Maureen Dowd On DaVinci Code

Maureen Dowd

OP-ED COLUMNIST

The Vatican Code

By MAUREEN DOWD

Some may mock the Vatican for waiting until everyone on earth has read "The Da Vinci Code" to denounce "The Da Vinci Code."

I am not one of them. It’s Easter, and I don’t want to blot my catechism.

It’s a little late, now that the two-year-old thriller by Dan Brown is a publishing miracle – with 25 million copies sold in 44 languages, a cascade of other books inspired by the novel and a movie with Tom Hanks set to start filming this spring – for Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone to intone on a Vatican radio broadcast: "Don’t read and don’t buy ‘The Da Vinci Code.’ "

But when you think of the history of the Catholic Church, the Vatican is acting with lightning speed. It took the church more than 350 years to reverse its condemnation of Galileo. The Vatican only began an inquisition of the 16th-century Inquisition in 1998. It wasn’t until the reign of Pope John Paul II that the Vatican apologized for the crimes of the Crusaders and offered contrition for the silence of Catholics in the Holocaust. The church has still not apologized for shameful dissembling by its hierarchy on the sex abuse scandal. And America’s Catholic bishops only last week announced they were finally going to get serious about opposing the death penalty.

The 70-year-old cardinal assigned by the Vatican to exorcise the success of the novel is the archbishop of Genoa, a former soccer commentator and a contender to succeed the ailing pope. "There is a very real risk that many people who read it will believe that the fables it contains are true," he told Il Giornale.

It evokes the Dan Quayle-Murphy Brown flap for a Vatican official to slam Dan Brown’s fictional characters, but a former Vatican reporter explained it this way: "The church is founded on a story that some people believe and some people don’t, so the Vatican tends to get very threatened by other versions of that story, especially racier ones."

Mr. Brown’s zippy version has Jesus and Mary Magdalene marrying and having children. This "perverts the story of the Holy Grail, which most certainly does not refer to the descendants of Mary Magdalene," Cardinal Bertone said. "It astonishes and worries me that so many people believe these lies."

The novelist is not the first one to conjure romantic sparks between the woman usually painted as what one writer calls "the Jessica Rabbit of the Gospels" and the eligible young Jewish carpenter and part-time miracle worker.

For years, female historians and novelists have been making the case that Mr. Brown makes, that Mary Magdalene was framed and defamed, that the men who run Christianity obliterated her role as an influential apostle and reduced her to a metaphor for sexual guilt.

The church refuses to allow women to be ordained as priests because there were no female apostles. So if Mary Magdalene was a madonna rather than a whore, the church loses its fig leaf of justification for male domination and exclusion.

It’s obvious that Vatican officials did not read to the end of Mr. Brown’s novel or they never would have denounced it.

(Caveat lector: If you have somehow missed reading the blockbuster or are one of the thrifty souls waiting for the paperback to finally come out, do not read further.)

After whipping you into a feminist frenzy over the hidden agenda of the church’s unjustly perpetuating itself as an all-male, all "celibate" institution – precepts that have clearly led to some unnatural perversions and attracted a disproportionate number of priests fleeing sexual confusion – Mr. Brown abruptly deflates you at the end, going along with the notion that women should stay silent and submissive, letting the men who run the church continue to run the church with men.

The woman who is the descendant of Mary Magdalene and Jesus tells Robert Langdon, Mr. Brown’s Harvard symbologist hero, that the secret saga of how the church smeared her ancestor as a slut and swindled all women out of serious roles in the church does not need to be aired. It can continue to remain a secret.

"Her story is being told in art, music and books," the woman says, adding that things are gradually changing for women: "We are beginning to sense the need to restore the sacred feminine."

No whistle is blown. No alarm is sounded. Talk about an anticlimax for a fantastic ride. As it turns out, Mr. Brown is not the tormentor of the Vatican, but an ally.

E-mail: liberties@nytimes.com

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