Quick, how did Copernicus die? Dan Brown readers "know" the answer: "Outspoken scientists like Copernicus" were "murdered by the Church for revealing scientific truths," according to a tag-team history lesson by two characters in "Angels & Demons," the predecessor to Brown's blockbuster, "The Da Vinci Code."
On May 15, Ron Howard's film adaptation of "Angels & Demons" -- reworked as a sequel to Howard's 2006 box-office smash "The Da Vinci Code" -- will bring another installment of Brown's version of history to moviegoers. The film may or may not repeat the specific charge of the murder of Copernicus, but it certainly maintains the larger historical context set forth in "Angels & Demons": the Church's murderous persecution of the Illuminati, a secret society that Brown claims counted Copernicus, Galileo and Bernini among its members.
Here's how Harvard "symbologist" Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) describes it in a clip from "Angels & Demons": "The Illuminati ... were physicists, mathematicians, astronomers. In the 1500s, they started meeting in secret because they were concerned about the Church's inaccurate teachings, and they were dedicated to scientific truth. And the Vatican didn't like that. So the Church began to ... hunt them down and kill them."
For years, Catholics, non-Catholic Christians and even non-Christians with a low threshold for rampant disinformation have labored to set the record straight on countless points muddied in Brown's tales. For instance, Copernicus wasn't murdered by anyone -- he died of a stroke at the age of 70 -- nor was he ever at odds with Church authorities.
The Illuminati connection is also bogus. The historical Illuminati were a late 18th-century political secret society, post-dating Copernicus, Galileo and Bernini by, variously, nearly one to well over two centuries. Their membership were politically minded Enlightenment "freethinkers" with no special interest in the sciences or the arts.
The picture of the Catholic Church systematically persecuting scientists is the meta-narrative around which "Angels & Demons" is constructed. Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights president Bill Donohue -- whose booklet "Angels & Demons: More Demonic Than Angelic" debunks many of the book's distortions -- contended that while the extent of the movie's fidelity to the book was not yet known, "you can't make the movie at all without at least floating the idea that the Catholic Church is against enlightenment, against knowledge, against reason, against science."
Although Brown's defenders sometimes demur that "Angels & Demons" is "just fiction," its central concept is not a dramatic conceit of Brown's imagination. It's a misconception with long roots in American anti-Catholicism.
For example, Charles Chiniquy, the notorious 19th-century anti-Catholic writer, claimed in his 1886 polemic "Fifty Years in the Church of Rome" that French mathematician Blaise Pascal and Copernicus were excommunicated, while Galileo was publicly flogged and sent to a dungeon. None of this is true, but even today the picture of the Church persecuting and executing scientists is popularly perceived as having some basis in history.
Even the case of Galileo has been distorted beyond recognition in popular imagination and misrepresented as archetypal rather than exceptional.
Brown exploits and reinforces this misperception, reporting that Galileo was convicted of heresy (in fact, he was judged "vehemently suspect of heresy") and was "almost executed" (nothing of the sort was ever in question) for "daring to imply that God had placed mankind somewhere other than at the center of his universe." This last implies that the medieval geocentric model was flatteringly anthropocentric; in reality, the medievals saw the earth as the lowest and least glorious location in the universe, the farthest from heaven.
Although Brown pillories Christianity, he doesn't pit science against faith or God per se. His books are not anti-God or anti-faith, but anti-dogma, anti-institutional, anti-patriarchal, anti-revealed religion. He doesn't overlook, but rather highlights that some of his heroes of science were devout Catholics who saw science and religion as complementary. His fictional heroes include a maverick priest-scientist, Leonardo Vetra, and his daughter, Vittoria, who see no conflict between faith and reason.
Nevertheless, Brown claims, the enlightened attitudes of Galileo and others conflicted with the Church's claim to be "the sole vessel through which man could understand God." Brown ignores the crucial role of Christianity in the origins of modern science as well as the Church's patronage of the sciences during the time of Copernicus and Galileo.
In Brown's universe, true faith is vague, mystical, scientific, feminist and universal. "God, Buddha, The Force, Yahweh, the singularity, the unicity point -- call it whatever you like," Vittoria says. Well, anything except him. "Her," Vittoria corrects Langdon. "Your Native Americans had it right."
The Catholic identity crisis in "Angels & Demons" is embodied in Ventresca, camerlengo (or chamberlain) to the recently deceased pope (the story is set in the interregnum period during a conclave). (Spoiler alert.)
Ventresca seems at one point meant to come across as a sympathetic believer, but is ultimately revealed to be a twisted combination of (a) an unhinged archconservative obsessed with saving the Church from modernism and (b) a despairing apostate convinced that science has triumphed and that Christianity must radically reinvent itself.
Most audience members will likely recognize that the film fictionalizes history to a greater or lesser degree. Yet so much mud is slung that some is bound to stick.
Was there really a "Great Castration" of Vatican City's male statues in 1857, with Pope Pius IX taking a mallet to the male organs of every statue in the Vatican? More pointedly, how many people exposed to the idea will ever find out? (For the record, fig leaves were added, but the statues were not castrated; rather, subsequent efforts to remove the leaves proved more damaging than leaving them in place.)
"People don't walk around with fact-check books in their pockets," Donohue said. "They walk around with perceptions. And perceptions are formed by popular culture."
Published in March, Bill Donohue's booklet "Angels & Demons: More Demonic Than Angelic" debunks many of Brown's historical distortions -- and also goes after the filmmakers, whom Donohue claims "do not hide their animus against all things Catholic."
The booklet makes hay of separate comments from co-producer John Calley calling "The Da Vinci Code" "conservatively anti-Catholic" and co-producer Brian Grazer calling "Angels & Demons" "less reverential" than its predecessor. But did Grazer mean "less reverential" toward the Church -- or toward Brown's book? Donohue took it in the former sense, but, when the latter possibility was pointed out via telephone, admitted he could be wrong.
On April 21, director Ron Howard fired back in a Huffington Post website piece attacking Donohue's booklet, stating, "neither I nor 'Angels & Demons' are anti-Catholic," and denying that the film was anything other than fiction.
Howard added, "I guess Mr. Donohue and I do have one thing in common: we both like to create fictional tales, as he has done with his silly and mean-spirited work of propaganda." (As Orthodox film writer Peter Chattaway quipped in an online forum: Then "fictional tales" like "Angels & Demons" can be "silly and mean-spirited works of propaganda"?)
Answering Howard's response, Donohue quoted statements from Howard apparently crediting Brown's fictitious Illuminati history, adding, "It's time to stop the lies and come clean."
Steven D. Greydanus is a film critic and editor of www.decentfilms.com.