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Neither Angels nor Demons (Part 1) | Al Kresta | May 12, 2009 | Ignatius Insight
Last week I screened Ron Howard's film version of Dan (Da
Vinci Code) Brown's Angels and
Demons. The movie won't turn you into
either. But it will lay another dirty veneer over the popular media portrait of
a corrupt Catholic Church menacing human progress and obstructing scientific
This is the only issue I'll deal with in this column. I am
not writing a movie review. Nor am I denying the film's wealth of talent and
fine production values. I am also ignoring the film's outrageous claims about
the Illuminati, the bizarre invention of a Galileo code which riddles the world
with secret messages and clues to the combat between science and faith, or the
claim that the Church hunted down and killed scientifically progressive souls.
I am deliberately avoiding all of the above nonsense and
irrelevancies so I can focus on the most important problem with the film: its
monstrously unjust portrayal of the Church's relationship to scientific
investigation. This one thing I do.
First, an exhortation: Get ready to do some historical
apologetics. Let's establish the Church's reputation as the greatest single
contributor to the rise of modern science. I will equip you to make that claim.
When you finish reading this column and its forthcoming sisters, you will know
more about the Catholic Church and the rise of science than ninety percent of
those who will see the movie. So seize the evangelistic day. Embrace the
movie's release as a great opportunity to reveal the work of Christ through His
Body, the Church. Okay. I'll show my age. Sing it: Shine Jesus shine.
Second, a warning: Don't be put off by the excuse that Angels
and Demons is just fiction or that the
movie isn't as anti-Catholic as the book or that Ron Howard's climax pulls its
punch against the new pope. Would you applaud a segregationist just because
he's not with the KKK? Would you shrug off as harmless a movie that presents
the International Red Cross as intentionally poisoning millions of those it
claimed to be healing?
Third, the thesis: Hear me clearly, the problem with Angels
and Demons is not that it criticizes the
Catholic Church or takes artistic liberties with sacred materials. No, the
problem is that its premise runs directly counter to the truth. What is the key
truth suppressed here? That the Catholic Church has consistently advanced- not
obstructed- the cause of scientific investigation- not perfectly but
consistently, reliably, predictably and benevolently! There isn't another competitor
in Her league because Jesus does all things well.
You needn't take my word for it. Hear Oxford researcher and
American Historian of Science John Heilbron's prize winning study, The Sun
in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories (2001). "The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial and social
support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of
ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any
other, and, probably, all other, institutions."
Let me break the news gently to Dan Brown and Ron Howard.
The Galileo case is the exception that proves the rule. We deceive ourselves
and others when we take this complex case and use it as the grid through which
all other church/science conflicts can be assessed. (See Donald Demarco's
excellent exposition of the Galileo Affair. For a broader look see Lawrence Principe's Science and Religion. Lectures 2-6
are especially on point.}
Fourth, truth matters - even in fiction. Good fictional as
well as good non-fictional storytelling is expected to fiddle with the facts to
achieve dramatic effects. Think of the following Sports films: Cinderella Man,
Sea Biscuit, Rocky Balboa, Remember the Titans, Bring It On, Karate Kid, We are
Marshall, Chariots of Fire, Rudy are not judged as though they were
documentaries like Hoop Dreams, The Fight, or Spellbound.
Ron Howard and Dan Brown probably don't see themselves as
purveyors of violence. But their hostile re-invention of a community's factual
background can only create frustration and frustration leads to aggression.
When tellers of tales marginalize, stereotype and demonize various groups, they
are reading a people out of history. When storytellers wildly distort, by
commission or omission, the narrative of a neighborly charitable, educational
and, (dare I claim it?), a Divinely established institution, it is just plain
wrong regardless of the movie market's willingness to have its ears tickled
Fifth, Howard and Hanks know what they are doing. On the
Catholic Church and science, even Hollywood should get it by now. The evidence
is not unclear. Angels and Demons is not novelistic license; it is
exploitation. In spite of their talent Ron Howard, Tom Hanks and Dan Brown are,
in this instance, par with snake-oil salesmen trading on the credulity of an
uninformed public desperate for healing.
Just how absurd is Howard's picture of the Catholic Church
and science? What does it look like? Like a Barnum and Bailey circus program
where the lion-taming act is followed by a march of the Missionaries of Charity
swaying single-file like a family of dancing elephants, Mother Teresa at the
lead. Nobody looks good in that parade ... not even P.T. Barnum. The version of
history presented in this movie is so unfair that Church authorities denied
Howard and company permission to film in the Vatican. Who can blame them? Why
should Catholic pastors be party to a huge commercial plan that presents
Christ's Bride as a centerfold?
Let's recall the premise of the movie. The film's Vatican
administrator (camerlingo) sets it up: "Since the days of Galileo our
Church has tried to slow the relentless march of progress sometimes with
misguided means." Nonsense. There is no "Vatican's centuries' old
reluctance to embrace science" as slop/pop TV documentaries put it. Real
historians of science dismiss this legend as, at best, little more than a good
yarn, an entertaining story pitting an authoritarian, hierarchical institution
against free-thinking, progressive, democratic dissenters. This
"yea-boo", "cheer-jeer" version of history never happened.
You might even say it's the angels vs. demons approach to the past. Tom Hanks
reduces the Church's concern for truth to a disguise for guarding its own
survival interests. "When it comes down to protecting one's turf ... it's a
very basic protagonist/antagonist dilemma. That's really important to Angels
Sixth, how bad is the film's distortion? We need to get our
proportions straight. Over-reaction can undermine our mission as much as
apathy. So just how off-base is the Brown, Hanks and Howard version of the
relationship between the Church and science? Hear Lawrence Principe, professor
of History of Science, Technology and Chemistry at Johns Hopkins University. He
is unambiguous about the scholarly opinion: "Let me be clear; the idea
that scientific and religious camps have historically been separate and antagonistic
is rejected by all modern historians of science."
Seventh, how do they get away with this? "History is
bunk" said Henry Ford and many of us implicitly agree. But we're a little
ashamed of ourselves. I mean we know that if we ignore the past we are more
likely to be suckers in the present. But even the best of us don't really know
very much outside our work and hobbies. Test yourself. (Trust me; I do have a
point to the following questions).
How many of the Founding Fathers of the United States can
you immediately name? Washington, Franklin, Jefferson. Maybe Madison, Adams and
Hamilton. If you can go beyond that, most of your fellow citizens would respect
you as an operator in the "smart zone."
How about Civil War generals? Definitely Lee, Grant,
Sherman and Stonewall Jackson. For those who care more than the average bear,
we remember Pickett, McClellan, Longstreet, Jeb Stuart, George Meade. Now if
you grew up near Ken Burns in Ann Arbor, then maybe Hooker, Burnham, Nathan
Bedford Forest, A.P. Hill, Halleck. Don't feel bad: there were hundreds of
generals you've never heard of.
How about the women most responsible for securing the
right to vote? I'll wager no more than two come to mind. Susan B. Anthony and
Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Did anybody also get Lucretia Mott? Probably not unless
you've taken a Woman's Studies course or bothered to watch a PBS documentary.
So how do Brown and Howard get away with it? Very simply:
the ignorance of their audience. When I say "Catholic Church and
science", why does only one name come to everyone's mind? Galileo. Even
though historians of science agree that the Galileo case is the exception not
the rule. Yet it persists.
Why does Galileo, the "Father of Observational
The thought "Catholic Church and science" produces
"Galileo" with as much certainty as saying "tissue" and
thinking "Kleenex." Angels and Demons is your chance to elevate your
neighbors' understanding of the Faith by letting Jesus shine through His Church.
Share some of this information and they will no longer be enslaved to
longstanding cultural conditioning processes. No longer will they hear the
ringing of the "Catholic Church and science" bell and then
unthinkingly salivate "Galileo."
Why not these other Catholics of varying degrees of
devotion but still of exceptional intelligence and giftedness and blessing to
Why not Msgr. George Lemaitre, the "Father of the Big
Or Abbot Gregor Mendel, the "Father of
Or Franciscan Friar, Roger Bacon, the "Father of
Or St. Archbishop Nicolas Steno, the "Father of
Or Rene Descartes, the "Father of Modern
Or Fr. Marin Mersenne the "Father of Acoustics?"
Or Andreas Vesalius, the "Father of Modern Anatomy
Or Antoine Lavoisier, the "Father of Modern
Or Blaise Pascal, the "Father of Hydrostatics?"
Or Louis Pasteur, the "Father of
Or Archdeacon Nicolaus Copernicus, "the Father of
Or Pierre-Duhem, "the Father of the History of
Or Fr. George Coyne, the discoverer of asteroid 14429
Or Dr. Martin Nowak, Harvard mathematics and biology where
his discoveries in evolutionary dynamics argue that cooperation as much as
competition has driven natural selection. "Genes cooperate in cells, cells
cooperate in organisms, and individuals cooperate in societies."
Or Guglielmo Marconi, "the Father of Radio?" and
recipient of the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics.
How did the Catholic Church's vital role in the development
of modern science get obscured by the much misunderstood Galileo incident? We
actually know and I'll tell you in the next column.
"Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses
faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny
himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth. Consequently,
methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in
a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict
with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive
from the same God." (CCC, 159).
This column has been reproduced by kind permission of the author.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles, Excerpts, & Interviews:
A Short Response to Angels & Demons | Carl E. Olson
Ron Howard, Angry & Demeaning?| Carl E. Olson
Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code | Excerpts from The Da Vinci Hoax | Carl
E. Olson and Sandra Miesel
The "It's Just Fiction!" Doctrine: Reading Too Little Into The Da Vinci
Code | Carl E. Olson
You Do, Danned If You Don't | Carl E. Olson
Meeting the Real Mary Magdalene
| An Interview with Amy Welborn
What Do Christians Know? | Carl E. Olson
Dan Brown Reveals How Little He Really Knows | Sandra Miesel
The Da Vinci Code's Sources: Did Dan Brown Really Borrow From Holy Blood, Holy Grail? | Carl E. Olson
The Atheist and the Code: An Interview with Tim O'Neill | Carl E. Olson
Al Kresta is a broadcaster, journalist and author who is, first of all, a missionary. He is
the author of Moments of Grace: Inspiring Stories From Well-Known Catholics,
Why Are Catholics So Concerned about Sin?: More Answers to Puzzling Questions
about the Catholic Church, a follow-up to the best-seller Why Do
Catholics Genuflect? And Answers to Other Puzzling Questions About the Catholic
Faith, as well as a contributor to Shaken
by Scandals: Catholics Speak Out About Priests' Sexual Abuse, Loving Your
Neighbor, and the original Surprised
by Truth. Kresta in the Afternoon is broadcast on over 120 stations nationwide
including the EWTN Global Catholic Radio Network and Sirius Satellite Radio. It is produced by Ave Maria Radio every weekday afternoon from 3-6 p.m. Eastern
Time. Kresta in the Afternoon takes a closer, Catholic look at current events, issues and ideas. It is conversation with consequence. Also visit
Al Kresta on his blog.
For all media inquiries, contact Nick Thomm, Executive Producer of "Kresta in the Afternoon," at 734-930-3164.
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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