By Pat McDonough
Forty million hardcover copies have been sold, the paperback is a bestseller, and the movie will open to sellout crowds next week. Whats driving The Da Vinci Code craze? Is it something in the story or something in us?
Sure, its got a winning combination of suspense and secrets, spiced with art history and a little romance. But is there something more fundamental fueling the success of Dan Browns fiction? The Catholic Church, quick to condemn its theology, cant ignore its sociology. Christians want to know Jesus, how he lived and who he loved. Its a task easily accomplished through the gospels, which are proclaimed and preached at Mass every day. But my guess is Catholics will pack theaters rather than parishes to gain a glimpse of the holy next week, in spite of the Vaticans urging the faithful to boycott The Da Vinci Code.
Disillusioned by the priest sex-abuse scandal, worn out by the clergy crisis and conflicts between culture and church teaching, Catholics -- young Catholics, in particular -- might look toward Hollywood for hope and healing next week. It will be a futile attempt to replace faith, but nonetheless a sign that broken hearts still want to believe.
The church teaches that the clergy are ontologically changed at ordination, set apart not simply to act in Jesus name but to be Jesus in persona Christi. When consecrating the Eucharist, the priest doesnt say This is the body of Christ. He says, This is my body. In the confessional, he says, I absolve you of your sins, not Jesus absolves you of your sins.
No doubt the role of priests and the reality of the past few years have taken a toll on the churchs victims, their families and the entire Catholic community. Dan Brown vilifies the Vatican, tapping into the betrayal felt by children who suffered at the hands of a priest, whose suffering was exasperated by clerics who covered for their collared colleagues.
Would Browns book have been a blockbuster before the sex-abuse scandal? In 1982, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, claimed that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a child. It came and went unnoticed until this years failed plagiarism suit. Maybe Brown mixed mystery and myth so cleverly that he was bound for the bestseller list, or maybe the timing was just right for a story about a savior who embodied Gods dictate, It is not good for man to be alone.
People are responding en masse to the book and possibly to the idea that Jesus had a partner, a soulmate, a spouse. Post-crisis Catholics, clergy included, are questioning the necessity of celibacy as a charism for the Catholic priesthood today.
For centuries, Catholic priests, like the disciples, were married. The motivation to mandate celibacy in the Middle Ages had more to do with property and power than prayerful leadership. Basic biology tells us that if a group fails to reproduce for centuries, it will eventually become extinct. Are readers buying Browns book and buying into the possibility that a married Jesus could mean a married clergy and more priests to serve the increasing number of Catholics?
The gospels offer no indication that Jesus was married to Mary of Magdala, but the evangelists do place her at the cross, standing courageously as the male disciples fled in fear. Theres no question that the Risen Lord appears first, not to one of the 12 apostles, but to Mary Magdalene. Why is she trusted to proclaim the Good News of the Resurrection at a time when womens roles were so restricted?
While Scripture scholars speculate and the church admits that its portrayal of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute was a mistake, Catholics are questioning why women in the early church were marginalized, why female saints were outnumbered by male saints 7-1 and why most women were canonized as virgins. Before John Paul II died, he moved to canonize a married couple. As it turns out, the couple, Luigi and Maria Beltrame Quattrocchi, ceased having sex after their four children were born, and all four of those children entered religious life and vowed celibacy, suggesting a hint of unholiness in marital relations, at least in the eyes of Rome.
As the clergy crisis continues to unfold and cost more than $1 billion in damages, you can bet believers will find the money to buy a copy of Browns book or a ticket to the movie. People are hurt, but theyre still hungry. And if people are hungry enough, theyll eat anything. Those who are starving spiritually will invest in a story that feeds them. Although Browns book may be junk food, it reminds readers that Jesus loved women, trusted them and needed them to bring Gods plan to fruition.
When innocent children are dehumanized and intelligent women marginalized, the image of God, in which we are all made, is compromised. Dan Brown capitalized on that.
Special to Newsday