A Catholic Digest Special Report: How we really feel about The Da Vinci Code

Written by Daniel Connors and Kathleen Stauffer

Some Church officials and pastors have expressed alarm that Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, misinforms America’s 70 million Catholics, and that this misinformation might well have led — or yet may lead — significant numbers of the faithful to abandon their religious roots and practice. But a Catholic Digest-Yankelovich poll indicates the fear may be overblown.

According to the poll, conducted in March, large numbers of Catholics — 28 percent, or almost 20 million — have indeed read the book, which has sold over 40 million hardcover copies to date. Even more (some 35 million Catholics) plan to see the movie released May 19. Yet most Catholics polled by Catholic Digest say they are unaffected by the novel, with about three-quarters of the millions who’ve read it reporting the book did not affect their faith or opinion of the Church in any way.

Thus far, no United States bishop has strongly denounced The Da Vinci Code, but the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops has mounted an Internet and television campaign to counter the premises of the book and film. And Madison, Wisconsin’s Robert Morlino told his flock: “If you give The Da Vinci Code as a gift, please tell the receiver what ought to be in every Catholic heart … [and] please do remember that there is no shortage of those who would use the opportunity of a Church weakened by a sexual conduct scandal, for which we must accept blame, to discredit the Church and weaken her in every other way.”

Catholic Digest’s reader mail does reveal that a handful of pastors are directing parishioners to boycott both book and movie. Church ministers long have feared that American Catholics growing up since Vatican II have received poor grounding in the basics of faith due to changes in religious education methods since the Council.

If Catholics have been inadequately grounded in the basics, it makes sense that a historical fiction casting the Church as a furtive agent of religious intrigue and deception might shake the faithful.

And, while it cannot be said conclusively that some damage is underfoot given the poll’s margin for error (+ or – 4 percent), 1 percent of those surveyed reported knowing someone who had left the Church over The Da Vinci Code. This small percentage could translate from meaningless to a half-million Catholics to as many as 5 million.

But most Catholics appear to reject the notion that they are unduly influenced by the novel, with regular churchgoers (75 percent) reporting only slightly greater conviction on this point than the rest (73 percent). And Catholics who attend Mass weekly are only marginally more interested in the book (33 percent) than those who do not (27 percent).

Likely, as Morlino noted, the recent sexual abuse crisis — in which the U.S. Church has paid over a billion dollars to date to settle claims against pedophile priests — leaves the institution feeling vulnerable and less certain of its powers to persuade Catholics to follow Church teaching amid a rising secular tide. With studies putting regular Sunday Mass attendance below 30 percent for Catholics in the U.S., it seems natural to wonder how strongly connected most Catholics feel to the regular practice of their faith.

Should Church leaders be concerned that few Catholics find the story line — which maintains the Church has lied and covered up the truth about Jesus — offensive to their faith? Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s designated spokesperson on The Da Vinci Code has called the book “a sack full of lies,” “rotten food,” and strongly “anti-Catholic.” Lawrence Cunningham, professor of theology at Notre Dame, told Catholic Digest: “Dan Brown is an anti-Catholic bigot” (see page 55). Contacted by a Catholic Digest editor, a representative of Dan Brown declined comment on behalf of the author.

Among lay Catholics, nine in ten polled do not think it is wrong or sinful to read the book or see the movie, and fewer than two in ten report taking offense.

Why do so few Catholics in the pew find the book’s premises offensive? Do we recognize the story as fiction? Are we that secure in our faith? Or, do too many of us know too little — or care too little — to defend ourselves?

England’s Bishop Tom Wright says The Da Vinci Code has a great deal to say about where our culture currently is and which myths we are eager to buy into. “It comes in on the tide of the New Age postmodern hunger for spirituality,” he notes, “which assumes that spirituality is a good thing but also assumes that the one place you will not find it is mainstream Christianity. What Dan Brown has done brilliantly is bottle it and turn it into a page turner plugging into the major alternative myth of Christian origins which millions of people feel is where they want to be.”

Are U.S. Catholics buying into this alternative myth? Father Joe McLaughlin, S.S.E, religious studies professor at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont, thinks so (see page 51). “[Readers] either blend Brown and real history into some composite mush,” he says, “or think Brown is saying the same things as legitimate historians.” Certainly, this poses a challenge for Church leaders. Yet lay ambivalence in the face of institutional passion is hardly new. The deeper the ties, the more likely we are to be offended by attacks on our institution. When England was put under interdict by Pope Innocent III in 1208, leading to a banning of Mass celebrations nationwide, English clergy howled in protest and condemnation of King John while the laity went about its business seemingly unconcerned.

It makes sense that Religious and lay leaders who give their lives to Church work would find the message of The Da Vinci Code more insulting than those content to leave Church concerns to bishops, priests, Brothers, Sisters, and lay professionals. Our poll hints at this: Those Catholics who attend church regularly — those more strongly connected to the Church — are more than three times as likely to be offended by the book (14 percent) than Catholics who go less often (3 percent).  CD

About this public opinion poll

Conducted by Yankelovich, Inc. and commissioned by Catholic Digest, this poll measures U.S. Catholic reaction to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. A total of 2,065 interviews were conducted. Only those identifying as Catholics (22 percent) were included in the survey. Mass attendance was queried to gauge how levels of Catholic commitment and practice affect reactions to the book. In total, 443 interviews were conducted throughout the United States from March 23 to 27, 2006.

Overview of findings

  • 28% of Catholics have read The Da Vinci Code
  • Most who have not read or finished the book said they did not have time or interest
  • Those who attend Mass at least once weekly are more likely to say the book is offensive to their faith
  • 43% of respondents who have heard of The Da Vinci Code plan to see the movie
  • 73% say The Da Vinci Code had no effect on their faith
  • 91% do not think it is wrong or a sin to read the book or see the movie
  • Fewer than two in ten say they find the book offensive to their faith


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