Does The Da Vinci Code lend credibility to claims that the Catholic Church has been an instrument for male domination and control?
Paul Sheehan (Sydney Morning Herald, "Much more than whore, wife, virgin", 17 April 2006) manages to rival Dan Brown in that he writes fiction as if it were history.
According to Sheehan, the Church adopted a policy of discrediting Mary Magdalene in order to keep women subordinate to men. Pope Gregory the Great declared her a whore and before long priests were forbidden to marry.
There is no record of the Church adopting any policy against Magdalene. As for her being described as a prostitute, a combination of pass-ages in the New Testament Gospels lends itself to the interpretation that Magdalene had been a sinner. Some interpreters jumped to the mistaken conclusion that Magdalene was a sinner in that she was a prostitute.
Pope Gregory's interpretation gained currency in the Latin (Western) Church. But it was never adopted in the Eastern parts of the Church. It had limited acceptance. If the Church had a policy of belittling Magdalene, it failed dismally.
Was describing her as a whore an act of denigration? Not at all. She was revered throughout Latin Christendom as a repentant sinner. In this she joined august company. St Peter was a repentant sinner, a much greater one because he had denied belief in his Lord. Remember that Jesus taught that his Father (God) would condemn any who denied faith in Jesus. Such denial was the greatest of sins.
How about the sinner, St Paul? He ruthlessly persecuted the early Church with which Jesus identified himself. Magdalene, even if a prostitute, was low on the sinful scale.
Note that these two sinners are men. So are dozens of male saints, such as St Augustine of Hippo. Are we to conclude the Church carried out a policy of demonising men by calling them sinners?
In The Da Vinci Code, according to the character Teabing, the Church banished the name of Magdalene. Fancy that! If this happened, the Church was spectacularly unsuccessful, and for at least one good reason - Magdalene appears 12 times in the most sacred Christian writings, the four canonical Gospels, continually read and/or heard by millions of Christians for 2,000 years.
Further, she has been honoured as a saint since the fourth century. Her feast day is celebrated in both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, as well as by Anglicans and others. Thousands of churches and shrines bear her name. La Madeleine in Paris is a well known example.
The Church ran the universities when both Oxford and Cambridge incorporated colleges named after her (Magdalen College and Magdalene College). Yet Dan Brown calls her The Forgotten One.
Sheehan says the novel has drawn attention to male dominance in the Church. Really? There are assertions that the Church had this policy but the novel offers no historical facts which might convince a reader that they are true. Celibacy of priests had nothing to do with the status of women. Behind it lay a widespread movement amongst both women and also men which valued single-minded devotion to the service of God in imitation of Christ.
Apparently the Gnostic Gospels have challenged the Church in that she is therein portrayed as "the woman in Christ's life". The Gnostics are referred to by Brown's characters. They falsify the evidence by putting words into texts where words are missing in the Gnostic documents. Teabing speaks of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Its true title is The Gospel of Mary, for scholars are unsure which of many Marys is its subject.
In fact there is only one assured reference to Magdalene in all the Gnostic writings. It does not mention her marrying anyone or having a child.
If you have read the novel, ask yourself: As there portrayed, what did Magdalene do for women? She is no leader, she makes no decisions, she is not a teacher. Even if the Gnostics were to say what Brown wants them to say, then Jesus prefers her to other disciples and she knows some things they don't. As a character she is a zero, totally forgettable.
The character of Magdalene as created by Dan Brown is one of the silliest to appear in modern writing. Certainly she is not someone of whom a feminist could be proud.
Women and the Church
So did the Church denigrate women? An adequate answer would be long, so I offer a few facts for consideration.
From the beginning, women were admitted to baptism equally with men. Do not take that for granted. Baptism gave entry to the Church and put one on the way to salvation. Yet there was no debate at all about baptising women alongside men.
The Church took signs made by Jesus to be seven sacraments, helps to achieving salvation. Women were given six of these without question. Only the rarely-given sacrament which makes one a priest was reserved to men.
Very early in the Church's history, thousands and thousands of Christians were executed for having faith in Christ. These were the martyrs. They were honoured as heroes, Christians par excellence. Always they included women, such as those named to this day in the Mass - "Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia". The Church could pay no higher honour to women.
You will not find these facts in The Da Vinci Code. You will find few facts of any kind. It is almost pure fiction, luxuriantly fictitious in its depiction of Magdalene.
Dr Frank Mobbs is author of The INCREDIBLE Da Vinci Code, available from Freedom Publishing.