Angels, Demons and the Roman Catholic Church by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH

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by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
crossposted on Buzzflash.com May 20, 2009
May 27, 2009

“Angels and Demons” is the second film to be made from one of Dan Brown’s books on various aspects of the history of the Roman Catholic Church and the impact of that history on its present role and structure. The first of course was the wildly successful film “The DaVinci Code,” based on the wildly successful book of the same name. Having been a life-long action-adventure-historical novel reader (I started reading the historical novels of Howard Fast, which had plenty of action in them, when I was nine), I think that Brown is good at his craft. He does keep you on the edge of your seat and has a real knack at keeping you guessing about heroes and villains. He has obviously done a huge amount of research about both art history and the history of the Roman Catholic Church. So he does have a huge treasure-trove of facts about both at his command. He liberally shares that research with his readers, while making it very clear from his fanciful plotting that he is writing a novel, not a history book.

One only need look at his hero, symbologist Robert Langdon. I am a reasonably well-educated person, but frankly before I saw “The DaVinci Code,” I had never heard of symbology. In fact, when I saw the movie I thought Brown had made up that occupation. He didn’t, but he most surely did invent a person who, without a whip and skills at the martial arts, has much in common with Indiana Jones. So much so that in “Angels and Demons” at the Vatican’s call, he is off to Rome within 20 minutes of being invited to deal with an emerging emergency. A Harvard professor who hops out of a swimming pool where he is doing laps and then barely has time to dry off before he flies off (apparently without bothering to pack for such a trip)? Once at The Vatican, he becomes not only a practicing symbologist, but also a kind of super-detective trying to figure who the bad guys are. He has got to be a fictional character.

So it’s a fictional story about the Catholic Church. The Vatican didn’t much like “The DaVinci Code,” apparently because of its strong implication that Jesus Christ was not only not celibate, but also was actually married to Mary Magdalene and had one or more children with her. If Jesus Christ was an actual historical person (and there is a good deal of debate about that one), and Mary Magdalene was his wife (and there is some debate about that) and they had one or more children who themselves had children and then on down through human history since then there have been offspring, that creates certain problems for the Church.

For example, what would that say about the Church Doctrine that Christ was divine? (A major civil war among Catholics was fought over that one in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin during much of the Fourth Century CE. Called the “Arian Controversy” from the name of the priest who claimed that Christ was not the “son of God,” but rather human and “God-like.” It took tens of thousands of deaths, some quite vicious, before the “He was God” side won out.) Further, what would it say about celibacy for priests? At any rate, the Vatican dislikes Dan Brown so much that they refused Ron Howard’s film crew permission to shoot relevant footage for “Angels and Demons” within the confined space of Vatican City. One upshot of that ruling was that a fantastic reproduction of St. Peter’s Square (and I have been lucky to have walked in the real one more than once) was built at a Southern California racetrack. Another was that camera people were sent into the Vatican posing as tourists (cameras are permitted) to get usable background footage of the real thing.

So it’s fiction, and there are some not nice Catholic clergy, and it involves a combo fictional-historical portrayal of a product of the Enlightenment called the “Illuminati.” According to a History Channel documentary on them, no one is sure when they were originally organized. They may have had a close relationship to the Masons, a secular secret society to which many of the luminaries of the American Revolution belonged. They were persecuted violently and viciously just before the French Revolution by the Catholic government of Bavaria, acting at the behest of the Church in Rome.

But is the film “anti-Catholic,” as claimed by William Donohue, president of an organization called the “Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights?” (This former writer for the Heritage Foundation must love it when something such as “Angels and Demons” that he can attack comes along, because these are the only times when anyone seems to take much notice of him.) Now Bill Donohue might claim that the Spanish Inquisition never happened. He might claim that as the Papal Nuncio to Nazi Germany, the man who would later become Pope Pius XII and determinedly keep his mouth shut about the Holocaust all during WWII did not negotiate a “Concordat” with Hitler. That treaty-like agreement that gave him a free hand to do whatever he liked about the Jews and such, to say nothing of his non-Jewish German opponents, some of them Catholic, just as long as he left the structure of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany alone. But those events did happen, whether Donohue would admit to them or not. Does that make those who describe them “anti-Catholic?”

I am not a Catholic. I am Jewish. I have feelings about the Catholic Church ranging from those formed in childhood by a combination of their support for the fascist Franco in Spain and what they did and did not do in Nazi Germany to their modern role in attempting to criminalize my belief that life begins at the time of viability. But I also recognize that there were many priests and lay Catholics who gave their lives attempting to save Jews in WWII, that priests have been at the front of liberation theology in Latin America, that in this country, now, the Church does much good in taking care of the poor, and that current Vatican policy has been against the War on Iraq and the excesses of modern capitalism.

What came across to me in the movie, populated by “good” Catholics and “bad” Catholics was that there were many good ones, in the clergy and the staff of Vatican City, as well as (actually only a few) bad ones. But more importantly, especially in its presentation of how the Church has dealt over time with the conflict between religion and science, it made clear just why this institution has survived for close to 2,000 years. For example, unlike the American creationists, the Church accepts the theory of evolution, recognizing that, in their terminology, all people are God’s creatures, even scientists. The Church in fact has had a remarkable capacity to adapt to changing circumstances, over time. It is just too bad that people such as Bill Donohue and that other Catholic Bill so often featured on “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” have just never learned that lesson. We would all be so much better off if they had.

Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor of 30 books. In addition to being a Columnist for Buzz Flash, Dr. Jonas is also a Contributing Author for TPJmagazine; a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad; a Special Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal Online; a Contributing Columnist for the Project for the Old American Century (POAC); and a Contributor to The Planetary Movement.

7 thoughts on “Angels, Demons and the Roman Catholic Church by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH

  1. telson , depends on the gnostic gospels you refer to. the MANICHEANS , THE VALENTIANANS , AND CARPACRADIANS .. took the ascetic view of Christ . ..and viewed sex as evil . they denied his humanity , not his divinity . read the second treatise of Seth –on the crucifixion . this gnostic gospel says it all about how these schools of gnostics said that christ did not suffer on the cross , but had his spirit hovering over his body . this takes away from his passionate love of why he went to the cross in the first place.

    it was the Arians that questioned his divinity , not the gnostics. but what the Arians and the Gnostics had in common was that they could not think in paradox ..the paradox of the GOD-MAN . ..fully human fully divine –one person with 2 different natures. this is more than just a mental block with people , but rather a war that we humans have with God , thinking that God would never come and suffer and die for us in ignominity . it is our human stubborn pride that keeps us from this revelation . but if God is God , God can do anything God wants , and does not need our permission .

  2. Many syncretistic religions formed gnosticism. Gnosticism was rivaling against Christianity and gnosticism held itself better religion as Christianity was. Word gnosticism comes from Greek word gnosis, which means knowledge. Gnosticism had various effects, for instance, some Gnostics taught that divinity can be achieved through unity of the man and woman. This thought led some Gnostics to reach for divinity through sexual intercourse between the man and woman. There existed also some Gnostics, who abstained from sexual intercourse. When we know the fact that Gnostics held Christians as their enemies and that Gnostics held themselves better as Christians and that Gnostics wanted to show in every way that Gnosticism was better as Christianity, so Gnostics made so called gnostic gospels were they twisted, slandered and misrepresented the real gospels. Gnostics went so far in this misrepresent that they wrote “new gospels” by faking the real gospels. In these faked gospels Gnostics wrote that Jesus Christ was an ordinary man who has a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene.

    http://koti.phnet.fi/elohim/marymagdalene.html

  3. Helen , thank you for your honesty. when the bishop of Rome says something it is called ”strong advice”. it is only considered infallable when said ”in ex cathedra”. the last time that happened was in Vatican 2, before that it was Vatican 1. ex cathedra simply means in the chair of Peter. papel encyclicals , synods , and canons dont count the same as speaking ex cathedra.

    in regards to interfaith dailogue with the greek orthodox : it is the hardest . an eastern analogy would be what the dali lama calls ”headaches between buddhists”. it seems that the closer one is with there own root tradition the fiercer the rivalry . a paradox indeed. the catholic -buddhist dialogue is a breeze.especially amongst the scholar monks like thomas merton . even the catholic -protestent one is going good. but the catholic -eastern orthodox ( though is getting better ) seems to be the hardest at this point . yet , from Vatican 2 until Nicholas the first progress has been made. it will get better.

    but the key to getting better is not by debate but by dialogue . it takes listening . active listening first. exhausting ALL things in common from both sides first , before drawing contrasts.

  4. Helen — once you used the words ”Catholic propaganda”you have just set up a polemic instead of a dialogue.

    as a Roman Catholic i prefer ”Nostra Atatea” , a Vatican 2 phrase about interfaith dialogue .

    the catholic church is not the only church , for as the vatican 2 documents say ”the Church of Rome is not the Kingdom of God , but just one part of the Kingdom of God ”. this is called anti-ecclesialcentricity. ..or opening the windows . it has been great for the church and its history !

    though the church of Rome is not the kingdom of God it is the repository of culture in western civilization . this is an asthetic assessment and in no way is meant to degrade the eastern tradition in all its greatness.

    • Rocket,

      Yes, it sounds like I have set up a polemic but I think the polemic was set up decades ago when all you ever heard was the superiority of Catholicism and being told “you won’t be saved.”

      I had two brothers in World War II and one in the Korean War. In both situations, the Orthodox Church was not recognized and the metal that the soldiers wore had to have their religion in case of religious need or death. Each of my brothers had to have Catholic on the tags. It finally change and we are recognized more than we were.

      Our religion does not seek converts. We will embrace anyone who happens to learn about us and is interested in converting. This is another reason we are not as recognized or known about.

      I appreciate your interest in responding and your words, “eastern tradition in all its greatness.” But are you aware that the current pope said that salvation can only come through Catholicsm?

      It is too bad that these conflicts have occurred in the name of Jesus Christ who was possibly God and certainly one of the greatest teachers of kindness, respect and dialogue.

      Thanks for responding rocket.
      Helen

  5. i saw the movie too. dan browns’ davincicode was a racist movie about revisionist history of the christ story being about an exclusive message stating that jesus and mary had a family and that genetic blood lines continued , instead of about the blood of christ lovingly sacrificed for ALL to include ALL.

    ”Angels and Demons” was a whole other ball game . it really stepped outside of prejudice and genetic blood line nonsense and got down to the conclave of picking the next bishop of rome in the midst of a success in science that fell into the wrong hands. the dialogue and action really shows both sides of science and religion .

    this review is good.

  6. Dr. Jonas,

    I enjoyed reading your piece in Dandelion. You mentioned something about the 4th Century problems. I am not sure if you assume that the Catholic Church was the only Christian Church. I am of the Greek Orthodox Faith and grew up around Catholics in the 40s and 50s. All I heard as no was else will be saved and that we broke away. The Church became a better recognized Church with Emperor Constantine and it was still ONE Church. Later with the Schism in 1054: the politics brought on by church leaders which brought a split (schism). The Western segment became the Roman Catholic and the Eastern segment became the Eastern Orthodox.

    I might not be as close to the subject but feel I have to enlighten people to the fact the citizens and clergy of Greece put their own lives in danger to save Jews. Priests made phony baptismal certificates to protect Jewish Children from the enemy.

    I might have gotten a little off the subject and a bit defensive but I fee need to inform people since so little is known about us….thanks to the Catholic propaganda and Ottoman Empire.

    Thanks,
    Helen LoBosco

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