How Dan Brown Stirs Catholics' Buried Emotions

Writer Dan Brown gestures as he poses during a photocall for the movie "Angels & Demons" at Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome last May. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)


With release of Dan Brown's new thriller, "The Lost Symbol," we asked author Eric Plumer for a religious perspective. Plumer, an associate professor of theology and religious studies at the University of Scranton, a Jesuit institution, is author of "The Catholic Church and American Culture: Why the Claims of Dan Brown Strike a Chord," which was published by University of Scranton Press in June.

After the publication of "The Da Vinci Code" in 2003, more than fifty books debunking its claims about the Bible and church history were published, almost all by Protestants. It was not until 2005 that the Vatican broke its silence, when Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, one of the Catholic Church's highest-ranking officials, denounced "The Da Vinci Code" as "a sack full of lies." One of the first lies that needed to be exploded, he said, was the claim that the Catholic Church is male dominated.

Many American Catholics wondered: "Cardinal Bertone, what color is the sky in your world?"

Women cannot be official leaders or teachers in the Catholic Church -- roles reserved for ordained men. Not only are women barred from being ordained as priests or bishops, but the question of their ordination is not even to be discussed, as Pope John Paul II stated in 1994. And in case there were any lingering doubts, Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) added that this teaching is infallible.

To say that huge numbers of American Catholics were stunned would be an understatement.

It is precisely this reaction that Dan Brown has been able to exploit. Most Catholics had been taught that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute and were shocked to learn in "The Da Vinci Code" that the Bible says no such thing. They began to wonder whether there was some truth to the novel's claim that calling her a prostitute was part of the Church's systematic effort to discredit her and women in general.

What the reaction to "The Da Vinci Code" (and "Angels and Demons") reflects is one of the burning issues of the American culture wars: Where is moral authority to be found?

The Vatican claims that its teachings come from Christ through the apostles and bishops. Yet Catholics have been quick to note that among those teachings is the sacredness of individual conscience, in which God also speaks and which must therefore be obeyed.

John Paul II warned, however, that even if your conscience tells you something is permissible (the use of contraceptives, for example), your conscience may be wrong and you may be doing what is objectively evil.

A huge percentage of American Catholics find themselves in disagreement with the Church's condemnation of contraception as objectively evil--as wrong always and everywhere.
They complain that they find no such teaching in the Bible and that it contradicts their own lived experience of marriage.

The gradual erosion of the Church's moral authority turned into a landslide in 2002 when the American media were full of reports on sexual abuse by clergy and the bishops who had covered it up.

At the same time societal changes are proceeding at a dizzying speed. For example, the completion of the Human Genome Project has inaugurated a " biorenaissance." These things have all led Catholics to seek a spirituality more in tune with the times.

And here again Dan Brown has tapped into a feeling that there must be more to Jesus' message than what has been presented to them, especially if Jesus was, as the Church itself proclaims, the most vibrant and charismatic individual who ever lived.

Dan Brown was able to use all of this ferment to his advantage. The effect of "The Da Vinci Code" on many Catholics was not only to raise questions about the leadership of the Church but to open floodgates of long-pent-up feelings of anger and frustration with that leadership. And because it was a media phenomenon, "The Da Vinci Code" made these Catholics realize as never before that their feelings were shared by millions of others -- Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

The Vatican denunciations of "The Da Vinci Code" showed that the novel had precipitated a crisis. Perhaps that crisis may yet be turned into an opportunity for constructive dialogue within the Catholic Church and beyond.

The impact of Dan Brown's latest novel, "The Lost Symbol," is, of course, impossible to predict. What we can say is that, if Dan Brown stays true to form, the book will likely be provocative and will be destined to stir still further conversation inside the Church and out.

By Steven E. Levingston |  September 14, 2009; 4:00 PM ET Steven Levingston
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

It is terrifying and heartbreaking that this ignoramus could be teaching at a Catholic institution.

Posted by: thebump | September 15, 2009 7:21 AM

It made me laugh when the vatican described it as a "sackful of lies". Did the definition of the word "fiction" change and I just didn't hear about it? It's just a story. An author's only real obligation is to entertain. Some of my more tragically literate friends describe Brown's books as a "guilty pleasure" but why feel guilt? I put it in the same Cussler-Crichton-Clancy page-turner beach read category and look forward to The Lost Symbol.

Posted by: Timinator | September 15, 2009 9:29 AM

thebump: You may want to consider reading his book. It's NOT what you think. I highly suspect you would find yourself more in agreement with him than you might guess. For example, he goes into the anti-Catholicism that fuels the Dan Brown phenomenon.

Posted by: KoYou9NWTM | September 15, 2009 1:08 PM

What the reaction to "The Da Vinci Code" reflects is the ignorance of things Catholic, in the media, in the general population and, sadly, among Catholics.

That so many took Dan Brown's claims as true is a measure of the pathetic gullibility of people, specifically their willingness to believe anyone except those they regard as being "authority figures."

Like a country full of college freshman, we reject the common sense of our parents as antiquated and unworthy of our trust, but unhesitatingly lap up the pablum of our "wise" and worldly professors like we were sucking truth from a bottle.

Professor Plumer himself needs to read up on Church history if he thinks the rejection of the Church's teaching authority is a recent phenomenon.

Timinator, I might remind you that a racist joke is also fiction and entertaining, at least to those who laugh. The reason people find racist jokes offensive is the same reason The Da Vinci Code is offensive: it presumes that everyone accepts the offending premise, ie: blacks are lazy, or the Church is murderous and corrupt.

Posted by: rcchuntrn | September 15, 2009 5:41 PM

The only Catholics that would read such rubbish are pretty stupid ones, and we can well do without their mindless opinions.
Here in this country, our own "Kath and Kim" comedians have sent up brilliantly the type of mindless, largely lapsed Catholic clowns that attach any credibility to these ridiculous tales. Let's laugh with them and at Dan Brown's petty grab at finding the Catholic readers with the lowest IQ's!

Posted by: brent_egan | September 16, 2009 3:48 AM

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