National Catholic Register

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Opus Dei Shines in Da Vinci’s Harsh Spotlight

BY MARTIN MAZLOOM

Register Correspondent

April 23-29, 2006 Issue | Posted 4/24/06 at 10:00 AM

 

NEW YORK — Opus Dei is one of the villains in The Da Vinci Code.

And although the Dan Brown blockbuster is fiction, it’s likely that many people will come away from the film version next month believing that portrayal.

The real Opus Dei already had been working to counter a bad image as an elitist organization when The Da Vinci Code was published three years ago.

But as the May 19 release of the Ron Howard film version approaches, Opus Dei finds itself increasingly in the media spotlight. Its role in the story as a murderous player in a Church cover-up has led to its being featured in a front-page article in The New York Times, and on “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America,” CBS, CNN and The History Channel.

According to Brian Finnerty, U.S. media relations director for Opus Dei, the organization’s website (opusdei.org) received more than 1 million unique visitors in 2005.

 “We receive hate mail from people who accept the premise of the book,” said Finnerty. “Just several days ago we received a letter addressed to the fictional [Opus Dei] bishop in the book.”

But Opus Dei sees this time of scrutiny as an opportunity.

“We’re trying to take advantage of the attention and channel it for something good,” Finnerty said. “The novel completely misrepresents what Opus Dei is about. The fictional Opus Dei is about a monk running around killing people, but the real Opus Dei is about helping the laity find God in one’s everyday work and life. Our approach is to get the word out about the true Catholic Church and the real Opus Dei.”

Sony Pictures, the company producing and releasing the film, has all but ignored Opus Dei’s pleas for fairness, according to Finnerty. In January 2004, Father Thomas Bohlin, U.S. vicar of Opus Dei, sent a letter to Sony Pictures Entertainment Vice Chairman Amy Pascal, expressing concern over the proposed movie.

“Pascal replied to us in a letter with polite but very vague assurances,” said Finnerty. “We were never given a meeting with Pascal or with the people working on the movie. It was only through media reports that we finally learned that Sony planned to go ahead with their false and bizarre portrayal of Opus Dei.”

Pascal could not be reached for comment. But Jim Kennedy, a Sony Pictures Entertainment spokesman, said, “We certainly understood Opus Dei’s concerns. We responded by making it clear that we view The Da Vinci Code as a work of fiction that is not intended to harm any organization. ... It’s a thriller, not a religious tract.”

Kennedy added, “The Da Vinci Code is one of the most popular novels in publishing history, with a huge audience of devoted fans — many of whom, not incidentally, are devout Christians. We believe that the filmmakers are going to deliver a first-rate thriller that will entertain audiences, not offend them.”

He pointed out that Sony is sponsoring a website (thedavincidialogue.com), “where Catholic and other Christian scholars are contributing essays that explore the foundations of faith and its impact on history and our lives.”

Said Kennedy, “We recognize the fact that the story has inspired many conversations about history and religion, and there is a growing consensus among religious leaders that the release of the film can provide a unique opportunity to educate people about their work and beliefs.”

Finnerty said that it would be hard to imagine Sony treating another religious group that way.

“We hope Sony would treat the Church with the same fairness that would be expected in portraying other religious or ethnic groups,” he said. “It’s very unfortunate that Sony is coming out with a film that treats Christianity as a fraud.”

But Opus Dei has chosen not to protest publicly.

“We don’t see a boycott as particularly helpful,” Finnerty said. “We believe it’s more effective to ask Sony if treating the Catholic Church unfairly is something they want to be identified with.”

Real Opus Dei

The Da Vinci Code features an albino Opus Dei “monk” who murders members of a secret society while trying to confiscate the Holy Grail. Only there’s a slight problem.

“There are no monks in Opus Dei — albino or otherwise,” said Finnerty. “You won’t find any member of Opus Dei dressed up like the monk in the book. Not even on Halloween.”

Said Terri Carron, a fashion consultant in Southport, Conn., and a member of Opus Dei, “Nothing in the book has any basis in reality per Opus Dei. The portrayal of Opus Dei was very cartoonish and untrue.”

In reality, Opus Dei (work of God), founded in Spain in 1928, comprises 83,000 lay members (a small number of whom make a commitment to celibacy) and 2,000 priests worldwide. Its adherents have varying degrees of commitment. Their aim is to strive for holiness through the ordinary things of their daily life and work.

The organization is not a religious order. Its consecrated members are called numeraries and they call their religious commitments to chastity, poverty and obedience promises, not vows. St. Josémaria Escrivá, its founder, was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002.

“The worst thing about the movie is not what it says about Opus Dei but what it says about Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church,” said Finnerty. “The novel plays games with lines between fact and fiction.”

Doubleday is helping to get the word about the real Opus Dei, too. In fact, Doubleday, which published The Da Vinci Code, will be publishing St. Josémaria Escrivá’s collection of points of prayer The Way next month.

“One of the reasons for publishing it is because it’s a spiritual classic of the 20th century,” said Trace Murphy, vice president and editorial director of Doubleday’s Religious Publishing Division.

Bill Barry, president and publisher of Doubleday’s Religious Publishing Division, noted the book’s “impressive” sales of 4.5 million copies in 43 languages.

“As secular publishers but with some expertise in religious publishing, we think we can help spread [this book],” Barry said. “The Way offers guidance and potential riches to a much larger audience.”

Opportunity

Barry also commented on the controversy: “There’s been confusion about [The Da Vinci Code],” he said, “but the bigger confusion has been not realizing that it’s a work of fiction.”

“A work of fiction, though, can be hurtful,” Finnerty pointed out.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is also attempting to counter the distortions and falsehoods being disseminated by The Da Vinci Code. The conference recently launched the website jesusdecoded.com to provide accurate information and corrections to questions raised by Dan Brown’s novel.

Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, director of communications for the bishops’ conference, said Opus Dei contributed to the website.

Opus Dei member Carron says she thinks the movie, starring Tom Hanks, will have a powerful impact on people.

“It will do damage to people who are unfamiliar with the Work,” she said, using the alternate term for Opus Dei.

To Carron, it is clear why Opus Dei is controversial.

“Because it’s Catholic,” she said. “Just being Catholic is controversial in this culture. Christ was controversial.”

Martin Mazloom

is based in Los Angeles.