Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

/ARTS WEEKLY/RELIGION-LATAM: Yes to Gibson, No to Da Vinci

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Mar 30 2004 (IPS) - The Catholic Church hierarchy in Latin America is riding the success of Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ to promote a conservative religious agenda, while it scorns ‘The Da Vinci Code’, a best-seller based on a fictional storyline involving centuries- old plots by the Vatican.

To the heavy publicity surrounding Hollywood actor and director Gibson’s film was added the endorsement of Latin American bishops. In the words of auxiliary Bishop Jorge Solórzano of Managua, ”God touches the hearts” of the faithful through the film.

The film, which provides a graphic close-up look at the physical agonies and humiliations that Jesus is to have suffered in his last few hours of life, opened in Latin American cinemas in the third week of March.

In the first weekend alone, it took in more than 40 million dollars, which made it one of the biggest box-office hits in the history of cinema in Latin America, the region with the largest number of Catholics in the world.

”Gibson’s film focuses on promoting a religious vision with an emphasis on individual salvation and the acceptance of suffering,” the head of the non-governmental Latin American Association for the Study of Religions, Elio Masferrer, told IPS.

”That is a concept advocated by the current Pope (John Paul II), to the detriment of progressive currents in the Church, which he has quietly or openly fought,” he said.

In the 25 years of the current papacy, the progressive wing of the church in Latin America, part of which espoused liberation theology, has been pushed into the background, and virtually none of its exponents occupy positions in the Church hierarchy today.

Liberation theology is a social justice-oriented current that emerged in Latin America in the late 1960s, stressing a ”preferential option for the poor,” criticising the existence of widespread poverty, and denouncing unjust social structures.

According to Masferrer, who is also a professor of religion at several Mexican universities, ‘The Passion of the Christ’ takes ”a perverse pleasure in the sacrifice, blood and torture, more than in the Christian message.”

Several Vatican bishops have endorsed the film. Joaquín Navarro-Valls, director of the Holy See’s press office, said the film was ”a cinematographic transposition of the historical event of the passion of Jesus Christ according to the accounts of the Gospel.”

Following that line, the auxiliary Bishop of Santiago, Andrés Arteaga, said that anyone who sees the film cannot remain indifferent to ”its beauty and the truth it transmits.”

Jorge Casaretto, the head of the Argentine branch of Caritas – the Catholic humanitarian organisation – said that viewing the film ”can do much good, especially in times when we are seeing so many unedifying things.”

Meanwhile, bishops in the region are indignant over ‘The Da Vinci Code’, by U.S. author Dan Brown – a thriller that came out last year and is now the number one New York Times best-seller.

Forty million copies of the book have already been sold, and it has been translated into 30 languages.

The plot is based on the idea that for hundreds of years, the Catholic Church hid the truth about Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, who were actually married, in order to keep the Church alive and bar women from leadership positions.

Chilean Bishop Juan Ignacio González urged Roman Catholics not to buy or read the book.

And in Mexico, a source with the bishops conference, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IPS that Brown’s book is ”blasphemous.”

A pirate edition of ‘The Da Vinci Code’ is selling like hot potatoes in Chile, while publishing companies in Argentina and Mexico say it is one of the top-selling books.

”It has many historical errors, but it draws the reader in by interweaving old and new theories, invented or not, about the existence of sacred texts and events that have supposedly been covered up by the Church,” said Masferrer.

”Luckily for the Church in Latin America,” compared to the reach and impact achieved by ‘The Passion of the Christ’, the book should have only a marginal impact, ”because people in this region read much less than people in Europe and the United States,” he added.

However, Columbia Pictures has already bought the rights to produce a movie based on ‘The Da Vinci Code’.

According to the source with the Mexican bishops conference, ‘The Da Vinci Code’ ”is a book that no one should read, because it is based on an absurd argument, and only offends believers.”

In the book – which, as the author points out, is a work of fiction – Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, who was pregnant when he was crucified, and the descendants of that child have been protected and kept anonymous by the Priory of Sion.

Characters in the book discover the truth, but in their attempt to dig deeper, they run up against the Church, represented by an albino monk who belongs to the right-wing conservative organisation Opus Dei.

In real life, Opus Dei, whose founder Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer was canonized by Pope John Paul in 2002, has been the fiercest critic of ‘The Da Vinci Code’, bashing the book in its various publications.

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