On the New York Times best-seller list last month, three books riddled with anti-Catholic themes and imagery were listed at the same time. All are novels.
Leading the pack was Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" (Doubleday, $24.95). With 150 weeks on the hardbound best-seller list and, as they say, "soon to be a major motion picture," it is the 800-pound anti-Catholic gorilla at the bar.
A newer entry -- at No. 5 on the list that week -- was "The Last Templar" (Dutton, $24.95) by Raymond Khoury. A previous hardbound best-seller and ranked No. 9 on the paperback best-seller list that week was "The Third Secret" (Ballantine, $24.95) by Steve Berry.
All three books -- whose shared assumptions are so interchangeable that the authors will probably end up suing one another -- build on a successful tradition in American capitalism. Going back to "The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal" (Kessinger, $33.95) first published in the 1830s and never out of print since, you can always make a buck off anti-Catholicism. And sometimes a lot of bucks in Dan Brown's case, along with Ron Howard and Tom Hanks, who plan to rake it in next month when the movie based on the book is released.
All three books also sell a contemporary gnosticism that has great appeal: a conveniently secular brew that demands no conversion, provides no challenge to live our lives better and outlines a meaningless pseudo-spirituality divorced from faith.
Since these are novels, the authors can glide over the anti-Catholic themes that permeate the books by responding that these are just stories, no more, no less. But all three have a pseudo-intellectual wink to them as if they are rooted in established facts of history that give legitimacy to the tales they tell.
Within the context of their stories, they represent to readers that much of what they write is actual history, secret knowledge previously hidden. Rather than simply anti-Catholic canards stripped of their roots in Reformation propaganda and replaced with contemporary gnosticism, they are dusted off and presented to a modern audience as facts.
From here on in there are loads of spoilers for all three books. If you plan to read them, stop now. Though if you do, in the immortal words of my junior-year high school teacher when he caught the two worst students in class cheating off each other, "God help yooz."
The plots in all three books involve intrepid couples running around the globe tracking down a hidden historical truth that will prove the Catholic faith to be illusory.
In "The Da Vinci Code," an intrepid couple searches for the documented proof rediscovered in the Holy Land during the Crusades that Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus and they had a family that can be traced right up to this very day.
The Catholic Church since the dawn of Christian-ity had engaged in bloodthirsty attacks to destroy the ancient pagan belief in the sacred feminine that Jesus had actually passed on through Mary Magdalene, who is in fact the "Holy Grail." The Church did so to consolidate its power.
In "The Last Templar," an intrepid couple tracks down Jesus' diaries, which had been discovered in the Holy Land during the Crusades by the Knights Templar. The diaries reveal that Jesus was just a better-than-average Joe and all that stuff about miracles, salvation and the Resurrection was a fabrication of the Church to consolidate its power.
In "The Third Secret," Steve Berry has an intrepid couple discovering that Church leadership had hidden the true revelation of the Blessed Mother at Fatima, namely that birth control and abortion are fine, priestly celibacy is wrong and the ordination of women right, and that same-sex marriage is a noble thing. As Berry has the Blessed Mother say to the children at Fatima: "Go my little ones and proclaim the glory of these words."
The Church had hidden the true revelation of Fatima in order to maintain its grip on authority that would be undermined if Mary contradicted 2,000 years of defined truth.
Each book portrays the Catholic Church in the past and present as ruthlessly destroying anyone who would reveal these secrets. In "The Last Templar" there is a murderous monsignor working for a brutal cardinal; Berry has a murderous priest as well, while Brown has one of the more bizarre characters of contemporary fiction: a murderous Opus Dei albino monk.
Berry's book goes to the greatest lengths: two popes commit suicide, and a good priest is murdered by the ruthless monsignor while a future pope looks on, then gives absolution immediately after for the crime.
Ridiculous plots and murderous monsignors -- and one killer albino -- do not translate directly into anti-Catholicism, though the intent is pretty obvious. But the anti-Catholic threads that tie these novels together in their essential assumptions still play out strongly today, particularly when the Church is under fire for positions taken in the public arena.
The books, in one way or another, put forth three anti-Catholic legends as old as the Reformation. They then take these old canards and propagate them from a secular perspective.
The first anti-Catholic legend is that the Catholic Church forcibly repressed a true Christianity that had existed since the days of the apostles. This was a common post-Reformation propaganda point -- that there was a pure Christianity subversively maintained over the centuries that served as a counterpoint to the apostolic claims of the Church. The real Church was this "invisible Church."
Brown and Khoury's books take that anti-Catholic tenet and give it a New Age twist. They point to an alleged purity of the original teachings of a thoroughly human Jesus, stripped of any real meaning.
It's a gnostic gospel being preached based on nothing more than a wise teacher, rather than a revelation of God. Brown has Jesus invoking a unifying myth of the sacred feminine; Khoury simply has Jesus as a purveyor of pious platitudes.
Berry is at least more straightforward putting in the Blessed Mother's revelation a laundry list of contemporary secular grudges against the Church that can be found in any news story: abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, celibacy and a male-only priesthood.
In each case, however, is the clear idea that the Catholic Church had repressed the true teachings of Jesus and is simply the invention of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century.
The books, however, are not arguing from a Protestant perspective. Evangelicals who might be tempted to sample the "puritan pornography" in these books should understand the secular interpretation of this long-standing anti-Catholic tenet.
The secular interpretation has it that in a rigged Church council at Nicea in 325 under Constantine's thumb, a belief system surrounding Jesus was created by putting an official seal on false Scripture, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This marked the beginning of a ruthless suppression of various gnostic writings that told the real story of Jesus. That's not an interpretation that the average evangelical would favor.
The problem is that Brown and Khoury within the context of their novels present this combination of post-Reformation and New Age gnostic propaganda as undeniable fact, not something merely made up to fit a fictional plot. Berry simply confirms essentially gnostic beliefs by the deus ex machina of the Blessed Mother at Fatima.
Search for power
The second anti-Catholic legend permeating these books is that the Church is in this only for power. All its teachings, all its beliefs, all its sacred devotions exist to consolidate a nefarious hold on worldly power and wealth.
All three books take it as a given that the Church is fighting and has fought the revelation of their alleged secrets not because it would prove Christian teaching false, but because in doing so the power of the Church would be undermined. Power -- particularly power exercised over women -- is a more important motivation to the Church than truth itself.
That is why the Church will respond so murderously. Brown sees that as the driving force behind Opus Dei; Khoury sees it as a compelling motivation of the cardinals; Berry makes the trappings and exercise of power the sole motivation of a newly elected pope.
Brown portrays a Church in fragile alliance with those aware of the falsity of its teachings so that it can maintain what it has built; Khoury portrays a Church that first paid extortion, then viciously suppressed the Knights of Templar so that their secret would be maintained and the Church could still exercise power. Berry has the Church repressing the Blessed Mother's revelation because it would undermine 2,000 years of Church teaching and render meaningless its ability to teach with authority.
Hiding the truth
Which leads to the third anti-Catholic theme that permeates these books. Basic to anti-Catholicism has always been the charge that Church leadership knows that it is teaching falsity.
This was a constant in post-Reformation propaganda: not only does the Catholic Church teach and believe falsely, it does so knowingly. It was fundamental to post-Reformation propaganda that Catholic leadership, in order to continue to suppress its ignorant flock of laity, hides the truth from them and does so in full knowledge that what it teaches and what it believes is false.
This is the fundamental theme of all three books, though Brown seems to want to paint a picture that current Church leadership simply is a victim of its own past: it has preached falsity so long that it actually now believes it to be true.
Khoury, on the other hand, has his Church leadership arguing that it knows the Scripture of Christ to be false, but that it maintains its beliefs solely because people can find some glimmer of hope in an otherwise senseless world. (This allows him an interesting final twist: the Church is going to all this trouble to suppress the truth revealed in the diaries of Jesus, but it does not know that the diaries are in fact fake.)
If all this seems stuff and nonsense, in one sense it surely is. These best-selling books are silly, contrived and poorly written. The prose in Berry's "The Third Secret" can set a reader to giggling and if Brown has a character wake up one more time "with a start" the reader might be tempted to send him a thesaurus. Khoury pulls so many contrived stunts to get his characters from one place to another that the action seems more reminiscent of a Looney Tunes cartoon. But not as much fun.
Yet, the anti-Catholic themes propagandized in these novels are part and parcel of America's cultural baggage. They are still used to counter Church positions in the public arena without ever addressing the actual positions themselves. People argue with anti-Catholic legends, not facts. And these books encourage those legends.
That the Church takes its positions solely as a means to preserve its alleged power and influence -- even as it knows those positions to be based on falsity -- is not merely anti-Catholic. It is considered accepted and legitimate position to espouse in the public arena.
In a society that will no longer tolerate racist, anti-Semitic and sexist arguments, anti-Catholic rhetoric maintains a solid, respectable hold.
Even in novels. And even in movies.
Robert P. Lockwood is the editor of Our Sunday Visitor's "Anti-Catholicism in American Culture" ($19.95). He is a former president and publisher of OSV and writes from Pennsylvania.