The Cardinal and the Code
For nearly two years after it published, the Vatican had nothing official to say about The Da Vinci Code. Senior Church officials remained silent even as the book sold millions of copies, not only in the United States, where the book first created a sensation, but in countries like France, Spain, Brazil, Mexico, Portugal, and Italy, with majority Catholic populations. In the meantime, the rest of the Church—laity, priests, theologians—seemingly couldn’t stop talking about it. From California to Connecticut, some priests urged their parishioners to read the book, join church-sponsored book discussion groups, and even go to weekend retreats devoted to the issues in the book. While most Catholic leaders were critical of the book and the way it treats theological issues as well as matters of Christian history, some also asked: Doesn’t the book serve to humanize Jesus? Doesn’t Mary Magdalene’s role as a prominent follower of Jesus—and not as a repentant prostitute—deserve more attention in this day and age? A few even wondered out loud if there was anything wrong with speculating on the possibility that Jesus and Mary might have been married and even had a child or children. There were also plenty of fierce critics of The Da Vinci Code in the Catholic community, some of whom wrote blistering and detailed critiques in Catholic magazines, but the standpoint in these articles was one of recognition of how widespread the book’s popularity was, and the need to engage its readers in discussion and debate.
The Right Reverend Tom Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham and a leading UK theologian, summed it up well for many theologians when he said, “The Da Vinci Code has a great deal to say about where our culture currently is and which myths our culture is eager to buy. It comes in on the tide of the new age post-modern hunger for spirituality which assumes that spirituality is a good thing but also assumes that the one place you will not find it is mainstream Christianity.” Like many other Christian leaders of various denominations, Wright thinks the most effective theological riposte to The Da Vinci Code is to engage its fundamental ideas in robust argument and present meaningful alternatives from within traditional Christian belief. After publication of Secrets of the Code I was invited to speak to many religious groups, including Catholic institutions that ranged across a wide gamut, from the College of Saint Mary in Omaha (a wonderful four-year Catholic college training young women for careers as teachers and nurses in Catholic hospitals and schools) to the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, DC, which is essentially a museum of the Catholic experience in America. At these and numerous other events at Christian churches, Jewish temples, and religious cultural institutions of all kinds, I found extraordinary interest in the issues at the heart of The Da Vinci Code, and a real passion for discussion. Frequently audiences stayed long after the formal program had ended to ask their questions and express their opinions.
At the 92nd Street Y in New York City (a Jewish cultural organization), I appeared on a panel together with a representative of Opus Dei and subsequently got the chance to meet a number of Opus Dei members. While they were severely critical of The Da Vinci Code and the way Opus Dei is portrayed in the book, the people I came to know in Opus Dei took the position that the book was just a novel and that it shouldn’t be taken as factual. Some Opus Dei members even told me that they enjoyed the book at the level of a good beach or airplane read. To the degree anyone had come to take the ideas in the novel seriously, Opus Dei members felt that their organization should try to have a seat at the table of discussion to set the record straight from their point of view. Indeed, Opus Dei in the United States published a detailed set of FAQs on their website with their reactions to specific ideas presented by Dan Brown in the novel. (See p.TK??? for a sampling of these Opus Dei FAQs). In the fall of 2004, I visited Rome and Vatican City for my research for Secrets of Angels & Demons, which dealt with the novel Dan Brown wrote prior to The Da Vinci Code. Brown’s Angels & Demons, published in 2000, five years before the death of Pope John Paul II, was set in the Vatican against the backdrop of the death of a Pope and the unfolding of the Papal succession process. During my research, I found that the Italian version of The Da Vinci Code was on sale everywhere in Italy, even in the bookshops of Vatican City. A few weeks later, when Pope John Paul II’s health began to decline markedly, I heard that the Italian version of The Da Vinci Code was even on sale in the bookshop of the hospital where he was being treated.
After all of these experiences, I began to draw the conclusion that Church leaders were handling the debate thoughtfully and appropriately. They were criticizing the book in forums where it was appropriate to do so, but not launching any kind of campaign against the book that would make them look like they were on the defensive, or like they took the book too seriously, or that would inadvertently call even more attention to the book and make more people want to read it. Whether one agreed or disagreed with Vatican policy on these matters, the Church seemed to be playing it cool and smart. But it turned out that conclusion was a bit premature. Suddenly, in early 2005, two full years after The Da Vinci Code had first burst upon the world scene, Cardinal Bertone, the 70 year-old Archbishop of Genoa, issued a most surprising statement in which he called for banning the book. Bertone’s outspoken comments made headline news around the world. Among the more virulent sound-bites:
“The book is a sackful of lies against the Church, against the real history of Christianity and against Christ himself.”
“We can’t keep quiet about the truth when faced with all the lies and all the inventions in this book...I’m really shocked that a book founded on so many errors and on numerous lies could have such success.”
“I would ask the author of this book and similar ones to be more respectful because freedom of expression has limits when it does not respect others.”
“This book is everywhere. There is a very real risk that many people who read it will believe in the fables it contains are true.”
“He even perverts the story of the Holy Grail which most certainly does not refer to the descendents of Mary Magdalene. It astonishes and worries me that so many people believe these lies.”
“There is nothing more false than the need to rediscover a – how can I say it – an ‘amazon’ Mary Magdalene in order to recuperate the presence of women [in the church].”
“What would have happened if a book like this had been written, full of lies, on the Buddha or Mohammed or even, for example, if a novel had been published that manipulated the history of the Holocaust?”
“Not selling [The Da Vinci Code] in Catholic bookstores would be a good first step.”
“Don’t buy this [book]. Don’t read this because this is rotten food.”
Seeking to “discourage” the reading of books deemed heretical is not new. For the better part of five centuries, the Church maintained a list of books – the Index Librorum Prohibitorum --that were to be banned or shunned. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, as well as the complete works of Jonathan Swift, John Locke and Jean-Paul Sartre were included in the index at various times. The Church’s willingness to use extraordinary means to suppress books it deemed heretical has a long, painful, and unfortunate history, punctuated by well-known incidents from the Inquisition to burning the philosopher-scientist Giordano Bruno at the stake, to the trial and house arrest of Galileo.
The practice of attempting to control the ideas and cultural works to which Catholics are exposed through official or semi-official banning of books was discontinued in the 1960s. It was a time in Church history characterized by a new kind of modern enlightenment and steps toward democratization of Church organization and belief. (In this same time period, the Vatican acknowledged that Mary Magdalene should not be confused with the repentant prostitute mentioned in certain Gospel passages.) Over the last few decades, with Church leaders officially criticizing past policy on matters such as the trial of Galileo and seeking ways to reconcile Genesis and the theory of evolution, it appeared that the Church was developing a more open approach to discussion, debate, and criticism.
This recent background made Cardinal Bertone’s comments all the more surprising. In attacking The Da Vinci Code and calling for Catholic bookstores to stop selling it, Bertone seemed to be suggesting a return to a time when Church leaders believed they could win intellectual and philosophical debates by simply banning or suppressing certain ideas. Few of the faithful seemed particularly moved by Bertone’s ban. Even some high-ranking church officials chose to distance themselves from Bertone. For example, Monsignor Jose Maria Pinheiro, Bishop of Sao Paulo, one of the largest Catholic communities in the world, took an explicitly different view. He counseled “prudence,” encouraged readers to distinguish “fact from fiction” in The Da Vinci Code, and suggested that it was not necessary to prohibit anyone from buying or reading this novel.
Other Vatican experts pointed out that if he had wanted to, Pope John Paul II had almost two years to speak out against The Da Vinci Code before he lost his voice and his health. He was a Pope who often commented on popular culture. In his youth, he had written plays and poems. So it would not have been surprising if he had said something about The Da Vinci Code. But he never did. (Incidentally, Dan Brown was once part of a small group that had an in-person audience with Pope John Paul II). So why was Cardinal Bertone so exercised about this novel? As it turned out, Bertone was on some people’s lists as a possible successor to Pope John Paul II. Bertone’s outburst against The Da Vinci Code occurred at a moment in time when it had become clear that John Paul II’s health was in rapid decline and that a Conclave to select a new Pope was in the offing. The cardinals follow a strict code of conduct during these transitional times that forbids anything that smacks of campaigning. But speaking out on issues, even though it can be a thinly-veiled form of electioneering, is acceptable. By condemning The Da Vinci Code, a number of experts believed that Cardinal Bertone was calling attention to the need to strengthen the purity of Church doctrine by selecting the new Pope from among those in his conservative faction.
Just a few weeks later, the German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, with whom Bertone was closely allied, would, in fact, be selected to become Pope Benedict XVI. It was one of the most curious cases of life imitating art: Dan Brown, the Protestant pop novelist from New Hampshire, whose earlier book, Angels & Demons, had dealt with all manner of secrets, conspiracies, theological issues, and Machiavellian plots within a fictional Papal selection process, became himself a factor in the real-life Papal selection process of 2005.