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Beyond the Trappings

Traditionalist Catholic Churches Can Look Just Like Their Mainstream Counterparts. But the Breakaway Faction Rejects the Vatican and Some Followers Hold Fast to a Fundamentalist Dogma That Stigmatizes Jews--a Controversy Surrounding the Film by a Fellow Traveler, Mel Gibson.

February 15, 2004|Eryn Brown | Eryn Brown last wrote for the magazine about Southern California's real estate boom.

It's hard to be an absolutist in the modern world--our society simply isn't set up for it. Boundless, diverse and brimming with energy, it's better at fostering a culture where anything goes than one obsessed with strict definitions of right and wrong. It's better at building a spiritual world where people customize their beliefs rather than demanding they adhere to rigid dogma. There is no black and white anymore. Most of us prefer our world in muddier-but-subtler, ever-evolving shades of gray.

So there's a certain otherworldly feeling you get when you walk into a tiny, plain church in the Santa Clarita Valley and sit down with a man of the cloth who's certain that certainty does exist. He's friendly and calm, and he explains his take on the world in a patient, soothing way--even as his words are unforgiving. "Just because we're in different times," he says, "it doesn't mean that right and wrong--true and false--change. Today nothing is sacred. Everything is open to reinterpretation. But if something is handed down by Christ, it shouldn't change."

You might assume your host is a Protestant fundamentalist, cousin to those evangelicals who preach salvation on the cable channels that pop up between MTV and HBO. If you took out the reference to Christ, he could even be an orthodox rabbi, admonishing his followers to keep the Sabbath and to follow the many commandments of the Torah to the letter.

But this particular man of faith is Father Dominic Radecki, a youthful-looking, 46-year-old Catholic priest who wears a standard-issue clerical collar and black suit, who sits rather informally on a plastic chair he's pulled up just a couple of feet away from yours, and who will later display an album stuffed with photos of the seminary he attended, as well as several of his scuba badges. It's an odd combination of old and new, rigidity and informality. And it's especially curious coming from a person you associate with Roman Catholicism--a religion that for the past 40 years has attempted to modernize, if not quickly enough for many of its devotees.

There is, of course, a catch: Father Radecki is not a mainstream Catholic--he's what's called a traditionalist. Traditionalists are devoted to the Latin Mass, and they have little but scorn for the modernizing innovations of Vatican II, the groundbreaking council called from 1962-65 by Pope John XXIII, who believed that the insular church needed to adapt in order to survive in a rapidly changing world. "I want to throw open the windows of the church so that we can see out and the people can see in," the late pope said. Vatican II resulted in--among many other changes--the introduction of a new Mass, outreach to other Christian faiths and this statement: "What happened in [Christ's] passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today."

Since then, many traditionalists have not recognized the pope as their leader. And yes, they are strict fundamentalists. Traditionalists do not eat meat on Fridays. Their women wear skirts and cover their heads in church and are encouraged to stay home and instruct their children in the ways of upright living. In the traditionalists' world, there is black and there is white; gray was merely the color of the sky on the day Jesus was tortured and crucified.

There aren't a lot of traditionalists around--probably fewer than 100,000 in the U.S. And they might have retained their somewhat in-the-shadows identity had not the most famous adherent among them, Mel Gibson, decided to sink $25 million of his own money into a controversial feature film about the trial and punishment of Jesus--a film that has inspired accusations of anti-Semitism and inadvertently shined a klieg light on its director's fellow travelers.

"The Passion of the Christ" opens on Feb. 25--Ash Wednesday. It has been seen by only selected audiences, as Gibson has tried to control early criticisms of the movie. The controversy surrounds the film's depiction of Jews and the inclusion of a biblical passage that blames them for the death of Jesus, a line that reportedly was cut. Religious organizations, theologians and academics--Christian and Jewish alike--are distressed because the Roman Catholic Church has, since Vatican II, absolved Jews of Jesus' crucifixion. There are fears that Gibson's film will usher in a new era of anti-Semitism.

Depictions of Gibson's spiritual life have tended toward the sensational. As he prepared to shoot "The Passion" in Italy, a newspaper there reported that Gibson said, "I do not believe in the Church as an institution," and that he believes the Vatican is a "wolf in sheep's clothing." The independent chapel he has built near Malibu has been shrouded in secrecy.

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