VATICAN CITY – A Jewish leader met with Vatican (search) officials this week to ask them to publicly restate church teachings on Jesus' crucifixion, saying Mel Gibson's (search) film "The Passion of the Christ" contradicts the Vatican's repudiation of the charge that the Jews killed Jesus.
A top Vatican official who met with Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League (search), said Wednesday that no such statement was planned. U.S. Archbishop John P. Foley, who heads the Vatican's social-communications office, again praised the film and said he found nothing anti-Semitic in it.
Foxman's visit to the Vatican came as debate over Gibson's depiction of the violent final hours of Christ's life intensified ahead of the film's planned U.S. release Feb. 25. Jewish groups have said the film could fuel anti-Semitism; the Vatican has called it a recounting of the "historical fact of the passion of Jesus Christ according to the Gospel accounts."
Foxman told a news conference Wednesday in Rome that the Catholic Church had a responsibility to set the record straight on its own teachings about Christ's Passion since many people who see the film may think it reflects official church teaching.
Foxman said that in his view, the film contradicts the church's landmark 1965 document "Nostra Aetate," Latin for "In Our Time," in which the Vatican deplored anti-Semitism in every form and repudiated the "deicide" charge that blamed Jews as a people for Christ's crucifixion.
The document, issued during the Second Vatican Council, has been credited with helping improve relations between Christians and Jews over the past four decades.
Foxman said that Gibson's film was "unambiguous" in depicting the Jews as "blood-thirsty" villains who forced the Romans into Christ's crucifixion.
"His film is an attack on Christian teaching. It is a revision, if you will, of 'Nostra Aetate,'" Foxman said. "I believe the church has a responsibility to stand up to defend its own teaching."
He called for the Vatican to ask bishops' conferences around the world to restate church teachings on the crucifixion — particularly in places like Argentina and Poland, where he said debate about the film may not be as rigorous as it is in the United States.
Foxman, who has been outspoken in his concerns about the impression created by Gibson's film, met this week with Foley as well as the Rev. Norbert Hofmann, secretary of the Vatican's commission for religious relations with Jews. He heads now to an anti-Semitism seminar in Brussels.
In an interview, Foley said he had told Foxman that he had found nothing in the film that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic. "Certainly there are some Jews who call for punishment for Jesus," Foley said. But he said the Romans too were depicted harshly.
"I had absolutely no thought regarding any responsibility on the part of the Jews," Foley said. "I took it as a meditation on the Passion of Jesus, and my own responsibility and the responsibility of all of us for the suffering and death of Jesus."
The Vatican has found itself in an awkward spot in the weeks leading up to the film's debut. Last month, it took the unusual step of officially clarifying whether the pope had endorsed the film, saying the pontiff never makes judgments on artistic works.
Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls issued a statement after John Paul's longtime secretary denied widespread published reports that the pope had given the thumbs up to the film by saying, "It is as it was." The quote, attributed to the pope by the filmmakers, came after John Paul had a private screening of the film.
In addition to asking for the Vatican statement on church teachings, Foxman said he had also suggested that Gibson go on camera at the end of the film to tell audiences that it was wrong to blame the Jews alone for Jesus' death.
Calls placed to Gibson's spokesman were not immediately returned.