The National Catholic Review

Bishops across the country have spoken publicly about the movie The Passion of the Christ, warning that whatever one thinks of the movie, Catholics should not leave the film believing that all Jews, then or now, are guilty of the death of Jesus. Catholics, say the bishops, also need to bear in mind that that there are four Gospels (not one or five), written toward the end of the first century, which reflect the times in which they were written and the needs of the communities for which they were written as much as the events in Jesus’ life that they relate. The bishops are distributing their collection of Catholic documents, The Bible, the Jews and the Death of Jesus, and are sending materials to their parishes and schools with these messages spelled out in some detail, as I did recently in these pages (Am., 2/16).

Perhaps more Catholics will learn about the teaching of the church on Jews and Judaism this Lent than in any comparable period since Pope John Paul II visited the Great Synagogue of Rome in 1986, or perhaps even since the Second Vatican Council. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of mixed groups of Jews and Christians around the country are viewing the movie together, as was suggested by Cardinal William Keeler, and engaging in dialogue.

Underneath the hype, The Passion of the Christ has given Catholic-Jewish relations in this country a great boost. So I want to join the rabbi who, after seeing the movie in one such group, commented, I want to thank Mel Gibson for bringing us all together. God does, indeed, write straight with crooked lines.

How should Catholics participate in a dialogue with Jews about the Passion?

First, Catholics should listen with their hearts as well as their minds to the concerns of their Jewish neighbors. These concerns are legitimate. They are also based on history. The Jewish people, like the Catholic Church, have a long memory, although many American Catholics dropped their interest in European history into the waters surrounding the Statue of Liberty when they immigrated. The ahistorical habit of American Catholics has a good side, of course. Even before the Second Vatican Council, most had set aside old ethnic and religious animositiesrabid anti-Semitism being among them. But Jews, understandably after what happened to them at the hands of Christians over the centuries and what happened to them in Christian Europe within living memory, are not quite sure they can yet trust us not to storm out of the movie looking for a Jew to take it out on, as, indeed, some of our European grandparents might well have done.

So we need to listen. Then we need to do more. We need to act together. A Catholic-Jewish group might go to a Catholic school, for example, and examine together what the textbooks actually say about Jews and Judaism. Their content is not, of course, what our grandparents’ generation was taught in catechism class on this subject. (Philip Cunningham of Boston College manages an excellent Web site devoted to Christian-Jewish relations which makes available many useful resources for Catholic preachers and teachers as well as dialogue groups: http://www.bc.edu/research/cjl.)

Jews need to know that the Catholic Church has made great strides in fulfilling the mandate of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate, 1965), on teaching about Jews and Judaism. They need, understandably, to see for themselves that Passion plays cannot be put neatly into the old slot of anti-Judaism, the idea of collective guilt, because that slot no longer exists. They need, as Rabbi Balfour Brickner once said at a dialogue meeting, to learn how to take yes for an answer.

The group might also visit a Jewish school and take a look at what Jewish textbooks say about Christianity. There are a few inaccuracies there, as well. But in the end, none are so dangerous as pre-Vatican II Christian teaching on the Jews and the death of Jesus.

Catholics need to understand that a people that saw one-third of its entire population systematically murdered by baptized Europeans not long ago are still struggling with the pain of that loss, and that this is a pain Passion plays helped bring about. At the same time, Jews need to know how Christians may view the film: in many cases it will be as a religious experience that for them has nothing to do with Jews as a group, but with Jesus and an appreciation of their own sinfulness. This, too, is a legitimate responsejust as are Jewish concerns.

This is especially true if they recognize that those who bear the most collective guilt for the death of Jesus, as the Catechism of the Council of Trent rightly taught, are Christians who sin even though they accept that Jesus died for the sins of all humanity. By contrast, the actions of the relatively few Jews who were involved in the Passion were carried out in ignorance, for which they have already been forgiven by Jesus himself.

Finally, a Christian-Jewish group might discuss how we converse with each other. Though we partially share common Scriptures, our religious language often uses the same terms in different ways. Our social language, too, is influenced by the different ways our communities are organized and the histories of those communities. Even our institutional styles of making public pronouncements differ. (One wag suggested that those who speak for Jewish agencies tend to talk like New Yorkers, while the Catholic bishops speak more like Midwesterners, milder in tone and devoid of verbal pyrotechnics.)

Much of the media hype over the movie has displayed (once again) a culture clash as much as a culture war. Many Jews, for example, asked me why the U.S. bishops did not condemn the movie outright for its Passion play elements. They wanted a shout from on high. What they got instead was a collection of official documents, a series of clear statements on the teaching of the Catholic Church, and an active educational and pastoral system doing its job to communicate that teaching day in and day out.

The Catholic bishops, I remind my Jewish friends, do not need to shout in the newspapers to be heard: the church teaches and preaches, and will do so long after this movie has had its last showing. What is important is that we get the teaching right. In this regard, we must be grateful for the sensitivity of Jews to the corrosive and at times subtle nature of the profound evil that is anti-Semitism. As Pope John Paul II has said to us time and again, this Jewish voice is for the church a saving warning.

Eugene J. Fisher is associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.