When it was announced, years ago, that Ron Howard—a one-time television thespian turned movie director whose roles as Richie Cunningham and Opie Taylor endeared him to millions of fans—would direct The Da Vinci Code, it surprised some people. I was asked repeatedly, in the course of giving talks about Dan Brown's infamous novel, why sweet Ronnie would direct a movie that was based on a nearly endless list of falsehoods about the Catholic Church (not to mention those about Italian art, medieval architecture, and much more). Some folks, apparently, did not understand that one's role as a boy does not make the man.
Now Howard has penned an apologia, aimed mostly at The Catholic League, on The Huffington Post, and it reveals, I think, why the Howard-Brown "creative" marriage is a match made in, uh, Hollywood heaven. The two men are essentially twins, possessing mediocre and modest talents, a hamfisted way with complex and challenging material, a drive to be taken seriously at what they do even while they often hide behind the "It's only entertainment!" barricade, thin skin, and an apparent inability to comprehend why Catholics are so upset that they shamelessly truck in anti-Catholic muck.
Let's take a quick look at a few of Howard's statements and then offer some "FACTS" in response:
FACT: The Da Vinci Code novel, The Da Vinci Code movie, and the Angels & Demons novel are filled with direct and indirect attacks on many matters Catholic, beginning with the person of Jesus Christ and including (but not limited to) key events in Church history, Catholic doctrine, and Catholic practices. I've outlined several of the most glaring offenses in the Angels & Demons novel in this article for This Rock magazine. Here is just a bit of what I wrote:
“Pope Urban VIII had rejected The Ecstasy of St. Teresa as too sexually explicit for the Vatican.” That is also false. Bernini didn’t begin working on it until three years after Urban died in 1644; he completed it in 1652. Further, Langdon deems the sculpture—which depicts St. Teresa of Avila in spiritual ecstasy, based on a description in her autobiography—as pornographic, as it supposedly depicts the saint “on her back in the throes of a toe-curling orgasm.” Going from bad to worse, Langdon interprets St. Teresa’s description of her mystical experience as “a metaphor for some serious sex.”
This crude dialogue is easily matched by the audacious dismissal of historical fact in the service of Catholic-bashing. Kohler and Langdon agree, in an early conversation, that “[o]utspoken scientists like Copernicus . . . [were] murdered by the Church for revealing scientific truths. Religion has always persecuted science” (ch. 9). This is not just false; it is libelous. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was a canon at the Cathedral in Cracow, a loyal son of the Church who died after a stroke at the age of 70.
“Unfortunately, Brown is reinforcing a stereotype,” stated Owen Gingerich, Senior Astronomer Emeritus at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and an expert on Copernicus, in an interview with the editors of Secrets of Angels & Demons. “Copernicus was a servant of the Catholic Church. He dedicated his book to the pope, and never suffered any personal reproach or persecution.” Gingerich added: “In truth, it is extremely difficult to document anyone put to death as a heretic for introducing scientific ideas” (81).
FACT: Even some atheists have pointed out the anti-Christian nature of The Da Vinci Code. This isn't simply a matter of some small-minded religious zealots turning their backs on the 21st-century. In the end, it is about truth and integrity, even in the creation of fiction and light entertainment.
Back to Howard:
FACT: As I've noted before, in Angels & Demons, it is the most fervently orthodox Catholic character, Camerlengo Carlo Ventresca, the papal chamberlain, who turns out to be the villian, while the agnostic/atheistic/hubristic "hero", Robert Langdon, is the cool voice of reason and science. And the recently deceased pope in the novel (which takes place in a short window of time during a papal conclave) is revealed to have had a son (Ventresca, of course!) by artificial insemination. So, the greatest enemy of the Catholic Church, the novel indicates, is not a mysterious group such as the Illuminati, but devout and loyal Catholic leaders. So the "vicious attack," at least in the novel, is being carried out by the most orthodox, traditional Catholic character, with the obvious implication being that orthodox, traditional Catholics tend to be unstable, narrowminded, and even violent.
FACT: Fiction is, of course, a rather difficult thing when it deals with real events, people, and entities. Since so many fans of Brown's novels are drawn to them because of their claims about real events and people and despite their thin plots and even thinner characters, is it too much to think that care should be taken to get some essential facts rights? Especially since Dan Brown so often made a big deal about how well-researched and historically-accurate his novels are? And yet what is most striking about Brown's works is how he misrepresents, skews, and distorts nearly everything, and it is almost always aimed at making the Catholic Church appear to be backwards, controlling, violent and murderous, opposed to science, opposed to reason, oppressive of women, and so forth. That, Ron, is anti-Catholic, no matter how you spin it, Photoshop it, fillet it, and otherwise try to gussy it up for the party.
FACT: If Mr. Donohue's statements are just fictional tales, then why is Howard upset? "Hey, Ron, isn't fiction just harmless entertainment?" Doesn't he understand that he is only doing what Mr. Donohue has done—defend the name and reputation of something important to him? It is here especially that Howard has absolutely no legs to stand on. Mr Donohue's "propaganda" is actually based on what Dan Brown has written and what was in The Da Vinci Code movie; anyone with eyesight and a functioning brain could see how those works were reliant on portrayals of the Catholic Church decidedly negative in character. Howard doesn't bother to address that fact directly, but attempts to use the "it's only fiction" argument, which doesn't hold any water when he then attempts to argue that the movie can't be anti-Catholic because it has some good things to say about the Catholic Church:
Mr. Donohue's op-ed and booklet also suggest that we paint the Church as "anti-reason." There is plenty of debate over what the Church did or didn't do with Galileo, but I for one do recognize that the Church did much throughout the ages to encourage and preserve education, the arts and the sciences.
FACT: The novel, Angels & Demons, very obviously depicts the Catholic Church as opposed to reason, logic, and science. “Since the beginning of history,” Langdon states nonsensically at one point, “a deep rift has existed between science and religion” (ch. 9. Of course, modern science, which he is referring to, hasn't been around sicne "the beginning of history".) Brown tosses the bone of Fr. Leonardo (a priest who has an adopted daughter. Say what?), but that is only used as a foil to demonstrate how unusual and upsetting it is to the Catholic leaders in the book that a priest would be an accomplished scientist. The novel claims Galileo was persecuted by the Church and that Copernicus was murdered by the Church, neither of which is true. Never mind that the Catholic Church has a long and illustrious history of supporting scientific investigation and scientists (not a few of them priests).
What the novel does, in addition to generally pitting the Catholic Church against science, is to suggest in several ways that the only way the Catholic Church can survive is to either renounce or seriously rework many of her doctrines and beliefs. In Brown's world is appears that science and religion can co-exist, but only if religion defers in all matters to science and secular interests.
FACT: If that is true—and I think it is a large "IF"—then it is due to some serious re-writing on the part of screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. But even if it is true, how can Howard be so self-righteously indignant in light of the glaringly obvious track record established by Dan Brown? And why is he so defensive about his reputation while mocking Mr. Donohue for defending the reputation of the Catholic Church? Why the double standard? After all, if I wrote a work of fiction titled, Ron Howard: A Novel, which was about an actor and director named Ron Howard, filled with all sorts of dubious or outrageous statements about said Ron Howard, would he be fine with it? What if I claimed it was based on several years of research and was historically factual? Well?
FACT: This cuts both ways, Mr. Howard. If you cannot see why a Catholic, such as Donohue or myself or thousands of others, is upset by Brown's literary depictions and your cinematic depiction, in the first Langdon movie, of the Catholic Church, then I have to conclude that even if you may or may not be overtly anti-Catholic, you are surely no friend of facts, reason, civility, and artistic integrity.
Finally, a simple question: if you made a movie about Islam and an Muslim leader wrote a response similar to Donohue's, would you respond the same way?
Related Articles and Interviews:
• Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code |
Excerpts from The Da Vinci Hoax | Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel
• The "It's Just Fiction!" Doctrine Carl E. Olson
• Dan Brown Reveals How Little He Really Knows | Sandra Miesel
• Danned If You Do, Danned If You Don't | Carl E. Olson
• Meeting the Real Mary Magdalene | An Interview with Amy Welborn
• What Do Christians Know? Carl E. Olson
• The Da Vinci Code's Sources | Carl E. Olson
• The Atheist and the Code: An Interview with Tim O'Neill | Carl E. Olson
• The Code and Gnosticism | Carl E. Olson