Genoa Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone - until recently the number two man in the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's office on doctrinal orthodoxy - told Vatican Radio Tuesday that the runaway success of the Dan Brown novel is proof of "anti-Catholic" prejudice.
Allegations in the novel that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and has descendants have outraged many Christians and have been dismissed by historians and theologians.
"The distribution strategy has been absolutely exceptional marketing, even at Catholic bookstores - and I've already complained about the Catholic bookshops which, for profit motives, have stacks of this book," the cardinal said.
"And then there's that strategy of persuasion - that one isn't an adult Christian if you don't read this book. Thus my appeal is: don't read and don't buy" the book.
Asked about commentary that the book's success is "only further proof of the fact that anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice," the cardinal exclaimed: "It's the truth."
"There's a great anti-Catholic prejudice," Bertone said. "I ask myself if a similar book was written, full of lies about Buddha, Mohammed, or, even, for example, if a novel came out which manipulated all the history of the Holocaust or of the Shoah, what would have happened?"
Books mixing literature or pop culture with religious themes - no matter what the religion - often do spark controversy. In 1988, Salmon Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" outraged fundamentalist Muslims, prompting Iran's Ayatollah Khomeni to brand the book a blasphemy and condemn Rushdie to death.
Fortunately for, he wasn't in Iran, and managed to stay alive despite a bounty put on his head by some of the Ayatollah's followers which forced him into hiding. The fatwa - the order for Rushdie's death - was finally lifted in 1998.
More recently, theseries of Christian fundamentalist novels - a mixture of Biblical themes and end-of-the-world scenarios - has sparked both brisk sales and debate.
"The Da Vinci Code" was published two years ago this month and is available in 44 languages. Booksellers expect the novel to remain a best seller well into this year.
And that likely won't be the end of it.
Oscar-winning director Ron Howard is working now on a film version of the book. The movie, tentatively planned to hit the theaters in May 2006, stars Tom Hanks, Jean Reno and Audrey Tatou.