By MSGR. FRANCIS J. MANISCALCO, Commentary | Published May 18, 2006
Causing people to see something they never saw before in a 500-year-old work of art which is among the most famous and reproduced of all time is an accomplishment of genius, if that “something” is a valid new insight. If it is not, then this kind of achievement usually goes by other names.
“The Da Vinci Code” novel contains a claim that in Leonardo’s mural The Last Supper, which portrays Jesus and his twelve apostles at the meal he took with them on the night before he died, one of the twelve is not the apostle John but actually a woman who is Mary Magdalene.
Forget the Gospel narratives through which Leonardo, like every other Christian, would have known about the Last Supper and which contain no mention of Mary Magdalene; forget the fact that this mural seems to have caused no sensation among the monks whose refectory it decorated and who would have been as likely to recognize a female form then as we are today; forget the many paintings of the Last Supper which show a handsome youth often leaning on Christ’s shoulder or on his chest following the tradition that identified John with the unnamed “beloved disciple” of the fourth Gospel. If such a claim is put between the covers of a book, apparently it merits respectful consideration no matter how absurd.
What this novel does to Leonardo’s Last Supper, it does to Christianity as such. It asks people to consider equivalent to the mainstream Christian tradition quite a few odd claims. Some are merely distortions of hypotheses advanced by serious scholars who do serious research. Others, however, are inaccurate or false.
One false claim is that the Emperor Constantine, for political reasons of his own, decided to make a god out of Jesus Christ who was solely a Jewish rabbi for whom neither he nor his first followers ever asserted a divine origin. This claim cannot be sustained on the basis of the existing evidence, which demonstrates that Constantine did no such thing.
It also highlights the schizophrenia in “The Da Vinci Code” about Jesus Christ. Only if Jesus is divine would we have any interest in the possibility that his descendant might walk the earth today. If he is not, such a descendant ceases to be a mythic figure and becomes only a kind of celebrity child, so many of whom have turned out to be disappointments to their parents.
Reporters have asked whether even a bestselling novel can seriously damage a Church of one billion believers. No, in the long run, it cannot. But that is not the point. The pastoral concern of the Church is for each and every person. If only one person were to come away with a distorted impression of Jesus Christ or His Church, our concern is for that person as if he or she were the whole world.
Due to the concern about many current portrayals of Jesus Christ and the origins of Christianity, the Web site www.jesusdecoded.com was developed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Communications, under the direction of the USCCB Committee on Communications, chaired by Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas, in consultation with the USCCB Secretariat for Doctrine.
Msgr. Francis J. Maniscalco is a priest of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., who has served the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as director of communications since 1995.