Vatican Officials Grappling With 'Da Vinci Code'

Times Staff Writer

An Opus Dei priest is blogging about the "The Da Vinci Code." A cardinal is hinting at lawsuits. Another church official praises the flamboyant plot as a great thriller. Still others worry that generations of Catholics could be ruined by it.

Here at the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, a debate is raging over how to confront the phenomenon that is "The Da Vinci Code," the blockbuster novel that may become a blockbuster movie after its premiere tonight at the Cannes Film Festival.

There is little dispute over the disdain with which Catholic officials regard the premise of Dan Brown's story -- that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had a child, an idea that challenges the divinity of Christ, a central tenet of Christianity. Senior Vatican prelates have branded the tale a despicable distortion of history and theology.

But what to do about it? Ignoring or boycotting a book that has already sold 40 million copies doesn't seem a very efficient tactic at this point. Does complaining very publicly just add to the buzz?

Father John Wauck, an American priest with the Opus Dei prelature, said "The Da Vinci Code" was laughable from start to finish, a comedy of errors that "defies serious reading." But the impact of the story is something else altogether. Wauck believes that the popular appeal of the book underscores the failure of the organized church to adequately educate its followers. Release of the movie, directed by Oscar winner Ron Howard, only adds to Wauck's sense of urgency.

"The cultural phenomenon is very important and must be taken seriously," Wauck said. "It shows our ignorance over art, history, theology, scripture ... and that's not Dan Brown's fault, that's our fault, the fault of the church, of priests and parents who aren't teaching the truth."

Wauck spoke Tuesday at the presentation of a documentary titled "The Da Vinci Code: A Masterful Deception," which offers a range of critical voices, including art historians, scholars and religious leaders. Although the documentary-makers, including Italian journalist Mario Biasetti, said they were not working on behalf of the Vatican, the film is clearly the latest effort by the church to debunk Brown's work.

Lashing out most forcefully in the documentary is Cardinal Francis Arinze, head of the Vatican's congregation for worship and liturgy, who suggests taking legal means to counter what he sees as the vile content insulting his faith.

"Those who blaspheme Christ and get away with it are exploiting the Christian readiness to forgive and to love even those who insult us," Arinze says. "Christians must not just sit back and say it is enough for us to forgive and to forget.... Sometimes it is our duty to do something practical."

Wauck, a Chicago native who has lived in Rome for a decade and who teaches at the Opus Dei Santa Croce University, is of the mind that as objectionable as the material might be, the attention generated by "The Da Vinci Code" should be seized as a tool for educating Christians.

"We should not be afraid to use it to teach people because the truth of the Christian faith is much more interesting, much richer, more mysterious and beautiful than Dan Brown's fiction," he said.

Wauck started a blog several months ago, in response to the flood of questions he received about Opus Dei and various ideas presented as facts by Brown. In the novel, Opus Dei is demonized as an evil, conspiratorial power, and one of the main villains is a murderous albino monk from Opus Dei (even though the organization does not actually have monks).

One of the least incensed people appearing in the documentary is Msgr. Robert Sarno, a veteran in the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the body that compiles the histories of candidates for beatification and canonization.

"I don't think 'The Da Vinci Code' is an attack on the church," Sarno says. "I think it's a great novel that I found very gripping and interesting to read." He emphasizes, however, that it should be seen simply as fiction.

It is the inability of too many readers and moviegoers to make that distinction that alarms priests. Younger generations especially aren't strong enough in knowledge of their faith, the church fears, to separate truth from fable.

"There is basically a catechetical vacuum among younger people," John Thavis, Rome bureau chief for the Catholic News Service, says in the documentary. That worries church officials, he says, because "they see 'The Da Vinci Code' filling it in a dangerous way because it is a work of fiction."

The documentary also captures some of Rome's more alarmist voices. The theme stressed by many is that "The Da Vinci Code" is part of a broader attack on Christianity.

Rocco Buttiglione, culture minister in the just-ended government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, says that any similar offense against Islam or Judaism would not be tolerated.

"It seems that you can use falsity against Christianity and there is a high level of social acceptance," he says. "We have an intellectual class that has lost the idea of primacy of truth."

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