Dealing with DaVinci

George Weigel

With sales of The DaVinci Code now topping seven million, it’s a safe bet that Dan Brown’s Catholic readership is well into seven figures. Anecdotal evidence from around the Catholic scene confirms the hunch that a lot of Catholics have read the book – and more than a few have been disturbed by it. The question is – why?

DaVinci’s premise is preposterous: that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and appointed her the head of a movement devoted to the “sacred feminine;” thus the legendary “holy grail” was Mary Magdalene, who nurtured within herself Jesus’s descendants. This “truth,” ruthlessly suppressed by centuries of venal churchmen, was preserved by a super-secret “Priory of Sion,” of which Leonardo DaVinci was a member. In DaVinci’s famous “Last Supper,” what you thought was St. John is really Mary Magdalene, the “holy grail” present at a table without a chalice. And so forth and so on, one bizarre assertion after another – and that’s not to list the flat-footed mistakes in DaVinci, like claims that the Dead Sea Scrolls revealed new information about Jesus (the Scrolls, immensely valuable in other respects, don’t mention Jesus).

Why should this ridiculous foundation for a contemporary whodunit that includes obligatory side-swipes at the conspiracy-driven Vatican disturb Catholics? I can (barely) imagine Catholics appreciating DaVinci as a kind of wild-eyed fantasy – although the “fantasy” contains so much covert and overt anti-Catholicism that you’d have to wonder about Catholics enjoying it. But why should reasonably well-educated Catholics find the novel’s plot raising questions about their faith? What’s to get disturbed about?

You remember the canary in the cage – the old miners’ trick, in which a caged canary, keeling over from asphyxiation deep beneath the earth, would signal miners that the air was getting too foul and that it was time to get out? DaVinci is a kind of literary canary-in-the-cage. The signal being sent by too many Catholics’ inability to dismiss Brown’s story as rubbish is that Catholics have learned to mistrust the Bible. Which is not what the Second Vatican Council had in mind, to put it gently.

The Council wanted to return the Bible to the people of the Church as “their” book, an entirely worthy goal. Just when Catholics were rediscovering the Old and New Testaments, however, “historical criticism” of the Bible was breaking out of classrooms into the American cultural mainstream – and into pulpits, where Catholic priests, newly instructed to preach on each Sunday’s biblical texts, were often tempted to explain what the New Testament wasn’t, rather than preaching the religious, moral, and historical truths the New Testament conveyed.

The cultural and ecclesial ground was thus tilled for The DaVinci Code. If, over the past thirty-some years, you’ve absorbed the idea that the New Testament is really elegant, inspired fiction, it’s but a short step to buying Dan Brown’s storyline, which is that this whole Church business has been a vast, lie-driven conspiracy from the git-go. That’s certainly not what mainstream historical-critical scholars intended to teach Catholics. The disturbances caused by DaVinci suggest that that’s what a lot of people learned, however: they learned to be suspicious about the integrity of Christianity’s basic text.

DaVinci is a problem that could become an evangelical possibility. Pastors and adult education directors might want to ensure that the parish pamphlet racks are full of an admirable brochure, The DaVinci Code: The facts behind the fiction of the bestselling novel, available from Our Sunday Visitor (www.osv.com). The brochure briskly identifies the numerous errors and historical implausibilities in the book while inviting readers to encounter the story told in the Gospels: “the story in which the truth is, if not stranger, certainly more interesting and life-giving, than fiction.” (I carry the OSV brochure in my briefcase, to hand out on planes and trains when I find someone reading DaVinci.)

Then there’s The DaVinci Hoax by Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel, a new book from Ignatius Press that Cardinal Francis George of Chicago calls the “definitive debunking” of Brown’s hypothesis. It’s not hard to imagine an attractive adult education series being built around this able demolition job.

Dan Brown has offered pastors and teachers with nerve and wit a real opportunity. I hope they seize it.

COMING UP: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

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We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.