VATICAN CITY (AP) – The Vatican pronounced what it hoped was the last word Thursday on whether Pope John Paul II ever endorsed Mel Gibson’s biblical epic “The Passion of the Christ,” declaring that the pontiff “does not make public judgments on artistic works.”

It was the Vatican’s first official statement on the issue after weeks of silence and came just days after John Paul’s longtime secretary sought to put the controversy to rest, denying widely published reports that the pope gave the thumbs-up to the film by saying, “It is as it was.”

It also marked a reversal by the pope’s official spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who for weeks had said his office never comments on the private activities of the pope.

It was a further sign of uneasiness that the Vatican had been seen as endorsing a controversial film depicting the last hours of Jesus’ life, which some say will fuel anti-Semitism. The film is scheduled to open Feb. 25 – Ash Wednesday on the Roman Catholic calendar.

“After consultation with the Holy Father’s personal secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, I can confirm that the pope has had the opportunity to see the film, “The Passion of the Christ.’

The film is the cinematographic recounting of the historical fact of the passion of Jesus Christ according to the Gospel accounts,” Navarro-Valls said.

“It is the Holy Father’s custom not to express public judgments on artistic works, judgments which are always open to diverse evaluations of aesthetic nature.”

John Paul was said to have given his approval after a screening in his apartment in early December, according to reports attributed to the filmmakers.

But Dziwisz, secretary to John Paul throughout his 25-year papacy, said Tuesday he told the producers that the pope “did not make any judgment, because he does not make judgments of that kind. He said nothing of the kind.”

Dziwisz’ denial – a rare statement to the press – was first reported by the Catholic News Service, which is affiliated with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Gibson has defended his work as faithful to the Gospels. He said it is intended to “inspire, not offend.”

Alan Nierob, a spokesman for Icon Productions, Gibson’s company and the producer of “The Passion of the Christ,” said in Los Angeles on Tuesday that he believed the pope had endorsed the film.

“Based on all previous correspondence and conversations held directly between representatives of the film and the official spokesperson for the pope, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, there is no reason to believe that the pope’s support of the film ‘isn’t as it was,”‘ he said.

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