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Top Italian Cardinal Is Out to Break 'Code'

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 17, 2005; Page C01

ROME -- As is just about everywhere else in the world, Rome is awash in editions of "The Da Vinci Code," the blockbuster whodunit with a narrative that includes a Vatican coverup of an explosive theological secret: Jesus was married! Despite the heretical plot twist, in which Jesus fathered a child with his wife, Mary Magdalene, Dan Brown's novel was on sale at the bookstore of Gemelli Polyclinic, the Rome hospital where Pope John Paul II underwent a tracheotomy last month and spent 18 days recovering before being released Sunday.

Well, enough is enough. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, once a top dogma enforcer in Vatican City and currently archbishop of Genoa, broke the Vatican's virtual silence on the book this week and told Vatican Radio that nobody should read it and certainly Catholic bookstores should stop selling it.


Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone is leading the Vatican attack on "The Da Vinci Code." (Max Rossi -- Reuters)

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"Don't buy and don't read that novel," he said. And in remarks to Il Giornale, a conservative newspaper, Bertone declared: "There's a big anti-Catholic prejudice. It aims to discredit the church and its history through gross and absurd manipulations."

Bertone explained why, two years after the novel's debut, the church ought to be putting its foot down: Too many people are taking the book's mix of art, architecture, secret societies, weird symbolism and hocus-pocus as -- if you'll excuse the expression -- the Gospel truth.

"You can't be a modern youth without having read it. The book is everywhere," Bertone said. "There is a very real risk that many people who read it will believe that the fables it contains are true." Until two years ago, he belonged to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the official defender of orthodoxy in the Vatican.

Brown has disputed criticism that his novel is anti-Christian. His agent in New York said the author is writing a new book and is not expected to respond to Bertone, according to Reuters.

Stories about the life of Jesus have been popping up all over the mass media. Last year's gory mega-hit by Mel Gibson, "The Passion of the Christ," about Jesus's last hours before and during the Crucifixion, won praise at the Vatican, where it was privately screened for the pope. Vatican spokesmen said the pontiff gave it two thumbs up, but they later retracted that report and said he doesn't do movie reviews. In London, Madame Tussauds, the wax museum, mounted a Nativity scene with soccer star David Beckham and wife Victoria, aka Posh Spice, standing in for Joseph and Mary.

Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" -- used as evidence of the Jesus-Magdalene liaison in Brown's book -- also took a hit. In an irreverent ad campaign by the French fashion house Marithe and Francois Girbaud, sultry women in chic casuals were arranged at a table in postures similar to the Apostles' in the painting -- except that in John's place, a shirtless man in low-slung jeans slouches. French Catholics sued because the poster "did great injury to Catholics" by representing the Last Supper "in denigrating conditions." A judge banned the poster as "an aggressive act of intrusion of people's innermost beliefs." Lawyers for the fashion company had argued that the posters were a parody of a painting, not a religious event, and wondered aloud why the judge did not also ban "The Da Vinci Code."

In any case, the heretical horse is way out of the barn. Eighteen million copies of "The Da Vinci Code" have been sold worldwide. A movie starring Tom Hanks is in the works. Tourists pester guides at the permanent exhibit of da Vinci's "Last Supper" in Milan, asking them to point out the Mary Magdalene figure. Guides explain repeatedly that the figure is that of a youthful John.

"There are two reasons the church needs to speak out on this issue," said Massimo Introvigne, director of the Center on New Religious Studies, a Catholic research organization in Rome. "Dan Brown talks about facts, and things in his book are not facts. And second, I am astonished by the number of Italians who tell me their faith has been shaken."

Riffs on the life of Jesus outside orthodox teaching are nothing new -- in books, in Hollywood or, for that matter, in the most ancient of Christian documents. Of course, there was Martin Scorsese's film "The Last Temptation of Christ," in which Jesus on the Cross imagines an alternative life of married bliss and car pools with -- who else? -- Mary Magdalene. Before that, there was "Jesus Christ Superstar," the Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera that also hinted at an affair between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, although not so much as to offend. Vatican officials declared it acceptable entertainment for the Vatican's millennium celebration.

In the early centuries of Christianity, religious leaders grappled with various accounts of the life of Jesus, some of which were at odds with each other and with newly accepted orthodoxy. Was he man, prophet or God, or all of the above? In the 4th century, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, ordered scores of manuscripts attributed to followers of Jesus destroyed. But disobedient monks buried the versions in clay jars and some were discovered centuries later. Among them was a manuscript called the Gospel of Mary, attributed to Mary Magdalene. It suggests she was one of the chosen followers of Jesus and an equal, at least, to the (all male) others.

No mention of marriage is made in any of these, nor in the orthodox Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, and it is the titillation aspect of "The Da Vinci Code" that, in part, upsets church leaders and scholars. "Scandal is what such books are all about," said Bernardo Estrada, a teacher of the New Testament in Rome and a member of Opus Dei, a worldwide Catholic lay organization with strong Vatican connections. Opus Dei is one of the villains in "The Da Vinci Code." It is portrayed trying to suppress knowledge that Jesus left a lineage on Earth and meant for Mary Magdalene to be head of the church. "It's an attack on the church as obscurantist, and Opus Dei is just a vehicle for the attack," he said.

But Estrada doesn't think "The Da Vinci Code" ought to be banned. Rather, priests need to read it so they can talk about it. "Anyone with a historical and religious base can refute it. I rather liked it, it's a good thriller," he said.


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