“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.