ABC wades into some tricky religious territory with special

Sunday, November 2, 2003

NEW YORK -- ABC News correspondent Elizabeth Vargas concedes her network is stepping into a theological minefield with its one-hour exploration of whether Jesus Christ had a wife.

The ABC News special, "Jesus, Mary and DaVinci," is scheduled to air at 7 p.m. Monday.

"You can't talk about this subject without intriguing people or offending people," Vargas said. "We're trying to do it as respectfully as we can."

ABC screened the special for some reporters and religious leaders last week. The program is based on the best-selling novel, "The DaVinci Code" by Dan Brown, which claims to be partly grounded on historical fact.

The book asserts that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' wife -- not a prostitute, as in some teachings -- and that she fled Jerusalem with his child following his crucifixion.

The story was kept alive for centuries by a secret society that included the painter Leonardo DaVinci, who supposedly inserted clues about it in his art, the book claimed.

The ABC special outlines the theories and speaks to several theologians who either discount the story or assert that it is possible.

The show unravels like a mystery perpetuated by second-hand gossip. Vargas said ABC found no proof that Jesus had a wife, but couldn't completely discount it, either.

Vargas, who was raised a Roman Catholic, said her own parents said to her, "Oh, my goodness, what are you doing?" when they found out she was working on the story.

It drew some immediate criticism, particularly from a representative of the Catholic League, who said ABC News relied too heavily on the opinion of the Rev. Richard McBrien of Notre Dame, who believes Mary Magdalene's importance has been historically understated and that it's possible she was his wife.

"I think it was not sufficiently balanced," said Joseph DeFeo, policy analyst for the Catholic League. "The majority of the people who spoke believed in either the plausibility or the outright truth of Dan Brown's claims. The facts themselves scream out that this is a crackpot theory."

The show even drew criticism from Nikki Stephanopoulos, mother of ABC News correspondent George and the communications director for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. She said the special might offend people who believe that women have a more prominent role in the church.

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