Master of Deception

May 15 2006 | by

FOR CENTURIES whisperings of weird stories, intrigues, legends and secret societies have circulated about the Catholic Church in attempts to put her in a bad light with stories of villainous ecclesiastics doing dirty deeds to protect some unknown interest.
In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis speaks of interest in the occult leading to a kind of 'spiritual lust'. Lewis's notion can easily be extended to include an unhealthy obsession with conspiracy theories, intrigues and scandal. Additionally there is, in our time, a great hunger for 'spirituality' without religion, which makes no moral demands on its adherents. The novel, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, capitalizes on these elements.
There are also people with a vested interest in discrediting the Catholic Church. Frequently they are former Catholics who have departed from the Church's moral teachings and seek evidence to support their departure. All too frequently those looking to discredit the Church look to the sins of Catholics, especially clergy, as their proof that the problem does not lie with themselves. But in this they miss the point - Christ came for sinners - the Church exists for sinners, and without God's grace we cannot hope to live up to Catholic teachings. It cannot be stressed enough that the bad things Catholics do don't add up to who and what the Church is. The Church, according to Catholic belief, is both divine and human like her Founder. The sins of Catholics are not evidence of the Church's failure, but of our constant need for Christ. In any case, the sins of men in no way nullify the saving work of Christ.

Extensive research?

Evidently, Dan Brown does not understand this, and from the start of his novel supposedly devout Catholics are portrayed not merely as sinners, but as evil and deranged, ever on the lookout to suppress those with whom they disagree, or do not like, and anything to do with the good of women. The Church is portrayed as constantly 'threatened' by supposed enemies who have a truth to tell. Brown does not understand that the Catholic Church is not threatened by anything objectively true, but embraces truth wherever it is found.
All this being said, from the outset of the novel Brown presents a 'devout' Catholic who is a deranged murderer who flagellates himself thinking it absolves his sins, and who thinks he is carrying out God's will with his murders; an avaricious bishop, and a paranoid Church obsessed with repressing others for its own agenda. While the novel is acclaimed for its 'extensive' research, Brown would have done well to do a simple read-through of The Catechism of the Catholic Church instead of relying on old wives' tales and flatly false presuppositions about Catholic beliefs and practices.
To shed much-needed light on this book and its presuppositions we asked Sandra Miesel, an author and speaker who holds degrees in biochemistry and medieval history, and Carl Olson, editor of the online magazine, and the best-selling author of Will Catholics Be 'Left Behind'? to comment on the Da Vinci Code phenomenon. Miesel and Olson have co-written a book, The Da Vinci Hoax, (Ignatius Press, San Francisco) to set the record straight on the false suppositions about Catholicism put forth in The Da Vinci Code.

Gross errors

We asked them about the book's playing fast and loose with alleged 'facts' which are laughable to any knowledgeable Catholic, yet pose a danger of terrible misinformation for those either weak in faith or ignorant of Catholicism and history. For example, the above mentioned deranged murderer, a character named Silas, is portrayed as going about dressed as a monk and a member of the personal prelature of Opus Dei. While Opus Dei may not be everyone's cup of tea, it is a validly recognized Catholic group, by which its members seek holiness. They are not known for harbouring murderers.
Carl Olson responded, 'There's the fact, of course, that Opus Dei doesn't have monks, let alone albino monks. But the novel gets even worse. Starting at page 230 (in the hard cover edition), the novel launches into a lengthy lecture about the 'true history' of Christianity, the 'facts' about Jesus and Mary Magdalene having been married, the role of the Emperor Constantine in creating Christianity and producing the New Testament, and the Catholic Church's many attempts to launch a 'smear campaign' (the actual phrase) against Mary Magdalene's reputation and memory.
'Opus Dei essentially takes the place once occupied by the Jesuits in 19th-century anti-Catholic literature. This is probably because Opus Dei is newer and thus less well known, has a reputation for being loyal to Magisterial teachings, and has been stuck with the label of 'secretive' and even 'strange'. I've actually been asked by Catholics if Opus Dei really exists, and, if so, why it is so secretive! I reply that, yes, Opus Dei exists, and is so secretive it has a website with copious amounts of information about its existence, its mission, its practices, and so forth.'
As for playing fast and loose with facts, Miesel said, 'What facts? Brown claims to be factual, but his book is riddled with gross errors, not just on history, but on objective matters such as the size and medium of paintings, locations, directions, the passport laws of the European Union, even trivial matters from everyday life.'
As for the Opus Dei reference, she said, 'I think that Brown wanted to tap public perception of Opus Dei as a mysterious, possibly sinister organization. (Note that he repeats the fable about them bailing out the Vatican after the bank scandal.) Then he slathers on imagery of the menacing hooded 'monk' right out of Gothic fiction. It's deliberately done to manipulate the reader.'

Harmless novel?

I asked the two authors about the common response that, 'It's only a novel,' or 'It's only a movie, don't take it so seriously!' So what is the harm in a work of fiction dealing with these issues in this way?
According to Miesel and Olson, there are some very serious problems with Brown's use of the Catholic Church, a real body affecting the lives of real people. Olson feels that this is so important, and that it comes up so often, that he wrote an article just on this topic in response to questions, entitled, The 'It's Just Fiction!' Doctrine: Reading Too Little Into The Da Vinci Code (March 14, 2005,
He says, 'I point out that when fans of The Da Vinci Code discuss the book (based on reading numerous reader reviews and comments online), they don't spend much, if any, time on the characters, plot, and writing, but instead fixate on the historical, theological, and artistic claims on the novel. I note that many, many readers see the novel as some sort of guide, or catechesis, to questions about Jesus, the early Church, Christianity, and much more.
'And Dan Brown clearly sees it that way as well, consistently indicating his belief in the ideas and themes explored in his novel. Interviewed in 2004 for a National Geographic Channel documentary, Unlocking Da Vinci's Code: The Full Story, Brown did not waver in his beliefs. 'I began as a sceptic', Brown said, 'As I started researching The Da Vinci Code, I really thought I would disprove a lot of this theory about Mary Magdalene and holy blood and all of that. I became a believer.''
'Finally, I point out that there is no such thing, ultimately, as 'just fiction', since all fiction (even poorly written popular fiction) has the power to shape beliefs, influence minds, and inform opinions.'
According to Miesel, 'Fiction can affect the reader more strongly than non-fiction.' She said, 'It plants ideas and images that will stick - even with readers who say they were only interested in the mystery aspects and took nothing seriously. Fiction makes excellent propaganda.
'Consider the lasting harm done to the reputation of Pope Pius XII by a single Broadway play, Rolf Hochuth's The Deputy, produced in 1963. Single-handedly, it reversed the public's view of Pius from friend of the Jews to enemy of the Jews, a perception no amount of documented refutation seems able to erase. And that was one stage play, not a novel with 40 million readers all over the world.
'Moreover,' she said, 'we live in an age where people are historically illiterate and absorb much of their information about their world from entertainment.'
Asked if there were any danger to the book or film, she referred again to The Deputy, saying, 'The falsehoods are going to stick with some readers. There are actually people who have lost their Christian faith (or lost interest in converting) because they've read The Da Vinci Code.'

Catholic tradition of inquiry

Catholicism takes the ruin of reputations very seriously as a very serious sin. But what of planting seeds of doubt that may be destructive of faith? According to Miesel and Olson, there are some serious spiritual dangers to people who are unprepared for what they read in this novel or see in the upcoming movie version. It is sad that there are Catholics who will swallow whole Dan Brown's fictitious version of Catholicism while rejecting what Christ's appointed teachers have said consistently for 2,000 years.
There is an old but persistent (and false) charge that Catholics are expected to be blind followers, a canard belied by the very rich Catholic intellectual tradition of inquiry and education, a tradition to which the truth claims of Catholicism have stood up very well for 2,000 years. This great Catholic tradition very strongly supports critical thinking. And when it comes to The Da Vinci Code thinking critically is exactly what every Catholic should do.


Updated on October 06 2016