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.
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
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.
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?
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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”.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.