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Issue Date:  September 10, 2004

Opus Dei and The Da Vinci Code

Jesuit sees novel as 'junk food'


As The Da Vinci Code continues to maintain its perch at the top of national bestseller lists, a new round of books explaining and debunking some of the book’s “factual” claims is now hitting bookstores. In Secrets of the Code, editor Dan Burstein gathers together a number of scholars and experts to help readers better understand the remarkably popular novel. Included in the new book is a lengthy excerpt from a 1995 article written by Jesuit Fr. James Martin in America magazine about Opus Dei, one of the chief villains in Brown’s novel. In this wide-ranging interview, Martin, associate editor of America, discusses the facts and the fiction behind Opus Dei’s nefarious role in The Da Vinci Code.

NCR: How much did you know about Opus Dei before writing your 1995 article “Opus Dei in the United States”?

Martin: I knew very little about what they really did, and I think that mirrors the experience of a lot of American Catholics. While they might have heard of Opus Dei, they’re pretty vague about what it does, what its purpose is, where it’s located and how influential it is in the church. And in my research, I found that articles and books on Opus Dei generally take two different tacks. Either it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, it’s the only way to holiness for Catholic lay people and it’s this marvelous organization that does nothing but good, or Opus Dei is this evil, cult-like, almost dangerous organization that should never be trusted. I thought it was very strange that there was this dichotomy. So what I tried to do in my article was to present a more balanced view.

In general, most of the people in Opus Dei are good and decent Catholics. However, there are a lot of things that the organization does that deserve a little scrutiny.

What are some of the good things they do?

Opus Dei’s mission, essentially, is to encourage Catholic lay people to live holy lives in the world. And you can’t get more positive than that. They encourage people to lead Christian lives of prayer and service and to join together in community.

Are there other groups who do the same thing?

There are plenty of Catholic groups who do the same thing. There are small groups in local churches, like prayer groups and Bible-discussion groups and things like that. There are the Knights of Columbus and the Knights of Malta, who do all sorts of charitable works. There are what are called “sodalities,” organized around Marian devotions. There are what are known as Christian Life Communities that encourage lay spirituality. So there are all sorts of groups and movements like this in the church.

What makes Opus Dei different is that it is very well organized, very influential and very wealthy. The group is centrally organized; they have specific categories and classes for its members; it is very well funded; and it is powerful and influential in the church to a degree that some of these other organizations simply are not. And they have been given this designation as a “personal prelature” under Pope John Paul II, which has meant that they have been able to go about their business almost untouched by criticism or oversight by bishops. They are, to quote scripture a bit, “a people set apart.”

Is being a “personal prelature” of the pope a big deal?

It is a big deal, and the obvious question is, Why do they need it? Opus Dei would say, “We need it because we’re so different and so unique in the church and there’s never been anything like us before.” But I don’t think that’s correct at all. There have always been plenty of organizations that foster lay spirituality in the church on the local, national and international level. Clearly it’s a benefit to Opus Dei to have this designation, because it means that they don’t have to worry about the local bishops involving themselves in their affairs. That’s one thing that gives rise to a suspicion that a lot of people have about Opus Dei. And when people complain about Opus Dei to the bishops, some of the bishops say, “Well, I don’t have as much authority over them as I do over other religious orders and other groups in my diocese.”

So Opus Dei only answers to its own head in Rome?

Yes, they’re very centralized, much like any major corporation and other religious orders.

It’s such an easy target for someone like Dan Brown to write about, isn’t it?

The problem with The Da Vinci Code is that it basically takes only the rumors and suspicions about Opus Dei and spins them into something ridiculous. I mean, Opus Dei does not assassinate people. Opus Dei does not cover up these mind-blowing secrets. It is unfortunate that this organization, which does have things wrong with it, was turned into this horrible, cartoonish villain. And, unfortunately, after people read this book, it’s now going to be the received wisdom.

How do your own discoveries match up to what’s in The Da Vinci Code?

The Da Vinci Code starts with a few very basic facts, but what’s unfortunate is that the book makes you think that more of the facts are true than really are. It very freely mixes fact and fiction. Some of what he writes is factual. For example, it’s true the church has seriously undervalued the contribution of women, but then he spins this whole crazy world out of that one fact. Once again, if people understand that it’s just a novel, that’s great, but they really need to understand that the facts upon which he bases his story are really very slim. Some other examples: We know very little about Mary Magdalene. That’s very true. And there are gospels that have just come to light in the last 50 years. That’s true too. But contemporary scholars have known about these gospels for at least a generation. Brown takes those few facts and spins things out wildly.

Those lost gospels are something that a lot of people didn’t know about and so he said, “Ah ha; I’ll put it in my popular book”?

Yes. To me, it’s irresponsible to say, “OK, since not many people today know about it, I’m just going to make up this whole story about a cover-up.” It’s just a shame. I see this book as very much like “JFK,” the Oliver Stone movie. In other words, in people’s minds this will now be the received wisdom, of how Opus Dei is evil, how the church covered these things up, Jesus was married, blah, blah, blah, because it’s so compelling.

If you have nothing to go on, if you don’t know anything about Constantine or Leonardo da Vinci or Mary Magdalene and you’re just sort of a repository for a very compelling story, then that’s what fills up the vacuum. Also, in light of the sexual abuse scandals, it’s not hard for people to believe that the Catholic church covers things up. The book plays into that, too. People love a conspiracy theory, it’s certainly a lot more interesting, it’s a lot sexier than the boring old truth. And about these hidden gospels that are supposed to reveal all these secrets and stuff? Go read them. They’re really boring. You can see why they were not included in the New Testament. And there’s a more serious reason that the early church decided to include some and not include others. The real reason that the familiar four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were included was because the people who were closest to the story of Jesus found them to be the most accurate. And that makes sense.

What about the Templars and the Freemasons and the other groups he portrays in The Da Vinci Code?

What Brown does is take these groups with cool names like the Knights Templar, the Priory of Sion and the Rosicrucians … and then he spins stuff out of whole cloth. It seems true, and there’s some verisimilitude to it, because they do or did exist. These are either dead or defunct or small groups at this point that were powerful at one time in history. But the point is that people today know very little about them, and so Brown can say with certitude, yes, these groups existed. But what they’re actually doing now and their history, he plays fast and loose with all of that.

Why does Opus Dei get so much bad press?

Because some of the things that they do strike many people, particularly in the United States, as very unusual. For example, their penchant for secrecy and the split in job responsibilities between the sexes. That strikes many Americans as really just odd. Also, their overreliance on authority, like having people read your mail if you’re a full member, and, if you’re a college student, having people tell you what you can read or not read. And frankly, the heavy-handed recruiting techniques, which strike many Americans as very much like those of a cult. So most of the press in the United States focuses on those things. You’ll see words like secretive, powerful, cultlike, dangerous, mysterious.

On the other hand, you’ll often get reporters who stumble on an Opus Dei ministry, like a local school or a prayer group or a retreat house, which is usually run by these very good Catholics. And the reporters will say, “Wow, look at all these good things Opus Dei is doing.” And they’ll only give you that side of the story.

The main problem with Opus Dei is that they feel that theirs is really the only way to holiness for a lay person. And that really does drive a lot of Catholics crazy. You know, like they have the one answer.

A big deal is made in this book about self-flagellation. How important is that in Opus Dei?

First of all, let’s put it in a larger context. People today are happy to starve themselves, go to the gym five times a week, to make their bodies look good. No trouble with that in our culture. If you say, “I’m on a low-carb diet,” people say that’s great. But when you say, “I’m going to do some penances and I’m going to start fasting for Lent,” they say you’re crazy. So to do some sort of fasting or discipline for your body is OK, but for your soul is bad. That’s a total dichotomy in our culture right now. That’s the first thing. So religious disciplines like fasting, and kneeling and praying for long periods of time, need to be seen in the proper context. It’s basically one way to help train your spirit and not always be a slave to the body. This idea goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks, with Plato talking about not letting your body rule you.

Now, that being said, there’s a long history in the Catholic church of what are called physical penances, denying yourself things, the tradition of fasting and so on. The idea was that you would do those things to yourself to remind yourself that your body was not in control. Instead it’s your body and your spirit together. Much of that has now fallen out of practice in our culture. Most people don’t do that anymore and in places it’s even frowned upon.

But we also have no idea how many people do it in Opus Dei, or how common it is. So to take that one practice and make it into this sort of disgusting, crazy, widespread practice of Opus Dei is totally irresponsible. The cilice, for example, is part of old-fashioned Catholic piety. I would never use it, and I would never counsel people to use it. I think it’s unnecessary. So to use that as an emblem of Opus Dei spirituality is really unfair.

Why are people so drawn to secrecy and conspiracies?

First of all, conspiracy theories are always more interesting than the truth. The truth is usually much more boring. If you want to learn about Opus Dei, you’re going to have to slog through all of these boring books about [founder] Msgr. [Josemaria] Escrivá and the history of the organization. If you want to learn about Jesus of Nazareth, you’re going to have to wade through all of those long books about the historical Jesus and what first-century Palestine was like and what it was like for women and all that. If you want to learn about church history, you’re going to have to read dozens of books. So it’s easier to read just one cleverly written novel that puts it all together in bite-size pieces that you can just suck down. You don’t have to do any work. It’s kind of mindless.

The second reason is that conspiracy is very appealing to people because it explains why things in the world are sometimes so bad. It’s much more frightening for people to think that they can’t understand why things are bad than it is to believe that there’s a conspiracy behind all of it. So the fact that a lone gunman might have actually been able to kill JFK is much more frightening to people -- because it shows a certain amount of randomness in life -- than it is to believe that there’s this big conspiracy responsible for it.

So the story Dan Brown writes is just more compelling than going through dozens of history books. And in the absence of hard facts, people are happy to just get filled up with all of this. It’s like cotton candy, basically.

On a positive level, people are naturally concerned with religion and spirituality, and that’s a healthy desire. But Dan Brown is giving them junk food instead of something that’s nourishing. People are really hungry for an understanding of Jesus Christ, of church history, of religion and spirituality, and instead of giving them something substantial he’s giving them a bag of potato chips. It’s the theological equivalent of junk food.

Nicole Zaray is a freelance journalist working in New York.

National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 2004

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