Fr Martin Tierney, a regular columnist in 'The Irish Catholic', writes for an Irish readership, but his remarks apply equally to Australia. The huge success of 'The Da Vinci Code' is a sign of the times, with the widespread religious illiteracy among Catholics and other Christians making them receptive to the many errors and half-truths in Dan Brown's best-selling book.
The trouble today is not that people believe nothing, but that they will believe anything. In the counting houses of Wall Street and the chic restaurants of Greenwich Village, one book above all others is the interminable topic of conversation. The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, a former teacher of English, has set tongues wagging.
It has sparked off a religious debate, unprecedented among the religiously torpid, not just in America, but further afield. This is the novel for the intelligent post-modern "Christian". With staggering sales to date of over seven million, and a permanent spot heading the New York Times best-sellers list, the book just cannot be ignored.
In November 2003, the American ABC network aired a prime time special on The Da Vinci Code titled "Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci: Exploring Controversial Theories about Religious Figures and the Holy Grail". A recent US News & World Report article claimed that The Da Vinci Code "is riding on the wave of revulsion against corruption in the Catholic Church."
The book thrashes the Catholic Church as a highly misogynist organisation. It is depicted as a vast woman-hating conspiracy, and has one of the leading characters declare that "almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false."
All this makes it highly appealing to those women who have abandoned the Church in droves in recent decades. It reinforces their real or imagined prejudices.
Not since the Satanic Verses has a book raised the hackles of orthodox religious believers. In the Gospel according to Dan, it turns out that Mary Magdalene is highborn and very spiritual (definitely not a prostitute). Her union with Jesus was blissful and intense, and their progeny are revered as royal. It's not a bloodline of which the medieval Church approves, however, so it goes underground for twenty centuries, protected first by the Knights Templar and subsequently by their highly secretive administrative branch, the Priory of Sion.
Ordinarily, one could dismiss such a book as nonsense. Tosh, perhaps. Not any more. The mind and imagination of modern paganism is ready to believe anything. A whole generation of Catholics that has little more than the haziest of notions of what Catholicism or even Christianity is about is ready to accept any wisp of religiosity, especially if it is hostile to what is called "institutionalised religion".
To be "spiritual" without being religious is the epitome of modern religiosity. In decoded language this means I have no time for Church (with a big C!), but there is a part of me that is attracted to that warm feeling inside that spiritual thoughts bring. These thoughts can be about plants, animals, children or the ozone layer or cosmic energy personified. In America big-time liberal critics like Janet Maslin in the New York Times have exulted in the overdue arrival of an "unputdownable" skewering of organised religion.
Not all reviews of the book have been so ecstatic.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Peter Millar, writing in the Times of London, pulled out all the stops, describing the book as "without doubt, the silliest, most inaccurate, ill-informed, stereotype-driven, cloth-eared, cardboard-cut-out-populated piece of pulp fiction I have read. In my view, the book is unexceptionally written, with minimal character development and a third-rate guidebook sense of place. It is, however, a quick and easy read, largely because most of the chapters are only a few pages long, and just about all of them end as cliff-hangers."
But it has sold seven million copies!
The Da Vinci Code is rapidly gaining cult status, and as such, its prejudices enter the bloodstream of cultural life. Those with little knowledge or interest in religion will be influenced by it. Those without the stability of a religious foundation are further alienated from the Christian church. Post-modernists, given to thinking via emotions and wide open to conspiracy theories, will lap it up and indeed believe a lot of what Brown writes, even though it is fiction.
Brown adopts an ambiguous stance towards the truth of what he writes. He trumpets the amount of academic research undertaken to write the book, but leaves the untutored reader wondering is this fact or fiction?
All of this highlights once more the catechetical challenge that confronts the Catholic Church worldwide. Our Catholic school system, despite the best efforts of many committed people, just hasn't produced knowledgeable or practising Catholics. One cannot but ask whether the parish oughtn't to be more involved in the catechetical endeavour? If the parish became more involved, people would have to choose whether or not they wished a truly Catholic formation for their children. In relation to schooling, the choice is still limited.
I have a hunch that schools are chosen by most parents on the basis of their academic excellence rather than their Catholicity. I may be wrong. A pastoral partnership between home, school and parish may need to be more actively pursued by our ecclesiastical leaders. This will involve resources in time, money and personnel. But is it a priority?