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Neither Angels nor Demons

Kresta Commentary

May 12, 2009

By Al Kresta

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 discovery.

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 with lies.

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 and Demons.”

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’s 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 Astronomy” dominate?
• Why not these other Catholics of varying degrees of devotion but still of exceptional intelligence and giftedness and blessing to humanity?
• Why not Msgr. George Lemaitre, the “Father of the Big Bang theory”?
• Or Abbot Gregor Mendel, the “Father of Genetics?”
• Or Franciscan Friar, Roger Bacon, the “Father of Scientific Laws?”
• Or St. Archbishop Nicolas Steno, the “Father of Geology”?
• Or Rene Descartes, the “Father of Modern Rationalism?”
• Or Fr. Marin Mersenne the “Father of Acoustics?”
• Or Andreas Vesalius, the “Father of Modern Anatomy and Physiology?”
• Or Antoine Lavoisier, the “Father of Modern Chemistry”
• Or Blaise Pascal, the “Father of Hydrostatics?”
• Or Louis Pasteur, the “Father of Pasteurization?”
• Or Archdeacon Nicolaus Copernicus, “the Father of Heliocentrism?”
• Or Pierre-Duhem, “the Father of the History of Medieval Science?”
• Or Fr. George Coyne, the discoverer of asteroid 14429 Coyne?
• 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.

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.”

” 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).

Al Kresta is President and CEO of Ave Maria Communications.

His afternoon radio program is heard on over 200 stations as well as Sirius satellite radio.

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