The bestselling novel ‘The Da Vinci Code’ puts the Catholic sect in the spotlight’s harsh glare. Some who have left call the group manipulative and cult-like, but adherents cast it in a soft light
The “Da Vinci Code” is the page-turner of the summer, a sizzling mystery in which the plot revolves, in part, around a blindly obedient member of the Catholic organization Opus Dei who commits murder to conceal ancient evidence that the group believes would destroy the Christian faith.
Of course, it’s fiction. But in the front of the book, a page headlined “FACT” offers this description of Opus Dei: “a deeply devout Catholic sect that has been the topic of recent controversy due to reports of brainwashing, coercion and a dangerous practice known as ‘corporal mortification.'”
Author Dan Brown has said that his best-selling novel is meticulously researched. But that doesn’t sit well with Opus Dei. From the sparkling 17-story, $47-million Manhattan offices it opened two years ago on Lexington Avenue, the organization says it has been trying to correct the record – not an easy thing to do with a book that ran to the top of every major bestseller list and was optioned to Columbia Pictures. Brian Finnerty, Opus Dei’s U.S. communications director, said a letter was sent asking Doubleday to remove the “FACT” page and to correct such claims as the novel’s notion that Opus Dei had drugged college students to recruit them.
“I think people reading the book will be confused as to what’s fact and what’s fiction,” said Finnerty, adding that Opus Dei is simply an organization devoted to helping laypeople lead holy lives. Doubleday has turned down Opus Dei, said Finnerty, who would not comment on whether the letter was a prelude to legal action. “We hope that they’ll still make corrections in it. We’ll see what happens in the future.”
Even critics of Opus Dei say Brown’s novel grossly exaggerates. “The author is using Opus Dei as sort of a cardboard villain. I have to feel sorry for Opus Dei for continually being cast this way,” said the Rev. James Martin, associate editor of America weekly and author of a 1995 article in a Jesuit magazine that criticized Opus Dei.
Experts also reject some of the research passed off in other parts of the novel, which cleverly packages the stories of the Knights of the Templars, Leonardo Da Vinci, the Priory of Sion, the Holy Grail and Mary Magdalene into a whodunit. They say the novel’s elaborate claims that Mary Magdalene gave birth to Jesus’ children are over the scholarly edge.
“Not even the fringe,” said Pheme Perkins, a New Testament scholar at Boston College. She added: “Nice tale, but not history.” And William Petersen, director of religious studies at Penn State, said that despite all the speculation about Mary Magdalene, “We know next to nothing.”
Doubleday did not return repeated calls and Brown’s agent, Heidi Lange, said he was not available to comment. On his Web page, he asserts his story’s authenticity. “I worked very hard to create a fair and balanced depiction of Opus Dei,” Brown says. “Their portrayal in the novel is based on more than a dozen books written about Opus Dei, as well as on my own personal interviews with current and former members.”
But it’s not so easy to sort out fact from fiction about Opus Dei.
Msgr. Josemaria Escriva founded the organization in 1928 in Spain, insisting that laypeople as well as clergy were called to holiness. He set out a detailed, stringent spiritual discipline, which includes basics that many other Catholics follow, such as daily Mass, prayer and spiritual reading. But Opus Dei, which means “Work of God,” veers from the modern Catholic mainstream with such practices as banning books, encouraging members to inflict pain on themselves and consigning women to do all domestic work.
Members speak of the organization in glowing terms, noting that Escriva was declared a saint last year. “If the founder was just canonized, he had to be doing something right,” one former member said.
Yet a steady stream of former members portrays the group as manipulative and even cult-like. “We’ve heard from too many former members who say the same thing,” said Dianne DiNicola, a Pittsfield, Mass., woman who started the Opus Dei Awareness Network after resorting to an intervention expert to get her daughter to leave the group. “They control a person’s environment, their mail is read, what they watch on TV is monitored,” said DiNicola.
Martin said trouble spots include Opus Dei’s recruiting practices, view of gender roles and “penchant for secrecy.” But, he said, “I think that 90 percent of what Opus Dei does is good and holy and beneficial to the church.”
Robert Royal, president of the Washington-based Faith and Reason Institute, said Opus Dei has “a kind of energizing spirit” that has attracted many well-educated young people. “I don’t know many Catholic things that have that kind of juice,” he said. “It’s kind of remarkable. I think the attack on it is because it’s been successful and it’s been powerful in its kind of way.”
Opus Dei members point out that Escriva’s emphasis on helping laypeople seek holiness in everyday life was later a goal of the Second Vatican Council, during the 1960s. In 1982, Pope John Paul II made Opus Dei a personal prelature, a sort of diocese without boundaries, defined by membership rather than geography.
Today, Opus Dei says it has 85,000 members, including 3,000 in the United States. The membership includes 1,820 priests. About 30 percent of the members, known as “numeraries,” adhere to the strictest provisions: They are celibate, donate all their income to Opus Dei and live communally. They are not called monks and do not wear robes, like Brown’s murderous character Silas. Most of the remaining 70 percent are “supernumeraries,” who agree to a regular routine of prayer and meetings with a spiritual director, but marry and live with their families.
Nassau District Attorney Denis Dillon said he was a supernumerary for nine years, but left several years ago because his job didn’t allow time for all the meetings, prayer circles and discussion groups he was expected to attend.
“You’re under a contractual obligation of obedience to your superiors if you’re a member,” he said. Dillon remains a “cooperator,” a nonmember who contributes money and prayer, and said he still tries to follow Opus Dei’s spiritual guidelines.
Sharon Clasen, who joined while a student at Boston College in the 1980s, said she wasn’t prepared for how controlling Opus Dei would be when she moved from supernumerary to numerary.
Clasen, 39, a mother of two in Dumfries, Va., said she quickly discovered when she moved into a community of numeraries that women – but not men – were expected to sleep on boards. (Finnerty said men sleep on the floor once a week.) Clasen said she became disturbed at the insensitive treatment of “numerary assistants,” celibate women, often recruited as teenagers, who cooked and cleaned for men.
Clasen said that the bloody whippings Silas gives himself in “The Da Vinci Code” are exaggerated, although less severe than the beatings Escriva is reported to have given himself.
But on her first day as a numerary, she said, she was given a hand-sewn bag containing a cilice, a spiked chain to be worn around the thigh for two hours a day, and a small whip.
The cilice, she said, “is kind of like a barbed wire fence. It hurts. It depends on how tight you cinch it.” She said she noticed that some of the women had scabs from wearing a cilice, but added, “I never drew blood.” And she would hear one other woman whip herself. (Opus Dei officials said such practices have a long tradition in Christian spirituality.)
Clasen said that Opus Dei’s overemphasis on control and obedience finally drove her out when visits to her family were limited, even during a family health crisis.
Former numerary Margaret Bruer, a mother of five who lives in the Los Angeles area, reported a much different experience. She lived in an Opus Dei center in Manhattan while a student at Marymount College in Manhattan.
“I still have a great love for Opus Dei,” said Bruer, who left after 15 years because she felt called to married life. “I think it’s a wonderful organization for giving people a means for finding God in ordinary life.”
Bruer said Opus Dei doesn’t discriminate against women. “What Opus Dei teaches is that every job is equal,” she said, adding that she was encouraged to get a law degree. “I did learn to do things like cooking and cleaning, basic skills that everybody ought to know how to do.”
Cathy Hickey, 69, of Larchmont, a supernumerary since 1973, said Opus Dei’s daily diet of prayer, Mass and spiritual reading has made her happy.
“Underneath the turmoil, way down at the bottom, there’s this really still stream, so that no matter what happens, you know that your Father God – you’re in His hands,” she said. “I know if I weren’t in Opus Dei, I would not be faithful to prayer, because if I didn’t have somebody coaching me and encouraging me, it would be too easy to give it up.” Hickey is a former director and still a volunteer at Opus Dei-run Rosedale Achievement Center in the South Bronx, which offers tutoring, job training and other help to girls from fourth grade to high school.
Dennis Dubro, 52, also said he learned much about the spiritual life from Opus Dei. But he said many members don’t know about some of the disturbing practices. “I found as I got deeper and deeper that they were more like a cult,” said Dubro, a Fremont, Calif., engineer. “The leadership was inner and secret.”
Dubro, who joined while a student at M.I.T. and stayed for 17 years, including 13 as a numerary, said his view of Opus Dei began to go downhill when he had to deal with the misguided orders of an inexperienced and authoritarian director.
Dubro also said he encountered unacceptable financial practices while serving as the bursar of an Opus Dei dormitory in Australia, and was treated as disloyal when he spoke up. (The Opus Dei spokesman said that while there may have been poor bookkeeping in a small nonprofit group, “nobody was trying to cheat anyone.”)
Dubro said he made formal complaints within Opus Dei. Years later, he met with an Opus Dei official visiting from the international headquarters in Rome. “He listened to me for an hour. He said, ‘These things don’t happen in Opus Dei,'” said Dubro, who left the group in 1987. He has waited until now to speak to a reporter, he said, because it became clear the church would not investigate his complaints.
Sim Johnston, 51, of Manhattan, a supernumerary since the late 1980s, said Opus Dei is often falsely described as secretive, elitist and conservative.
He said that since laypeople play such a key role in Opus Dei, it is “an antidote to clericalism,” which Johnston said has been a problem in the church for centuries. “What Opus Dei is to me is really a return to what the early church was,” said Johnston, a writer and former investment banker.
pus Dei says its message of calling laypeople to holiness is, as one brochure puts it, “at the core of the Second Vatican Council,” when the world’s Catholic bishops sought to attune the church to the modern world.
But the Rev. Alvaro de Silva, a Boston priest who left Opus Dei in 1999 after 35 years, said the organization refused to change after the council revitalized Catholic teachings. “It was not only conservative, it was reactionary,” he said. “I know that’s a very strong word.”
De Silva, 54, said that despite his advanced degree in theology, he had to ask permission to read leading Catholic scholars whose works were on Opus Dei’s list of forbidden books.
He said he was forbidden to read the work of the Rev. Raymond Brown, who served on a papal commission and was widely considered the leading Catholic Bible scholar in the United States until his death in 1998.
“They always say we are not monks, we are just normal, ordinary Catholics,” de Silva said. “I said, ‘Wait a second, how can you say you are like everybody else? You cannot read Raymond Brown, you cannot go to the movies, you have to go to confession every week. That is not normal.”
De Silva said he also was concerned that teenagers were being recruited aggressively. He said he tried to reform Opus Dei from within, and that his directors tolerated his questioning for years. But unknown to him, he said, an inquiry had begun, possibly after a few students complained that he had been teaching about Raymond Brown’s views on the Bible.
The U.S. vicar, he said, told him to follow the rules or leave. De Silva left, finding a job with the Archdiocese of Boston.
“To this day, I do not know the whole process of what happened here,” he said.
Still, de Silva said Opus Dei members can be justifiably upset at the group’s portrayal in “The Da Vinci Code.” But he shared a hope that is also a premise of the plot: That the next pope will be skeptical of Opus Dei.
“My hope is that Opus Dei will change and embrace modernity and the modern Catholic Church,” he said. “Maybe the next pope is going to be different, and then Opus Dei will have to change.”