After much anticipation, controversy and media hype, The Da Vinci Code has opened in theaters worldwide. The film - like the best-selling novel it's based on - is a mystery story involving a dark conspiracy by the Catholic Church to suppress some all-too-human truths about the life of Jesus Christ. Its potent blend of historical fact and literary fiction has angered Catholics around the world, and intrigued others.
At the heart of The Da Vinci Code is a woman - Mary Magdelene - who, according to author Dan Brown's characters, married Jesus and bore his child. After the Crucifixion, she moved to the south of France, and founded the Merovingian line of kings. Now in order to keep this secret, the Catholic Church, according to the book, has killed millions of people. "The very first response to this plot has to be mockery and laughter," says Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute.
Father Thomas Eitenhower isn't laughing. As president of Human Life International, a Catholic values advocacy group, he is organizing a boycott of the film, which he says promotes Satanism and allows Sony Pictures, which produced it, to profit from prejudice and lies.
"At our baptism, we pledge to reject Satan and all his works and all his empty promises. If Sony profits from anti-Catholic bigotry this week, what can we expect in the future?" Eitenhower asks. "Tom Hanks starring as Hitler in Sony's Mein Kampf? He quotes the New Testament injunction for Christians to 'turn the other cheek' when attacked. "But we do not have to pay someone $9.50 [for a ticket] to sit in a theater and slap us for two hours."
The villain in The Da Vinci Code is an albino monk, who is a member of Opus Dei, an actual 87,000-member organization of lay Catholics. It is portrayed as the murderous hidden power at the center of the Catholic Church. Opus Dei spokesman Brian Finnerty says that Dan Brown embellished false accusations news reporters and former members have made, that Opus Dei is a secretive, even shady, organization.
"Opus Dei is an institution of the Catholic church that tries to help people come closer to God in their work and daily lives," he says. "It has been blessed by all the popes since its earliest years and Pope John Paul Second called Opus Dei's founder 'the saint of ordinary life.' Now that's the complete opposite of the portrayal in 'The Da Vinci Code'! There are no monks in Opus Dei - albino or otherwise - not even on Halloween."
Despite the harsh words in the book, some Catholics, like Father Paul Keenan, a parish priest and co-host of a religious radio talk show in New York City, see a silver lining in the Da Vinci Code controversy.
"It's an opportunity for us to form discussion groups in our parishes, to explain some of the misconceptions The Da Vinci Code has about the Church," Keenan says. "And it's a wonderful opportunity for Catholics to talk about their faith in public."
But Father Keenan notes, that's not true everywhere, such as in the Philippines, where an archbishop has said the book and film should be banned.
"It's a very different reaction from ours and I think that's because we're Americans. We're used to a variety of opinions," he says. "We are used to debate and public discussion and so it doesn't bother us so much."
Indeed, not all who call themselves Catholic are fazed by The Da Vinci Code, including Father Jim Lehman. He's with the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, an independent Catholic body that ordains women and allows priests to marry. He points out the Christian holy scriptures themselves do not specify whether Jesus was married, or not.
"The early Church had lots of fights and discussions over what it meant for Jesus to be fully human and how the divinity and the humanity of Christ were integrated together, and over time we continue to evolve and understand that," he says. "And I think we just have issues as a society and with organized religion with sexuality, and what does sexuality mean and would that diminish in some way what Jesus did? To me, it doesn't. His death and resurrection doesn't change."
Whatever the truth about Jesus and Mary Magdalene turns out to be, one thing seems certain: The Da Vinci Code has gotten a lot of people talking about religion.