The Da Vinci Code opportunity

George Weigel

I was on the road a lot during Lent. And from sea to shining sea, nary an airport bookstore was without a Da Vinci Code display, in anticipation of the May release of Ron Howard’s film. One tries to ignore the hype — “the greatest cover-up in history!” — but there’s something depressing going on here. Why do intelligent people think that The Da Vinci Code has some basis in historical fact? Why do Catholics imagine that a novel which suggests (and not so subtly) that the entire structure of faith is a lie is, well, no big deal?

The good news, though, is that the film’s release is a great opportunity for bishops, priests, and deacons to dedicate Eastertide 2006 to preaching the truth of Christian history.

One of the reasons why so many Catholics have been vulnerable to the novel’s preposterous claims is that most Catholics are woefully ignorant of the Church’s history. How, for example, did the original Christian confession about Jesus of Nazareth — “Jesus is Lord” — came to doctrinal articulation in the Nicene Creed: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; begotten not made, one in Being with the Father”? If you don’t know, at least in broad strokes, how the Creed of the Council of Nicaea came to express the New Testament faith of the Church, you’re going to be vulnerable to Dan Brown’s risible suggestion that it was all imperial politics in the age of Constantine. So I can well imagine a month’s worth of sermons on the development of Christology, the Church’s theology of Jesus as Son of God.

Then there’s the question of the integrity of the New Testament itself. The historical-critical method of Biblical analysis has immeasurably increased our knowledge of the Bible. Yet, filtered through inadequate homiletics and catechetics, historical-critical readings of the New Testament have also created suspicion about the historical reliability of the Gospels in many minds. “That’s just a story,” is a phrase too often encountered in casual discussions about the Gospel accounts of the life of Christ. Yet I think it’s safe to assume that the Second Vatican Council didn’t reclaim the Bible for the people of the Church so that the people of the Church could learn to be suspicious about the Bible.

I’ve often recommended the work of Anglican exegete N.T. Wright as an antidote to this suspiciousness, and let me do so again: if there is one book to give a friend troubled by The Da Vinci Code and its portrait of the life of Jesus, it’s Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (InterVarsity Press), in which impeccable, contemporary scholarship is deployed to defend the historicity of the Gospels, including the historicity of the resurrection. Based on a set of lectures Dr. Wright gave for evangelical leaders in the late 1990s, The Challenge of Jesus is accessible to any intelligent reader, and provides a far more fascinating account of the complexities of Jewish life and messianic expectation at the time of Jesus than anything to be found in Dan Brown’s fevered imagination.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a Web site, www.Jesusdecoded.com, that’s full of resources for those who want to turn the Da Vinci Code fuss into an evangelical and catechetical opportunity.  In addition to a devastating critique of Brown’s understanding of Leonardo da Vinci by Elizabeth Lev, the Web site includes a very useful “When they say…you say…” essay by Catholic author and blogger Amy Welborn, “What Do You Say to a Da Vinci Code Believer?” Ms. Welborn is always interesting and always feisty: for example, “There is enough truth in The Da Vinci Code to be seriously misleading. Yes, the sources, like Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and The Templar Revelation, exist. But they don’t reflect serious historical scholarship. You’re not going to find a university history department on the planet that uses the works that provide the meat of The Da Vinci Code theories as part of the syllabus.” Indeed.

Got lemons? Make lemonade. The Da Vinci Code is an opportunity waiting to be seized.

COMING UP: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.