Talk of the Town - Catholic like me May 13 2004

Ode to the code

Strike a blow for cultural fascism — I have been forced to read a book. The Da Vinci Code — 6 million copies and still consuming forests after more than a year — is mandatory in my neighborhood.

People perusing the runaway best seller fall into two categories: non-Catholics enthralled and terrified by the ornate, sinister goings-on, and Catholics like me (a lousy one) just as enthralled and terrified. With the additional caveat that, to quote Ricky Ricardo, we got a lot of splainin' to do.

Particularly in the Deep South. A depressing number of fundamentalist brethren below the Mason-Dixon regard the Catholic Church as an evil, loony cross — no pun intended — between the Skull & Bones society and Six Flags Over the Vatican.

With the morbid curiosity of tourists visiting Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, they want to know more. As an authentic papist-in-residence, I'm elected involuntary spokesman for my wacky creed.

So let me begin by pointing out a salient fact about The Da Vinci Code, a book that has captivated millions with its incense-scented blend of intrigue, suspense and Old Masterish mystery stretching across two millennia: It's a novel.

That means the guy who wrote it — a talented, and by now filthy rich fella named Dan Brown — made it up.

It's fiction.

As in that part of the bookstore separate from the section where they keep history books, which tell you what actually happened. (Or not. Some historians have been known to tell a few whoppers.)

It's just a story!

Albeit an excellent one, which I won't give away in case you haven't read it — yet. But still, a tale.

This does nothing to dampen the conspiratorial ardor of people with a totemic belief in the sanctity of print, i.e., that the contents of a book must be true just because it's between two covers. Place said volume in the genre known as historical fiction, and you're really in the soup.

Couple public credulousness with a nasty nativist streak that has long regarded the pope as close cousin to Ming the Merciless and Catholics as less than 100 percent Amurican, and you have the makings of a prejudice packed piñata. Whack The Da Vinci Code and all sorts of bigoted booby prizes fall out.

Listen to me: If you're losing sleep about the diabolical Catholic Church, if you're worried about its worldwide tentacles committing mayhem at the best of grim men in funny red beanies over in Rome (Italy, not Georgia), remember this: Bingo.

Yes, this power-mad religious autocracy, this smooth-as-a-cardinal's-silk-cape multinational conglomerate, relies for its survival, at least on the affiliate level here in the U.S.A., on little old ladies shouting, "N-19!" and moving black buttons across cardboard squares. In linoleum-covered parish halls befogged by a thick haze of tar and nicotine.

Now add some other factoids:

Most U.S. Catholics — and many in Europe — are as about compliant as a hyperactive Great Dane flunking obedience school. In addition to being of the Christmas-Easter variety, many regard key church dogma — woof! — concerning abortion, contraception and women in the priesthood — as a philosophical smorgasbord with items they can put on their plates or pass by. Mostly the latter.

Second, the lack of fresh recruits. New priests are about as plentiful as tree-hugging environmentalists in the Bush administration. The last few times I've been to church, the sermon was delivered by an English-challenged guy who made Latka Gravas sound like Sir Richard Burton.

Plus, there are the unending, money-draining sex and corruption scandals, which would indicate a level of indiscipline rarely associated with a well-oiled monotheistic machine.

This is no way to run a power-mad autocracy.

Still, Catholicism does have a strange effect on people. But don't worry, it's only limited to screwing up us Catholics.

Take me. I haven't gotten over the first time I went to confession. I was 7. Problem was, I had nothing to confess. What kind of sin can you commit when your parents make you go to bed so early, you can't even watch first-run episodes of "Bewitched"?

But you're kneeling in this darkened wooden box, the good padre slides opens that little cheese grater window, and ... you're on!

So I made something up. I confessed that, in school, I had stolen Henry Schwartz's brand new Bic ballpoint pen. The kind that "writes first time, every time"!

What the hell? Henry was Jewish. I figured he wouldn't mind me using his name.

Then, after I said three Hail Marys and three Our Fathers as penance (priests prefer symmetry when it comes to renouncing sin), a feeling of uncertainty welled up in me — a sensation familiar to those in the know as "Catholic guilt."

Because to make a decent showing at confession, I'd lied to the priest. After all, I hadn't taken Henry's pen.

So the next day at school, I did steal it.

Just to keep things honest.



Glen Slattery will confess to anything in Alpharetta.