Matt C. Abbott
March 11, 2014
A 'massive, looming threat' to the Church; Catholic film critic on 'Passion' vs. 'Son of God'
By Matt C. Abbott

The following is a good letter to the editor, written by Father Brian W. Harrison, O.S., of St. Louis, Mo., that appears (in slightly abbreviated form) in the February 2014 issue of Inside the Vatican magazine.
    Dear Dr. [Robert] Moynihan,

    In your latest Letter from Rome, commenting on the new appointments to the College of Cardinals, you report rather nonchalantly that "[Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig] Müller is also known for having said that the Church's position on admitting to divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacrament of Communion is not something that can or will be changed. But other German Church leaders, including Cardinal Walter Kasper, have recently gone on record saying the teaching may and will be changed."

    Your brief, matter-of-fact report on this controversy reminds me of the tip of an iceberg. It alludes to, but does not reveal the immensity of, a massive, looming threat that bids fair to pierce, penetrate and rend in twain Peter's barque – already tossing perilously amid stormy and icy seas. The shocking magnitude of the doctrinal and pastoral crisis lurking beneath this politely-worded dispute between scholarly German prelates can scarcely be overstated. For what is at stake here is fidelity to a teaching of Jesus Christ that directly and profoundly affects the lives of hundreds of millions of Catholics: the indissolubility of marriage.

    The German bishops have devised a pastoral plan to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion, whether or not a Church tribunal has granted a decree of nullity of their first marriage. Cardinal-elect Müller, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has not only published a strong article in L'Osservatore Romano reaffirming the perennial Catholic doctrine confirmed by John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio; he has also written officially to the German bishops' conference telling them to rectify their heterodox pastoral plan. But the bishops, led by their conference president and by Cardinal Kasper, are openly defying the head of the CDF, and predicting that the existing doctrine and discipline will soon be changed!

    Think of the appalling ramifications of this. If German Catholics don't need decrees of nullity, neither will any Catholics anywhere. Won't the world's Catholic marriage tribunals then become basically irrelevant? Will they eventually just close down? And won't this reversal of bimillennial Catholic doctrine mean that the Protestants and Orthodox, who have allowed divorce and remarriage for century after century, have been more docile to the Holy Spirit on this issue than the true Church of Christ? Indeed, how credible, now, will be her claim to be the true Church? On what other controverted issues, perhaps, has the Catholic Church been wrong and the separated brethren right?

    And what of Jesus' teaching that those who remarry after divorce commit adultery? Admitting them to Communion without a commitment to continence will lead logically to one of three faith-breaking conclusions: (a) Our Lord was mistaken in calling this relationship adulterous – in which case he can scarcely have been the Son of God; (b) adultery is not intrinsically and gravely sinful – in which case the Church's universal and ordinary magisterium has always been wrong; or (c) Communion can be given to some who are living in objectively grave sin – in which case not only has the magisterium also erred monumentally by always teaching the opposite, but the way will also be opened to Communion for fornicators, practicing homosexuals, pederasts, and who knows who else? (And, please, spare us the sophistry that Jesus' teaching was correct 'in his own historical and cultural context,' but that since about Martin Luther's time that has all changed.)

    Let us make no mistake: Satan is right now shaking the Church to her very foundations over this divorce issue. If anything, the confusion is becoming even graver than that over contraception between 1965 and 1968, when Paul VI's seeming vacillation allowed Catholics round the world to anticipate a reversal of perennial Church teaching. If the present Successor of Peter now keeps silent about divorce and remarriage, thereby tacitly telling the Church and the world that the teaching of Jesus Christ will be up for open debate at a forthcoming Synod of Bishops, one fears a terrible price will soon have to be paid.


Click here to read "'Transgender' Catholic churches?" – my latest piece at BarbWire.com.

Click here to read "Matt C. Abbott On a New Book, The Seven Big Myths About Marriage" – my latest piece at Catholic Online.



A couple of observations about The Passion of the Christ versus Son of God:

Although The Passion of the Christ was ridiculed by a number of critics – it has a 49 percent rating at Rottentomatoes.com (a website that counts the reviews of numerous film critics and calculates a percentage of "fresh" reviews versus "rotten" reviews of a particular film) – it actually has a higher percentage than Son of God, which currently has a 23 percent rating. Of course, the latter hasn't produced nearly as much controversy as Mel Gibson's film.

Son of God also seems to be falling well short of what The Passion did at the box office. Granted, it's only been in theaters for a couple of weeks, but I can't imagine it's going to do as well as The Passion did for its theatrical run.

Was it just the controversy that fueled the box-office success of The Passion?

I asked Catholic film critic and journalist Steven D. Greydanus to comment on my observations.

Steven's response:
    There is no valid comparison to be made between the box-office performance of Son of God and The Passion of the Christ.

    Son of God is actually performing remarkably well at the box office for a feature film that

    • was cobbled together from part of a TV miniseries, The Bible, already widely seen by its target audience. Essentially the film is asking people to pay to see on the big screen what they've already seen for free on the small screen.

    • has a modest TV-level production budget. (The whole of The Bible cost less than The Passion of the Christ.)

    • has no big names on either side of the camera.

    Beyond that, while it's true that The Passion of the Christ was widely rejected by critics, critical opinions on that film were all over the spectrum, from raves to rants. [The late] Roger Ebert gave it his highest rating, four stars. Other critics esteemed it highly. It was a movie that could be either loved or hated.

    Son of God isn't that movie. No one is acclaiming it a masterpiece – and no one is blasting it as an atrocity, either. There are no raves, and very few rants. The consensus opinion seems to be that it's a rather bland, boring retread of familiar material, adding little to the stories we already know.

    No one could say that about The Passion. The Passion was a deeply personal work from a veteran Hollywood filmmaker, one that offered a vision of Catholic spirituality unlike anything anyone had ever seen on the screen. The blend of gritty realism, surreal symbolism and demonic horror-movie imagery, not to mention the inspired use of subtitled Aramaic and Latin, made The Passion a unique, powerful film. Viewers could debate whether it was powerfully inspiring or powerfully horrifying, but it wasn't a film that could be easily dismissed. Son of God seems easy to dismiss.

    Note that even critics who didn't like The Passion of the Christ pay it backhanded compliments in criticizing Son of God.

    Stephan Lee (Entertainment Weekly) writes, in a not entirely negative review: 'At best, [Son of God] succeeds as a Sunday school supplement. But the blandness is enough to make you long for Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.'

    Elizabeth Weitzman (New York Daily News) writes: 'Director Christopher Spencer's biblical yarn lacks the complex rigor of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ and the fury of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, leaving its star, Diogo Morgado, stuck in a film that's stiff and earnest.'
© Matt C. Abbott

 

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He's been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.


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