The actor has been very vocal about his "traditionalist" views, adhering to the Roman Catholic faith as it was understood before the "modernization" by the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965. ''I go to an all-pre-Vatican II Latin mass," he told USA Today in 2001. "There was a lot of talk, particularly in the '60s, of 'Wow, we've got to change with the times.' But the Creator instituted something very specific, and we can't just go change it.''
So in 2003 the actor decided to help change things back to the way they were, building a chapel in Malibu, Calif. – The Church of the Holy Family. Tucked away in the tree-covered mountains of Agoura Hills, 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, the rustic church, unaffiliated with the Roman Catholic archdiocese, has a foot-tall crucifix on the altar and the priest keeps his back to the parishioners as he performs mass every morning entirely in Latin. In church, women must wear head coverings.
Among traditionalists, there is a more extreme group affiliated with the ultra-conservative stream of Catholicism known as Sedevacantism, meaning, "the seat [of the papacy] is empty." They believe there has been no legitimate pope since 1958. Gibson hasn't said he shares that belief, though his father, Hutton Gibson, is a well known anti-Vatican II activist and author of the book Is the Pope Catholic?
Jim Caviezel, the actor who played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, defended his director to The Catholic World News in 2004. "Mel has a great devotion to Christ, to Mary, to all the saints," he said, "if some people think that he is not completely in the Church, well then, they only have to pray for him."
Flexibility TestedNo matter what kind of traditionalist he is, Gibson's church would teach identical ideas on marriage and divorce as in the mainstream Catholic church, says Roger McCaffrey, founding publisher and former editor of The Latin Mass magazine and the publisher of Roman Catholic Books. "He's a man who stoutly believes in the indissolubility of marriage, but now," says McCaffrey, "this marriage problem is going to test his flexibility to the max."
After a civil divorce, says McCaffrey, "He'll still be able to technically be a practicing Catholic, even receive communion. In other words, he wouldn't be considered, simply by having a civil divorce or a separation, to be living in grave sin." But if he ever wants to remarry as a Catholic, Gibson – who wed Robyn in 1981 at a parish church in New South Wales, Australia – would have to petition for an annulment in the same way as any Catholic might.
While Robyn has been active in building Gibson's Holy Family church and worships there with their family, she has remained an Episcopalian, Gibson told The New Yorker in 2003, explaining that according to traditionalist Catholic teaching, she would be disqualified from salvation.
"There is no salvation for those outside the Church," he said. "I believe it." He explained: "Put it this way. My wife is a saint. She's a much better person than I am. Honestly. She's, like, Episcopalian, Church of England. She prays, she believes in God, she knows Jesus, she believes in that stuff. And it's just not fair if she doesn't make it, she's better than I am. But that is a pronouncement from the chair. I go with it."
Later, in a 2006 interview, Gibson told Diane Sawyer his belief system did not bar the door to heaven to Jews, Muslims, and Protestants. "That's not the case at all – absolutely not. It is possible for people who are not even Christian to get into the kingdom of heaven."