Editor's note: This column was first published December 18, 2003, and is being reprinted at Bishop Robert C. Morlino's request.
At a time when through the grace of God and the efforts of Pope John Paul II, the rightful role of our Blessed Mother has risen to a new level of appreciation among Catholics, especially through his having issued the encyclical, The Mother of the Redeemer in the 1980s, and most recently invited all of us to celebrate the Year of the Rosary complete with the five new Luminous Mysteries, there is a rather well-known attack on this special role of Mary and so many other things about our Church that has risen up in our culture.
I am talking about the book, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Someone treated me to a copy of the book (I would never have paid money for it myself), and I devoured it during the days of my vacation - I have to admit that it is a good read as a mystery novel and I could hardly put it down.
At first I was pleased when I saw at the very beginning a statement of two facts seemingly on which this work of fiction was based: the first about the Priory of Zion as a factual entity and the second about the prelature of the Catholic Church, Opus Dei, the existence of which is of course also a fact. I took this to be a warning that while these two elements mentioned in the book are historical realities, the rest was simply a mystery novel - a fiction.
Novel takes turn in another direction
I was quite surprised when at about page 238 this novel seemed to take a turn in another direction. While it had been asserted at the very beginning that there were only two facts at the foundation of what was otherwise a work of fiction, now many things were being proposed as if they well might be factual, things which in fact are preposterous.
If you would like to see a clear delineation of what in this work is preposterous and why, I would refer you to the review by Sandra Miesel in the issue of Crisis magazine of 1 September 2003 entitled "Dismantling The Da Vinci Code." In that review the author takes up what is preposterous and provides evidence for her claims from a far more thorough basis of research than I would have time to muster. But it did strike me that perhaps The Da Vinci Code might seemingly make a good Christmas gift, and if it were going to be given in fact, perhaps that ought be done at least with five cautions.
Divinity of Christ, Mary Magdalene's role
In the first place the novel argues that Jesus Christ is not divine - is not God, and does so in an exceptionally weak fashion.
In the second place our faith, unlike most religions of history, does promote as the greatest Christian, the perfect disciple, our Blessed Mother. The Da Vinci Code rather asserts the primacy of Mary Magdalene who was allegedly according to Leonardo Da Vinci, and others, in their interpretation of certain early Christian texts which could never be affirmed as inspired, a noble woman of the tribe of Benjamin who married Jesus Christ, who was forced to flee Jerusalem after the crucifixion and death of Christ, and whose children with Christ grew up in France so that blood line of the marriage of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene has been carried on in the Merovingian dynasty.
If this sounds spooky to someone, that's not the half of it. But this kind of irresponsible thinking about our Christian faith can prove attractive in a culture which is hostile to all faith and looking for ways to discredit faith. If Mary Magdalene is who this book says she is, then our Blessed Mother Mary could never be who we know she is by faith.
Attack on prelature of Opus Dei
And thirdly, the book is a scurrilous attack on the prelature Opus Dei. Opus Dei is a prelature/movement in the Catholic Church which calls its members to very high level of sacrificial giving of time, talent, and treasure to do the work of God. No movement in the Church is meant for everyone. There is no shortage of those who would be outspoken critics of Opus Dei.
But the insinuations in the book that Opus Dei members would engage in murderous conspiracies, etc., is completely without merit. What annoyed me the most is that the author fixates in a very unfair way on the use by certain members of Opus Dei of corporal penance in terms of the flagellum (a small whip of cords with which one might strike one's back to realize the pain of the suffering of Christ). The other instrument of corporal penance in the book is called cilice - in the tradition it was also called the catena, the Latin word meaning chain - and it was wrapped around either the thigh or the stomach area, to cause genuine discomfort, again a means of reminding oneself of and sharing in the sufferings of Christ. The use of the flagellum was not meant to draw blood nor was the use of the chain.
The use of these penances as described in Brown's book would insinuate a certain masochism built into the spirituality of Opus Dei which is outrageous. In fact the use of the flagellum and the catena are not unique to Opus Dei. They have a long tradition in the practice of the Church and Opus Dei like so many other religious movements or communities simply adopted them.
When I was a Jesuit novice (1964-1965), we were asked to discuss the use of the flagellum and the catena with the novice master on an individual basis. He would or would not give permission for their use - in most cases he did - but in any event he always revisited and reconsidered this whole matter with each individual novice so that the whole dynamic of the penance would remain properly ordered and so that no abuse or misunderstanding would creep in. Over the two years of the noviceship I myself used the flagellum and catena with some regularity. Most did in those days. To insinuate that somehow these penances are inherently masochistic and are some kind of an abuse which should discredit Opus Dei before the eyes of the world is outrageous.
New age techniques
Fourthly, what disturbs me most about Dan Brown's book is that it is a primer in practically every new age technique or approach there is, from pentacles and pentagrams to anagrams to numerology to astrology - you name it - practically everything on the new age menu finds its place somewhere in this book and it is presented in a way that is attractive and engaging. That's the problem.
The new age movement is very much continuous with the program of the Priory of Zion and certain secret Masonic groups to destroy the credibility of the Catholic Church. This can be done by direct attacks on our faith - for instance replacing our Blessed Mother as the exemplar of faith with Mary Magdalene, or by causing great confusion among the people that somehow there is a spark of the divine within me that enables me to save myself and to save others without reliance on the grace of Jesus Christ. I simply have to find that secret spark and force within.
The new age movement has been spreading for years like fire even among Catholics, and it is even possible to adjust the language of Christianity and turn it into an offering in the new age cafeteria. My greatest fear is that someone reading this book might find himself or herself very powerfully invited into this new age world, which is a world that cannot accept that Jesus Christ is the only Savior of the world - let there be no mistake about that.
And lastly, Brown's book, true to its new age context, having rejected the notion of the Holy Grail as the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper in favor of the Holy Grail as the womb of Mary Magdalene, resorts to the mind/body split so definitive for the new age movement. Remember the realism of Christ - in His Incarnation He took flesh. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit did not want to be present to the world simply as an idea in people's minds or as an inspirational figure or as a character in a story.
Jesus Christ took flesh but we see in Brown's book that the Holy Grail is not His chalice and in the end it is not Mary Magdalene's womb or even the body of Mary Magdalene wherever that might be entombed. The Holy Grail is whatever anyone thinks it might be to cause an uplifting and enthusiastic freeing response, whatever that means. In the end the new age movement sees the individual human mind as God, and reality as whatever the human mind thinks it is, and that is rather disastrous.
Give with commentary
So if you are planning to give The Da Vinci Code as a Christmas gift this year, it may be that you have already prepaid for the copies and have had them sent - it's always possible to personalize a gift with some commentary thus making the gift even a more full expression of yourself, that is, "here is my gift and here is what is in my heart as I give the gift."
If you give The Da Vinci Code as a gift, please tell the receiver what ought to be in every Catholic heart, as I have tried to outline in today's column, and most importantly of all, please do remember that there is no shortage of those who would use the opportunity of a Church, weakened by a sexual misconduct scandal for which we must accept blame, to discredit the Church and weaken her in every other way.
The Church is the place where the Kingdom of Heaven subsists in this world. There is sin and weakness in the Church to be sure. The reality of being the visible body of Christ in this world means at times manifesting the weakness and sin which are the effects of the sin of the world.
Let us keep our eyes fixed on the Kingdom of Heaven and on the Church, the visible body of Christ on earth in which the Kingdom subsists. In the end we will be like Christ, seeing Him as He is. For now He has given us His Church. Let us love Her with all of our hearts, and live so that She can evermore become the spotless bride which it is Her vocation from Her Savior to be.
Thank you for reading this and God bless each one of you.
Diocese of Madison, The Catholic Herald
Offices: Bishop O'Connor Catholic Pastoral Center, 702 S. High Point Road, Madison
Mailing address: P.O. Box 44985, Madison, WI 53744-4985
Phone: 608-821-3070 Fax: 608-821-3071 E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org