'The Da Vinci Code', in leading some of the recent questioning of the Catholic Church hierarchy, can be said to be posturing some sort of dissent against it.
One of the underlying themes of the book is that the Church hierarchy has maintained a 2,000-year old conspiracy to uphold a veil of secrecy around certain aspects of Jesus's life and thus until now has been heaping the faithful with lies. While biblical scholars have primarily focused on debunking the claims made by Dan Brown - and his predecessors Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln who co-authored 'Holy Blood, Holy Grail', from which Brown's book gains its inspiration - few have considered why such a wide congregation of people across the world, including many Catholics, might have found Brown's book believable in the first place. One thesis in this regard suggests that Brown negotiates the space between fact and fiction very ingeniously and that his language and argument, while thoroughly fictionalized, is masked with the respectability of academic research and factuality.
But more significantly, while the Church leadership may not have been secretive about the historical details of Jesus's life or the evolution of Catholic doctrine, it certainly has been secretive about several other affairs. Most notably, the child sexual abuse scandals involving the Church hierarchy in the US and Ireland since the 1990s. For instance, in 2001, before taking on office as Pope Benedict XVI, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had sent a letter to all Catholic bishops declaring that the Church's investigations into claims of child sexual abuse were subject to the pontifical secret, and were not to be reported to law enforcement under pain of excommunication. Investigations into these scandals revealed that often cases of child sexual abuse were covered up. Covering up such abuse constitutes not only a breach of secular law and an obstruction of justice, but also hides what in the eyes of the Church itself, is a mortal sin.
And while the Church hierarchy might not be lying when it comes to the evolution of Church doctrine, it is most certainly spreading misinformation to its members when it asserts time and again (even after being disproved by the WHO and the UN) that condoms are unreliable because sperm can pass through the microscopic holes in the latex. Such a claim is not only absurd, but is also dangerous and relegates the Church leadership to a negative role in the prevention of the spread of HIV/AIDS.
In fact, increasingly, statements by senior members of the Church hierarchy, such as Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Italy, one of the foremost liberal contenders for the recent papacy, differ from this stance and support the use of condoms. But where most members of that hierarchy, including the current Pope himself, continue to retain both a veil of secrecy around the abuse of Church power and a cloak of ignorance over modern disease prevention, it is not surprising that Brown's book on secrecy and lies within the Church is believed widely around the world.
It is also not surprising that the Church leadership in India has reacted to the theatrical release of 'The Da Vinci Code' with such an overwhelming degree of anxiety. Protests in India come from a section of the Church leadership, supported by conservative Muslim clerics, who call for banning the film for being 'blasphemous'.
It is important to remember that they speak in a setting of simmering communal conflicts and where the position of the Church has lately come under vicious and violent attack. The last decade has seen a substantive rise of violence against Christians and other religious minorities in India, and thus on the secular, democratic and progressive nature of Indian polity. Most recently, two Rajasthan government injunctions prevented the publication of two books by Christians, which it claimed were insulting to Hinduism.
Ironically, a similar claim for censorship is being made by some sections of the Church hierarchy in India today on the basis that its sentiments are being hurt. This is a dangerous trend for Indian secularism because it places what is assumed to be a religious community's collective sentiment above the democratic rights of the rest of the country. By referring the film to the Catholic Churches' Association of India for clearance, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting made a further error in assuming that all Catholics are represented by one body or even that all Christians are Catholics. Furthermore, censorship has constantly been used to prevent marginalized voices from being heard, and as a minority community in India, the Church hierarchy should ideally stand up fervently against censorship.
Individual Catholics around the world and in India have struggled hard against the Church leadership's conservative teachings on abortion, contraception, homosexuality, HIV/AIDS, the celibacy of priests and the role of women in the Church in order to bring some semblance of reform from within.
With very few exceptions, 'The Da Vinci Code', however, critiques the Church hierarchy with insinuation, but rarely objective research. It lays out a maze of interlocking conspiracy theories that will unfortunately not stand up to the scrutiny of academic rigor. For this very reason, the book and the film do a great disservice to Catholics who have questioned their Church's leadership.
The mass-produced and consumed dissent of The Da Vinci Code will wither away once increasing questions about the authenticity of its research are asked, as we are witnessing now. But sadly left out, as a result in the debates around the book and the film, are the real challenges that Catholics have posed to the hierarchy of the Church.
(Mario D'Penha is a Catholic queer feminist historian and activist.)