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Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees

Breaking the Code

Aired May 26, 2006 - 23:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, secret societies, hidden mysteries, the Holy Grail. "The Da Vinci Code" is a global sensation and a religious lightning rod.
ANNOUNCER: First, a controversial best-selling book, and now a movie.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Witness the biggest cover up in human history.


ANNOUNCER: Tonight, "The Da Vinci Code." Is it simply entertainment, or immaculate deception? We'll take you inside the secret societies, the Knights Templar, the Masons, and Opus Dei.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Opus Dei preaches goodness and peace and love and - - but really what they do is not ethical.


ANNOUNCER: Others have a different view. You decide if it's devout faith or brainwashing.

And what are the secrets of Da Vinci's great genius? We unravel the puzzle that goes back centuries. This is a special edition of ANDERSON COOPER 360: BREAKING THE CODE. Here's Anderson Cooper.

COOPER: So it turns out you can get a lot of attention out of the words what if. That's exactly what "The Da Vinci Code" has done, asking what if Jesus married and had a child? What if Mary Magdalene was chosen to lead the church? Millions have seen the movie. Tens of millions have read the book, a work of fiction using real people and places in history. Tonight, we're looking at the plot. We're breaking the code. We begin at the beginning.


COOPER (voice-over): First there was the book. Dan Brown's novel has sold more than 60 million copies, and now, the movie.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Demons, omens, codes, monks, Da Vinci.

COOPER: A film that cost more than $120 million to make and it's now breaking box office records.


COOPER: "The Da Vinci Code" centers on an elaborate and bloody conspiracy to hide the true origins of Christianity.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Witness the biggest cover-up in human history.

COOPER: Some Catholics consider the film, like the book, blasphemous.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm a follower of Jesus Christ, so therefore, it's a bunch of lies and I don't want to stand there or go there and see lies being portrayed.

COOPER: "The Da Vinci Code" is a thriller filled with secret societies. And critics say the movie distorts -- even makes up -- some of them. The group that takes the biggest bashing, the conservative Roman Catholic Opus Dei. In the movie, they are villains.

TERRI CARRON, OPUS DEI MEMBER: I think the biggest myth about Opus Dei is that it's some kind of religious organization, you know, involved a conspiracy to find some elusive Holy Grail. We're just people, lay Catholics, looking for God in our every day life.

COOPER: Whatever secrets Opus Dei does or doesn't keep, it's not the only Catholic group that's upset about "The Da Vinci Code."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It doesn't make sense to spend your money affirming something that lies about what you believe is the word of God.

COOPER: At least two countries and one state in India have banned "The Da Vinci Code." Church leaders around the world have also called for boycotts and even hunger strikes. All over a film the director calls purely fiction.

RON HOWARD, DIRECTOR, "THE DA VINCI CODE": This is supposed to be entertainment. It's not theology.

COOPER: Maybe not, but in the preface of his book, Dan Brown writes, quote, "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate."

Not all Catholics, of course, see danger in blurring fact and fiction.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The biggest lie is maybe to think that a romantic work can break a whole faith.

COOPER: Critics, however, often break movies and many have panned "The Da Vinci Code."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is a big disappointment. COOPER: But moviegoers don't seem to be listening. "The Da Vinci Code" code raked in around $224 million in worldwide ticket sales in its first weekend, the second highest global opening for any movie. It broke the record for international sales.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was a very objectively presented, and it was just a wonderful adventure story, really in the end.

COOPER: An adventure to some, an insult to others.

(on camera): Well, every good suspense novel or movie needs a heavy. And as you just heard in "The Da Vinci Code," it's Opus Dei.

CNN's Delia Gallagher got a rare look inside the Catholic group.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are in the middle of a war to protect a secret so powerful that if revealed, it would devastate the very foundations of mankind.

DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN FAITH AND VALUES CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): But a war being waged off screen pits Hollywood against Christianity, raising the question, how far should fiction intrude on fact?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Witness the biggest cover-up in human history.

GALLAGHER: At the center of the controversy is a real-life group called Opus Dei, unwillingly cast as the villains in Dan Brown's book and brought to life on film by an evil bishop and a killer monk who lurks in shadows and whips himself bloody.

But what is Opus Dei? Opus Dei describes itself as a Catholic organization whose mission is to enable people to serve God through work and everyday life. But in "The Da Vinci Code," Brown describes it as a deeply devout Catholic sect, a brainwashing cult and a secret society.

From the first page of the book, Brown sets the stage for his tale of conspiracy inside its $47 million headquarters on Lexington Avenue.

This is the actual building. It's 17 stories tall, with separate entrances for men and women. Inside, separate facilities divide male and female members called numeraries. They make a lifelong commitment to celibacy and to living in an Opus Dei residence. There are his and her chapels, dining rooms, classrooms and fitness centers.

TONA VARELA, OPUS DEI NUMERARY: This is the exercise room, also known as the torture chamber.

GALLAGHER (on-camera): The real torture chamber.


GALLAGHER (voice-over): Tona Varela has been a numerary for 25 years.

VARELA: In Opus Dei, we are about holiness. And holiness -- you need to be free to love God.

GALLAGHER (on-camera): Do you feel brainwashed? Do you feel like you belong to a cult?

VARELA: I hope I don't look brainwashed to you. And I am completely free. I am very happy and free.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): Not all members of Opus Dei are celibate. The majority of the roughly 3,000 American members are what's called super numeraries. They can marry, have children and live in their own home.

Terri Carron is one of them. A wife, mother of four and public relations consultant, Terri is one of several members the group has been providing to the media in recent months.

(On-camera): What is the biggest myth perpetrated by the book or the movie about Opus Dei?

TERRI CARRON, OPUS DEI SUPERNUMERARY: I think the biggest myth about Opus Dei is that it is some kind of religious organization, you know, involved the conspiracy to find some elusive Holy Grail, and the reality is much more down to earth. You know, we are just people, lay Catholics looking for God in our everyday life.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): For all the debate about the book and the movie, neither Dan Brown, nor the filmmakers are the first to portray Opus Dei in a negative light. Some former members have told stories of fear, entrapment and brainwashing on this Web site, The Opus Dei Awareness Network, which claims to describe the group's questionable practices in vivid detail.

COLLEEN, FMR. NUMERARY ASST.: Opus Dei is a cult. And, you know, I want people to know that a year ago I would have never said that.

GALLAGHER: Colleen says she was expected to practice strict rituals like corporal mortification, striking herself with a knotted whip called a discipline and wearing a spiked metal chain, the cilice, as a reminder of Christ's suffering.

COLLEEN: We believed that the more you mortified yourself, the more graces you would win for people.

GALLAGHER (on camera): The Albino monk in "The Da Vinci Code" wears a cilice so tightly, he makes himself bleed. This is an actual cilice worn by numeraries around their bare thighs for two hours a day. You can see for yourself just how sharp these spikes are. Depending on how tightly you tie it, it could be pretty painful. REV. MICHAEL BARRETT, OPUS DEI PRIEST: Corporal mortification is harmless to your health. It doesn't cause any physical damage whatsoever.

GALLAGHER: It doesn't make you bleed?

BARRETT: Not a bit.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): Reverend Michael Barrett insists that Opus Dei is not a cult and thinks that "The Da Vinci Code" Director Ron Howard should have left out any mention of Opus Dei in the movie.

(on camera): What would you say to moviegoers of "The Da Vinci Code?"

BARRETT: I'd say, to see the movie with your eyes open, not to just take things in as though everything presented is fact and true.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): Delia Gallagher, CNN, New York.


COOPER: Another voice now from inside Opus Dei, Cathy Hickey has been a member for nearly 34 years.

How long have you been in Opus Dei now?

CATHY HICKEY, OPUS DEI MEMBER: I have been probably about, I think it was about 1973 or 1974, about 34 years.

COOPER: Has your faith changed through being in it? Has it lessened, has it gotten deeper, has it morphed in some...

HICKEY: Oh, I think it's definitely gotten deeper. I think -- you know, when I first met Opus Dei, I lived a hectic life. I had six children, I had a 7th after I joined. And events were running me. I was always playing catch up. Once I started struggling to live the life, it built stops into my day and I would be able to prioritize things. And it just made me deal in a more fair way with children and thinking about things a little bit more and not just getting carried away.

COOPER: Obviously, what also gets a lot of attention is self- mortification or voluntary self-punishment that, you know -- I guess hitting yourself on the back or wearing the cilice around your leg. Is that something everyone does? Is that something you do? Can you describe the thought behind it?

HICKEY: I have seven children so I don't have to do it.

COOPER: You have enough punishment?

HICKEY: Actually it's something that Numeraries do. And I think there is a lot of misconception about it. For instance, the cilice, it's a little uncomfortable. Now, if you were driving in a car, it might be more uncomfortable but you don't wear it if you're driving in a car. Numeraries would wear it for maybe an hour or two a day. They are not sharp, pointy things. It's just rounded and you don't really tie it tightly. So it's a reminder of what Jesus Christ suffered for us.

And you know, all of these kinds of mortifications, they have been in the church since the earliest of times and probably in all religions. Mother Teresa wore the cilice, Pope John Paul, too. They are ways too of not getting soft. We live in such a materialistic, soft society, that if you kind of discipline your body a little bit, whether it's not eating so much, not lining, putting tools away, all the little things that most super numeraries do, you know, that everybody does really, but do them for a love of God, and as a service to others, that's really the type of mortification that St. Jose Maria asked of us.

COOPER: You really must live a very active life in your head. I mean, a very active spiritual life, a very active prayer life?

HICKEY: I guess other people would say I probably do. Now, I would like it to be a lot more active. By saying, you know, I'm trying to live the presence of God in my life each day, does that mean I'm thinking about God all day? Oh, I wish it were so. But of course, it isn't.

But the nice thing about Opus Dei is that it's really, it gives you the tools to fight and win. To fall and get up. To encourage you to keep trying. To keep trying to be a contemplative in the middle of the world which doesn't make you odd or different because you're doing all the same things that everybody does anyway. As a matter of fact, you have to do all of these things anyway. So you might as well make them an offering to God and carry on a conversation with Him while you're doing it.

COOPER: It's interesting because, I mean, what you're describing is sort of inserting the mystery of faith and the mystery that the Catholic Church embraces into your daily life?

HICKEY: That's exactly it. I mean, life has a lot of mystery in it. And it becomes exciting if you can take the realm that we don't see and materialize it. Not only making the material things spiritual, but spiritualizing the material.

COOPER: It was really fascinating, Cathy, and I appreciate you joining us. Thank you very much. I think it probably cleared up a lot of questions for a lot of people. Thank you, Cathy.

HICKEY: Thank you for having me, Anderson.

COOPER: With so many twists and turns in a mystery to be solved, "The Da Vinci Code" is a page turner and a best seller around the world.

Here's the raw data. As we mentioned earlier, "The Da Vinci Code" has sold more than 60 million copies. You may not know the book has been translated into at least 44 languages. By comparison to the Bible, which is the best-selling book of all time, has sold more than 2.5 billion copies since 1815 and has been translated into at least 2,233 languages and dialects.

Coming up, the man behind the mystery. Who really was Leonardo Da Vinci? We'll uncover the truth about the man and his paintings.

Plus, the so-called guardians of the Holy Grail.


ROBIN GRIFFITH-JONES, MASTER OF THE TEMPLE CHURCH: The code's reputation of being so mysterious and strange and sinister. They weren't at all. They weren't at all. They were a mixture between monk and soldier. Now that was pretty odd.


COOPER: The real story about the knights featured in the "The Da Vinci Code," the Knights Templar, when this special edition of 360 when "Breaking the Code" continues.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Secrets. I used to keep secrets. It's the Vinci design, to write the information on the papyrus scroll, which is then rolled around a thin glass vial of vinegar. If you force to it open, the vial breaks. Vinegar dissolves papyrus. And your secret is lost forever.

COOPER: A scene there from the blockbuster movie, "The Da Vinci Code," showing the codex used in the hunt for the Holy Grail. That grail, according to the movie and the book, has been guarded by an ancient and in many ways a mysterious group, known as the Knights Templar.

Da Vinci Author Dan Brown is not the first to write about this group of knights. For centuries they have been the subject of numerous stories and myths.

Tonight, CNN's Delia Gallagher finds out the truth.


GALLAGHER (voice-over): In "The Da Vinci Code," the trail to the Holy Grail ended here, in Scotland's Roslyn Chapel, built in the 15th century and connected, in Dan Brown's story at least, to the Knights Templar. The code may be fiction, but the Templars were and real.

GRIFFITH-JONES: The code's reputation of being so mysterious and strange and sinister, they weren't at all. They weren't at all. They were a mixture between monk and soldier. Now that was pretty odd -- and it would be pretty odd today, after all, monks pray for people and soldiers kill people. You don't put the two together.

GALLAGHER: The Templars were founded in the 12th century. Their original mission, to provide safe passage for pilgrims visiting the Holy Land in Jerusalem. They also became crusaders. And as stories of their successes spread throughout Europe, popes, potential pilgrims and Catholic kings helped fund their exploits. As the knights became wealthier, they took on a new role.

GRIFFITH-JONES: It became clear that they could look after their own resources, so before long they were looking after other people's as well. Kings and popes used them as treasures, as bankers, as credit agents.

GALLAGHER: They put much of their money back into the church, literally, building churches all over Europe. This was one of the first. The Temple Church in Central London, which played a pivotal part in "The Da Vinci Code's" main character's hunt for the Holy Grail. They received this clue -- In London lies a knight, a pope interred.

GRIFFITH-JONES: He remembers there is this collection of knights effigies here at the temple church and it's a perfectly reasonable thought.

GALLAGHER: There were nine knights buried in the temple church. Their remains were long ago removed, though their effigies are still here. The knights, as a group, well, they didn't fare so well. Their flare for finance eventually did them in. When a king in need of cash turned on the wealthy Templars.

Did they die out?

GRIFFITH-JONES: Well, that's putting it rather politely. They more than died out.

GALLAGHER: On Friday, the 13th of October, 1307, Templar houses were occupied by the cash poor king of France. Their money and possessions seized. They were imprisoned and most of them were eventually burned at the stake.

But that is not the end of the knight's tale. Meet the modern day Templars.

JOHN BARDEN, KNIGHTS TEMPLAR ARCHAEOLOGIST: There is no proof that the order existed after 1312. It was reformed in 1705 in France, and the order today carries on from then.

GALLAGHER: Unlike the ancient order, modern day Templars have a different mission.

BARDEN: Mainly, we recognize the ideals of our forbearers. We try to be, as best as we can, good Christian people. In that respect, we meet, we socialize and we raise money for charity.

GALLAGHER: Today's Templars say there is no mystery in becoming a member. The group is open to any man or woman who says they are Christian, free to join, and oddly enough, free of hidden disease -- a reference to medieval times when leprosy was rampant.

But there is one mystery, one that plays the biggest part in "The Da Vinci Code." That the master of the temple church, who would have been in ancient times the leader of the Knights Templar, can put to rest right now. The Knight's Templar have long been rumored to be the guardians of the elusive Holy Grail. But was there ever really a Holy Grail to guard?

GRIFFITH-JONES: No, I'm afraid that one is a medieval fiction. It's a wonderful story, the Holy Grail.

The story of the grail, written by Chretien de Troyes at the end of the 12th century. This is where the grail is invented.

GALLAGHER: And some authors claim that the grail is not a chalice, but a person -- Mary Magdalene.

GRIFFITH-JONES: No, I'm afraid it's fantasy.

GALLAGHER (on camera): There are no direct descendants of the Knight's Templar. Their financial empire, seized and dispersed long ago. The Holy Grail -- just a myth. But they have left their mark in the form of churches like this one in Bristol, built in the 12th century, bombed during World War II, but still standing, a testament to a time long ago, but one which continues to fascinate today.

(voice-over): Delia Gallagher, CNN, London.


COOPER: You just heard from Robin Griffith-Jones, master of the Temple Church in London. Earlier I spoke with him and got some more insights into the Knights Templar.

There are some Catholics who say, look, this should be boycotted, you should never read this. Others will say, look, you know, this starts a conversation, and that's not a bad thing.

GRIFFITH-JONES: I am all in favor of the conversation. I think that there are questions that people have been harboring for years. Actually not least of Jesus and marriage and sex. Jesus being God. What does all this mean? People have asked these questions for years, but they've thought that they might feel a bit stupid or blasphemous or rude or offensive if they really add to them. I'm pleased they are.

COOPER: You're actually a character in the book, the master of the temple church.

GRIFFITH-JONES: I'm afraid so.

COOPER: Yes, you're described as scowling and foul tempered. Wow.


I do certainly worry that Dan Brown might have come around one day and asked what I thought was a really stupid question, and I might have been slightly brisk.

COOPER: What is the Knights Templar?

GRIFFITH-JONES: There was a Knights Templar. Well, they were founded in the 12th century to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land. A really strange hybrid of both monks and soldiers. They prayed for people and killed them. This was really strange then, as it would be now.

They did become hugely important. Your last excerpt showed our own temple church in London, built by the Templars at the height of their wealth and their power, with the effigies of knights spirita (ph). They were an enormous power in Europe.

COOPER: There's also -- I mean, there are so many shadowy groups in this book. The Priory of Sion, was it real?

GRIFFITH-JONES: It was. In the 12th century there really was some Augustinian canons, who protected a holy site in Jerusalem, and they were called the Abbey of our Lady of Mount Zion and of Pentecost. They disappeared centuries ago. The modern Priory of Sion, it's a hoax. It's a pure hoax.

COOPER: OK. Also, the Dan Brown contends in "The Da Vinci Code," that the painting of the last supper is proof that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus. You've studied the painting. Does it show Mary Magdalene at the right...

GRIFFITH-JONES: I'm afraid it doesn't. It shows the beloved disciple, a young man, always shown beardless, almost always shown leaning on the breast of Jesus. But in Leonardo's painting, he's raised himself from the breast of Jesus to hear the question of Simon Peter. All of this is absolutely biblical, straight out of the Gospel of John, has absolutely nothing to do with Mary Magdalene.

COOPER: Is there any evidence that they were married?


COOPER: No? Or they had children?



GRIFFITH-JONES: I'm afraid not. The real story, for what it's worth, the real story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, which Dan Brown never even mentions, but the core foundational story out of which all these later stories have emerged is the story that we hear in church on Easter morning, the Easter story in John's gospel when Mary Magdalene and Jesus meet on Easter day. It's a terrifically romantic, sensuous story, but John has told it like that for his own reasons. It is not about a married couple meeting in a garden.

COOPER: Was there ever such a thing as the Holy Grail?

GRIFFITH-JONES: Invented in the 12th century. It was.

COOPER: Man, what an invention that was.

GRIFFITH-JONES: Yes, it was, by a man who was the best seller of the time. He wrote the equivalent to "The Da Vinci Code," in the 12th century, and it swept Europe. It didn't quite sell 60 million copies, but it was a very, very popular book.

COOPER: The book, "The Da Vinci Code and the Secrets of the Temple." Thanks for coming.


COOPER: Coming up, another secret society, behind the mystery of the Masons. We'll take you inside the century's old group.

And he is suing a priest for fraud, for preaching the gospel. Met a man who says the entire Christian religion is a fraud and he wants to prove it in court, when our special edition of 360, "Breaking the Code" continues.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Truvian man, it's one of Leonardo Da Vinci's most famous sketches.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And the star on his skin?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And it's meaning?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pinnacle is a pagan religious icon.


COOPER: Another scene from "The Da Vinci Code." Secret societies play a big role in the movie and we've already told you about two of them -- Opus Dei and the Knights Templar.

Another group are the Masons. Now, many of us know the name, but not really the mystery behind what exactly they do.

Here again, is Delia Gallagher.


GALLAGHER (voice-over): The Grand Masonic Lodge in New York City and a once secret ceremony, the installation of a new grand master. It is steeped in tradition, ritual and history.

NEAL BURDICK, GRAND MASTER: We try to see ourselves back for the stone Masons that worked in a guild system, under which there were several levels of learning and experience that the men were imbued with.

GALLAGHER: Masons, also known as Free Masons, go back centuries to the master craftsmen who carved the stone of the churches in buildings of Europe.

But the first Grand Lodge was organized in England in the 18th century. It is a fraternity, no women allowed. And the men who are members share at least one common characteristic, a belief in a higher power.

JOHN HAMILL, UNITED GRAND LODGE OF ENGLAND: The prime qualification for admission is to have a belief in a supreme being, a belief in God. Whether you're a Christian or whatever denomination, a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, a Sikh, it doesn't matter. It's irrelevant, provided you have a belief in a supreme being, in God.

GALLAGHER: It takes years for a member to learn all of the society's secrets. But Lifelong Member John Hamill helped unravel some of the Masonic mysteries for us, starting with the right of initiation.

A new member must first prove that he is a man by rolling up a pant leg and exposing his left breast, and that he comes into the group free of worldly possessions.

HAMILL: He comes in blindfold, which is slightly dramatic. It's done rather like the medieval mystery plays. The first degree is he has a noose around his neck. Which, again, is part of the symbolism. It's a reminder to him of the seriousness of the promises that he's making.

GALLAGHER: Though some ceremonies and some symbols can vary from lodge to lodge, all new Masons receive an apron, white lambskin first, but as they rise through the ranks, the aprons become more ornate, covered with regalia. And then more of the mysteries are revealed.

HAMILL: He is given the secrets, which everybody has great fun about, the passwords and the handshakes.

GALLAGHER: The passwords, handshakes and codes are all designed to show other Masons from other lodges that you are a brother. But keeping them secret proves something more.

HAMILL: We regard that as a basic test of a person's trustworthiness. If they can't keep a simple promise to preserve those, then what sort of trust can we put in them?

GALLAGHER: Even the surroundings in a Masonic Lodge are ripe with symbolism, all modeled after the temple of King Solomon. Every Masonic room is designed in exactly the same way. You enter from the west. The grand master is seated at the east. There are two columns in one corner, and somewhere in every room, there is a "G". Some say it represents geometry. Others say it represents God.

Despite their belief in a supreme being, some religions, like Catholicism, discourage their members from becoming Masons.

Despite the secrecy or maybe because of it, the Masons have attracted rich and powerful members. Mozart was a Mason. His opera, "The Magic Flute," was filled with Masonic imagery.

Many of America's founding fathers were Masons, including Benjamin Franklin. Nine signers of the Declaration of Independence were Masons, as were 14 presidents. Among them, George Washington.

In fact, the Bible used at his inauguration is the property of the Masons. And some modern presidents have been sworn in on it.

(on camera): Just like in the United States, so, too in Britain, many influential members of society have been Masons. In fact, their current grand master is a member of the royal family, the Duke of Kent.

(voice-over): Many of the men who joined the Masons say they do it in part for the camaraderie, but also for the chance to serve their communities and be with others who share their high standards and old- fashioned morality. But what they take away can be just as important.

HAMILL: It's a journey of self-knowledge, self-discovery. In a rather trite way. Some Free Masons say, Free Masonry takes a good man and makes him better. I think it's rather deeper than that as you progress through about yourself and as you start to study the ritual and the meaning behind the ritual. For a lot of people, it gives them confidence.

GALLAGHER: Masons say their mission today is to attract new, young members. And being featured in the book and film, "The Da Vinci Code," hasn't hurt.

HAMILL: I think that's got a lot of people to look more at these societies. I think it's made an impact in that way.

GALLAGHER: And, they say, they are happy to lift the veil, at least a little, and uncover some of the mysteries so that modern Masons will be known not for their funny handshakes, but for their good works.

Delia Gallagher, CNN, London.


COOPER: At the Vatican not everyone is against "The Da Vinci Code." Coming up, the mixed reviews at the headquarters for the Catholic Church.

Plus, from "The Da Vinci Code" to Da Vinci, himself, we'll unlock the puzzle behind his genius, when this special edition of 360, "Breaking the Code" continues.


COOPER: Despite the box office records, the reviews for "The Da Vinci Code" have been mixed. Some critics have praised it, others panned it. But perhaps the sharpest words about the book and the film have come from the Catholic Church. It's not giving the code its blessing and here is why.

CNN's Alessio Vinci -- no relation -- reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ALESSIO VINCI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It would take more than a film to shake the foundations of the Catholic Church.


VINCI: But "The Da Vinci Code," with its mix of fiction, fact, and faith, has caused at least a few small tremors. One senior church official is calling on Catholics to boycott the movie. Another is harshly critical.

CARDINAL GEORGE PELL, ARCHBISHOP OF SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA: I think "The Da Vinci Code" is a load of nonsense.


VINCI: The reason? "The Da Vinci Code's" claim that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were lovers, and that a powerful organization linked to the church conspired to commit murder to keep it a secret.

While some of the Vatican believe the story is blasphemous, the pope has said nothing on the matter.

VINCI (on camera): There isn't a plot inside the Vatican to prepare a counterplot to what Dan Brown is saying?

FATHER JOSEPH DI NOIA, VATICAN OFFICIAL: No. I would say that people are talking about it casually and concerned about it, but there is no concerted effort to address the problem of "The Da Vinci Code," no. There's just a sense many people who have read it are, as I am, mystified by the popularity of it.

VINCI (voice-over): Vatican officials fear the success of "The Da Vinci Code" will blur the line between fact and fiction.

DI NOIA: It has to do with the harm that it does to people's faith, not the harm that it does to the public image. You know, it's not a question of image or spin. It's something much more important, you know.

VINCI: The problem with the movie, Vatican officials say, is the claim that the story is based on historical fact.

MONSIGNOR ROBERT SARNO, VATICAN OFFICIAL: I didn't see it as an attack on the church. I just think that it's been given a lot more truth value and faith value than it has. I just read it as a novel, as an entertaining novel.

VINCI: However, some church officials here took issue with this particular poster hanging on a church that is being renovated.

(on camera): Several local clergymen expressed outrage at what they stated blatant provocation, and as a sign of how much power the Vatican can at times wield in this country, local church officials managed to convince Italian authorities who actually own this particular church, to cover it up.

(voice-over): The Vatican's dilemma is evident among the thousands of pilgrims in St. Peter's Square.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It made me think a lot. I just wonder how much is fiction, how much is real, and I bought into a lot of it. I really want to investigate it further.

VINCI: Vatican officials are likely to remain low key. They know that controversy generates publicity. But a few officials admit privately that they do intend to see "The Da Vinci Code."

Alessio Vinci, CNN, Rome.


COOPER: Well, his lawyers claim a man's battle against the Catholic Church is more intense than "The Da Vinci Code." He essentially accuses the church of fraud and says Jesus never existed and wants to prove it in court.

Plus, Leonardo Da Vinci didn't need a code to leave his mark. We'll look at the greatest hits of one of history's finest minds, when this special edition of 360, "Breaking the Code" continues.


COOPER: Well, controversy sells. Worldwide, "The Da Vinci Code" enjoyed the second best movie opening in history. And the book has sold more than 60 million copies.

Now one man is creating another kind of controversy. He's suing a priest because he says Jesus Christ never really existed, and he's found a court which is now considering taking his case.

Here's CNN's Delia Gallagher.


GALLAGHER (voice-over): This ordinary looking man is on a potentially explosive mission. Luigi Cascioli says he intends to bring down the Catholic Church.

LUIGI CASCIOLI, SUING THE CATHOLIC CHURCH (through translator): They are con men. They take advantage of the ignorance of popular belief. This is a con, a real con.

GALLAGHER: The con, according to Cascioli, is the Catholic Church's claim that a man named Jesus Christ ever existed.

He even wrote and self-published a book supporting his theory.

He says all you have to do is read the gospels to know that Christ is a character, a fantasy, a complete fabrication, composed from pagan myths.

If his claim sounds amazing, then this may surprise you even more. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has agreed to consider hearing his case. His lawyer says it's a real-life case that rivals "The Da Vinci Code."

GIOVANNI DI STEFANO, LUIGI CASCIOLI'S ATTORNEY: There is an arguable case that he may be right. It is arguable. Now, that alone, in my view, makes it far more explosive, far more interesting than "The Da Vinci Code."

GALLAGHER: Cascioli first filed his lawsuit in an Italian court in 2002. He sued a local priest, Father Enrico Riggi (ph), in his hometown of Vitiribo (ph), Italy about 55 miles north of Rome after the priest wrote about the life of Jesus in a church bulletin.

He says he chose to sue Father Riggi because he couldn't sue the Pope who is protected from litigation by his status as a head of state.

But according to Cascioli's lawyer, prosecutors in this decidedly Catholic country refused to put the case forward.

DI STEFANO: The case stopped unusually at the investigative stage. The public prosecutor said there's no evidence here to take this further. And therefore, I will archive it. I will now stop the process, and you can go no further.

GALLAGHER: Cascioli wants the court to consider criminal charges based on two violations of the Italian Penal Code, impersonating someone in a way that causes damage to others, and the abuse of the public's faith.

If the European court decides to hear the case, it could eventually force the Vatican to present proof that the man around whom the Catholic religion is built ever lived.

And some Catholic scholars say that won't be hard to do. All you have to do is look at the historical record.

FATHER GERALD O'COLLINS, GREGORIAN UNIVERSITY: You go to Josephus, you go to Tasibus (ph), you go to Paul. You know, we've got these letters that he writes a fair bit about Jesus. The House of David, died by crucifixion. He tells us about the last supper Jesus celebrated. So, we go to the historical evidence. And historical evidence, there are a different criteria for judgment. You can't run history through a laboratory test. We can do that in physics and so forth. But you can have historic certainties.

GALLAGHER (on camera): The Catholic Church says there's ample historical evidence for the existence of Jesus. In the writings of the gospel and in Roman and Jewish histories.

Mr. Cascioli disputes even those sources. He says that they're not recording historical fact, but pushing forward their own agendas.

And both sides think that their interpretation is the correct one.

Now, even if a judge does get to decide this case, for many Christians, it's not just about evidence, it's also about faith.

O'COLLINS: Faith goes beyond the evidence. Faith's not a leap in the dark. Faith is a stroll in the twilight, if you like. If there's evidence, there's good reasons, and there's also a trust.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): Mr. Cascioli's lawyer says that trust won't mean much if his client is vindicated in a courtroom.

DI STEFANO: If he is right that Jesus Christ was not Jesus Christ, the repercussions for the Catholic Church and for Christianity are enormous. It is a theological domino effect.

GALLAGHER: But theologians say you only have to look to Christ's tens of millions of faithful followers to know Cascioli's argument is flawed.

O'COLLINS: You're faced with something that's very puzzling, Christians mixing together a couple of fables. Whoosh, there's this enormous movement. It doesn't make any sense. The cause doesn't correspond to the effect.

GALLAGHER: Delia Gallagher, CNN, Rome.


COOPER: Well, of course, even Christians come down on different sides of this legal battle.

Jason Berry is the author of several books, including "Vows of Silence." He's a practicing Catholic and has written extensively about the Catholic Church.

And Robert Price is a professor of theology and scriptural studies at the Johnnie Coleman Theological Seminary in Selma, North Carolina.

We spoke earlier.


COOPER: Gentlemen, thanks for being with us.

Jason, does this case deserve to ever see a courtroom?

JASON BERRY, AUTHOR OF BOOKS ON CATHOLIC CHURCH: No, I don't think so. It sounds preposterous to me, quite frankly. The guy is a self-published author. He could not get a hearing in an Italian court. No prosecutor would take the case.

And so he's going to Strasbourg, where I assume the European Union has some sort of court. And although his lawyer, you know, made a very clever case for the explosiveness of this, comparing it to a movie, "The Da Vinci Code," it sounds a little bit like a crackpot attempt at publicity to me.

COOPER: Robert, you identify as a Christian. You don't believe that Christ ever really lived. Why?

PROF. ROBERT PRICE, JOHNNIE COLEMAN THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY: Well, he might have. It's impossible to know one way or the other, but I think from the little I hear of this man's case, I agree with most of it in that the gospel story of Jesus does agree in all major respects with the stories of mythic gods who are at the heart of other ancient religions, like Syrus, Mythrus, Adonis, and so forth. Those religions flourished for a long time without any historical founder.

And Jesus seems very similar. I mean, you'd have to go into a time machine and go into the past to find out for sure. But I would agree with him insofar as saying the burden of proof is on the one who would affirm a historical Jesus.

COOPER: Jason, it really does -- it boils down to a matter of belief.

BERRY: Look, faith is a mystery. And people who embrace Christianity do so, knowing that the Bible does not come with a set of legal briefs behind it. The gospels are messages of hope and salvation, and we turn to them because they touch that sense of mystery and wonder in our lives.

COOPER: If it ever did get to court, would the Vatican -- I mean, be advised to actually try to present evidence, or would the argument be centered really more around faith and belief?

BERRY: How do you present a case which is designed to argue that something that cannot be proved is provable? People believe because the body of literature that has come down to us across time touches us and makes sense and is imminently realistic?

But to say whether one can go back and get the footnotes on 1st Corinthians by St. Paul, I think is a bit of a stretch.

COOPER: And Robert, it really is an embracing of the mysteries in life. I mean, the Catholic Church, you know, acknowledges the mystery of faith and the mystery of belief. That's not something that, in a courtroom, you know, can be proved either way.

PRICE: Well, I think that line is important to draw between the transformative, inspiring character of the gospel material which I certainly experience and the issue of historically what actually happened.

My only contention is that you can't make the one do service for the other. The profound meaning that Christ in the New Testament have for me does not, however, allow me to say what probably happened in the past.

And so that's something that ought not to be confused. I would just make one slight note of dissent from what Jason says in that the only good thing about this otherwise preposterous case is it would be very good if it got these neglected issues more widely discussed.

COOPER: Right. We'll see what the court decides to do, if anything.

Jason Berry, Robert Price, appreciate you joining us. Thanks. Interesting discussion.

BERRY: Thank you.

PRICE: Thank you.


COOPER: Well, there is no debate over one man from "The Da Vinci Code" -- Leonardo Da Vinci, who changed the world forever in ways you probably don't even realize. That's coming up.


ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Hi everyone. I'm Erica Hill, from "HEADLINE NEWS." We'll have more of our 360 special "Breaking the Code" just ahead.

First, though, a look at some of the stories we're following for you tonight. And we begin with a disturbing report.

Military officials say a criminal investigation has uncovered evidence linking a group of U.S. Marines for the murder of about two dozen Iraqi civilians, including women and children. Investigators say there may also be signs of a cover-up. The incident happened last November in Haditha.

Some terrifying moments on Capitol Hill today. After reports of gunfire, Capitol Hill police locked down the Rayburn House Office Building, searching room to room for the source of the gunshots. The building was actually shut for hours, reopening in the afternoon after it was determined the gunfire was actually likely the sound from an air hammer being used by an elevator mechanic.

And dangerous storms sweeping across the middle of the country today. A tornado apparently touched down in southern Indiana. Heavy flooding hit Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi. At least six people were washed away by the flood.

That's a look at some of the stories we're following. I'm Erica Hill, from "HEADLINE NEWS." The 360 special "Breaking the Code" returns in a moment.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The great fresco by Leonardo Da Vinci.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My dear, if you would close your eyes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Save us the (inaudible) tricks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You asked for my help, if I recall.

COOPER: And the last supper was, of course, just one of the treasures Leonardo Da Vinci gave the world. He was a master, it seems, at just about everything. In time the controversy over the code may fade. Da Vinci, however, will not.

CNN's Tom Foreman reports.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The meteoric rise of "The Da Vinci Code" began with the dropping of a name. A name that for all the world means genius. The name Da Vinci in truth means from Vinci, a small town outside Florence, Italy, where Leonardo was born to an unwed mother nearly 600 years ago.

As a child he displayed such artistic talent, he was apprentice to a leading craftsman. And by his early 20s, he was creating masterful works of realism -- drawings, sculptures and paintings. He devised artistic techniques that are still used to this very day, and created, of course, the most famous portrait of all time.

But art was only a part of his incredible range of skills. Leonardo was a scientist, too. At a time when most people could not read and knew little of the world, he was exploring the universe with remarkable perception. From human anatomy to geology to botany to zoology and more, his unflinching detailed descriptions and drawings of the natural world heralded a new, methodical approach to exploring and explaining the very origins of life.

And then there was Da Vinci, the inventor. This bridge in Norway was constructed only a few years ago from one of Leonardo's designs. And there were so, so many. Designs for flying machines, palaces, tanks, a robot, even what might be called a crude computer.

"The Da Vinci Code" is a tale of mystery. But this fiction can never rival the puzzle of Da Vinci's actual life. How could one man in less than 70 years, change the world forever?

Tom Foreman, CNN, Washington.


COOPER: We'll have more "Breaking the Code" a special edition of 360 in a moment. Stay with us.


COOPER: Thanks very much for watching this special edition of 360, "Breaking the Code."

I'm Anderson Cooper.