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When the Da Vinci Code was published in 2003, Catholic leaders were outraged by the novel's portrayal of the church and in particular, the religious organization Opus Dei. More than 40 million copies of the book have been sold and the movie version is due to premier later this month. Catholic officials are waging a campaign to debunk what they charge is a tendentious misrepresentation of history. And Opus Dei has asked Sony Pictures for a disclaimer at the start of the film, noting that it is a work of fiction. Sony has not responded to their request. NPR's Silvia Poggioli has more from Rome.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:
One of the basic premises of The Da Vinci Code is that for centuries the Catholic Church kept a dark secret, that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had descendents. This is how the movie trailer lays it out.
(Soundbite of trailer)
POGGIOLI: An albino monk, an Opus Dei member, prays to Christ while lashing his bare back with a whip.
(Soundbite of trailer)
POGGIOLI: These are among the most controversial points in The Da Vinci Code: a monk who commits murder and the depiction of Opus Dei as dangerous and power-hungry. In an effort to refute this portrayal and the novel's claims about the nature of Jesus and the role of women in the Church, the U.S. Conference of Bishops, with the help of Opus Dei, has set up a website called Jesus Decoded that includes critical Catholic voices.
Unidentified Woman: It's not meant to be history.
Unidentified Man #1: It's full of a great deal of silliness.
Unidentified Woman: It's a novel, it's fiction, and it's entertainment.
Unidentified Man #2: I just took it for granted that people would say that this was just fiction.
POGGIOLI: Brian Finnerty, spokesman for Opus Dei in the United States, says the organization's basic strategy is to show that it is absolutely the opposite of how it's portrayed in The Da Vinci Code.
Mr. BRIAN FINNERTY: (Opus Dei Spokesman): In reality, Opus Dei is an institution of the Catholic Church that helps people search for a holiness in their work and everyday lives. There are no monks, no (unintelligible) albino or otherwise.
POGGIOLI: The organized information campaign promoted by U.S. Catholic officials contrasts with the more alarmist tones coming from the Church in Rome. Usually the Vatican ignores books or movies that paint the Church in a controversial light. Not this time. In his Good Friday sermon in St. Peters Basilica, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the Papal household, took aim at what he called a pseudo-historic work, which he branded as another example of Jesus Christ being sold out.
In the Pope's presence, he added, Church leaders should not allow millions of people to be craftily manipulated by the media without raising a cry of protest. An even stronger attack on the book and movie was made by Archbishop Angelo Amato, the number two official in the Vatican's Doctrinal Office. Speaking to Catholic communication officials in Rome, he denounced the Da Vinci Code as obstinately anti-Christian and full of slander, offenses and historical and theological errors regarding Jesus, the Gospels, and the Church.
Archbishop ANGELO AMATO (Vatican): (Through translator) If such slanders, offenses and errors had been directed at the Koran or the Holocaust, they would have justly provoked a world uprising. Instead, directed at the Church and Christians, they remain unpunished. I hope you will all boycott the movie.
POGGIOLI: The Vatican's alarmed reaction to a popular thriller has surprised many observers. Gian Enrico Rusconi(ph), Professor of Political Science at the University of Turin, says it betrays the Catholic Church's fear of losing control over the official interpretation of Church history.
Professor GIAN ENRICO RUSCONI (University of Turin): (Through Translator) Scholars always knew there were other sources than the official Gospels, but now ordinary people are aware that not everything they've been taught is necessarily true. And then there's the detail of Mary Magdalene, which raises the taboo of all taboos, sex and the role of women in the Catholic Church.
POGGIOLI: Dan Brown said recently that he hears from many women readers, including Catholic nuns who say the novel has given them the strength to speak out on a forbidden topic, the marginalization of women in the Catholic Church. Sister Christine Schenk, of the reformist Catholic movement Future Church, says the Da Vinci Code has helped her group immensely.
Sister CHRISTINE SCHENK (Future Church): Well, we had been working on Mary Magdalene, you know, straightening out the misconception that she was a prostitute, and trying to re-appropriate her role as apostle to the apostles for over seven years.
POGGIOLI: One person who has been analytically debunking The Da Vinci Code is Opus Dei Priest John Wauck. He even has a blog dedicated to correcting what he says are its historical and theological errors. He acknowledges he has some ambivalence. On the one hand, he says, the book's distortions are insulting to the faithful.
Father JOHN WAUCK (Opus Dei): On the other hand there is the phenomenon of The Da Vinci Code, which has raised all these questions and really provoked a conversation. And in that conversation I think a lot of good things can be said. And I say that the threat is not serious. And it's provoked an opportunity really to talk about things that they are important.
POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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