By John Thavis
ROME (CNS) -- The Da Vinci Code came in for resounding criticism at a recent round-table discussion at the Marianum Pontifical Theological Faculty in Rome.
It was not a pick-it-apart session by church historians. Instead, four women spoke about Mary Magdalene and her distorted depiction in Dan Brown's book.
The moderator of the discussion, Marinella Perroni, a New Testament theologian, said "The Da Vinci Code" joins a list of books and other media treatments that exploit the figure of Mary Magdalene. Perroni said caution is always needed when dealing with scriptural figures, but for some reason people feel free to take great liberties with Mary Magdalene.
Maria Luisa Rigato, a retired professor of exegesis at the Pontifical Gregorian University, said she found Brown's book entertaining fiction -- but that it was clear to real scholars that Mary Magdalene was neither the wife nor the lover of Jesus.
The Catholic participants drew a sharp distinction between what is known about Mary Magdalene from the approved Gospels and what has been circulated for centuries in the so-called Gnostic gospels, rejected by the church long ago.
But a Waldensian pastor, the Rev. Letizia Tomassone, said she thought the noncanonical gospels, although they are clearly later manuscripts, can be valid secondary sources of information. In some of these later gospels, she said, Mary Magdalene appears as the "mediator of the resurrected Christ," which aligns with what the Gospel of St. John says about her being the first witness of the resurrection.
Mary Magdalene, Rev. Tomassone said, comes across as "one who knows how to heal the heart of a wounded community."
The experts generally agreed, however, that there is no scriptural evidence that Jesus and Mary were lovers, which is a key element in the plot of The Da Vinci Code. Even the incomplete references in the Gnostic gospels about Jesus' special relationship with Mary Magdalene depict a "spiritual intimacy," not a sexual relationship, Rev. Tomassone said.
The panelists differed about whether it should matter to Christians whether Christ was married or not. Some said they would have no problem with such a marriage, but the Gospels make no mention of it.
That prompted an objection from a young priest in the audience, who said he would not have made a promise of priestly celibacy unless he believed he was imitating Christ.
Rigato downplayed the impact of The Da Vinci Code, saying it was "third-rate literature" compared to earlier treatments of similar subjects, like The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis.
"Dan Brown with his 40 million copies is nothing compared to the billions of copies of the Bible. It's something you consume and forget and will not affect the faith in the least," she said.
But Miriam Diez i Bosch, a Catholic journalist who lectures on communications, said it was disturbing that a book like The Da Vinci Code was succeeding so well. Similar books may follow, she said.
The good thing is that The Da Vinci Code has given Catholics a chance to explain themselves, she said. The bad part is that Catholics clearly need to be better instructed in their faith, she added.
She said the church in particular needs better catechesis and more widely published scholarship on the figure of Mary Magdalene -- something more profound than presenting her as "the icon of the fallen woman."
Copyright (c) 2006 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
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