The real-life group with the biggest complaint about the movie The Da Vinci Code is surely Opus Dei, the Catholic organization founded to promote lay spirituality. One of the film’s main plot devices centers on Silas, the albino Opus Dei monk who moonlights as an assassin. That Opus includes neither monks nor renegade assassins within its ranks seems not to have troubled either Dan Brown, the author of the book, or Ron Howard, the director of the film. (In the movie, Silas, played by Paul Bettany, maintains a busy schedule murdering nuns, old men and policemen, pausing only to whip himself bloody while kneeling naked before a crucifix and murmuring Latin prayers.)
It is difficult to understand how a bestselling novelist and a mainstream director could get away with such public defamation of a real organization. Equally disturbing is the manner in which Mr. Brown is typically presented (and presents himself) in the media as an expert whose historical research has revealed heretofore unknown facts that are supposedly cleverly disguised in the book and film as fiction.
The novelist and filmmaker want it both ways: to tantalize the public with real-life secrets while all the while protesting that it is just fiction. Brian Finnerty, director of Opus Dei’s press office in the United States, told America that Ron Howard adamantly refused to change the name of Opus Dei in his film, despite written requests from the organization. Mr. Howard’s response makes one wonder how he would react if he were dealing with any other religious tradition. Does anyone think, for example, that a film with an assassin acting in the name of B’nai B’rith or the Southern Baptist Convention would ever see the light of day?
The film’s co-producer, John Calley, defended this by saying that the movie represented a conservatively anti-Catholic viewpoint, which raises the issue of whether a Hollywood executive would ever publicly describe a movie as conservatively anti-Semitic.
Even if you are not a fan of the famously orthodox personal prelature, it is hard not to feel sorry for Opus Dei in the wake of The Da Vinci Code. Founded by St. Josemaría Escrivá in 1920’s Spain, The Work, as members call it, is known for its mission of encouraging lay persons to lead a spiritual life in the everyday world. Despite its well-known desire for privacy (a word members prefer over secrecy), Opus has long attracted criticism and controversy like a lightning rod. That more than a few members practice regular corporal mortification and that several hold high-level positions in various governments only adds to public fascination with the group. The conviction of Robert Hanssen, an Opus Dei member and F.B.I. agent unmasked as a longtime Soviet spy, was the group’s most recent public-relations nightmareuntil the publication of The Da Vinci Code in 2003.
Over the past decade, the group has taken pains to present a more wholesome public image, making itself more available for interviews and inquiries from journalists. The tack seems to be working: last year’s book, Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church, by the respected Vaticanologist John L. Allen Jr., was a largely favorable report on the organization.
Allen’s book, the result of unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to Opus Dei, was an exhaustively researched and wholly fascinating exploration of the worldwide organization. Its chief surprise for many readers may have been the author’s detailed and sensitively drawn portrait of the extensive network of social apostolates sponsored by The Work, which has often been criticized for its elitism.
But some have criticized Allen’s book for being overly forgiving. Questions about the way that Opus segregates the sexes (men and women do not work together in the group’s New York headquarters), their overriding penchant for secrecy (members are often reluctant to identify themselves), their way of sometimes dividing parishes and campus chaplaincies (by fostering a parallel church mentality) and, most of all, their heavy-handed recruiting techniques (particularly on college campuses) are sometimes played down. And while Allen doggedly investigated all these charges, at times he seems willing to accept the denials of Opus Dei officials. Paul Baumann, writing in The Washington Monthly, said that because of this, the book sometimes left controversial charges on a he-said, she-said level.
In response, Allen told America, After spending more than 300 hours listening to both members and critical ex-members of Opus Dei, I concluded that often both are describing more or less the same experience, but from different perspectives. I suppose that creates the he-said, she-said’ dynamic, which, though frustrating, is sometimes the best way to capture reality.
Opus Dei hopes that the release of the film The Da Vinci Code provides an opportunity to set the record straight about its work. We are doing everything we can to talk about the reality of Opus Dei, Mr. Finnerty said. A recent cover story in Time magazine, for example, provided the group a matchless opportunity to air their side of the story. And visitors to the group’s Web site will find plenty of recommended books, like John F. Coverdale’s Uncommon Faith: The Early Years of Opus Dei, 1928-1943, published by Scepter Press, an arm of Opus Dei.
But what will filmgoers make of the portrayal of Opus Dei as an organization that attracts knife-wielding assassins bent on abetting the Catholic Church in a massive coverup? Those curious enough to undertake further research will discover that Opus Dei, while flawed, is nothing like Dan Brown’s nefarious portrayal. But moviegoers taking the film at face value may find themselves influenced by the conservative anti-Catholicism of its producers.
My other hope, said Mr. Finnerty, is that this movie would be a teaching moment about the need for fairness to all religious groups.