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Angels and Demons and Death Threats - Oh My!

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I was late submitting this blog, in defense of Ron Howard and Angels and Demons, because of a death threat.

A friend of mine is fond of asking, every time this happens, "What the hell? Why do people want to kill you? It's not like you're Salman Rushdie or something."

Well no, I'm not. But what I am is the author of two-bestselling works of fiction, books which deal with controversial religious themes and are distributed in about fifty languages worldwide. My work is most often compared to Dan Brown's, and I am happily sharing front-of-the-store book displays all over America at the moment with his Angels and Demons. But there is a mixed blessing with this kind of national exposure and association. Like Dan Brown and Ron Howard, I have been accused of taking an "anti-Catholic" position in my art. And the majority of the threats I receive reference this alleged anti-Catholic sentiment.

When I originally set out to write in defense of Ron Howard, who is under attack from William Donohue and his reactionary Catholic League, the tone of my piece was going to be very different. I had planned on a semi-humorous, upbeat, "Welcome to the club, Ron!" kind of article. All of us who dare to point to the bloodier aspects of Church history, including the holocausts of the Inquisition and Crusades, get slapped with the scarlet "anti-Catholic" label. It's the Crucible witch hunt mentality, Abigail Williams shouting: "Goody McGowan is a witch! I saw Ron Howard dancing with the devil in Dan Brown's garden!" It's to be expected, and in the past I have also believed that it was to be laughed at. But the events of this week have changed that. There is nothing humorous about violence in the name of religion, whether it is threatened or actualized. Neither is there anything upbeat about religious intolerance -- on either side of the question.

I have grown sadly used to the periodic threats. They have been called in to radio stations and bookstores, and delivered via post and email, since the release of my first controversial book in 2006. While the threats are always disturbing, most of them turn out to be groundless. I received one that coincided with the release date of my latest novel, The Book of Love, which contained a pernicious virus that ate through my computer's firewalls. So while it killed some of my data, it didn't kill me. This week was different, containing as it did events sinister enough to make me believe that my life was seriously at risk. Serious enough that I am going to be in hiding for another few weeks. Maybe longer.

Let me be clear here: I am not blaming the Vatican for the death threats and attacks that I have endured over my work. What I am blaming is a misplaced notion of anti-Catholic bias, which has fueled these threats. I am reasonably sure that most of the intimidation does not come from people who have even read my books, but rather from those who have been told they are objectionable by some religious authority. This is similar to what Ron Howard has encountered: he is on the receiving end of the Catholic League's lacerating criticism, and yet his critics have not viewed the film they are condemning. I see little difference between this, here in the "progressive" 21st century, and the Inquisition, where one only had to be accused of any kind of anti-Church sentiment to meet with aggressive persecution.

We live in a nation where freedom of both speech and religion are cherished rights. We should therefore have the opportunity to openly discuss the challenges we face as a result of religious intolerance in the past, present and future -- without the threat of violence. During the last eight years in American history, I was openly critical of the Iraq War and just about every action taken by the Bush Administration. Does that make me anti-American? Or does that make me a concerned American? The same argument applies to the Catholic Church. Am I anti-Catholic because I choose to write about the blood-soaked injustices of history that were perpetrated under papal dictates? Let's keep in mind that this is really not the Church as a spiritual institution that we are talking about here. This is the Church as a super power. As a force of economic and political might that has dominated a majority of the history of Western Civilization.

Yet there is one major flaw in this comparison. Those of us who were critical of the Bush administration had democratic recourse. We campaigned for Barack Obama, we marched and chanted for change -- and we were victorious. There is no such recourse for Catholics who disagree with the hard line positions or with the indefensible cover-ups of the Church, both in this century and in ages past. Catholics cannot vote out Pope Benedict XVI, and they cannot demand an explanation into the historical genocides committed with Church authority. But this doesn't mean that they don't have the right to read, learn and discuss all of the issues which have shaped their chosen religion. And they deserve to do so without being barraged by propaganda from the likes of self-appointed watch dogs like William Donohue.

Ron Howard points out that Mr. Donohue's booklet condemning Angels and Demons accuses him of lying because that movie's trailer says the Catholic Church "ordered a brutal massacre to silence the Illuminati centuries ago." This is a neat trick by Donohue, a sleight of hand by a man who is fully aware as he makes this point that the Illuminati referenced here is a fictional creation of Dan Brown. If you are distracted enough by Donahue's histrionics as he shouts down the obvious fiction element, perhaps you won't realize that the rest of the statement is true. The Catholic Church did, in fact, order a series of brutal massacres throughout the Middle Ages which ended hundreds of thousands -- arguably millions -- of lives through torture and otherwise horrific and violent means. The rest is semantics.

The great personal tragedy for me and my family in all of this is that the manufactured, anti-Catholic label which has caused me to endure acts of violence could not be further from my personal truth. I am married to a practicing Irish-Catholic, our son attends a Catholic school, and just over two weeks ago on Good Friday I spent three hours on my knees at the tre hore service in an historic Catholic Church near my home in Southern California. I attend all holy day services here with my family, in the same Catholic edifice where I was taught the Lord's Prayer at three years old. I have contributed to this church's restoration fund and a number of other "Catholic" projects in my community.

So now that we have established that I am not anti-Catholic, let's move on to establish what it is that I am. I am anti-genocide. I am anti-pedophilia. I am anti-AIDS. I am anti-intolerance. I am anti anything that restricts the rights of women. And I am anti cover-up. Therefore by default I am anti many of the political positions that the Catholic Church has taken over the last two thousand years. The actions of the Catholic Church have contributed to these issues that plague our planet and we, the Catholics and non-Catholics among us, have an obligation to discuss all of these subjects openly. I would like to think that we also have the right to do so without the risk of death.

Because most of all, I am anti-silence. Particularly when I believe that injustice has been allowed to occur without any kind of accountability -- or even proper discourse amongst concerned citizens.