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Issue Date:  June 2, 2006

Is 'The Da Vinci Code' only a story?


Suppose you go to London and visit King’s Cross Station. Then suppose you search out Platform 9 3/4 so you can take the train to Hogwarts, the boarding school of Harry Potter and all the other aspiring young wizards. Dismayed when you can’t find the train, you cry out, “Harry Potter lies!” Or you explore the great houses outside London in search for the setting of the Narnia stories. You find the one that C.S. Lewis had in mind. You look in all the wardrobes (as the English call closets) and find no access to snowbound Narnia. “C.S. Lewis lies!” you mutter, now prepared for disillusion.

Pointing out the absurdity of such expectations, many defend the film of The Da Vinci Code, a long, dreary and stilted affair. It is, after all, only a story. No one takes stories seriously, do they?

In truth, for weal or woe, stories are far more effective teachers than historical studies, as several rectors of Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral will testify when they are accused (unjustly) of being Blackie Ryan. The pictures in a story cling to the imagination even when they are easily refuted.

The story in Code says that the painter’s name was DaVinci. So he will be known by most readers, even though he was never called that when he was alive. His real name was Leonardo. The book and film say that the Catholic church was involved in the biggest cover-up in history, a charge that may seem to have some prima facie possibility in a time of cover-up of priestly abuse. They claim that Mary of Magdala and Jesus were married and had a child named Sarah. Preposterous, of course. But that story will stick in the imagination of some people, who will never check on the facts.

Whatever the author and the filmmaker’s intent, the book is an attack on the Catholic church, which, having been around a long time and had many far from perfect members and leaders, can be attacked on many grounds but not the ones in the book. The faith of most Catholics will hardly be affected, though some will be troubled. (They should read the excellent Paulist Press book 101 Questions and Answers on The Da Vinci Code and the Catholic Tradition by Nancy De Flon and John Vidmar.) Those who don’t like us very much will have their suspicions confirmed.

Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic group, is accused of serial murder for hire (bearer bonds at that). How many readers, Catholic or not, know enough about Opus to judge such a charge? I am no fan of Opus members (nor they of me) but Code defames them.

Well-paced hokum as a novel and preternaturally dull and grimly lugubrious as a film -- wasting the talents of the stalwart Tom Hanks and the adorable Audrey Tautou -- Code does not protect either book or film from fair charges of being dishonest and defamatory.

Blasphemous? That might be another matter. Marriage is a sacrament, not a sin. There is no proof that Jesus was married and Code tries to put the burden on those who deny such a marriage to prove their denial. How does one prove a big lie to be false? Moreover, it is on a priori grounds most improbable. Jesus knew the end of the path on which he was walking and he would hardly have asked a family to follow that path.

However, marriage would not have made Jesus any less the one he is -- divine and also human like us, we believe, in all things, sin alone excepted. Since sexual attraction is not sinful and neither is marriage, one cannot argue that Jesus could not have married. The scene in the garden in front of the tomb suggests that there was affection between him and Mary of Magdala, no more, but no less either. It should be enough to assert that there is no evidence at all that Jesus did marry -- and a few phrases in the Gnostic gospels are not evidence. To rebut the claim with a charge of blasphemy ought to be offensive to pious ears.

The readers of entrails insist that the film will be a success despite the dire reviews. The controversy that Sony Pictures abetted in the run-up guaranteed a large intake of money. The evangelicals fed the flames of controversy with their riotous snit. The Catholic bishops, heaven be praised, were content with a Web page and a DVD that may appear on some NBC stations. A few Roman cardinals added to the firestorm, one of them even suggesting that the culture level of the Catholic laity was low. (Whose fault is that, Cardinal, theirs or yours?) When a few eminent loose cannons fire away, the media can announce that the Vatican has denounced the film, which it has not.

Should Catholics see the “Code”? It is not my job to answer that question. Catholics should make up their own minds. I can only advise in the name of good taste and wise use of time that they listen to the judgment of the critics that it is a truly terrible film -- and too long by almost an hour. The church has survived many catastrophic attacks: the loss of North Africa to Islam, the loss of Northern Europe to the Reformers, the loss of Constantinople to the Turks, the loss of the Orthodox churches, the loss of the church of the East, the loss to the credibility of its leaders at various times because of their own ineptitude. It seems safe to assume that it will survive the phony history of Dan Brown and Sony Pictures.

But if Hollywood wants to make a film in which the church really looks bad, it should look into the papacy of the Dark Ages of the eighth and ninth centuries and the Roman women who dominated it, especially Theodora and Masoria Theophylact. Catholicism survived them too, though sometimes it seemed just barely.

In the meantime, someone ought to tell the Celtic original grail story as contained in the Legend of Art Mac Con, in which the grail is both a cup of blood and a very magic woman, the one thing that Code got right.

Fr. Andrew Greeley is a well-known sociologist and novelist.

National Catholic Reporter, June 2, 2006

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