Debating 'Da Vinci'
With the arrival of the movie, criticism of the Dan Brown blockbuster heats up
For the Rev. John Skirtich, the revelatory moment came on a Sunday morning late last fall. He had just concluded mass at St. Maurice Roman Catholic Church in Forest Hills, a tree-lined, middle-class suburb of Pittsburgh. One of his parishioners, an elderly woman, met him at the door, carrying a copy of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown's phenomenally successful cloak-and-dagger novel, and she was visibly distraught.
"Father John," she said. "It says in here that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child together. Is that true?" The priest was startled by the question, coming from a lifelong Catholic and a pillar of the parish. He calmly assured the woman that it was not true, that the book was pure fiction. She seemed mildly comforted. "That's when it struck me," Skirtich recalled, "that ordinary believers--people in my own parish who are not theologically trained--were being deceived by the pseudo history presented in that book, and I knew I had to do something about it." Several months later, he began teaching a three-part course on The Da Vinci Code, attempting to sort out fact from fiction and highlighting the early history of the church and the origins of the Bible. Left unchallenged, he explained, "the fiction passed off as history in The Da Vinci Code undermines what Christianity is all about."
With the movie version of the novel set to debut this week, the Pennsylvania priest's concern is being echoed and amplified throughout the Roman Catholic Church. Some church officials consider The Da Vinci Code an attack on Christianity and on the Catholic Church in particular. The book's plot revolves around the premise that Mary Magdalene was pregnant with Jesus's baby at the time of the Crucifixion and thus was the true "Holy Grail"--the vessel of Christ's blood--that his bloodline has survived, and that evil forces within the Roman Catholic Church have killed to protect these secrets for centuries. With the movie's release imminent, the church's resistance has intensified:
-- In late April, a high-ranking Vatican official urged Catholic communications directors to boycott the film. If "such lies and errors had been directed at the Koran or the Holocaust," said the official, Archbishop Angelo Amato, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "they would have justly provoked a world uprising."
-- Cardinal Francis Arinze, head of the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, hinted at possible legal action against the film because it offends Christ and the church. "Christians must not just sit back and say it is enough for us to forgive and to forget," Arinze, who was considered a contender to become pope last year, told an Italian TV documentary team.
-- Meanwhile, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has produced a one-hour television documentary and launched an elaborate website to counter the movie's sensational historical claims.
-- And Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic organization that is portrayed in the book, and presumably in the movie, as a clandestine cabal and the villain in the plot, has quietly demanded a disclaimer clearly labeling the film as fiction. Sony Pictures Entertainment, the studio behind the film, has refused.