"By Paul Moses
Newsday - August 26, 2003
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
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
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
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