A top Catholic cardinal has blasted “The Da Vinci Code” as a “gross and absurd” distortion of history and said Catholic bookstores should take the bestseller off their shelves because it is full of “cheap lies.”

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, in an interview with the Milan newspaper Il Giornale, became the highest ranking Italian Churchman to speak out against the book, an international blockbuster that has sold millions of copies.

“(It) aims to discredit the Church and its history through gross and absurd manipulations,” Bertone, the archbishop of the northern Italian city of Genoa and a close friend of Pope John Paul (news – web sites) told the paper in its Monday edition.

“This seems like a throwback to the old anti-clerical pamphlets of the 1800s,” he said.

The central claim of the book, written by American Dan Brown, is that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had children. The Bible says Jesus never married, was crucified and rose from the dead.

Bertone’s comments were significant because until the Pope named him archbishop of Genoa in 2003 he was for years the number two man at the Vatican (news – web sites)’s most powerful department – the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“You can find that book everywhere and the risk is that many people who read it believe that those fairy tales are real,” he said. “I think I have the responsibility to clear things up to unmask the cheap lies contained in books like that.”

A central storyline of the book is that the Holy Grail is not the cup which Christ is said to have used at the Last Supper but really the bloodline descended from Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Bertone calls this idea “a perversion.”

Bertone is so incensed about the novel that he will be the key speaker at a roundtable in Genoa Wednesday night attempting to dismantle the book, which also accuses the Church of covering up the female role in Christianity.

“I will try to clear things up and help form consciences,” the cardinal said.

“I think that when faced with affirmations that are so shameful and unfounded, readers who have even a minimum of basic (Christian) formation should react,” he said.

He said it was “sad” that even Catholic bookstores were selling The Da Vinci Code “for purely economic reasons.”

One bookstore selling “The Da Vinci Code” is the one in the Gemelli Hospital, a Catholic institution where the Pope spent a total of 28 days in two stints in February and March.

In the interview, Bertone firmly rejected the book’s claim that the feminine role in Christianity had been suppressed.

“This is one of the most vulgar of inventions. The feminine element is present in all the Gospels,” Bertone said.

Bertone also strongly defended Opus Dei, the conservative Church organization that the book depicts as a ruthless, Machiavellian group that resorts even to murder in its attempt to keep the Church’s secrets hidden.

The novel is going to reach an even wider audience next year with the release of a film based on the book staring Tom Hanks.

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