by Michelle Pauli
With sales of over 18m copies in 44 languages, topping bestseller charts all over the world and earning its author more than £140m, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code is a global phenomenon. And now it has become the first book ever to have an archbishop dedicated to debunking its contents.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Archbishop of Genoa and a possible successor to the Pope, has been appointed by the Vatican to rebut what the Catholic church calls the "shameful and unfounded errors" contained within The Da Vinci Code. He is organising a series of public debates focusing on the conspiracy theories and what the Vatican sees as the blurring of fact and fiction at the heart of the thriller, the first of which will be held in Genoa tomorrow.
The book follows the investigations of a Harvard code expert who is looking into the murder of the curator of the Louvre Museum in Paris. He discovers a series of clues buried in the works of Leonardo Da Vinci and, by deciphering riddles and anagrams, uncovers the secrets of the holy grail: that Jesus never claimed to be divine, that he married Mary Magdalene and had a child with her, that his bloodline survived in France and that the grail itself was not a chalice but a woman. It is this, along with the book's characterization of the international Catholic organization Opus Dei as an extremist cult, that has particularly exercised the Vatican.
"The book is everywhere," Cardinal Bertone told Il Giornale newspaper, according to a report in The Times today. "There is a very real risk that many people who read it will believe that the fables it contains are true. [Dan Brown] even perverts the story of the holy grail, which most certainly does not refer to the descendants of Mary Magadalene. It astonishes and worries me that so many people believe these lies."
The 70-year-old cardinal, a former football commentator, has acted as deputy to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The appointment of such a high-profile defender of the church to take up battle against a work of fiction is an indication of how upset the Vatican is about the success of the book, which has spawned a small publishing industry of its own and is currently being made into a film, starring Tom Hanks, to be released next year.
According to David Barrett, a writer on religion and expert on The Da Vinci Code, "Members of the Catholic church are particularly upset by what they see as the blasphemous suggestion that Jesus may have had sex - but there is absolutely no reason theologically why Jesus could not have been married and had a family. They are also upset at the way the Catholic church and the Vatican are characterised as having plotted to cover up the 'truth' about Christianity, and they are understandably upset at the characterisation of Opus Dei.
"Many people think there are genuine concerns about Opus Dei but the actions ascribed to them in the novel are completely ridiculous. Apart from anything else, they don't have monks."
As a result of the book's hold over the public's imagination, Opus Dei has produced its own response: a 127-page statement which sets out the "errors" in the book, and states that "many readers are intrigued by the claims about Christian history and theology presented in The Da Vinci Code. We would like to remind them it is a work of fiction and not a reliable source of information."
Barrett is dismissive of the bestseller. "It's basically a hack thriller, a typical airport book," he says. "The Catholic church are overreacting: ultimately, it's only a novel and the controversy will eventually die down. On the other hand, the book raises some serious questions about the origins of Christianity. Even though it makes many glaring historical errors, the fact remains that early Christianity did take many variant forms, including Gnostic Christianity, and there are genuine issues to be examined. But such examinations should be undertaken by competent theologians and historians, not hack thriller writers who are very poor at their research."
Greg Watts, a Catholic author, has similar concerns about Brown's credentials. "Dan Brown's concern is to make money rather than teach theology. He has found a gullible audience and has played on their ignorance," he says. "He gives the readers the impression that they understand Christianity when in fact they've been hoodwinked and manipulated."
However, Watts also feels that the fact that The Da Vinci Code has appealed to such a broad audience presents a challenge to the church: "There is a lesson for the church in the success of The Da Vinci Code and the lesson is that the church needs to use modern media much more effectively to present the Christian message to the new generation."
A spokesperson for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, said that they had no plans for any similar 'debunking' initiatives.
Story source books.guardian.co.uk
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