worship closer to home. However, it is not clear what traditionalist beliefs he follows.

The movement is as diverse as the many splinter groups it has generated, from moderates who maintain some contact with the Vatican to the more militant who rejected outright the authority of the late Pope John XXIII - who convened the council - and every pope elected thereafter.

There is another, even more extreme faction that believes the council was a conspiracy between Jews and Masons to destroy the church. Some go as far as considering all the popes elected since that meeting "precursors to the anti-Christ," according to Michael Cuneo, a Fordham University sociologist who wrote "The Smoke of Satan," a book on traditionalists.

No link in interviews to fringe

Nothing Gibson has said in media interviews indicates he belongs to the far-right fringe. The Italian newspaper Il Giornale reported in 2002 that Gibson had called the Vatican a "wolf in sheep's clothing," but Gibson's representatives said the actor never spoke to the newspaper.

There are no such ambiguities surrounding the affiliation of the actor's father, Hutton Gibson, who told The New York Times Magazine for a March 2003 article that the council was "a Masonic plot backed by the Jews."

Shared views not known

But it is unclear what beliefs, if any, the father and son share.

The actor's personal beliefs are a central issue with critics of his upcoming movie, "The Passion of the Christ," who worry that its depiction of the role of Jewish leaders in Jesus' final hours will revive the idea that all Jews are to blame for his death. The film is set to open on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25.

Gibson has repeatedly denied that his film maligns Jews. Several of his friends who are Jewish have said they see no prejudice in the movie, which has won praise from many prominent Christians including evangelist Billy Graham.

Opponents of the film, seeking to find proof of prejudice in his traditionalist ties, will be frustrated.

Dinges has been tracking Gibson's comments and believes the actor is not allied with a specific branch of the movement. Traditionalists are so loosely organized that independent chapels are built around the country with no formal connection to each other.

"I suspect that's the nature of the operation there. He isn't affiliated with a society or any group like that, but he has someone willing to say Mass (in Latin) at the chapel," Dinges said.

The exact number of traditionalists in the United States is unknown. Some experts estimate about 50,000 Americans consider themselves part of the movement, compared to the 64 million U.S. Catholics within the official church.

Writer welcomes attention

Mark Alessio, a traditionalist writer who has defended Gibson's movie in the movement newspaper The Remnant, said he welcomes attention to traditionalism despite the controversy.

However, he has been disturbed by some of the discussion of their beliefs, which he said give the appearance that "traditionalists are focused on, 'We've got to blame the Jews.' "

"It's not to blame anyone but to ensure that the Catholic faith is put in its proper place," Alessio said. "If you start saying, 'We can't evangelize this group,' then you've pretty much got a limp Catholicism."

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