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Church Declares 'Last Temptation' Morally Offensive

August 10, 1988|JOHN DART | Times Religion Writer

The U.S. Catholic Church threw its weight against the controversial film "The Last Temptation of Christ" Tuesday with an official church rating of "morally offensive" and condemnations from three California bishops and two prominent nuns.

The rating by the Catholic bishops' Department of Communication in New York, which says to the nation's 53 million Catholics that the film is unsuitable for all ages, was couched in relatively mild criticism. The department's spokesman, Bishop Anthony G. Bosco of Greensburg, Pa., said that "nothing can be gained by viewing it" and that director Martin Scorsese's film would outrage most Christians.

"I looked in vain for the message of love. Scorsese has given us an angry Christ, a bumbling Christ, a Christ more of this world than the next," Bosco's statement said.

Mother Teresa Comments

Catholic views were expressed more intensely Tuesday at a news conference at the Registry Hotel at Universal City, not far from the headquarters of Universal Pictures, which will distribute the film, and its parent corporation, MCA Inc.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta said through a spokesman, Robert Ziener, national chairman of Rosaries for Peace, that if Catholics will intensify their prayers, "Our Blessed Mother (Mary) will see that this film is removed from your land."

Mother Angelica, founder-head of the Eternal Word Television Network in Birmingham, Ala., told the news conference that anyone who goes to watch the "sacrilegious" film will be committing "a deliberate act of blasphemy" and thereby choosing "between heaven and hell." She also predicted that America will come under heavenly "chastisement."

Auxiliary Bishop John Ward of Los Angeles, speaking for the nation's largest archdiocese in the absence of Archbishop Roger M. Mahony, said he endorsed all that Mother Angelica said and termed the movie an "exploitation . . . for greed." Ward said he was not opposed to picketing of Universal and movie theaters by Christians, but he called it ineffective.

Two other California bishops also expressed their objections Tuesday. Bishop Norman McFarland called the film "theologically unsound" in a letter to be read from parish pulpits in Orange County this weekend. And Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco said in a letter to diocesan priests Monday that the film is "a stinging offense to the religious sensibilities of Christian believers."

Film Opens Friday

The film is opening Friday in Los Angeles at the Cineplex Odeon Century City Cinema and in seven other cities: New York, Chicago, Washington, Toronto, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Seattle.

The cast includes Willem Dafoe (whose credits include "Platoon") as Jesus, Barbara Hershey ("Hannah and Her Sisters") as Mary Magdalene and rock star David Bowie as Pontius Pilate.

Evangelical Protestant protests, starting last month and recently joined by Southern Baptist and Eastern Orthodox condemnations, have particularly focused on a scene showing Jesus making love to Mary Magdalene in a dream episode. But church voices also have objected to the characterization of Jesus as an imperfect, allegedly "wimpy" figure.

The movie was being shown this week to selected journalists and religious officials, although the Revs. Donald Wildmon, head of the American Family Assn., and Jerry Falwell of Liberty Foundation said Tuesday that they were denied the chance to see a preview of the film because of their protests.

The film has a disclaimer at the start saying that it is not based on Gospel accounts of Jesus but on the 1955 novel of the same title by Nikos Kazantzakis. The novel was controversial then and Kazantzakis was excommunicated by the Greek Orthodox Church and denied burial in Greece in 1957.

Archbishop Iakovos of New York, spiritual leader of an estimated 2 million Greek Orthodox church members in North and South America, called the film "the fantasy of a sick human imagination . . . disavowing the Christian belief in a perfect and sinless Christ."

'Morally Grotesque'

The Rev. Jerry Vines, president of the 14-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant body in America, issued a brief statement decrying the movie.

In addition, the Rev. Thomas A. Wolf of Los Angeles, on behalf of California Southern Baptist officials, joined the news conference at Universal City to protest the movie as one that is "morally grotesque," a "historical affront" and "socially inflammatory." Reflecting the determined mood to increase public pressure, Wolf warned Universal: "Watch the whites of our eyes, we have only begun to fight."

However, violent or disruptive tactics were disavowed by the news conference participants, including Bill Bright, founder-president of Campus Crusade for Christ, based in San Bernardino. Fundamentalist activist R. L. Hymers Jr. of Los Angeles, who led a separately organized demonstration near the entrance to the Universal Studios Tour, has said that some people will object so strongly to the film that theaters may suffer damage or disruption.

Bright and Mother Angelica, asked to assess the fact that some Christians who have seen the movie declared that it was not blasphemous or worthy of condemnation, said they did not believe that a true Christian could react that way.

Indeed, Mother Angelica and Ziener said they do not think Scorsese is an orthodox Catholic, despite his brief time in a high school-level seminary in New York.

Defending his "right to explore God" as an individual Catholic and to open up discussion of Jesus' human side, Scorsese said on ABC television's "Nightline" program Tuesday that the Catholic Church's "morally offensive" rating "disturbed" him. "But I know the church feels it has to protect its flock," he added.

He also said that no sex scene in the film was done for titillation.

Scorsese denied some allegations that Jesus is depicted as deranged in the film. Through Jesus' struggle to accept and understand his fate, "we appreciate the sacrifice of Christ at the end," he said.

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