Did ''Passion'' really earn papal endorsement? Despite producers' assertions that the Crucifixion film has the Pope's blessing, officials close to him say he's offered no opinion

By Gary Susman
January 16, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

”It is as it was.” That’s the ad-friendly endorsement supposedly given by Pope John Paul II after a private screening last month of Mel Gibson’s ”The Passion of the Christ.” Now, however, the Pope’s closest confidant is going on record saying the pontiff made no such endorsement of the controversial film about the Crucifixion. ”The Holy Father told no one his opinion of this film,” Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz told the Catholic News Service.

The 11-letter blurb first surfaced Dec. 17 in an editorial column by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal. She said ”Passion” producer Steve McEveety and assistant director Jan Michelini told her that Archbishop Dziwisz had quoted the Pope as having uttered the five-word endorsement. Now, however, Dziwisz tells the Catholic News Service: ”I said clearly to McEveety and Michelini that the Holy Father made no declaration. I said the Holy Father saw the film privately in his apartment, but gave no declaration to anyone. He does not make judgments on art of this kind; he leaves that to others, to experts.”

Gibson spokesman Alan Nierob told the New York Daily News he was surprised by the apparent reversal, saying he’d seen official confirmation of the pope’s statement by Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls. ”I saw it in writing myself,” Nierob said. ”He confirmed that statement, ‘It is as it was.”’ Noonan also expressed surprise, telling the Daily News she wondered why Dziwisz would wait a month to correct the record if the statement were untrue. ”If the Pope had never said the words McEveety says he said, why wouldn’t they have come down on him like a ton of bricks right away?”

Early glimpses of ”Passion,” which will open on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 25), have sparked fears among Jewish groups and others that the movie’s portrayal of Jews could inflame anti-Semitism. So an endorsement by Pope John Paul II, who has made a point of improving relations between Catholics and Jews, would carry a lot of weight. So would a non-endorsement. Anti-Defamation League president Abraham Foxman, the movie’s most vocal critic, told the Daily News: ”I’m glad the Vatican is, in fact, putting out the word that the Pope did not endorse this movie.”