In this piece the Curmdugeon doffs his Panama in honour of a long time comrade in journalism, Alan Gill, author of many books, who has written a typically professional piece for Online Catholics, of which I have the honour to be discussion board moderator.
One reason I honour Alan and his OLC piece is that he has that peculiarly English tolerance of others.
It has been the strength of the Anglicanism into which he was born,and the noble principles he learned at the Charterhouse led him to 'cross the Tiber.'
He is the master of the anecdote.
Alan's fairness in dealing with difficult topics, such as those who are estranged from the 'official' Church leaves my writing on such topics for dead.
So, over to a real master, Alan Gill, and I have great delight in introducing him to his writing, if you have not encountered it beforehand:
'Pope' Hutton and Mel
A personal insight into a famous father and son
by Alan Gill
An elderly man leapt off a Sydney ferry as it pulled into a suburban wharf. Not for him the niceties of waiting for a rope to be tied and a ramp put down so that all could disembark safely.
Other passengers smiled. Even the deckhand - notwithstanding the breach in regulations - was impressed. The sprightly octogenarian traveller was Hutton Gibson, father of Mel, who was paying a social call on this writer on one of his periodic visits - he still has several family members in Australia - from his home in the US.
His son's film, The Passion of the Christ, about the passion and death of Christ, was screening in Sydney at the time. The father's view was that "It tells it like it is" - words very similar to those said to have been uttered by the then Pope John Paul II after a personal screening.
Such a concurrence of views would have been rare. Gibson senior's views on John Paul, whom he called "garrulous Karolus", likewise his successor, are virtually unprintable. Except that he does so with alacrity in various self-published books and his own privately funded newsletter, appropriately titled "The War Is Now!" (motto: "He that is not with me is against me.")
I first met "Pope Hutton" - as he, in turn, came to be nicknamed by his foes - some 35 years ago. Blessed with red hair, and a somewhat staring gaze, he was the rollicking stage Irish-American, who combined charm, good humour with more than a hint of aggression. His son is physically his replica.
Even then no shrinking violet, he was Australian secretary of the Latin Mass Society, a "resistance" movement opposed to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Hutton took a shine to me on the basis that I was the only journalist who reported him accurately (his words not mine) and that I alone in the media pack understood that the argument was not about language (the language of the Mass) but about doctrine.
They were strange times. I quoted an opponent of the movement as saying they were the sort of people for whom religion was a "hobby", rather like those who seize the microphone at Anglican synods, and had they not been thus involved might have been seen demonstrating against the policies of their local council. Incredibly, one of Gibson's lieutenants phoned me several months later - in penitent mode - to say this was right.
The protesters were called Tridentinists, because of their belief that the rite of Mass introduced at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) was "the Mass for all time". Many of the movement's leading lights were converts to Catholicism, who felt cheated. One of them told me solemnly: "Cradle Catholics have one weakness. They still believe Father knows best".
Early in our relationship I visited Hutton Gibson at his upper North Shore Sydney home. I was struck by the number of holy pictures which decorated every room, at the size of his family, also the politeness of a boy in school uniform who helped serve afternoon tea. Possibly this was Mel.
Not a man to mince words, Hutton denounced the more timorous on his own committee as mere "nostalgia seekers", for which he was sacked. For a while he flirted with Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society of St Pius X. Later, he denounced Lefebvre, too, calling him a "compromiser"; his crime being a willingness to have dialogue with the Pope.
The family had moved to Australia after winning the American TV quiz show, Jeopardy, in the late 1960s. Having suffered an industrial accident, as a railway worker, Hutton, who once tried his vocation as a Trappist monk, thought that his modest disability pension would go further "down under", where he already had family links.
There was also a suggestion that he did not want his sons to be drafted for service in Vietnam. Mel, the sixth of his 11 children, was 12 when the move occurred.
Certainly, fortune smiled on the family. Though not undertaking paid employment, Hutton continued to win TV quiz shows - sometimes with lavish prizes - and his face appeared fairly frequently "on the box".
Having parted with the Latin Mass Society and the Lefebvrists, Hutton formed instead a far-far right group called the Australian Alliance for Catholic Tradition. I recall I compared him in print to a Scottish Presbyterian minister who called Ian Paisley a "lily livered liberal". "Pope Hutton", who saw the funny side of most things, took it as a compliment.
It seems the police, if not the Australian Catholic hierarchy, listened carefully to Hutton Gibson's utterances. When Pope John Paul visited Australia in 1986, he was advised that it might be in his best interests to be out of the country. (The fear was not that Hutton might assault the Pope, but that if an attack occurred he might be falsely singled out for blame.)
We did not meet again for about 15 years.
Interest in the film The Passion of the Christ, and allegations of anti-Semitism, brought the religious beliefs of father and son into wider focus. The actor/director said about his reasons for making the film: "My hope is that this movie will affect people on a very profound level and reach them with a message of faith, hope, love and forgiveness." This attitude is to be commended.
I personally found the film intensely moving, though I was slightly disturbed by an over-emphasis on violence. I concluded this was not the result of anti-Semitism, more likely the influence of Catholic schooldays - he attended St Leo's, Wahroonga - when the Stations of the Cross and other religious observances would have hammered home the reality of the events which the film portrayed. I am upset that Mel's drunken outburst is providing ammunition to condemn the film.
During my several meetings with the father he aired his views about conspiracies, Masonic plots and one world government. His only direct reference to Judaism was to express his anger at Pope Paul VI accepting, and wearing, an ephod (Jewish prayer shawl), given to him by (I think) Rome's Chief Rabbi. He would have been equally upset had the donor been a Buddhist - he was angered when John Paul II met the Dalai Llama - or other non-Christian religious leader.
In the late 1980s, by which time the son had already achieved fame as an actor, Hutton returned to the US, where he has since lived in several homes owned by Mel.
From there he continued to run his Alliance (dropping the word "Australian" from the title), producing his books and newsletter, which has now been running for some 30 years and should be a collector's item. Until a few years ago it was mailed to subscribers from India (where overseas postage is cheaper). As always it blends theological dissertations on the early church Fathers and obscure medieval clerics with sharp criticism of the "crowd now running the Vatican".
Hutton's personal theological position is that of sedes vacantis (a belief that the papal throne is vacant). He believes the last "valid" Pope was Pius XII. Since his visit to my Drummoyne home I have met him once more, about a year ago, for a coffee at Sydney's Wynyard station. While we were together a visitor arrived with a draft copy of a self-published tome on Hutton's political-religious theories. He mentioned to me his belief that the Americans themselves were involved in the bombing of the World Trade Centre. Lack of time prevented further discussion.
Until recently Mel had not spoken publicly about his personal beliefs. However, in a US 60 Minutes programme he bared himself a little. It appears that about 15 years ago, tiring of the emptiness that fame and money could bring, he underwent a religious experience of a profound and positive nature. For this we can be grateful.
In re-connecting to his roots it would seem Mel has partly, but by no means totally followed in the footsteps of his dad. He describes himself, when asked, as favouring "traditional" Catholicism - a word that means different things to different people. He has built and paid for the creation of a Tridentinist chapel near his California home, where the pre-Vatican II Mass is the order of the day.
Whilst this may disappoint many, it would appear from newspaper and TV interviews that he does not go "all the way with Pope Hutton", whom, understandably, and indeed, commendably, he does not wish to ridicule. He has said of the father-son relationship: "I doubt that I am as good an example to my kids as he was to us. He was a pretty fair guy, pretty easygoing, very calm, very measured and very smart."
Alan Gill was, for 23 years, the Sydney Morning Herald's Religion Writer. Alan's article has been republished in Catholica Australia with the permission of Alan Gill and OnLine Catholics.
Cliff Baxter is a highly awarded journalist with a lifetime experience gained on the principal Australian secular newspapers, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and The Catholic Weekly.
We welcome your thoughts in response to this commentary in our forum.
[Index of Commentaries by Cliff Baxter]