Catholic Scholars Brace for 'Da Vinci'

ROME (AP) - Roman Catholic scholars gathered Thursday to explore whether the soon-to-be-released film version of "The Da Vinci Code" will spread hostile sentiment against the church or provide an opportunity to draw people closer to religion.

Scholars including members of Opus Dei — the conservative religious order depicted as a murderous, power-hungry sect in the best-selling Dan Brown novel — were participating at the forum on the potential effects of the movie, set for release May 17-19 around the world.

"The movie will reach more people, so in that sense it will be a bit of a step forward for the book's ideas," said the Rev. John Wauck, a professor at Opus Dei's University of Santa Croce in Rome.

Brown's novel has Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene and having children, and it puts the church and Opus Dei at the center of a conspiracy to cover up the supposed secret. The author has claimed that while his story is fictional, it's rooted in historical fact — a position that's drawn a torrent of criticism from religious and historical scholars.

The book also targets Opus Dei for its purported political and economic power as well is its use of "corporal mortification," the voluntary punishing of one's body as spiritual discipline.

Several high-ranking prelates are members of Opus Dei, an order which was particularly favored by the late Pope John Paul II.

"As a book, 'The Da Vinci Code' doesn't merit serious attention," Wauck told The Associated Press in a telephone interview before the conference.

"However, as a phenomenon it demands serious attention, because a book that sells 40 million copies is not just a book, it tells us something about our society and the world we live in," Wauck said.

The novel's success is a sign that there is "tremendous religious ignorance" but that readers also have a thirst for history, art, symbolism and a more spiritual life, Wauck said, indicating that the movie might draw some people closer to Catholicism.

"If you find what you see there attractive you will probably enjoy a Catholic Mass," he said. "I've seen people who have come back to their faith after reading `The Da Vinci Code.'"

Opening the forum, Wauck contended that the novel hasn't emptied churches.

"The impact of `The Da Vinci Code' on religious attendance has been virtually nil," Wauck said. "Dan Brown is not convincing people of the falsity of Christianity," at least not on the level of the masses.

While a Vatican has called for a boycott of the film, Opus Dei has not. It is among those, however, asking Sony Corp to issue a disclaimer with the film that would clarify that it is a work of fantasy.

Sony Pictures Entertainment has declined to reveal whether the film would bear a disclaimer but has said the work is not a religious one and is not meant to criticize any group.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.