The Case of Mel Gibson

“Put not your faith in princes,” Scripture exhorts us. In our day and age it might be added, “Put not your faith in celebrities.” I say that on account of the case of Mel Gibson.

Back when his movie The Passion of the Christ was current a very great many Traditional Catholics went giddy, and not simply over the film. The way they talked about the filmmaker, it sounded as if they thought he walked on water. Of course this was understandable. Used as they were to being relegated to the margins both of society and, at that time, the Church, it was intoxicating that somebody who really matters nowadays, a celebrity, gave every sign of being one of them. As far as I know, he truly was that and, more to the point, remains so.

If it was understandable that many saw him as exemplary — a role model — it was also foolish. Pouring our beliefs and hopes into a human vessel always is. It isn’t that there haven’t been excellent princes in history or that all celebrities are necessarily egotistical airheads, but any human, being human, is liable to let us down. Of course the story of men putting their faith in other men is very old. It derives from our fallen nature that God is often found to be insufficient. In the language of Genesis, we want men — ourselves — to be “as gods”.

In any event, the fact Mel Gibson was a Traditional Catholic — probably the most famous one in the world — didn’t change my feeling about his movie. I refused to see it. At a Traditional Catholic conference in the Midwest, I explained why. I had two reasons, both having to do with the movie’s violence, especially the scourging scene, which I didn’t have to see to find objectionable. First, it was gratuitous, totally unnecessary. (In Jesus of Nazareth, the Italian director Franco Zeffirelli handled the scourging by letting us hear the whip, but showing a nearby horse flinch. It was all that was needed.) Second, I feared that the graphic depiction of the scourging would, at one and the same time, feed certain appetites that are beyond dangerous, and also further dull the sensibilities of the many today who are already too inured to violence become obscene.

Now I’ll say something I did not when I publicly objected to the film at that Midwest conference. I wondered about the man who filmed the scene the way Gibson did and then, with plenty of time to consider the matter during the editing process, included it in his movie. Was he unwittingly revealing a darker side of himself in the way, for instance, a man who is obsessed with privacy may be a secret snoop?

I didn’t know, but it is easy to see in Gibson today a man who is in deep trouble. It’s not simply that his career looks finished. A troubled mind and spirit also seem evident.

They are the mind and spirit not merely of a celebrity, but of a brother in the Faith, and it is shocking that so many who had him walking on water a few years ago have been pretending, not simply in recent weeks, but ever since his divorce and girlfriend’s pregnancy that he doesn’t exist. They don’t want to talk about him. The persons who do are mainly detractors, folks gloating over his downfall and who want to push him down farther, who want to pile onto a man already down and, by extension, attack the form of the religion that he came to personify on account of his celebrity. Who is defending him?

I am not defending him here. I don’t know enough about the details of his troubles either to defend or condemn, and despite what everybody thinks he has heard on the phone tapes, neither does anybody else, not really, except the persons immediately involved and maybe some of those who are close to them, like family members. However, I do see a sinner.

That can be said in an abstract way, of course. After all, as we are apt to say ever so glibly, “All men are sinners.” Indeed we are, but how do we know it? Simply because we are taught it?

No, we all recognize sin very often. The real question is how are we able to recognize greed, selfishness, duplicity, even homicidal thoughts, or any other “failing” we care to name? Is it not because, in some measure, at some time, we have harbored it in ourselves? That is, we have said to ourselves, “I want more,” or “I am the only one here who really matters,” or “I need to hide my motive,” or (of someone else) “Why are you taking up living space?” The innocent child does not recognize villainy because the child is innocent. We are not. There is nothing Mel Gibson can have done that many or all of us might not in the same circumstances. To be sure, our circumstances are not the same. One difference between us and him is that his appetites, as well as gifts, are probably larger. That’s why he’s a movie star and we aren’t.

That his demons may be bigger does not exculpate him from actual wrong he may have done, if any. Nor can it excuse wretched behavior, though it can make it explicable. As a Catholic, he ought to know steps now need to be taken to repair any wrong and to correct the behavior. If the steps aren’t clear, it is to be hoped a relative, a priest, someone he knows and trusts will be able to guide him.

The main concern here, however, is not Gibson, but all the Traditional Catholics who, morally speaking, invested more than they should in the man, and for no reason other than that he was a celebrity. I speak of everybody once quick to extol him, all who were so eager and proud a few years ago to claim him as one of their own, who would have loved to have their picture taken standing next to him or been happy to get money from him for their apostolate. None of them — none of us — is off the hook, either. There are steps we need to take.

To begin, foolish as it was to invest so much in the man, we did do it. We need now to see it is wrong to want to bask in someone else’s limelight the way so many did with Gibson, and then drop him, pretend he doesn’t exist, morally abandon him. On what grounds? Because he has embarrassed the “cause”? I’m asking here, who might not? Maybe somebody wants to contend Gibson is not, and never was, the man he seemed. How would it be possible to know that, and has anyone else believed he had grounds to think it of you?

In light of these questions, shame on anyone, however betrayed he may feel, who is tempted to join the mob currently bent on morally lynching Gibson. If you feel betrayed, it’s not his doing. He didn’t ask you to see him as more than ordinarily human or even very virtuous. In fact, well before his troubles began he made it clear in public pronouncements that he didn’t think anybody should believe he was.

Next, recognizing that Gibson is a brother in the Faith who is in trouble, prayer is in order, perhaps especially at this point that he not harm himself.

Charity requires the prayer, but this matter, as I’ve tried to show, is also one of justice, and if we simply pray silently there is a risk of our being counted, if only in the eyes of Heaven, as part of the lynch mob. We need to say out loud to friends, relatives and, above all, anyone we hear gossip about Gibson, not glibly that “All men are sinners,” but that this celebrity deserves moral support, if only in the form of prayer and fervent hope he does whatever he must to recover himself, because apart from being a celebrity, he is one of us, and in more ways than one.

Finally, and most important, we need to meditate on our foolishness. It’s one thing for men who believe in nothing but themselves to repose faith in a prince or celebrity. We ought to know better.