By Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As the May 19 premiere of the film adaptation of "The Da Vinci Code" neared, bishops and other Catholic leaders across the country were urging caution and skepticism about it should the claims made in Dan Brown's novel cross over into the movie.
Dioceses also have taken steps to educate Catholics on separating fact from fiction in the book. The novel contends Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene and fathered a child and portrays Opus Dei as a secretive church cult that is plotting to take over the church.
"It is pure fiction and the novel is identified as such. Unfortunately, too many people believe the story. One review, printed on the back cover of a paperback edition, states: 'Read the book and be enlightened,'" said Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia in a column published in the April 27 issue of The Catholic Standard & Times, Philadelphia's archdiocesan newspaper.
But he said the debate over the novel and the release of the film offers "a teaching moment for the church."
"It is astounding that many, unfortunately, seek understanding of Jesus in novels rather than in the inspired texts of Scripture. For it is there, in the word of God, that we plunge into the depths of the mystery of Jesus. In the Gospels, we hear his voice, we see his face, we experience his love, we understand the power of the paschal mystery," Cardinal Rigali said.
"Is The Da Vinci Code anti-Catholic? Well, sure it is. The book is at least as anti-Catholic as it is anti-Christian," said Archbishop George H. Niederauer of San Francisco in a column published in the May 5 issue of his archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic San Francisco.
In his column, Archbishop Niederauer took apart several assertions made in the novel.
"The Da Vinci Code -- the book and probably the film -- presents Catholics with one set of problems, and those are best dealt with by knowing the facts of our church's faith and its history," Archbishop Niederauer said.
"A broader challenge is an entertainment establishment that doesn't know very much about Catholicism, doesn't like what it thinks it knows, doesn't want to learn any more, and can't leave Catholic faith, practice and imagery alone," the archbishop said.
In a letter to Catholics in his diocese, Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli of Wilmington, Del., said: "Many have found The Da Vinci Code entertaining. Others have found it offensive. Sadly, some have found it believable. For them, the book may inflame prejudice or precipitate a crisis of faith, because if one takes The Da Vinci Code at face value, one could conclude that everything the church has taught about Christ is a lie."
The letter was published in the May 4 issue of The Dialog, diocesan newspaper.
"As the film debuts, it is likely that television and other media will be saturated with The Da Vinci Codes' claims. As is so often the case, our precious young people, the future of the church, are most vulnerable and potentially the most scandalized by this kind of media onslaught. But good people of any age and background can be confused in a case such as this," Bishop Saltarelli said.
He added, "Neither book nor film should cause you to be discouraged or lose heart. In the Catholic Church, the glory of God has been and continues to be revealed fully and in truth for Christ's faithful people."
The Wilmington Diocese has established a task force to counter Da Vinci claims. Task force member Kevin Ruth, chairman of classical and modern languages at Tower Hill School in Wilmington, did his doctoral work at Rutgers University in late medieval and religious theater. He expects he will talk about medieval linguistics and about art history, especially Leonardo da Vinci's painting of "The Last Supper" that is featured prominently in the book.
The biggest problem with the book, according to Ruth, is the "Fact" page at the beginning that stipulates essential plot points as true. For instance, the so-called "Priory of Sion," which Brown says existed for centuries, was created in 1956 in France on forged documents. That's just one untrue "fact," Ruth said.
A scholar's library that the character Sophie examines late in the novel includes titles of real books, Ruth noted, but their authors "are not recognized by secular scholars, they are so far out of what would be considered accurate historical scholarship."
Ruth doesn't believe many Catholics have had their faith shaken by the book, but he thinks many will begin to "seriously question the motives of the church."
Archbishop Angelo Amato, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said Catholics should consider a boycott of the film. Barbara Nicolosi, head of the Act one screenwriting program for Christians in Hollywood, has suggested an "othercott," seeing instead the animated movie "Over the Hedge," which also premieres May 19.
But they have to go up against a movie based on a book that has sold 40 million copies and starring Tom Hanks -- the biggest box-office star of all time with his movies collectively grossing more than $3.1 billion.
Matt Pinto, president of Ascension Press in Media, Pa., which developed a ready-made parish program called the Da Vinci Outreach, has had almost 20,000 downloads of material from the program's Web site.
"Our goal is to reach 2,000 parishes nationwide," Pinto told The Catholic Standard & Times. "We're already working with 14 dioceses, including the archdioceses of Indianapolis, St. Paul (and Minneapolis), St. Louis, and have had about 50 inquiries for speakers nationwide."
Father John Vidmar, a priest of the Diocese of Providence, R.I., said his book "The Da Vinci Code and the Catholic Tradition" has gone into a second printing after local bookstores quickly snatched up most of the first run. Booksellers were expecting a renewed interest in critiques of Brown's book with the upcoming movie release.
"People can read things very uncritically," Father Vidmar said, explaining why there was such a demand for books that call Brown to task. "Faithful Catholics want answers to their questions."
To that extent, the Brown book has provided "a teachable moment" for the church, Father Vidmar told the Providence Visitor, diocesan newspaper. He called his book "an opportunity not just to bash The Da Vinci Code, but also to teach people about the early church."
While it is still a mystery as to how much of Brown's book will make it onto the screen, thousands of Catholics and Christians in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston were ready to make their voices heard through protests at local theaters, and even boycotts of theaters showing the movie.
Helena Brown, a local Catholic, has been at the forefront of a local effort to boycott the movie.
"It is comprised of hundreds of Christians in the general area within the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. But there are no boundaries," Brown said. "The sentiment of the growing number of conscientious objectors to The Da Vinci Code is as widespread as the release of the film. Unfortunately, the release of the film is not simply a local tragedy."
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Contributing to this roundup were Susan Brinkmann in Philadelphia, Michael Brown in Providence, Erik Noriega in Houston and Joseph Ryan in Wilmington.
Copyright (c) 2006 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
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