Breaking the Code

April 8-14, 2004
Breaking the Code
By Kristen Fox / SUN  Staff Writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Hosts Discussion on The Da Vinci Code

Since its release in 2003 The Da Vinci Code, a murder-mystery novel by Dan Brown, has been a hit with readers. Its publisher, Doubleday, says there are 6.8 million copies in print and claims the book “is the best-selling adult novel of all time within a one-year period.” Father Robert Scully, SJ, a Le Moyne College historian, issued a bit of caution to some of the novel’s readers during a discussion entitled “The Da Vinci Code: Commentary and Dialogue,” held at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse on March 28. Although some aspects of the novel are based in history, others are purely fictional, Father Scully said. “It’s lots of fun to read, but the story is a novel, not a documentary,” he said. Approximately 400 people attended the event. Father Joseph Champlin, rector of Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, told the audience that he planned the discussion because of the book’s popularity.

“It is a real page turner. People are talking about it a great deal,” said Father Champlin. During the 90-minute panel, he shared three spiritual lessons from Brown’s earlier novel, Angels & Demons. The book addresses the relationship between science and religion. Father Champlin called for a show of hands as to how many people read both of the novels. An overwhelming majority of the audience read The Da Vinci Code, which involves a murder mystery that draws on secret church societies, clues hidden in Da Vinci’s paintings and the search for the Holy Grail. Many held copies in their hands as they listened to the speakers. The novel has stirred up centuries-old questions, including did Jesus marry Mary Magdalene and has the church suppressed the role of women.

Father Scully did not list specific aspects of the novel that have no historical basis, but said the book draws on “a lot of speculation” in its references to the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. “There’s an awful lot that’s almost sinister, that there are these secrets the church has been keeping from us,” said Father Scully. “Fine for selling books, but not very historically accurate.” “That Jesus and Mary Magdalene could have been married is pure speculation,” he added. “Many people have been disturbed and troubled by where this comes from.” Also speaking was Diglio Antonio Simoni, a Syracuse University doctoral student whose uncle was a member of Opus Dei. The group is a Catholic service organization of lay and religious people that some characterize as ultraconservative and secretive. Simoni gave some background into Opus Dei, which was portrayed in a negative light in The Da Vinci Code. “I learned the spirit of Opus Dei through my uncle’s work,” said Simoni, who was born in Lima, Peru. “There is a particular kind of peace and joy which is characteristic of Opus Dei.” Msgr. Josemaria Escriva founded Opus Dei in Spain in 1928. He died in 1975, and Pope John Paul II canonized him in 2002. Opus Dei encourages people to follow church teachings and make the Gospels “present in all endeavors,” said Simoni. Following the presentation, the audience questioned him about Opus Dei’s practice of self-mortification that was mentioned in The Da Vinci Code. Simoni acknowledged that Brown’s descriptions of self-mortification are excessively sadistic, but maintained that discipline is part of Christian tradition. “Christ asked us to pick up the cross,” Simoni said. “Mortifying our bodies is not a new practice.”

Some audience members also wanted to further explore the novel’s suggestions that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and that the church suppressed the role of women. Father Scully admitted that Mary Magdalene, often referred to as “the Apostle to the Apostles,” is mistakenly assumed to be the penitent prostitute in the Gospels. “Was it deliberate? It’s very hard to say,” he said. Father Scully said that scholars studied numerous accounts of Jesus’ life before deciding, by the 4th century, which were to be official parts of the canon. “There’s some legitimacy that accounts of women were discounted,” he said. “Hopefully, we’re moving toward counterbalancing what that should be.” Paul Currie read The Da Vinci Code last year. He has participated in several discussions of the novel, but he believed that hearing Father Scully’s and Simoni’s perspective would shed some light on the book’s speculations.

“I wanted to see if there was any truth to the claims made in the book,” said Currie of the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. “It doesn’t seem likely, but in the back of your mind there are always those questions.” Father Scully confirmed Currie’s doubt that the book was entirely factual. “Father Scully reminded us that The Da Vinci Code is just a novel,” said Currie. “We should read it for entertainment, not for the history of our Church.”

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