VATICAN CITY— A prominent Church leader has weighed in on the veracity of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s best-selling fantasy novel that distorts and discredits the Catholic faith.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Archbishop of Genoa, called the book a “castle of lies” and urged Catholics not to read it. He also said he was distressed to discover even Catholic bookshops selling the book.
“We are clearly facing a formidable distribution strategy here,” he told the Italian newspaper Il Giornale. “The book is everywhere. There is a very real risk that many people who read it will believe that the fables it contains are true.”
Central to the novel’s controversy is its claim, written convincingly as fact, that the Church has for centuries concealed that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and that she bore him a child whose descendents are protected by a secret society. It claims that the Holy Grail is really the bloodline of these descendants, which the Church is supposed to have covered up along with the female role in Christianity.
The thriller has been a phenomenal marketing success, selling 18 million copies worldwide in 44 languages in just two years, and it remains one of the Top 10 bestsellers in the United States, France, Brazil and Argentina.
Several books have been written to rebuff the claims, most notably The Da Vinci Hoax, co-written by Register columnist Carl Olsen and Sandra Miesel. Last month, Alessandro Vesozzi, a museum director in Leonardo’s hometown of Vinci, set about correcting the book’s falsehoods in a staged “trial” of the “code.”
In the latest effort to correct its errors, Archbishop Bertone hosted a seminar on the book in Genoa March 16, in which experts and members of the public opened up the book’s claims for discussion. The archbishop, formerly secretary at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said he wished to “unmask the lies” so that readers could see how “shameful and unfounded” the book is.
“There is an idea circulating in schools that one must read this book to understand the dynamics of history,” the archbishop told Vatican Radio. The fact that he had to schedule a public discussion about the novel was “truly sad and terrible,” he said.
“Cardinal Bertone is upset by the credulity — the astonishing credulity — of people who believe this nonsense,” said a Vatican official. “I started reading it, and after 30 pages I couldn’t read anymore. It was just too stupid to continue with it.”
The cardinal, speaking as the bishop of his diocese and not for the Vatican or the Church at large, said his initiative to hold the seminar had met with a positive response from many cardinals, but he said he feared the Church had “sounded the alarm too late.” A movie based on the book, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, is expected to be released next year.
Massimo Introvigne, director of the Center for the Study of New Religions and a speaker at the Genoa conference, said that Brown based an important part of his claim on documents that were made public in 1967 in Paris. However, the individuals responsible for those documents have since admitted they were fraudulent.
Cardinal Bertone said the most ridiculous premise of the novel is the Church’s alleged obliteration of the feminine aspect from the Gospel narratives and in the life of the Church. “There is nothing more false,” he said. “In fact, the female element is ever present in the Gospels, not least in the person of the Virgin Mary.”
The cardinal said the book reminded him of intemperate anti-clerical pamphlets of the 19th century. “I ask myself what the reaction would be to a similar book, full of lies, about Buddha or Mohammed, or if a novel came out manipulating the whole story of the Holocaust, the Shoah.”
The book also outrageously paints the personal prelature Opus Dei as a sinister and conspiratorial body prepared to resort to murder. The current prelate of Opus Dei, Bishop Javier Echevarria, said Brown intended to harm the prelature.
Speaking on Italian television March 16, Bishop Echevarria said that Brown would not have written about Opus Dei in that way “if he knew that, rather than producing a distance between people and Opus Dei, it’s actually resulting in the opposite and drawing people to it.”
He said that he prays “every day” for Brown and that he is “not at all worried” about the effect of the book on the personal prelature.
What is mystifying to many, however, is why so many people believe the book’s claims and why it has proved so popular. Cardinal Bertone attributed the success of Brown’s book to a visible strategy, especially after the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, to undermine the Church’s authority.
“The Church, with our Pope John Paul II, has made an exceptional impact on present-day humanity and this has bothered many,” he noted.
Father Robert Sirico, director of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, put its popularity down to three reasons: that Brown has set himself up to be taken seriously in order to sell his books; that the book is one of the first to be written in close collaboration with marketing surveys; and that consumers have an appetite to believe in conspiracy theories because they lack personal beliefs.
“When people cease to believe in God, it’s not that they believe in nothing, it’s that they’ll fall for anything,” said Father Sirico in reference to a quote by G.K. Chesterton. “I think this is a classic example of a kind of spirituality that borrows a lot of the language, imagery, and aesthetics of Judeo-Christian culture but doesn’t want to assert anything for sure morally, that it’s not obligating in any particular way.”
Edward Pentin writes