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ABC wades into tricky religious territory with special on Jesus Christ

Associated Press, USA
Oct. 30, 2003
David Bauder, AP Television Writer • Friday October 31, 2003

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.

ABC’s Theology
ABC’s previous effort at theology fell woefully short of any standards – theological or journalistic:
Answering The Search for JesusAn ABC special hosted by Peter Jennings

The ABC News special, “Jesus, Mary and DaVinci,” is scheduled to air Monday at 8 p.m. ET.

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

ABC screened the special for some reporters and religious leaders on Thursday. The program is based on the best-selling novel, “The Da Vinci Code,” 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 secondhand 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.

She said she was never aware of the power struggles and political intrigue that went into how her faith is taught today.

“For me, it’s made religion more real and, ironically, much more interesting — which is what we’re hoping to do for our viewers,” she said.

It drew some immediate criticism, particularly from a representative of the Catholic League, who said ABC News relied too heavily on the opinion of Father 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 (book author) 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 the special might offend people who believe that women have a more prominent role in the church.

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