‘Passion’ and Intrigue

On the matter of the pope, “The Passion” and the famous papal quote, you are perhaps perplexed. You are not alone. This is a story marked by, among other things, a certain amount of intrigue, and some of it is like something out of “The DaVinci Code.”

My Dec. 17 column reported that Pope John Paul II had seen Mel Gibson’s movie on the crucifixion of Christ, “The Passion,” and had offered a judgment on it: “It is as it was.” The quote came from the film’s producer, Steve McEveety, who told me that it was given to him by the pope’s longtime private secretary, Archbishop Stanislau Dziwisz.

At almost the same moment my piece ran, the National Catholic Reporter ran a piece by Rome correspondent John L. Allen Jr., saying the Vatican had given a “thumbs up” to Mel Gibson’s film. It quoted a senior Vatican official who spoke on condition of anonymity: “The Holy Father watched and enjoyed the film. His comment afterwards was, ‘It is as it was.’ “

The next day Reuters reported in a dispatch with a Vatican dateline that it had a Vatican source who said the pope had seen the film, was “moved” by it, and afterward said, “It is as it was.”

A week later, on Dec. 24, reporter Cindy Wooden of the Catholic News Service wrote a piece saying that “a senior Vatican official close to the pope,” who insisted that his name not be used, had denied that the pope said what he was quoted as saying. “The Holy Father does not comment, does not give judgments on art,” Ms. Wooden quoted the official as saying. “I repeat: There was no declaration, no judgment from the pope.” She quoted another Vatican official saying, “The Holy Father saw this film, but did not express any opinion on it.”

On Jan. 9, John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter defended his piece. He reported that he had gone back to his original source, “a well placed Vatican official who is normally a reliable guide to the pope’s mind.” Mr. Allen wrote: “The official is adamant that the original story was right—the pope did indeed say, ‘It is as it was.’ “ Mr. Allen provided new information. The pope and Archbishop Dziwisz had watched the film in the dining room of the pope’s private apartment on a television with a large screen and a videocassette recorder.

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Which brings us to this week.

On Sunday Frank Rich of the New York Times, in a column attacking the marketing of the film and those who have supported it, reported that he contacted the Italian translator in the McEveety-Dziwisz meeting. The translator backed the quote up—Archbishop Dziwisz had quoted the pope saying “It is as it was”—and added that the archbishop had also used the word “incredible” to describe the film.

The day after Mr. Rich’s piece ran, Cindy Wooden of CNS returned to the story—with a blockbuster. Archbishop Dziwisz—the man quoted as the source of the papal quote—denied that the pope had told anyone his opinion of the film. “I said clearly to McEveety . . . that the Holy Father made no declaration,” he said.

What gives?

The answer to that question is important for several reasons. The truth matters. What a pope says matters. And what this pontiff says about this film matters. “The Passion,” which is to open on Feb. 25, has been the focus of an intense critical onslaught since last summer. The film has been fiercely denounced as anti-Semitic, and accused of perpetuating stereotypes that will fan hatred against Jews. John Paul II has a long personal and professional history of opposing anti-Semitism, of working against it, and of calling for dialogue, respect and reconciliation between all religions. His comments here would have great importance.

Finally, it is important what the Holy Father said because no piece of work that is destructive and cruel—and what is more destructive and cruel than anti-Semitism?—should be helped by anyone, including and especially the greatest religious leader of our time.

So while to some this may seem a tempest in a teapot, it is not. It is an important story.

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Let me tell you of my experience in the drama. This summer I was invited to a Washington screening of the film. I went with some trepidation: Could the charges of anti-Semitism be true? I didn’t think that Mel Gibson would set out to create a deliberately anti-Semitic piece of work; that kind of movie would have been rejected by audiences and lambasted by critics. But people can do ignorant things and thoughtless things, and their work can be destructive. I didn’t know what Mr. Gibson’s film would be. So I watched, and found myself moved and inspired by the film, which isn’t about hatred but love, and love’s continuing war with evil. It is a film that engenders awe, gratitude, and no small amount of self-examination. What role do I play in the crucifixion of Christ, and what role would I have played if I had been there?

I was relieved. It is a story about Jews and Romans, about Jewish saints and sinners and Roman brutes and cynics, but it isn’t really about Jews and Romans; it’s about humanity. It’s about us.

I didn’t write about the movie because I felt it was a private showing and not meant for public comment.

Jump ahead to just more than a month ago. On Dec. 16, Variety got a scoop: John Paul II had seen the film. What did he think of it? I reached Mr. McEveety, the film’s producer, who told me with great excitement that it was true—he had taken the film to Rome, he had gotten it to the pope, and afterwards he had spoken to the pope’s friend and secretary, Archbishop Dziwisz, who told him that the pope, after seeing the film, had shared his reaction: “It is as it was.”

This was news. But had the archbishop said it for public consumption? Mr. McEveety told me he had discussed the quote voiced by Archbishop Dziwisz with the pope’s longtime official spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, head of the Vatican press office. Mr. McEveety said that Dr. Navarro Valls had told him he could use the papal quote when asked about the Holy Father’s reaction to the film.

I was surprised. Dr. Navarro-Valls is famously close-mouthed, and spends most of his time knocking stories like this down. It was unusual that he would give Mr. McEveety permission.

So I e-mailed Dr Navarro Valls at the Vatican telling him I wanted to write a piece for OpinionJournal and asking him about the quote. I didn’t hear back and sent another: “Dr. Navarro Valles [sic], my deadline is in two hours and I do hope you’ll let me know if there is anything on the Pope’s reaction beyond ‘It is as it was’—wonderful words, and I know you have already been in touch with Steve about them, but I would greatly appreciate it if there’s anything you could add regarding general Vatican feeling on the film, any further comment from the Holy Father, etc. Best, Peggy Noonan”

I got a response. “Dear Peggy, I don’t have for now any other comment on this. I [sic] anything is said in the future I will send it to you. Greetings, J. Navarro-Valls.”

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I reported the story including what Dr. Navarro-Valls said. I knew that if the Vatican wanted to protest the quote or deny it they would come down on Mr. McEveety and me like a ton of bricks, officially and quickly. I was glad to see reports from Vatican sources in subsequent weeks backing up the quote and the story.

When questions surfaced challenging the quote, Mr. McEveety e-mailed Dr. Navarro-Valls and asked for his help. He answered by e-mail advising Mr. McEveety not to worry, to use the phrase “It is as it was,” and to repeat those words “again and again and again.” Mr. McEveety sent me a copy of the e-mail.

It seemed to me obvious that some in the Vatican were disturbed that the pope’s comment had become public and was being used to defend the film. Several important Vatican figures had praised the film on the record in the past few months, but the film continued to be controversial—and the Vatican hates unneeded controversy. But I knew of Dr Navarro-Valls’s encouragement of the use of the quote, and assumed that at some point he would acknowledge that encouragement.

Instead, intrigue. Yesterday, Jan. 21, Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News e-mailed Dr. Navarro-Valls and asked him about the e-mails the spokesman had sent to Steve McEveety. How could the Vatican deny the pope’s quote when you told the producer to use it again and again?

Dr. Navarro-Valls quickly replied. He told Mr. Dreher that the e-mails were not authentic. He was suggesting that they were fabricated.

Mr. Dreher, a friend who used to be my neighbor in Brooklyn, contacted me and asked for my reaction. I told him I was flummoxed. I immediately wrote Dr. Navarro-Valls and asked him to confirm his e mail to me.

The return address on Dr. Navarro-Valls’s e-mail to Rod Dreher was the same as the one on his e-mails to me. We did some checking on Dr. Navarro-Valls’s e-mail to me of Dec. 17. It was sent via an e-mail server in the Vatican’s domain, and the IP address belongs to a Vatican computer.

I have not yet had a response from Dr. Navarro-Valls, but hope to. I have also written to Steve McEveety and asked if he has any response to Dr. Navarro-Valls’s assertion that what Steve said were e-mails from Dr. Navarro-Valls were in fact not authentic.

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Believe me, it is painful to be accused however implicitly of being the accessory to a lie. And it would grieve me more than I can say to have been part of wrongly attributing an important statement to a great pope who is for me a personal hero. Last night I spoke to Mr. McEveety, but he would not speak on the record about Dr. Navarro-Valls or the controversy that continues to swirl. I’ll be writing more soon about this extraordinary story.