London – Opus Dei, the conservative Roman Catholic group which gained international notoriety in The Da Vinci Code, is too secretive for its own good, says the author of a new study on the controversial organisation.
The tightly knit movement has taken to talking more in public and posting on its websites rebuttals of charges now spread around the world because of the bestseller.
But John Allen, a Vatican reporter who has just published a new study of Opus Dei, thinks the group still has a way to go.
“They still have some ground to cover in rendering themselves transparent to the world outside,” said Allen, author of Opus Dei: Secrets And Power Inside The Catholic Church.
Opus Dei, founded in Madrid in 1928 by Saint Jose Maria Escriva, has more than 85 000 members around the world. It urges ordinary Roman Catholics to strive for holiness by practising Christian principles in the workplace.
In his blockbuster novel, United States author Dan Brown depicts Opus Dei as a ruthless Machiavellian organisation whose members even resort to murder to keep the Church’s secrets.
Now, with a film of The Da Vinci Code starring Tom Hanks due out next year, another harsh spotlight could be shone on Opus Dei, accused by critics of being a shadowy right-wing group that brainwashes and coerces recruits.
Allen, Vatican correspondent for the US-based National Catholic Reporter and CNN, argues Opus Dei is its own worst enemy for failing to be more open and honest about its finances and its membership, which critics have said is too elitist.
“Opus Dei is always lax in coming to its own defence. The way they tell their story is often so muddled,” he told Reuters.
“There is an enormous global appetite for information about Opus Dei which they have not always known how to fill.”
The group’s villainous image in Brown’s novel has sparked worldwide interest even though it already had been the butt of criticism from liberals within the Church for decades.
“There are bishops all over the world that, because of the negative vibes about Opus Dei due to the Da Vinci Code and other things, would be extremely reluctant to see Opus Dei come into their diocese,” said Allen.
The US branch of Opus Dei (Latin for “God’s Work”) has refuted the film’s main points on its website, but faces more bad publicity when the film comes out.
The influence of Opus Dei grew rapidly under the late Pope John Paul, who gave it a special status within the Church and appointed Opus member Joaquin Navarro-Valls as his spokesperson. Navarro-Valls is still working under Pope Benedict.
“There is this perception of ‘Octopus Dei’ as a vast international conglomerate sitting on bags of cash with which they are influencing elections around the world,” Allen said.
He puts the worldwide assets of Opus Dei at $2,8-billion. That, he says, is dwarfed by the $102-billion revenue of the American Catholic Church alone.
Brown’s bestseller sparked prurient curiosity about self-flagellation and the use of the cilice; a belt tightened around the thigh with metal prongs pointing inwards.
“It is not like Dan Brown described it. You don’t whip yourself into a bloody frenzy,” he said. “But it is one of the tough things about Opus Dei. The cilice seems to most people to be aesthetically repugnant.”
Allen conceded that the austere ethos of Opus Dei made it “… a strong brew, definitely an acquired taste and clearly not for everyone,” he said.