Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Protesting “The Da Vinci Code” Hits It Where It Hurts, the Box Office, Preston Noel Builds a Consumer Organization from Scratch

[Can’t help it: I just love activists, especially when they go after the media giants. One such leader is Preston Noel. You may or may not agree with him, but I’ll tell you: If there were two or three more like him, they’d change the culture. Here’s my latest article for The Wanderer, the nation’s oldest national weekly Catholic newspaper.]

By Thomas F. Roeser

CHICAGO—Charles Preston Noel III—known here as simply Preston Noel—is one of the most influential Catholics in this town and the nation: yet very few know his name.

That’s the way he wants it: but when the cameras and radio microphones lean his way, the courteous, well-dressed and groomed Noel quickly rises to the top of articulate defenders of the Church, reinforcing his arguments with brilliant debating skill, presenting statements studded with unassailable research. Whenever he courteously raises his hand at anti-Catholic rallies, bigots recognize him for questions at their peril. Noel, impeccable in attire and manner, soon turns a crowd gathered to hear a dissenter into a group that challenges the bigot. I’ve seen him do it and after his performance, he tends to move away from congratulations and on to other challenges to the Church.

These days Preston Noel is busily organizing one of the most successful protests of mass entertainment since the hey-day of the old Legion of Decency in the 1930s, when Catholics could be convinced to boycott movies that endangered morals and slurred the Church. He’s devoting almost full time to organizing protests to the movie, “The Da Vinci Code”. Producer Ron Howard (the Opie in the old Andy Griffith of Mayberry TV series) was stunned when volunteer protesters formed before more than 2,000 theatres nationwide. Noel himself came calling on the owner of the Pickwick theatre in my suburban hometown—a palace of impressive dimension and an historic landmark, to boot—to tell him politely that a group of angered Catholics would be congregating outside on the street the day the “Da Vinci Code” opened.

“We don’t want that to happen,” said the owner, and canceled the show

notwithstanding that it had been listed on the theatre’s website.

For years, conventional wisdom has been that to protest salacious and sacrilegious movies only adds to their marketability. Not so. Noel and his group has proved that when Catholic protests label as bigoted films and television programs, their popularity drops. As result, what Preston Noel and his organization has pioneered may well spur a new grassroots Catholic militancy that could one day approach the era when Hollywood feared to outrage public morals with salacious productions. It’s not there yet, but if Noel and his organization continues, they may return us to the era when Catholics blocked overflow from the Hollywood sewer of cultural debasement that corrupts the unenlightened public.

Noel’s success and that of his organization is all the more stunning because of the tremendous odds he and his group face. “The Da Vinci Code,” the book that has been on the New York Times best seller list for more than 40 weeks. The book struck me when I read it as a amateurishly improbable murder mystery page-turner with a pervasive sacrilegious theme. Wrongly, I figured no one would be able to follow its convoluted plot much less buy it. But that’s where I was wrong. Instructed from childhood days by the nuns wielding the Baltimore Catechism, I was in no danger of being converted by a convoluted plot that accused the Church of keeping a dark secret for 2000 years to advance male dominance.

To spare you from wasting time, let me outline the broad outline of the plot so you can see how ridiculous it is. The story opens with, of all things, a guy being chased through the Louvre in the middle of the night by an albino monk, identified as belonging to the Opus Dei order. By the time I finished the first few pages, I knew the author hadn’t done even elementary research. Opus Dei is a personal prelature, not a religious order and it has no monks.

To continue: the monk shots the guy and the victim falls to the floor, purposely spread-eagled, writing on the floor the name of a professor of “religious symbolism” at Harvard. Having taught at Harvard, I know there never was and is not likely to be a professorship in “religious symbolism.” The Paris police reach out for the professor. Voila! as they say in French movies: it so happens that the American professor they are seeking is, right that night, in Paris on a book tour.

Vive le concidence as they say. A professor who writes a book on religious symbolism and is fingered by a dying man in the Paris Louvre would be in Paris that same night, right? The professor is contacted by a beautiful Parisian female cop—a real looker. Chemistry percolates. They agree that the professor is being set-up to take the rap. So the beautiful Parisian cop and the professor hightail it out of Paris to a Swiss bank.

Are you still with me? The beautiful Parisian cop, and the professor pick up an attaché case and a helpful Swiss banker joins them in a race from the bank to the woods in the bank’s armored truck. But suddenly the banker turns out to be one of the enemy. He tries to steal the attaché case from the professor. The professor and the beautiful Parisian cop bop him on the head, steal his armored truck and wheel on a circuitous route through Switzerland while they try to find the answer to all this dirty tricks stuff.

They end up at a villa where a kindly old British guru on crutches, who has been referred to the professor, explains what the fuss has been all about. It turns out, he says, that the murder, the mad “monk” and the traitorous banker are allied in trying to hide one fact that has eluded publication for more than two thousand years. The fact: Jesus married Mary Magdalene, that they had a child. The Roman Catholic church and particularly that super-secret organization Opus Dei have been covering it up and will kill anyone who gets in their way.

Just as the old guru has finished explaining it all to them, up pops the albino Opus Dei “monk” who rushes in purportedly to kill all of them. The beautiful Parisian cop, helped immeasurably by being dressed beguilingly in black tights, flips the albino over her shoulder and imparts a rap on the head which sends him tumbling to the floor, unconscious. As Swiss cops race to the scene (how they find out about the bop on the head is never explained) the kindly old British guru loads them into a car--the beautiful Parisian cop, the professor of religious symbolism and the dazed albino “monk.” They speed to a special private plane that will take them to London. Then it develops that the albino “monk” is secretly working for the kindly old British guru—although the “monk” doesn’t realize it, believing that he has been working all the time for Opus Dei. (This is where a friend of mine walked out of the theatre saying his head hurt from trying to keep it all together).

Here it gets so mind-boggling with coincidence that it is clear the author, one Dan Brown, would never have passed Creative Writing 101 at any junior college. It turns out the professor has been spoofing all along, that he has actually found the key piece of evidence that proves the Jesus-Magdalene liaison. And now here is the corker: Jesus and Magdalene not only had gotten married and had a child, but the gorgeous Parisian female cop is their great-great-great-etc. grandchild! Not withstanding that the laws of heredity, pioneered by the old monk Gregor Mendel, prove that if they did have one child, normal reproduction would find—today, eighty generations later—that their descendents would number in the millions, so the looker Parisian cop would not be all that unique which would destroy the plot.

Now, somehow Leonardo da Vinci had discovered that Jesus and Mary Magdalene was married but feared the fascistic old Church so he painted a clue for someone to discover. This was his painted “code”: he drew Magdalene sitting next to Christ at the Last Supper which everybody erroneously has believed is the apostle John. With this plot, Brown has become a mega-multi-millionaire.

The plot is so improbable that I read the book as a passenger in our car driven by my wife as we were going to Minnesota. As we rode along, I would say, “It’s so ridiculous I’m tempted to toss it out the window!” I didn’t and soon forgot about the book. That was my mistake. The book received so much hype that it was immediately gobbled up by anti-Catholics, among them legions of feminists, many of them very nominally Catholic, and single: often sorely disappointed in love.

The first time I deduced that it was far more than a pot-boiler but something akin to literary opium, was at a cocktail party when a single woman I know, nominally Catholic but who rarely goes to church—now in her sixties, often forsaken earlier in romance—came to me and said, “Now I’ve got it all figured out—why the Church has been holding us women down for so long! They don’t want the secret to get out! Of course that’s it! Don’t you get it?” Then, later, I met another woman, a kind of shirt-tail relative of mine four-times removed, in her late fifties, a nominal Catholic, who had a desperately unhappy marriage and who left the brute but who later pined for her divorced executive-boss to ask her out but who gave her many hours of late dictation but wasn’t remotely interested in her. There she was, working months alone at night transcribing his dictation belts, hating men furiously.

She came up to me, her eyes bugging out as if she had just discovered the purpose of her life: “Of course! Of course! All along they’ve been looking for the Holy Grail when in fact it was the actual body of Mary Magdalene! The Church has used us! It figures! That’s why the male patriarchy has always fought against us women being priests! It all comes together for me now!” I looked at my wife and my wife looked at me, mystified. But we were just at the beginning of a cultish, largely crazy embittered feminist drive to use the book as supposed proof that women have been held back all these years by a male supremacy that began with the Roman Catholic church at the beginning of Christendom.

My mistake was regarding the potboiler as what it is: page-turner trash. But Preston Noel was far more alert. He realized early that it had the potential of doing great damage to the Church, as indeed in some unsophisticated, religiously illiterate audiences, it has. Preston is a member of an organization that I am not sure you have ever heard about—but you should. It is known as The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property. The organization was founded in Brazil by people who understood the decadence of this age which argues for the un-mooring of tradition. Its U. S. headquarters is located in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania and can be reached this way: American TFP/ P. O. Box 341/ Hanover, PA 17331. Its toll-free phone is (888) 317-5571 and its FAX is (717) 225-7382.

A small group but with impressive organization, TFP has 60 paid employees and about 75 full-time volunteers. Preston Noel who lives not far from me in Park Ridge, a suburb of Chicago, is not just an employee. He is a very influential policy-molder in the group: a member of its board of directors; director of its Chicago bureau and director of TFP’s national Office of Public Liaison. He and his thousands of volunteers have not only worked to halt the pernicious cult-like fascination of the book but have moved in on the film. More than 2000 theatres, one third of all movie theatres who have run it, have felt the sting of being called bigots. The demonstrators have triggered news stories and television coverage which contrary to public supposition doesn’t spread the poison of the film but shows Americans that Catholics are not about to be victimized by salacious money-grubbers.

But Preston and the TFP don’t only concentrate of “The Da Vinci Code.” They are mobilizing a fight against De Paul University of Chicago which is featuring an academic minor in “Queer Studies” in cooperation with the originator, Catholic Citizens of Illinois. They have launched a campaign to pray for Notre Dame University in response to its president, Fr. John I. Jenkins who issued a statement allowing pro-homosexual film festivals to be held at the university. They have convened audiences all over Louisiana in seminars to highlight the clash of faith and secular culture in that state. Moreover they have issued a call to lift the statutes of limitation son civil suits on decades-old sexual abuses in Cincinnati and Boston. At the same time, it mobilized a crusade to save the seal of confession in New Hampshire that had been threatened by legislation making it mandatory that priests be forced to divulge information received.

Everywhere the Church is under sacrilegious attack you will find TFP—and usually Preston Noel. Example: an advertisement appearing in, believe it or not, the Jesuit magazine America last December 5 offered a statue of the Blessed Mother wrapped in a contraceptive “veil of latex”. American TFP protested and the America editors apologized, saying they let the ad get by them. More than many other groups, TFP has spearheaded a drive to return Christ to Christmas.

In an interview for The Wanderer, I asked Preston Noel, over coffee in a restaurant, when and how he got interested in TFP. “It was thirty years ago,” he said, “when I was a 20-year-old student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. I was influenced by them and since then I have sought to influence others.” He says the thirty years have gone by as in an instant—so busy that he hasn’t gotten married but devotes his life to his work.

As I had entered the restaurant, I glanced at the newspaper USA Today, one of many national newspapers in which the TFP took out full-page advertisements against “The Da Vinci Code.” It featured a story that said in big black headlines that the movie was falling behind in expectations—far behind the record set by “The Passion of the Christ.” I congratulated him.

“If I had a small part in getting that turned around,” said Preston Noel, “I’m grateful.” In the busy restaurant with many suburbanites drinking coffee and bagels, some working at laptops, none except me knew that the courteous, well-kempt man, looking every inch a prosperous, middle-aged banker or realty executive, sipping coffee had, along with his organization, done much to stunt the box-office figures of one of this era’s most bigoted films.

You can thank Preston Noel if you wish—but better still, contact his organization and offer to give it a hand.


  1. Tom,

    I am just flabbergasted that you found some people who take this movie seriously. I saw it and I have to agree with you that the portrayal of the RCC and Opus Dei is over the top. So much so that it seemed to backfire in my estimation. It's obviously a work of fiction, but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who's already read the book. I don't think there'd be much suspense in it. I susprect that's why I didn't enjoy the Lord of the Rings movies as much as newbies to Tolkein did. One glaring logical hole in the movie revolves around the DNA testing. Assuming that the woman in the vault is Mary Magdeline, the DNA testing might be able to prove that the French woman is her descendant, but that would still say nothing about the paternity.

  2. Tom,
    I just saw the movie last night and found it to be very entertaining which is more than I expected. I did not read the book. I did not find it anti-Catholic or anti-religious. If anything it may teach some useful history to the typical young movie goers.

  3. Good article. It looks like TFP needs to expand into Europe and elsewhere as even though box office results were lower than expected for this trash in the United States the returns internationally (which is what the movie studios concentrate on these days) have surpassed Passion of the Christ.

    I am glad Preston Noel was able to keep that filth out of the Pickwick.