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Sunday, August 20, 2017
Date Posted:

The Da Vinci Code

Opus Dei Versus The Da Vinci Code – Opus The Winner?

6 January 2006
British Church Newspaper

DAN Brown’s best‑seller, The Da Vinci Code, was first published in 2003.  By April 2005 it had sold 17 million copies in 44 languages and it is still selling well, as any traveller by plane, bus or train will confirm.

It is a novel of the popular, conspiracy theory type.  The central thesis is that “the Church” has covered up the fact that Mary Magdalene married Christ.  Christ’s divinity was a myth invented by Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD and the pair had descendants.  Brown suggests that Mary Magdalene’s character was unjustly impugned by “the Church” in the Gospels as a diversionary tactic.

In support of his theory Brown claims that the Dead Sea scrolls show a stronger association of Mary Magdalene with Christ than we find in the Bible.  The fact is that the Church of Rome really did fear and try to suppress the Scrolls in a campaign as dastardly as Brown’s fiction.  So there is a grain of truth in The Da Vinci Code’s claim that Rome tried to hide something, even if Rome was not trying to hide quite what Dan Brown claims.

Opus Dei

The wealthy, ultra‑secretive, right wing Roman Catholic organisation, Opus Dei, features in The Da Vinci Code.  After all, who better than Opus to protect “the Church” by dastardly deeds if the Church was globally threatened?

Thus Opus early discovered that it was, “falsely depicted murdering, lying, drugging people, and otherwise acting unethically”.  Opus has been suspected of all these activities and others, but the fictional “mad monks” scenario presented by Brown bears no resemblance to the subtle and suave manoeuvring of Opus in high places.

As sales of The Da Vinci Code escalated, Opus started to handle the issue on its website.  It claimed, “Opus Dei is a Catholic institution and adheres to Catholic doctrine, which clearly condemns immoral behaviour, including murder, lying, stealing, and generally injuring people,” but this assertion is lost amongst a welter of links inviting the curious to discover what Opus is really about:

Then last autumn TV took four fans of The Da Vinci Code around the main historical sites featured in the novel.  And Lo! The TV company had got a real Opus member to interview in Rome.  He was young, articulate, charming and handled awkward questions like a seasoned hack.  Three of the fans were taken in by this nice; normal, “regular guy”.  But the fourth challenged the others with words to the effect: “Yeah Yeah ‑ regular guy all right ‑ whipping his bottom and wearing barbs on his thigh”. He was of course referring to the strange masochistic practices of Opus Dei members.  But 3 to 1 in favour was a good start for Opus.

Buying a sainthood

Rome watchers know that secretive Opus never raises its head above the parapet.  The amazing speed and cost of buying the Beatification of the founder in 1992, and his Canonisation in 2002, briefly put the spotlight on Opus, but Opus saw to it that exposure was kept to a minimum and carefully stage managed.

No love is lost between Opus, a largely lay organisation, and the Jesuits.  In 1989 Jesuit Michael Walsh wrote The Secret World of Opus Dei to help ‑ worried parents and families who have lost young folk to Opus.  Walsh took Opus unawares and Opus clammed shut.  But could Opus now be turning The Da Vinci Code to its own advantage?  My suspicions were soon confirmed by a 30 minute Radio 4 programme on the 27th October.  This was a scoop claiming ‘unrestricted access’ to Opus.

It beat Channel 4 TV, whose Opus Dei and the Da Vinci Code did not go out until 12th December last.   A policy decision to take the bull by the horns had clearly been taken at the top in Opus.

Most literature criticising Opus is in Spanish.  What is available in English is largely known to myself.  I recorded both these programmes ‑ and went through them with care.  Far from being exposures, there was little new revealed of any substance.  The interviewers did not press issues and did not probe.  This was presumably a condition of access to Opus.  One investigator was a former monk.  The alleged ‘unrestricted access’ was stage managed and  ‑ mostly limited – to the women’s quarters.  (The women in Opus are entirely separate and infe­rior to the men.)  Channel 4 seemed to have less revealing footage of the interior of the Rome HQ than was permitted by Opus during the furore surrounding the hasty Beatification of the founder in 1992.  Channel 4 had posed the question, “Does Opus Dei deserve its sinister portrayal?”  The programmes tame ver­dict was a foregone conclusion.

But Opus has gone further by actually using The Da Vinci Code for recruitment.  Instead of the media’s usual custom of cultivating and quizzing individuals on the programme, we were shown more than 60 students at the London School of Economics, tomorrow’s captains of business and industry, attending a lecture on 5th May.  It was entitled “The Da Vinci Code and Opus Dei: the Da Vinci Code Fact Or Fiction? Opus Dei Tells All”.  The Lecturer was no less than Andrew Soane, Director of the Opus Dei Information Office in Britain.  Jack Valero, another suave, smooth talking Opus Director explained:  “A few years ago OPUS Dei was virtually unknown outside Catholic circles.  Now 70 million people have heard of Opus Dei.  They have heard a pack of lies.  We can now explain what Opus Dei is and what it does ... It is a great opportunity.”

The lecturer, Soane, began his professional power point presentation by casually stating, “The other day I had been on the underground and I had seen people reading The Da Vinci Code.  A question occurred to me.  How much about Opus Dei in The Da Vinci Code is true?”  Yet it seems incredible that a presentation of the quality given by Soane had been cobbled together in a few days.

Valero said afterwards, “People read the book and phone in”.  When the interviewer suggested to him, “Dan Brown is your best recruiting agent,”  Valero replied cagily, “Maybe he has done something he did not intend to”.

Murphy O’Connor

On the back of this Da Vinci Code fever, the Roman Catholic journalist John L Allen has issued a new book Opus Dei: Secrets and Power inside the Catholic Church.  Allen had certainly been granted access to hitherto denied Opus personnel and records.  He said his access was ‘total’.  But if so a whitewash was inevitable.  Reading his book was frustrating. Allen uses the fictional caricature of Opus in The Da Vinci Code to make points in Opus` favour.  Even where criticism of Opus is unavoidable it is muted and over qualified.  This book could lead many Roman Catholic parents to take a more favourable view of Opus.

Cardinal Hume expressed serious reservations about Opus but his successor, Cardinal Cormac Murphy‑O’Connor, has recently poured scorn upon Hume’s remarks.  In early 2005, O’Connor even gave an Opus priest a parish, which is a completely new departure.  Fr Gerard Sheehan was personally recommended to St Thomas More’s, Swiss Cottage, by Murphy‑O’Connor.  It just so happens that Netherhall House, a key Opus Student residence, is only five minutes from the church.

Opus HQ

An hour spent outside the Opus HQ in Rome, quietly observing the comings and goings, soon gives a feeling of the true nature of Opus.  The Parioli district, north of Rome’s centre, is an exclusive, fashionable area for the very rich, like Mayfair in London.  A small apartment in Parioli would cost millions.  No tourists or pilgrims come here.  Faceless, gated apartment complexes nestle beside discreet, barred high rise buildings.  The Viale Bruno Buozzi has a barely visible junction with the Via di Villa Sacchetti at number 73. If photographed from an appropriate angle, property is seen stretching back like a wedge of cheese with no defined limit.  This is Opus world headquarters which contains the tomb of Escriva, the founder of Opus.

Opus’ rule of absolute segregation means that women enter only on the Via Sacchetti side and men on the Viale Bruno Buozzi.  A former member of Opus, now turned critic, is Maria del Carmen Tapia.  She calls it “an immense interconnected structural complex ... the buildings are interconnected . . . Escriva . . . was proud of its 12 dining rooms and 14 chapels ... the largest chapel ‑ shown briefly on Channel 4 ‑ can accommodate hundreds of people . . . and (Escriva) remarked that he could bring a Cardinal in by the front door in the morning, travel fast ... stop 10 minutes for lunch, continue the tour and let him out the back door at dinner time without having seen half the compound.”  No doubt the BBC and Channel 4 were treated similarly.

Comings and goings

It was Saturday morning when I stood outside the headquarters. Camera shy ‘numeraries’  dressed in quality grey suits, occasionally went in and out. These men would hold key positions in Rome in business or administration. Their affiliation to Opus might possibly be unknown: Without family ties, the numeraries are promoted over married colleagues (known as ‘supernumer’ by being ever ready to work late or take on extra tasks.

Two gentlemen recognisable as priests arrived to hold the mass and confess the numeraries who are theoretically free to confess elsewhere but in practice are “expected” to confess to Opus priests.  These have come from numerary ranks and answer to the leader of Opus Dei, Bishop Javier Eschevarria.

Then, at mass time, some equally affluent families appeared. The men looked much like the numeraries. Their wives, dressed in muted but expensive clothes, tended spotless, obedient children in smart school uniforms. They will go to the main chapel but even they may not have unrestricted access. Sometimes just the husband is a supernumerary or occasionally both will be supernumeraries, that is members living at home but still contributing heavily financially.

The Da Vinci Code was being read everywhere in Rome last autumn, so perhaps Opus’s unwitting recruitment agent, Dan Brown, is swelling numbers there also.

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