From North Shore Sunday
Friday, April 7, 2006
Cracking the Code
Sidebars Mona Lisa with code superimposed

The rose window of Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Saugus glowed in the evening darkness, while inside, warm light played off gleaming woodwork and cream-colored walls. Gregorian chants played softly as people filed in, greeting friends, piling coats on the pews, bringing trays of cookies down to the basement meeting room.

Rev. John Mulloy, the pastor, led the congregation in a Lenten hymn followed by a brief prayer meant to encourage them to get to know Jesus better.

But this wasnít a typical Lenten evening service. The 150 or so people who gathered at Blessed Sacrament last week were there to hear about heresy, conspiracies and an alternative version of the history of the Catholic Church, described in the best selling novel, “The Da Vinci Code.”

If there is one book other than the Bible that can pack churches, itís “The Da Vinci Code,” the thriller that has sold 43 million copies with a tantalizing tale of secret societies, suppressed religion and the bloodline of Christ himself. Depending on your point of view, author Dan Brownís book is gripping but implausible fiction, a courageous expose of the misdeeds of the Catholic Church or a damnable piece of heresy. It has raised the ire of many Catholics and spawned a small industry of debunkers, whose books fill their own section of many bookstores.

Theologian Bernard Swain, a Saugus native with a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Chicago, led a discussion on “The Da Vinci Code” at Blessed Sacrament Church that covered a wide range of questions. Was Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene? Who exactly put together the Bible, and whatís ahead for the Catholic Church today?

In his four lectures, Swain took a moderate approach, not so much attacking the book as discussing what Christians can learn from it. As he teased fact from fiction, the crowd often reacted with surprise. It seems that many Catholics still have a lot to learn about their own faith.

The story of Mary Magdalene

One of the bookís more sensational claims is that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and their descendants survive to this day. Brown also claims that Jesus intended Mary Magdalene, not the apostle Peter, to lead the church after his ascension, but the male-dominated church suppressed that notion.Drawing on passages from the gospels, Swain sketched a portrait of Mary Magdalene as a woman who was one of Jesusí financial backers who traveled with him and his apostles, which may have raised eyebrows at the time. Unlike 11 of the 12 apostles, she was present at the crucifixion.

“She is among the very few followers of Jesus who has the courage to remain with him when virtually all of his other followers had fled, Peter included,” Swain says.

In the gospels of John and Mark, Mary Magdalene is the first person to see Christ after his resurrection.

“In the gospel of Luke, there is a similar but shorter story where he appeared first to Mary Magdalene and told her to proclaim his resurrection, and [the apostles] did not believe her,” Swain said. In other words, Mary Magdalene could be regarded as the first Christian, and in the Eastern orthodox churches she is traditionally known as “the apostle to the apostles.”

Swain took this information directly from the same gospels that Catholics read today, but when he asked “Does this match what you were brought up to believe?” only a few hands went up.

The reason lies in church history. In the year 591, Pope Gregory the Great preached a sermon that linked Mary Magdalene to another gospel woman, a prostitute who expressed sorrow for her sins by washing Jesusí feet and drying them with her hair. That confusion persisted for centuries. It wasnít necessarily negative, Swain pointed out - after all, the prostitute had repented and followed Christ. But the story has kept Catholics from seeing Mary Magdalene as a woman with the resources to back Christís mission and the inner strength to follow him to the cross and proclaim his resurrection to doubters.

The Catholic Church reversed Gregoryís teaching in the 1960s, but even today, few Catholics seem to be aware of that.

“If you Google Mary Magdalene, the vast majority of sources you get will still refer to her as a fallen woman or prostitute, 40 years after the Catholic Church said íSorry, we were wrong,í” Swain said.No matter what her former profession, Mary Magdalene has always been regarded as a saint of the church. Swain said if anyone is guilty of covering that up, itís Dan Brown, who rearranges the geography of Paris to avoid mentioning that the two protagonists drive right past La Madeleine, the church of Mary Magdalene, during a critical scene in the novel.

“If we are to believe Dan Brown that the Catholic Church has buried the memory of Mary Magdalene and demonized her as a person of no worth, how do we explain the presence of this church that these people are driving by?” Swain asked. “The book cannot explain it, so the book leaves it out.”

Jesus: married or single?

The gospels are silent on the issue of whether Jesus was married, probably because the writers felt details of his earthly life were less important than his message.

Still, we want to know. Swain said the question of Jesusí marital status reveals the askerís point of view.

“We Catholics, because of our history of priestly celibacy and the celibacy of women and men religious, we tend to have a bias about celibacy,” he said. “That is a Catholic bias. The people in the gospel are not Catholic, the people in the gospel are Jews. Their perspective is entirely different: It is a spiritual problem not to be married. If Jesus were not married, he had to know that was a source of stress to his mother.”

Some critics argue that the fact that the gospels donít mention Jesusí celibacy is evidence that he was married. But Swain thinks there are other possible explanations. Perhaps Jesus married young and his wife died in childbirth. And maybe he saw that as a message from God that he should not remarry but begin his mission on earth. Without any evidence, itís impossible to say. But if Jesus were married at the time of the gospels, Swain said, Mary Magdalene was a likely candidate to be his wife.Still, Swain doesnít consider Jesusí marital status to be an important part of his mission on earth.

“I would almost challenge people to find any element of the faith where that is even present,” he said in an interview after the lecture. “There is this sort of informal, customary belief in not only the celibacy but the virginity of Jesus, but even if you ask people where they got that idea, they donít really know.”

The genesis of the Bible

Another of the bookís sensational claims is that the church suppressed scriptures that did not support its notion of a divine Christ and a male-dominated church - in other words, that censorship distorted of the real history of the Bible.

During one lecture, Swain read a story from one of those “hidden” books, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. That account depicts Jesus as a kid playing in a stream, making sparrows out of clay and bringing them to life. Jesus also strikes dead a playmate who bumps into him.

“Number one, this is a fairly cruel little boy weíre seeing here,” Swain said, “and number two, you are seeing a boy with super powers, a boy who lords it over everyone else, a boy who plays God.”

These hidden gospels or scriptures describe a divine Christ who only appeared to be human, a belief that the church brands as heresy, Swain said, because it denies the true humanity of Christ - just the opposite of Brownís contention.

Although these books purport to tell the story of Jesusí life before he began his mission, they deny him the truly human processes of growth and self-discovery.

“I think a lot of Catholics tend to believe that Jesus knew all along, because he was God and God is omniscient, so they think the 2-year-old toddler knew he would die on the cross,” said Swain. “The problem with that is itís a denial of the mystery of a person with two natures, human and divine. It assumes this baby who couldnít talk his native language already knew all this stuff but was hiding it from his parents. Thatís heresy. Jesus didnít pretend to be a human being, he was a human being, and that includes ignorance.”

Few people realize, Swain said, that the Church did not come from the Bible; the Bible came from the church.

“The church functioned and practiced for three or four generations without the Bible and is responsible for the selection process that put the Bible together,” he said. Irinaeus, the bishop of Lyon, used the creed of the church to select the books.

“His argument was if it is not in conformity with what we believe, it doesnít belong,” Swain said. “What that means is the belief system of the community was ultimately the yardstick for determining the formation of the Bible, not the other way around.”

Swain acknowledged there were controversies, but they were part of the natural evolution of the church, not an evil plan as Brownís book implies.

“Heís claiming these other views are older, that there was diversity and the church stamped that out,” Swain said, but that point of view is obsolete.

“Most scholars believe there was a core of belief at the beginning, but different groups in different places had different variations,” he said. “When they found there were conflicts, there was a process of consensus building, and the stuff that didnít fit the consensus got thrown out. The conflict forced a clarification. It wasnít so much to suppress the conflict it was to create a consensus out of the conflict.”

Secret society —not!

Much of the plot of “The Da Vinci Code” revolves around the Priory of Sion, the secret society founded to guard the secret of the feminine nature of God.

According to Brownís book, in 1975 a Frenchman named Pierre Plantard found a set of documents in the national library of France that listed the leaders of the Priory of Sion, including da Vinci, Isaac Newton and Jean Cocteau. Swain said the whole thing was a hoax that was exposed in the 1970s and í80s. Plantard planted documents in the library 10 years earlier so they could be “found.”

”He eventually went to jail for fraud,” Swain said,” and his colleagues in the Priory of Sion admitted publicly in a BBC documentary that the organization was formed in 1956 as a prank by a bunch of drinking buddies, and the claim that they were founded by some medieval organization that had gone out of existence way before Leonardo da Vinci was a hoax, and the documents were fakes. Once you establish that, it breaks all the connections in the books.”

The value of `The Da Vinci Codeí

While he dismisses many of its claims, Swain sees “The Da Vinci Code” as a way to get people to learn more about their own faith.

“If we really want to stand up for our faith, we have to stand on solid ground,” he said. “We would be making a mistake and doing a disservice to our faith and people we talk to if we take a stand on unstable ground.”

The challenge that faces the church today, Swain said, is to do a better job of adult education. Although the Vatican has been calling for adult education for 35 years, he said, “in virtually every parish in this country, the priority for education remains focused on school-age children. My experience is thatís a failing strategy. Itís based on the assumption that Christianity is essentially a childhood faith. By the age of 16, when you are confirmed, you have absorbed the tradition and you donít need anything after that. What you end up with is a bunch of middle-aged people walking around with a teenagerís education.”

As a result, he said, the church has lost a generation of people, and that was evident at his lectures.

“You could see it in the crowd,” he said. “They had about 150 people, and about 10 of them were under 50.”

But the hunger is there. After the lectures, when the group went downstairs to the basement for coffee and cookies and informal discussion, Swain was surrounded by people who wanted to talk to him about questions of the faith.

“The average Catholic parish has no forum where people can share faith on a regular basis,” he said. “I think the challenge for Catholic leaders is to create those forums.”

For instance, when the movie version of “The Da Vinci Code” comes out next month, families or groups could go to the movie together and then talk it over afterwards.

“Tradition is mainly about passing things on from one generation to the next, and often that is done by talk, and people are not trained to talk,” Swain said. “It ought to be natural.”

Itís like sex education: If kids donít get it from their parents, they will get it from their peers, their school or the street. With regard to faith, he said, “In this case they are getting it from Dan Brown, and my attitude is, that is not good enough.”