Spectres Meeting in a Cemetery. Part One.

David Sivier
Magonia 96, October 2007

Undoubtedly one of the strangest features of the conspiracist worldview, at least to those rooted in the Rankean tradition of historiography, where documents are the unequivocal route to established, objective facts, is its mutable, post-modern nature. Fact and fiction meet and merge, with the latter being takenn over as solid, indisputable fact, to be studied and analysed by the secret initiates into the conspiratorial worldview.
Its most notable contemporary expression is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. A global best-seller, it’s been denounced by Roman Catholic cardinals, become the subject of TV interviews, features and documentaries, stimulated a burgeoning tourism industry in which the book’s fans and readers travel in the footsteps of their fictional heroes to exotic locales such as St Sulpice in Paris and Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh. These pilgrimages are as much genuinely spiritual as literary, as some of the book’s readers have gone in search of the secret, mystical legacy, hidden and suppressed by the Roman Catholic church’s falsification of religious history in pursuit of its own ideological and political programme, a false history ruthlessly enforced by the murderous papal thought police of Opus Dei.

According to the American pollster George Bama, of the American adults who finished the book, 53 per cent said it was helpful in their personal spiritual growth and understanding, while a Canadian survey conducted by National Geographic concluded that 32 per cent of those who read it believed its theories. [1]

None of this is remotely new. The confusion of fact and fiction has been a feature of the worldview since disaffected young Americans in the 1970s took over the satirical novel Report from Iron Mountain in the 1970s, in which Soviet and American spies were satirised as secretly co-operating, to keep their respective populations in the dark about the real nature of global politics, while providing pork-barrel jobs for the defence industries, as a real, suppressed report, unveiling the cynicism and venality of the world’s secret states. Brown’s idea, that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had children, has strong affinities with Lincoln, Baigent and Leigh’s The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, and succeeding works of religious pseudo-history, like Picknett and Prince’s The Templar Revelation.

Even as fiction Brown’s novel is unremarkable. The Vatican has long been a subject for fictional intrigue because of its role as the nerve centre and powerhouse, spiritual and temporal, of the Roman Catholic Church. Most of these authors have based their plots on the murky world of Vatican banking, particularly the allegations that the Vatican bank acted as a conduit for Nazi funds to be smuggled out of Europe after the Allied victory to expatriate Nazis who had fled to South America.[2] When aging Nazis started to seem passé, the Vatican could always be cast in the villain’s role again as the fictional enforcer of oppressive, institutional falsehood and evil. One novel from the early 1990s had the Vatican, CIA and KGB jockeying for power after the clandestine discovery of Christ’s body in the Middle East. The 2001 film The Body featured Derek Jacobi playing a fugitive Roman Catholic priest who had stumbled on the secret truth of Christ’s body, and so was hunted by violent enforcers of his spiritual masters’ will, determined that this disruptive fact never leak out to explode the fabric of the Roman Catholic faith.

Yet while all these books were bestsellers, none have had quite the commercial success of The Da Vinci Code, a situation that says much about the relative status of fiction over dry works of ostensible fact in the public’s literary appetite, and the deep, spiritual needs of Western humanity at the beginnings of the twenty-first century. Part of the book’s success lies in its engagement with deep issues of Christian historical and scriptural authenticity going back to the compilation of the established, orthodox Christian canon. However, in its treatment of these profound religious anxieties, The Da Vinci Code owes less to the debate within Roman Christianity between the Catholic and Gnostic churches, than to the Reformation and Protestant perceptions of Roman Catholicism as a false, oppressive religion. These perceptions and prejudices were sharpened by the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and the social and intellectual dislocation of the new, mass, industrial and democratic societies of the nineteenth century.

This changing social and intellectual world presented challenges to Christianity as a whole, as religious doctrines were challenged by scientific scepticism and new forms of textual criticism of the Bible, including the discoveries of variant Biblical texts, which cast doubt on the authority of the canonical scriptures. Roman Catholicism, however, felt these dislocations particularly acutely because of its perceived alliance with reactionary, monarchist and anti-democratic regimes. Within Roman Catholicism, certain specific orders are perceived as particularly authoritarian and repressive. Brown’s villains in The Da Vinci Code are Opus Dei, genuinely the subject of contemporary anxiety because of the founder’s links with Franco’s regime in Fascist Spain. Behind their fictional brutality and machinations, however, are earlier, Reformation and Enlightenment images of sadistic and repressive monks, and specifically the fear of the Jesuits, an order haunted by accusations of political intrigue, fanatical loyalty and black magic.


The date of the establishment of the New Testament canon is more problematic, as the first list, which exactly corresponds to the modern New Testament dates from the fourth century AD

The compilation of the Christian canon of scripture – the collection of books regarded as authoritative – predates Roman Catholicism, if this is understood as a distinctct ecclesiastical denomination, by several centuries. Early Christianity already possessed a canon of Old Testament scripture in the form of the Septuagint, the Greek translation compiled in Alexandria, in common with most Diaspora Jews outside Palestine by the end of the first century AD. [3] The date of the establishment of the New Testament canon is more problematic, as the first list, which exactly corresponds to the modern New Testament dates from the fourth century AD. [4] The Diatessaron of Tatian, an attempt to harmonise the four gospels by placing them parallel to each other in rows, and ieferences to the New Testament by the early Christian fathers Irenaeus and Tertullian as scripture, indicate that something like the modern Christian New Testament had been formed by AD. 200. [5]

Christianity at the time was a network of autonomous congregations, largely centred on the towns, under the direction of a bishop, who was served by a staff of presbyters and deacons. These diverse independent churches formed a united community by the mutual recognition of each other by the bishops, and by the ordination of each bishop by at least three bishops from the neighbouring communities.[6] The formal recognition of the claim by the Bishop of Rome, propounded in 341 AD, to leadership of a wider Christian church did not occur until 451 AD, when the Council of Chalcedon established the superiority of see of Rome over the Christian church, two and a half centuries after the establishment of the Christian canon. [7]

The doctrinal unity of this early church was threatened by radical attacks on the canon by the Gnostics. Here, however, the Catholic church acted to preserve its scriptural heritage from innovation. For the heresiarch Marcion, the good, compassionate God revealed in Jesus Christ was in stark contrast from the harsh God of the Old Testament, a God he saw as separate and evil, so that he recommended the rejection of the Old Testament altogether, and employed only a severely edited verston of the New Testament. [8]

Other Gnostics went further and began compiling, in addition to commentaries on the canonical scriptures, other gospels of their own. [9] Far from being seen as the representations of authentic Christianity, in contrast to the catholic scriptures, these works were later. It’s possible that the entire corpus of New Testament books had been written by 70 AD. [10] Valentinus, one of the main Gnostic heresiarchs identified by Irenaeus and the early church, and the probable author of the Gospel of Truth, began teaching in Rome in the second century under the Emperor Antoninus Pius. [11] Rather than preserving Christ’s original teachings, catholic Christian scholars such as Hyppolytus saw the Gnostics instead as confusing Christ’s doctrines with the metaphysical speculations of earlier Pagan philosophers, a view that is endorsed by many modern scholars. [12]

Yet if Gnosticism did not represent the preservation of an authentic Christian witness, nevertheless anxieties about the accuracy and status of the canonical scriptures remained, to become acute with the rise of Humanism and scepticism during the Renaissance. The rediscovery by the Humanists of more complete ancient texts, and their emphasis on studying the Bible and the Church fathers in new and more correct editions were a vital stimulus to the Reformation. Erasmus’s Greek edition of the New Testament with its glosses on the original meaning of words such as ecclesia and presbyter, ‘church’ and ‘priest’, pointed to the immense difference between the early church and contemporary, European Catholic piety.

Erasmus himself believed that salvation could come only through the Christian’s imitation of the life of Christ, rather than through the miracles and ceremonies of traditional religion. [13] He was particularly stinging about contemporary scholastic theology and its practitioners, whose heads were “so swollen with these absurdities, and a thousand more like them.” [14] While Luther went far beyond the Humanists in his attack on Roman Catholic doctrine, undoubtedly the rise of Humanist speculation and its assault on traditional theology and piety assisted the spread of Protestantism as the recovery of the spirituality of the early Christian church. [15]

The Reformation’s immediate effect on the canon of scripture, however, was to exclude the books of the Apocrypha – 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremiah, the Prayer of Manasses and 1 and 2 Maccabees, as well as the Song of the Three Holy Children, the History of Susanna and Bel and the Dragon from the Book of Daniel – because they were found only in the Septuagint, rather than the original Hebrew scriptures, and so considered unreliable. [16]

In reacting against church tradition, Protestantism viewed only the Bible as the authoritative source of faith. Thus, when twentieth century scholars such as F.C. Baur discovered Early Catholicism in the New Testament, following Schleiermacher they considered it a corruption of Christ’s original message by Greek philosophy and Roman legalism, and sought to purge scripture of this contamination in order to return to the ‘historical Jesus’. [17]

One product of the Protestant project to return to the pristine Christianity of the New Testament was its automatic rejection of the papacy as the antichrist, beginning with Luther’s denunciation of his opponents within the papal curia in his tract ‘Against the Execrable Bull of Antichrist’. [18]. It was a stance, which became explicit with his depiction of the Whore of Babylon wearing the papal tiara in the 1522 edition of the Bible. [19] Subsequent attempts to curb the spread of Protestantism by violence by princes such as Philip II of Spain and Francis I of France, culminating in the wars of religion of the seventeenth century, seemed to confirm to European Protestants that the papacy was indeed the brutal persecutor of true, authentic Christianity. From this background of religious violence, political intrigue and terror, the Jesuits emerged as particular targets for suspicion and vilification by both Protestants and Roman Catholics alike.

As the case of Jean-Baptiste Girard and Catherine Cadiere in 1731 reputedly showed, at least to the authors of 'Spiritual Fornication, A Burlescue Poem and The Wanton Jesuit', they also used magic and invocations to the Devil to seduce their young female charges.

They were accomplished assassins, training fanatics through the use of their spiritual authority to murder their eneemies without remorse. According to the 1610 pamphlet, A Discoverie of the Most Secret and Subtile Practices of the Jesuites, they did this by presenting their chosen assassin with an ivory casket, decorated with an Agnus Dei, and inscribed with ‘sweet and perfumed characters’, containing a knife wrapped in a scarf. The Jesuits removed this weapon in an elaborate ritual in which it was sprinkled with holy water, and five or six beads added to the haft, to represent the number of stabs the weapon was to make, and the numbers of souls released from Purgatory by the murder. The Jesuits then invoked God’s angels to fill the future assassin, strengthening him for his task, informing him that he was now no more a mortal man but a kind of deity and that he would pass immediately into heaven without entering purgatory. [20]

The 1759 pamphlet The Doctrine and Practices of the Jesuits declared that the order possessed a master poisoner, able to equip assassins with poisons to place in eating utensils which remained lethally effective even after they were washed ten times. [21]

They were masters of equivocation and dissimulation, and immensely wealthy. The order reputedly had vast, highly profitable gold and silver mines in Latin America, as well as a deliberate policy of targeting wealthy widows, persuading them after their bereavement to take up a life of prayer and contemplation and give their monies instead to the church. [22] They were masters of disguise, present in every company, from the highest to the lowest, in inns, playhouses and taverns. [23] They worked their way into the company of princes, manipulating the minds of their proteges and former pupils through their control of education in the schools and lay sodalities. [24]

They were omnivorous perverts of monstrous sexual appetites. The schools, naturally, were hotbeds of homosexuality and paedophilia. [25] As the case of Jean-Baptiste Girard and Catherine Cadiere in 1731 reputedly showed, at least to the authors of Spiritual Fornication, A Burlescue Poem and The Wanton Jesuit, they also used magic and invocations to the Devil to seduce their young female charges. [26]

This last allegation was particularly tenacious. In 1846 Johann Scheible in Stuttgart published a manual of magic attributed to them, the Verus Jesuitarnm Libellus, or True Magical Work of the Jesuits. This was supposedly first published in Latin in Paris in 1508, along with the Praxis Magica Fausti, or Magical Elements of Dr. John Faust, Practitioner of Medicine, of 1571. [27]

As the Jesuit order was only founded in 1540, although its roots go back to an informal association of St. Ignatius de Loyola and his friends, including Francis Xavier, there’s no real doubt that the Libellus is a forgery. The Praxis Magica Fausti, allegedly printed from an original manuscript at the Weimar Municipal Library, is also forged, as at the time there wasn’t a library there either. [28]

Prefiguring twentieth century rhetoric and fears of brainwashed cults, Jesuits were similarly seen as indoctrinated automatons, crushed of independent thought and will, accusations supported by Loyola’s recommendation that a member of the company should resemble a cadaver and have no desire for self-determination, or the staff used by an old man, serving him in whatever way he pleased. [29] As Loyola was a former soldier, and the Society headed by generals, the order was viewed as a military machine of ruthless and sadistic discipline.

The order possessed a vast ‘library’ of instruments of torture with which the Order’s superiors tormented novices should they show any sign of disaffection or individuality. If a novice seemed to be wavering in his absolute commitment to the order, or was likely to desert and betray their secrets, he was immediately placed in the stocks until he almost perished from hunger and cold. [30] In this the myth of the Jesuits prefigured contemporary suspicions about Opus Dei, and the cilice, the curious studded garter members are required to wear for about an hour a day to mortify their flesh. And needless to say, like Opus Dei, they were also fanatically loyal to the Pope. Thus, to the anonymous author of the 1615 A True Relation of the Proceedings against John Ogilvie, in addition to their usual monastic vows they had a fourth: ‘to make the pope the lord of all the earth, emperors, kings and princes his dependents, to be removed, altered, changed, deposed and killed, when it pleaseth his holiness to give commission. [31]

As a result of this, Jesuits were perceived to be at the heart of plots against Elizabeth I, Charles I and Charles II of England, William of Orange, Henry III, Henry IV and Louis XIV of France, the American presidents William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, James A. Garfield, William McKinley and Abraham Lincoln. [32] They were responsible for the French Wars of Religion, the Gunpowder Plot and Great Fire of London, governing France through their puppets Cardinals Mazarin and Richelieu, and attempting to subvert decent British society through the creation of the Quakers. Their conspiracy was truly global. They were accused of Machiavellian political intrigue in Ethiopia and their model Indian colonies in Paraguay were seen as an attempt to create their own power-base within that country, a Jesuit state within a state. [33]

While it is easy to see why Protestants should fear the Jesuit order for their missionary activities and attempts to reconvert those peoples to Roman Catholicism, suspicion of the Order was also extremely common in Roman Catholic countries. They did have an enormous range of commercial activities – banking, mining, real estate, and involvement in the spice and silk trades, as well as vast and extremely lucrative agricultural estates in Mexico. [34] They also produced theoretical political tracts, such as that of Juan Mariana’s De rege et Regis institutione, which argued that ultimately a monarch’s power derived from the people, and which was duly burned by the Parlement of Paris as a threat to the French constitution in 1610. [35]

Rival Roman Catholic orders resented the Jesuit’s competition for students at the universities, as confessors to the great and powerful, and as missionaries in the conversion of the heathen. [36] Ordinary parish priests and bishops resented the Order’s intrusion into local parish and diocesan affairs and refusal to pay tithes and other ecclesiastical taxes. [37]

In the fraught political atmosphere of Elizabethan England, ordinary Roman Catholic priests who sought to maintain a nonconfrontational ministry bitterly resented the appearance of Jesuit missionaries and their aggressive campaigns to win back heretics for bringing secular priests, and “other more honest and single-hearted Catholics” into “a gulf of danger and discredit”. [38]

The Church within the various independent Roman Catholic nations resented the Jesuits as representing transmontane, papal intrusion into their specific ecclesiastical affairs, while Roman Catholic monarchs resented the papacy itself as a rival axis of power. [39] Thus, “whenever a national government grew tired of Roman behaviour … it was likely to voice its dislike of the Society of Jesus, a body with (notionally at least) a supranational identity who even went so far as to swear a special fourth vow of obedience to the pope.” [40] The result was a series of arrests and suppressions of the Order: Portugal in 1758, France 1764 and Spain in 1767 before the Order was finally dissolved. by papal decree completely in 1773. [41]

In contrast to American democracy and reason, Roman Catholicism was reviled as ‘a system of darkness and slavery, mental, bodily and spiritual’ completely antithetical to republican civic theories in legislation and political economy

Although the Order was reformed in 1814, the legacy of suspicion and dish ust remained. In addition to political attacks from governments from Spain, France and America, radical authors such Eugene Sue, in his Le Juif Errant, serialised in the French newspaper Le Constitutionnel in 1844-5, launched fresh attacks on the Jesuits. [42] Tellingly, one of the anti-Jesuit characters in the book is a German nationalist, dreaming the Enlightenment dream of a rational, liberating religion, purged of priestcraft and superstition. [43]

Thus, in addition to the previous accusations directed against the Society, the Jesuits were now viewed also as the agents of stifling theological irrationalism and reaction. This view was especially popular in America, where Roman Catholicism in general and the Jesuits in particular were widely resented because of concerns over immigration. In contrast to American democracy and reason, Roman Catholicism was reviled as ‘a system of darkness and slavery, mental, bodily and spiritual’ completely antithetical to ‘republican civic theories in legislation and political economy. [44] Dan Brown’s depiction of the Roman Catholic church, and Opus Dei in particular, are merely the latest permutation of this American perception of irrational and repressive Roman Catholicism.

Traditional fear of the Jesuits is only one of the historical factors behind the appearance of The Da Vinci Code and the various related works of religious pseudohistory. Equally important were the Victorian crisis of faith and the emergence of Theosophy. Although the Deists of the eighteenth century had argued for a Deus absconditus, an absent God who had created the world, which He had then left to run itself according to the laws of Newtonian mechanics, it was in the 19th century that such religious scepticism became acute. Late nineteenth-century radicals, such as ‘Scepticus Britannicus’ and Thomas Paine, followed William Godwin in viewing God and religion as repressive institutions, which would be removed by democracy and scientific progress. [45]

The Romantics retained this deep alienation from traditional Christianity, preferring instead a celebration of nature as leading to a feeling of transcendence. Keats’ Endymion, for example, articulated a Platonic notion of spiritual ascent to the divine through encountering natural ‘symbols of immensity’, which point to their platonic archetypes. Keats himself was bitterly hostile to the established church, arguing in his ‘To Percy Shelley, on the Degrading Notions of Deity’, that the Anglican church had created its idea of God from fear, vested interests and bigotry. [46]

In addition to these Romantic, radical sentiments the Enlightenment project of demythologising and producing a rational religion, as expounded in such 18th century works such as J. Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious (1696), continued with the publication of works such as Charles Hennell’s 1838 An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of Christianity. Hennell argued that there was nothing mysterious in Christ’s life. He was merely a religious teacher attempting to regain the throne of David. After His execution by the Romans, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, as a precautionary measure, removed his body from the tomb, which the early church mistook as the Resurrection.

While this view also suffers from logical inconsistencies and contradictions, it was very influential. The radical German writer, David Friedrich Strauss, had presented much the same image of Christ three years earlier in his Life of Jesus. Both Hennell and Strauss had a profound effect on leading intellectuals in Victorian society, such as George Eliot [47]

Continue to Part Two

References for Part One
  1. Book is All Wrong, Critics Say’, The Sun Herald, 12th May 2006, at httpa/www.sunheralbd.com/mld/thesunheraldlliving114560165/htrn? template contentlV.
  2. ‘Odessa (Organisation de SS Angehorige)’ in Taylor, J., and Shaw, Warren, A Dictionary of the Third Reich (London, Grafton 1987), p.265.
  3. Williams, R., ‘The Bible’, in Hazlett, I., ed., Early Christianity: Origins and Evolution to AD 600 (London, SPCK 1991), p. 83.
  4. Bray, G., Creeds, Councils and Christ (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press 1984), p. 44.
  5. Williams, ‘Bible’, p. 86; Bray, Creeds, p. 44.
  6. Hall, S.G.,’Ministry, Worship and Christian Life’, in Hazlitt, Early Christianity, pp. 106-7.
  7. Chichester, D., Christianity: A Global History (London, Penguin 2000), pp. 160-1; Hall, ‘ Ministry’, p. 107; ‘The Claims of Rome 341′, in Bettenson, H., ed., Documents of the Christian Church, (Oxford, Oxford University Press 1963, p. 79.
  8. Williams, ‘ Bible’, p. 85; Bray, Creeds, p. 45.
  9. Williams,’Bible’, p. 85.
  10. Bray, Creeds, p. 44.
  11. Eusebius, The History of the Church, G.A. Williams, trans., and A. Louth, ed., (London, Penguin 1989), pp. 113, 425.
  12. Wiles, M., ‘Orthodoxy and Heresy’ in Hazlett, Early Church, p, 202; Dillon, ‘Monotheism in the Gnostic Tradition’, in Athanassiadi, P., and Frede, M., Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity (Oxford, Clarendon Press 1999), p. 74.
  13. Elton, G.R., Reformation Europe 1517-1559 (London, Fontana 1963), p. 31.
  14. Erasmus, D. Praise of Folly, Radice, B., trans, and Levi, A.H.T., ed., (London, Penguin 1971), p. 163.
  15. Elton, Reformation, p. 33.
  16. ‘Apocrypha’, in Evans, L. H., Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (Cassell, London 1959), p.42
  17. Bray, Creeds, pp. 18-20.
  18. Bainton, R., Here I Stand by Martin Luther (Tying, Lion Publishing 1978), p. 81.
  19. Bainton, Luther, p. 333.
  20. Wright, B, The Jesuits: Missions, Myths and Histories (London, HarperCollins 2004), p. 134.
  21. Wright, Jesuits, p. 135. 22. Wright, Jesuits, p. 139. 23. Wright, Jesuits, p. 140. 24. Wright, Jesuits, p. 137.
  22. Wright, Jesuits, p. 133.
  23. Wright, Jesuits, pp. 128-31.
  24. Libellus Magicus, at Metareligion: http/Iwwwmetareligion.comlEsoterismlMamicklCeremonial-magick/libellus magicus.htm.
  25. Libellus Magicus, Metaretigion.
  26. Wright, Jesuits, p. 138.
  27. Wright, Jesuits, p. 138.
  28. Wright, Jesuits, p. 136.
  29. Wright, Jesuits, p. 135.
  30. Wright, Jesuits, p. 137.
  31. Wright, Jesuits, p. 148.
  32. Wright, Jesuits, pp. 148-9.
  33. Wright, Jesuits, pp. 151-2.
  34. Wright, Jesuits, p. 152.
  35. Wright, Jesuits, p. 152.
  36. Wright, Jesuits, p. 153, 201.
  37. Wright, Jesuits, p. 203.
  38. Wright, Jesuits, pp. 171, 175, 176, 179.
  39. Wright, Jesuits, p. 219
  40. Wright, Jesuits, p.22.
  41. Wright, Jesuits, p. 226.
  42. McGrath, Atheism, p. 114.
  43. McGrath, Atheism, p. 120.
  44. McGrath, Atheism, p. 129.