Mel Gibson directs James Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ. (2004)
I once belonged to a trad-Catholic email listserv, which took as their patron saint one Hutton Gibson. (Beware thunder-and-lightning sound effects when clicking on the link--as they used to say at the beginning of OUTER LIMITS: "There is nothing wrong with your television set.")... I later realized this was Mel's wacky dad. But at the time, I was just plain astounded and could not stop reading. I felt like I had stumbled into an amazing subculture. Which is true.
I had never met Sedevacantists before, which might be called the Black Helicopter Faction of the Catholic Church; the Area 51 of Trad theology. These people believe there hasn't been a validly elected Pope since... well, predictably, they argue about the details. (One of the "real" popes supposedly resides in Kansas, which might be the funniest damn thing I ever heard.) They are deliberately fuzzy, first attempting to convince you they are correct about papal-invalidity, and then attempting to lobby on behalf of "their" chosen Pope. The most well-known of these sub-groups is the Society of St Pius X (aka SSPX in trad lingo). [NOTE: Many Sedevacantists are splinter groups of SSPX or former fellow-travelers. Other would-be Popes include Lucian Pulvermacher and Manuel Alonso Corral.]
The reasons these folks believe the Chair of Peter is Vacant (Latin derivation of the word SEDEVACANTIST) are in alignment with the Religious Right; the well-worn view that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, with the Catholic Church regarded as just another obvious manifestation of this truth. Modernism, in the sneaky form of Vatican Council II, overtook the Mass and unexpectedly monkeyed with ancient rubrics. In the traditionalists' view, Latin was dissed, priests turned their backs on the tabernacle, people put their dirty fingers all over the Host, dopey hymns invaded where angels feared to tread... and many other hotly-contested changes came with the introduction of the Novus Ordo.
A very good point from the Trads: these transformations of the Mass seemed to demystify a very mystical practice, and detracted from its sanctity... rather as noise in the library detracts from reading; teens giggling in the back rows of dramatic movies ruin your absorption in the narrative. Sudden outbursts of English singing seem very, well... American. Many of the people (such as Evelyn Waugh) who hated the Novus Ordo, hated it because of its zealously-assimilationist tendencies. It seemed very Protestant, complete with a dorky Dr Feelgood homily that often sounded like it came from the pages of Reader's Digest. (Can't we hear what St John of the Cross or some heavy-hitter like that had to say, please?) The Roman Catholic Church has a very rich tradition of mysticism, saints' visions, ideas, theology, folk-piety, litanies and old sermons that one can easily draw upon... and instead, it was not unusual to hear some priest's sentimental story about his dog, or some deacon reading some canned-homily written by Catholic Answers. Those of us hungry for historical liturgy and the old writings (as well as those of us who do not want to assimilate to mass-American culture) ended up net-surfing right into the old AOL Catholic chat rooms, duly named after the Holy Archangels: Michael, Gabriel and Raphael.
For awhile, these three internet chat rooms stayed separate, depending upon whether one was trad, liberal or centrist/undecided... and then, of course, you know what happened. The denizens of all three got all mixed up and finally, the rooms became a free-for-all, with charges of heresy, blasphemy and schism flying right and left. It was at this colorful juncture that the Sedevacantists, well-organized and determined, invaded the rooms as a coordinated group. And it was from this mass invasion that I eventually learned of the listserv, and the Hutton/Mel/Sede connection.
Having their very own movie-star connection was intoxicating for these folks. Mel Gibson took on the characteristics of sainthood, complete with hagiography. He has seven children, they would say, admiringly. He was obviously a right-on kind of guy. The Sedevacantist-adulation of Mel was as intense as the adulation of his schismatic father and their various would-be popes. But at that time, Mel did not publicly "declare himself" as anything but a regular Catholic, to the great irritation of the list-serv members.
When I discovered through the Alcoholics Anonymous grapevine that Mel was "people like us"--I thought, uh oh. If there is one thing alcoholics chronically embrace, it's extremes. Lots of them. I am, for instance, one of the few people who can tell you all about the lefty factions of the 70s and then turn around and tell you all about Hutton Gibson and SSPX. There is a reason for that. I am grateful that I now have the wisdom to know that I am given to this character defect, but it doesn't necessarily prevent me from exercising it. However, it DOES usually prevent me from preening overmuch about my wonderfulness, since I am acutely aware that my wonderfulness could well collapse on a dime, and often has.
I had high hopes for Mel when I learned he was a sponsor of Robert Downey, Jr. I hoped he would back away from the religious extremism of his father and stick to the New Agey-Catholicism one tends to encounter in progressive recovery circles, particularly in a place like Hollywood.
And then I heard that Mel Gibson had built his own church. What? A Catholic?!? Catholics do not build their own churches (although of course, your local Diocese may take all of your money and build one and name a wing after you)... NOOO, Catholics do not build our own churches unless we are...ohhhh no, I thought. No. Not Mel.
A Sede. (slang for Sedevacantist, which also has a very appropriate pod-people sound to it; pronounced SEED.) Mel is a SEDE!
The news traveled through the always-rambunctious Michael, Gabriel and Raphael chat rooms like wildfire. The Sedes themselves were drunk on Mel-Gibson PR and cocky as the devil, you should pardon expression. Not every crackpot breakaway-faction has their own movie-star, after all.
But I wondered. I worried about Mel's wife, Robyn, stuck with the legendary 7 kids while Mel jetsetted all over the world making movies. How genuine is this Sede thing? Is he just trying to impress dad? Or other Catholics? Is this a form of penance for his alcoholism (something I deeply understand and identified with). I wondered how long it would last. As everyone gasped over the graphic violence of The Passion of the Christ, I vividly remember thinking: such extremes... such alcoholic behavior.
And then, Mel famously tied one on, delivering himself of an antisemitic rant in the process... and suddenly, all bets were off.
(I wondered: Is the Church still there? Does he still go?)
And now, the man who was repeatedly held up to me as First Class Catholic Family Man extraordinaire--is getting a divorce. (I assume you all know that divorce is not sanctioned by Catholic doctrine, even the liberal Vatican II Catholic doctrine that Mel and his father proudly placed themselves above.) His seven children, those objects of affection, envy and admiration in Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, are now the children of divorce... just like so many of the rest of us. They are also, like so many other Catholics (including me), the children of an alcoholic. They have learned the psychology of extremes at their daddy's knee, as Mel learned from his daddy, Sedevacantist Holocaust-denier Hutton Gibson.
What can we learn from this? The Buddhist lesson of the Middle Path; few of us can reside full-time at the feverish extremes throughout our entire lives. Simply put: we will fail. And instead of trying to mend something, we flush it down the toilet and run away. That is the way of extremes, the way of the addict: We will not settle for your banal choices, we will build our own church, we will find our own Pope.
And fall in love with a younger woman, and forget everything we say we believed in. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.
What does the lesson of Mel Gibson teach us about religious extremism? I am still trying to figure it out. I am not really surprised.
But then again, of course I am.
Saturday, May 30, 2009
Mel Gibson directs James Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ. (2004)