As a theology professor and woman religious, Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Nancy Hawkins is well suited to discern fact from fiction in entertainment offerings that challenge teachings of the Catholic Church. So it wasn’t difficult for her to quickly dismiss many elements of “The Da Vinci Code.”
“I didn’t go to it thinking I was going to see a documentary,” remarked Sister Hawkins, who viewed the film on its opening weekend. “My faith never will be based on a book or movie. I’m not coming to the movie with a rocky faith.”
Yet she is concerned about how the blockbuster film — and best-selling book by the same title — might affect Catholics and Christians who lack similar grounding.
“I do think there are many people in the world who are searching for faith and may be skeptical,” said Sister Hawkins, who was scheduled to lead a June 2 workshop, “A Catholic Response to ‘The Da Vinci Code,'” at Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford, where she serves as associate professor of systematic theology. She and co-presenter Deacon Thomas Driscoll held similar lectures after The Da Vinci Code book, by author Dan Brown, was released in 2003.
St. Bernard’s is among many local Catholic venues to present discussions in response to “The Da Vinci Code” movie, which opened May 19. Sister Hawkins implored people to use these teaching opportunities rather than take the book and movie at face value.
“We need to be critical thinkers of our faith,” Sister Hawkins said. “If you’re not willing to make the effort, then you may live in the land of untruth.”
Sister Hawkins said the June 2 session is intended to distinguish between “scholarly research and tabloid research.” That goal is shared by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which launched its “Jesus Decoded” Web site March 9 at www.jesusdecoded.com. The site serves to dispel notions in the novel and movie by providing accurate information about Jesus, the origins of Christianity and Catholic teaching.
In fact, the Diocese of Rochester, through its office of communications, stewardship and development, is regularly referring inquiries about “The Da Vinci Code” to the “Jesus Decoded” Web site.
Fact, fiction & faith
Directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou and Ian McKellen, “The Da Vinci Code” movie is a thriller that begins with the murder of the curator at Paris’ famed Louvre museum, followed by an attempt to decipher a series of cryptic messages that may not only solve the murder, but also reveal the location of the Holy Grail.
The film, as well as the 454-page book, also puts forward a number of theories that conflict with Catholic teaching. Among them:
* A widespread conspiracy, dating back many centuries, to cover up truths not recorded in the New Testament — including the notion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had children, and that their bloodline persists today.
* A belief that the legendary Holy Grail refers not to the vessel Jesus used during the Last Supper, but instead to Mary Magdalene.
* A fabrication by Roman Emperor Constantine at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 of the divinity of Jesus, who supposedly was considered a mortal prophet up until that point.
* An effort by fourth-century church leaders to doctor the Bible in order to control the Roman Empire and oppress women.
* An assertion that many ancient Gospel writings that did not end up in the New Testament should be given equal weight with those that did.
* The existence of a secret society called the Priory of Sion dedicated to preserving the secret of the Holy Grail.
* Membership by Leonardo Da Vinci in the Priory of Sion, and his use of “The Last Supper” to depict at the right hand of Jesus not the apostle John, but instead Mary Magdalene.
The USCCB’s “Jesus Decoded” site debunks these assertions, pointing out that:
* The Priory of Sion is a hoax created in the 20th century, based on fabricated documents.
* No biblical evidence exists that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife or that they had children.
* The four Gospels and New Testament, declaring Jesus as divine, had been finalized and widely approved long before Constantine and Nicaea.
Though the movie makes no statements about whether its content is factual or fictitious, in the prelude to his book Brown makes several assertions under the heading of “Fact.” In addition to his claims that the Priory of Sion is legitimate, the author paints the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei — of which he gives a fictional account in the book — as a highly controversial organization known for “brainwashing, coercion and a dangerous practice known as ‘corporal mortification’ (self-flagellation offered up as a sacrifice to Jesus).” He concludes the prologue by stating, “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”
As far as Father Gary Tyman is concerned, this opening page sets the tone for all that follows, making it that much harder to separate truth from falsehoods.
“To me that’s the problem with the whole thing — that he’s claiming it’s true,” said Father Tyman, pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Greece, who has read the book and watched the movie.
His concern is echoed in an essay by Archbishop George H. Niederauer of San Francisco on the “Jesus Decoded” Web site. Bishop Niederauer’s essay quotes Mark Twain: “A lie is half way round the world while the truth is still putting its boots on.”
Big box office
Reviews for “The Da Vinci Code” movie have generally been lukewarm, with critics citing its length (149 minutes) and slow pacing (see review on page B14 and news story on page A9). Another potential deterrent to box-office success were widespread protests, including several scheduled for the Rochester Diocese (see story, page A6). In addition, Archbishop Angelo Amato, secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said Catholics should consider boycotting the movie.
Father Roy Kiggins, pastor of the Roman Catholic Community of Geneva, said he hasn’t read the book and doesn’t plan to see the movie.
“Both strike me as commercial ventures that have done well through a combination of controversy, slick marketing and fast-paced plot. Saying much publicly makes me an unwitting flack for the enterprise,” Father Kiggins said.
Even so, Sony Pictures’ $125 million investment in “The Da Vinci Code” movie is reaping big rewards: It reportedly debuted with an estimated $77 million in domestic ticket sales the weekend of May 19-21 and $224 million worldwide. The film took in an additional $34 million its second weekend. Meanwhile, The Da Vinci Code book, published by Doubleday Fiction, has sold 60.5 million copies as of May 2006 and has been translated into 44 languages.
Although this is certainly not the first movie to take liberties with Catholicism — recent examples include “The Last Temptation of Christ” in 1988 and “Dogma” in 1999 — “The Da Vinci Code” may well have the greatest public impact. Sister Hawkins observed that Brown’s fortunes were enhanced by the fact his book was released while cover-up scandals involving Enron and priestly sexual abuse were sweeping the country.
“It was very good timing. He’s a lucky man,” Sister Hawkins remarked. “We’re living in a period of great skepticism; conspiracy theories abound.”
“Americans are intrigued by conspiracy theories, and this (The Da Vinci Code) is the mother of all conspiracy theories,” Father Tyman added.
Sister Hawkins said she respects those who avoid “The Da Vinci Code,” saying “that’s their privilege and that’s their choice.” But she also maintains that the subject is far too popular to be completely ignored. For that reason, she applauds the U.S. bishops’ creation of “Jesus Decoded” as well as other church efforts to educate on themes raised by the book and film.
“It seems to me the response has been excellent. I think the church is very media-savvy, which is what you have to do to survive these days,” Sister Hawkins said.
Father Tyman noted that at his parish, 65 people turned out for a Lenten discussion series about The Da Vinci Code. This, he said, is a different reaction than what may have occurred nearly 20 years ago with “The Last Temptation of Christ.”
“At last, with The Da Vinci Code, we’re getting the idea that trying to boycott or repress things is not as productive as taking them on,” Father Tyman said.
By and large, Father Tyman said, he considers the movie and book unworthy of all the controversy: “It’s pretty light stuff.” However, he added, “I seek to use that as a jumping point for discussion about our faith — ‘OK, who is Jesus for us?'”
“I believe that the Holy Spirit uses all manner of events that happen in our world and in our culture to raise our awareness of the presence of God in our lives. The Da Vinci Code may have just that effect for some people,” Father Edward Palumbos, pastor of Fairport’s Church of the Assumption, observed in a May 14 bulletin article. “For some it may be an upsetting scandal or dark expos√©, but for others it may be an invitation to a religious experience.”
Though Father Tyman asserted that there’s no evidence Jesus was ever married, he suggested that we view other humans not as blood descendants of Christ — as the book and movie would have us believe — but as spiritual descendents.
“The idea of being brothers or sisters or children of Christ — how should a brother or sister of Christ act, what would Jesus do? That, I think, is a good thing,” Father Tyman said.