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Redeeming the Magdalene


Despite the best efforts of the Catholic Church and the panning of the film by most movie critics, large crowds packed last weekend’s opening of The Da Vinci Code.

According to media reports, it’s had the second-largest opening ever internationally. The film, directed by Hollywood stalwart Ron Howard, will likely mirror the success of the international bestselling novel–the more it’s attacked by churches and the right wing, the larger the crowds that go see it.

The Da Vinci Code stars Tom Hanks as American professor Robert Langdon, Audrey Tautou as Paris detective Sophie Neveu and Ian McKellen as a British aristocrat obsessed with the suppressed history of Christianity.

The film revolves around the unraveling of “the greatest cover-up in history’–that the Catholic Church suppressed its knowledge that Jesus Christ was a mortal man married to Mary Magdalene (slandered as a prostitute by the Church) and fathered children with her. Jesus wanted Mary, not Peter, to carry on his work and that the descendents of Mary and Jesus live among us to this very day, protected by a secret society known as the Priory of Scion.

These descendents are hunted by Opus Dei, a secretive order of the Catholic Church that is also trying to destroy the last remnants of the Church’s suppressed history. These remnants were hidden by the great inventor, artist and Priory member Leonardo Da Vinci and are known to only a few chosen successors. One successor is Sophie’s grandfather, the curator of the Louvre, whose murder begins the book and movie.

This well-made thriller closely follows the book in presenting a story that is a mixture of historical facts, Medieval myths and real debates about Christianity’s history. It’s essentially a treasure hunt for adults with secret codes, hidden meanings, murder and political intrigue. It’s a good read and fun to watch on the big screen.

The film and the book are also very liberal in their social attitudes, particularly the treatment of women in Church history. But, in the end, the book and the film are really pot-boiler thrillers, so why have they so engendered the wrath of the Christian churches, particularly, the Catholic Church?

Most of the mainline churches have denounced the book and the film. Some have even organized picketing of the movie, like here in Chicago. Responding to the attacks on his film, Howard declared, “This is entertainment, not theology.’

It may be, but it touches upon issues that the Catholic Church would rather remain closed to public discussion. The Da Vinci Code reveals to many Christians things that are not taught in Sunday School: that Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire because of the political needs of the pagan emperor Constantine; that there were many Gospels that were not included in the Bible because they didn’t serve the needs of the Church; that many of the early followers of Jesus considered him a prophet but not divine.

The book and movie make you think about religion, and that’s not something that Christianity encourages. As one Catholic leader put it, “We are not in the democracy business.’

The Catholic Church, after all, is a highly discredited institution these days. It’s still involved in an ongoing scandal concerning the cover-up of child sexual abuse by priests. Its half century of decline in North America and Europe for a variety of easons–its collaboration with fascism during the Second World War to being on the wrong side of every social question–has made it a symbol of evil, corruption and political reaction in the eyes of many people.

Now comes along a bestselling book and popular movie implying that the whole foundations of Christianity are a fraud–and Church leaders went wild. Pope Benedict even toyed with organizing a boycott of the film.

This isn’t surprising. He was previously the head of the Vatican office of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith–formerly known as the Inquisition, responsible for the torture and death of heretics in the Middle Ages.

But it’s the fanatics of the Opus Dei that have taken the lead in defending the Church and their order–a member of which is depicted as a killer in the movie–from The Da Vinci Code. Opus Dei has gone on something of a charm offensive trying to portray themselves as just everyday people.

Given that the order was founded by a Spanish priest loyal to fascist dictator Francisco Franco and home to some of the world’s most unsavory political and military figures, this a bit of a stretch.

In a country where any critical discussion of religion is attacked without mercy, anything that opens up a critical discussion should be welcome. The Da Vinci Code book has done that, and hopefully the film will widen it.

When asked whether the film should have a disclaimer saying that it’s fiction, McKellen responded, “I’ve often thought that the Bible should have a disclaimer at the front saying, this is fiction.’

It’s been many years since I’ve heard anything like that on morning TV, if ever.

JOE ALLEN is a member of Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago. He can be reached at



JOE ALLEN is the author of Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost.

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