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As Long as We Remember...

May 19, 2006

Da Vinci Code Baggage

Roy Meachum

One estimate places readership of "The Da Vinci Code" at 100 million. The film opens today, around the world and in both Frederick movie complexes.

Evangelical Protestants have joined Catholics in planning angry protests. These hard facts ignore reality: no one can enter a showing without bringing along an opinion or an experience, sometimes called "baggage."

Here's mine.

Covering Rome, in the years after the Councils of Vatican II, served to confirm the view that my Roman Catholic faith was, at its core, decidedly divided in two unequal parts. And the goal of one part has always been to retain rigid dominance over the other; in part by imposing a list of do's and don't, but mainly by withholding knowledge.

In my youth the church listed books we were forbidden to read, on pain of mortal sin, a very big deal then. An index of the volumes off-limits was published; it changed when new in-print abominations appeared, or church politics changed.

As a teen-aged New Orleans boy, for example, priestly bureaucrats in far-off Rome said I was not permitted "The Three Musketeers." Long after I was grown I learned Alexandre Dumas in his book had chosen to make a prince of the church a decidedly villainous villain: Cardinal Richelieu.

On the morning we took communion, it was a no-no to drink water after midnight. The more careful among us skipped teeth-brushing in the morning; after all, there was always the chance of drinking however inadvertently; that counted, and no one wanted to do time in Purgatory, as we were taught.

In big and little matters, Rome meant to control our lives; a final example, the Bible was off-limits although not officially. However it worked out. First graders were taught reading the Good Book may be "too much" for even grownups who had no theological seminars: adults could be guilty of misinterpreting: in other words reaching conclusions that differed from Rome's. No Bible.

It's been that way for centuries, certainly since Constantine declared Christianity the official faith of the Roman Empire, reportedly at the behest of his mother. Helen might get too much credit, however. She supposedly brought her son around, because of the long periods of time she spent in the Holy Land, where she converted. Her son reportedly changed over only on his death bed. Obeying the emperor, his bureaucrats had adopted the new religion years before.

As a plausible theory, that version is accepted among reputable circles that include the Church of Rome, which violently rejects what "The Da Vinci Code" says happened at the time.

Author Dan Brown charges that a major feature of the bureaucrats' organization of the newly installed faith entailed the submission of women. They were reduced to vassals of men: as a later German saying had it, good for only "Church, Kitchen and Children (Kirke, Kueche und Kinder.)"

As it had developed, chiefly in Rome and Alexandria, during the long years of persecution, women had become equal to men. That might be staying true to its roots: patriarchal Judaism was actually matriarchal, except in the temple and classroom.

But Constantine and his coterie, especially the early bishops, wanted none of that. Long before reading Mr. Brown's book, I had come to know how obdurately the Vatican curia worked to keep women in their place. Upon returning from Rome, I attended a press conference in the U.S. Conference of Bishops building, called to clarify the status of women in the church.

There were four people up front: a bishop, a monk, the priest who ran Catholic University and a mother superior in charge of a number of nunneries, who had hundreds of women under her. In the audience sat a "Flock" – for the lack of a better word – of religious sisters. As the proceedings advance, the panel made clear little would change in their world.

The major concessions, as I remember, permitted them to live outside monasteries or church buildings and they would be allowed to put aside the traditional habits, adopted in earlier ages. The palpable disappointment among the "Flock" caused one sister to blow her cool and attempt to speak in the middle of the introductory addresses by the quartet. The mother superior's scowl sat her down once more. From her chair, the rebuffed nun glared down to the end.

One promise broken by the conservatives, especially Cardinals Ottaviani and Cicognani, who seized control of the Councils upon Pope John XXIII's death, was the hope that women might become ordained ministers of the church. The message that day? No way.

In a cafe close to the Coliseum I had dinner with The Washington Post's Bill McKaye and his wife, also a very angry priest. George Malzone had come to the bishops' synod we were covering with the hopes he would hear priests could marry as Vatican II promised. He told me: "I don't want to be sitting on a porch in a home for old and alcoholic priests and watch the new guys drive by, with their wives by their sides."

At the synod, the first after the Councils, Pope Paul VI, once part of the curia and elected for that reason, told Father Malzone and the hundreds of priests who had come to Rome that marriage was totally out of the picture for them. George married anyway, and to a colleague when I later worked for NBC where I also reported on the church.

Cardinals Ottaviani and Ciccognani ran the worldwide church in those days, but less strictly than Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI, by manipulating the consistory after John-Paul II's death.

The same people grievously offended by "The Da Vinci Code" will take similar exception to this column; I once lived in their mentality. They belong to that part of the church that chooses to be controlled by the few in a swap for inward peace and serenity. God bless them! Meant seriously.

As Dan Brown cast in a semi-historical way, however, they have participated – sometimes by their silence – in the crimes against Christians, as well as others, committed in Christ's name. Unknowingly or not, they have been players in the game, increasingly failing, to control the world, just as "The Da Vinci Code" says.

Mr. Brown's real sin in the curia's eyes is not the story that has Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene; that one's as old as the gnostic gospels that appeared at the same time as the New Testament, which contains the texts approved during the time of the Roman Empire.

The possibility of the human side of the Son of God fathering a child has appeared in modern publications, none comparing to the wildly successful "The Da Vinci Code," to be sure. But none of those writers were burned at the stake, at least recently, as his critics obviously would like to do with Dan Brown.

I am told the movie's critics complain that the film version does not compare favorably with the book. So what's new? On the rare occasions screen writers capture the essence of novels, the same journalists express the miracle of it all.

At the film's core as I understand – we’ll see the movie today – lies the love story. How Hollywood. But in defense of Director Ron Howard and his colleagues, that's all they really could show.

The conspiracies that have all to do with the struggle for power and its consequences will not transfer to cinema cellophane. Wisps of the significant place in history of the Knights Templar and the genocidal Inquisition against Arabs and Jews led by Dominicans, these and others touched by the book could not be made to play at your local theatre's matinee.

What a pity!

Knowledge of the darkest part of the continuing scramble to control the Church of Rome and the people and universe beyond, that's my baggage.

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