“As long as there has been one true God, there has been killing in his name.”
So says Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen) to Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) in Ron Howard’s film adaptation of a certain little book by Dan Brown.

You may have heard that the polytheist Romans were quite capable of killing monotheist Christians in the name of their own gods centuries before Christians were in any position to be killing anyone. According to Teabing, however, it was Christian atrocities against pagan Romans — not vice versa — that prompted Emperor Constantine to decriminalize Christianity.

Luckily, renowned Harvard “symbologist” Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is on hand to offer an opposing viewpoint. “We can’t be sure who began the atrocities,” he cautions. Now that’s fair and balanced. Nero, Diocletian, Galerius, all those early martyrs: It’s all such a muddle, who’s to say who was really persecuting whom?

This is not unlike claiming that it was really the Jews who oppressed the Nazis. Yet the trope that “it’s only a movie” or “it’s just fiction” has largely obscured the fact that the conspiracy-theory conceits of The Da Vinci Code are by and large not Brown’s own flights of fancy, but are based on a lunatic-fringe view of history set forth in “nonfiction” books like Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Templar Revelation.

While these books have about as much credibility as the likes of Did Six Million Really Die? — which is to say zero — many people who would find the raving anti-Semitism of the latter an insuperable obstacle in a thriller seem willing to overlook the raving anti-Catholicism of the former in The Da Vinci Code.

Is The Da Vinci Code anti-Catholic? Well, if it isn’t, then we must simply conclude that no such thing as anti-Catholicism exists, or at least that no anti-Catholic movie has ever been made. I can think of religiously themed films more profoundly oppressive to Catholic sensibilities (e.g., The Last Temptation of Christ), and more searing indictments of corruption and abuse within the Church (e.g., The Magdalene Sisters). But The Da Vinci Code may be the most systematic and sustained cinematic shooting down of the Catholic faith that I’ve ever seen.

That it is risible and dimwitted doesn’t make it less disgusting.

What’s so inflammatory about it? Not just the suggestion that Jesus was merely human and not divine — as radically repugnant to Christian belief as that obviously is — or that he was married and had children. It’s not just the appropriation of heretical Gnostic texts like the “Gospel of Mary Magdalene” in the name of a postmodern Gnostic-neopagan rejection of Christian orthodoxy and the canonical Gospels. It’s not even just the suggestion that fanatical zealots within the clergy have carried out murderous campaigns in the name of their religion.

You see, The Da Vinci Code not only indicts monotheism itself as synonymous with religious oppression and persecution but it casts the Catholic Church — not just hypocritical or abusive Catholics, but the very institution — as inherently perverse and oppressive. It posits that the Church has held on to power these 20 centuries by systematically murdering those who could expose the pack of lies on which the entire faith is based.

How does the movie compare to the book? Have screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and director Ron Howard taken concerns or objections regarding the book into account? Well, yes, in a manner of speaking. But not in a good way.

Ever since the book came out, members of Opus Dei — dismayed by Brown’s portrayal of the group as a fanatical, shadowy “sect” or “congregation” characterized by brainwashing, coercion and self-mutilation — have been trying to get the word out that the book’s lurid fantasies have no basis in reality.

Insidiously, the film absorbs this message into the Da Vinci worldview. In an early scene, when we meet Opus Dei Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina), he’s on a plane rehearsing talking points intended to defend Opus Dei against critics. Opus Dei simply rejects “cafeteria Catholicism,” he says benignly, while his aide recommends he avoid sounding defensive. It sounds precisely like the message the real Opus Dei would like to put across — or, for that matter, what any serious Catholic would say about his faith. You see, that’s what they want you to think.

In a similar vein, protagonist Langdon has been subtly reworked from an outspoken proponent of Da Vinci esoterica into a more skeptical, ostensibly neutral scholar who mouths many of the objections Brown’s critics have been making, putting the burden of the Da Vinci worldview onto Teabing. Now we have Langdon arguing that the Priory of Sion is “a myth” and “a hoax,” while Teabing retorts, “That’s what they want you to think.”

Some critics have interpreted this as a concession to Christian concerns, but the actual effect is precisely the reverse: It undermines critical objections by incorporating them into the film’s overall picture and then seeming to rebut them as Langdon is gradually converted to Teabing’s point of view.

A few Christians have optimistically hoped that The Da Vinci Code movie might provide a potential opportunity for dialogue and discussion about Jesus with people who might not otherwise be open to such discussions. Yet, if anything, the film seems calibrated precisely to inoculate viewers against any such discussion — to leave viewers with a skeptical agnosticism about efforts to set the record straight is all part of the conspiracy. Our defense of the faith can thus be dismissed as “what they want you to think” or “blind belief in your Church’s version.”

The Da Vinci Code throws so much mud around that at least some of it is likely to stick in viewers’ minds. Was Constantine really a lifelong pagan who invented the doctrine of the deity of Christ and compiled the Bible as we know it? Did the Church really declare Mary Magdalene to be a prostitute in 591? Was Sir Isaac Newton really persecuted over his theories of gravitation, the way we all “know” Galileo was for his heliocentrism? How many viewers will have any idea about all these questions?

On an imaginative level, the film’s relentless association of Catholic imagery — crucifixes, clergy, churches — with pervasive creepiness and depravity amounts to a kind of aesthetic slur that is hard to counter with mere arguments or talking points.

Is it possible to put all this aside and just enjoy the story as a thriller, an enjoyable yarn? I honestly have no idea how people can take that approach.

Mark Shea tells an anecdote about a Da Vinci Code talking session among students at Central Washington University. “Even if it’s just fiction,” a student opined, “it’s still interesting to think about.”

To which another student replied: “Your mother’s a whore.” And then, to the first student’s stunned incredulity, he added, “And even if that’s just fiction, it’s still interesting to think about.”

Content advisory: Pervasive anti-religious and anti-Catholic rhetoric and themes; sporadic violence, sometimes deadly; luridly sensational depictions of religious self-mutilation; rear nudity; crude language; a fleeting image of pagan ritual sex (no nudity).

Steven D. Greydanus

is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.