"Opus Dei does not have any monks, albino or otherwise," Brian Finnerty said with a smile. Mr. Finnerty, the U.S. media relations director for the group, was debunking one of the many distortions in "The Da Vinci Code." The best-selling novel, which has a murderous monk named Silas as a main character, has been made into a feature film starring Tom Hanks and is expected to open some time next month ... maybe. Author Dan Brown is currently battling a plagiarism lawsuit in London brought by New Zealand author Michael Baigent and his American writing partner, Richard Leigh, who claim Mr. Brown stole their research from their 1982 nonfiction book, "Holy Blood, Holy Grail."
I interviewed Mr. Finnerty at the U.S. headquarters on East 34th Street. Before meeting him, I sat in the tastefully decorated waiting room that was faintly reminiscent of Cardinal Egan's residence on Madison Avenue. However, the majority of the paintings were landscapes and still lifes, not religious artwork. Only one painting, of Pope John Paul II, gave the visitor a hint that this building housed a religious organization.
Because of what I'd read in mystery novels or the press, the only impression I'd had of Opus Dei was largely negative. It's always been portrayed as a sinister arm of the Vatican that protects church secrets. I even half-seriously wondered if the smoke detectors in the waiting room ceiling were secretly recording my every move.
So what exactly is Opus Dei? It is a lay organization founded by a Spanish priest, Josemaria Escriva, who was canonized as a saint in 2002. Its members try to find holiness in and through their daily work, family life and social relations. About 98% of Opus Dei's members are laymen and laywomen, most of whom are married. Mr. Finnerty very graciously answered my impertinent questions about various rumors, e.g., whether the members indulge in self-mutilation and if the group was involved with the Vatican bank scandal. The answer to both is no.
I met him on Ash Wednesday, but his forehead showed no sign of the sooty reminder of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" that Catholics receive the first day of Lent. An aside: If all the people I saw that day wearing ashes actually went to church every Sunday, perhaps the archdiocese wouldn't have to close some parishes.
I asked Mr. Finnerty if Opus Dei was recommending a boycott of the movie, because it may vilify the organization the way the novel does. Not only was the group not going to boycott or sue, but Mr. Finnerty declared that he viewed the notoriety as an excellent opportunity to enlighten the public about what Opus Dei really is. One of the criticisms of the group is that it is highly secretive. But that canard is likely to be dismissed with a look at their improved website, www.opusdei.org, which can now handle the increased traffic thanks to interest generated by "The Da Vinci Code." In addition to the Web site, which provides a FAQ for the curious, several members of the prelature have been making appearances throughout the city to explain what Opus Dei does.
I also spoke to the president of the Catholic League, Bill Donohue, about the portrayal of Opus Dei in the upcoming film. He told me, "Opus Dei is called a sect and portrayed as an evil force when the truth is, it's a Catholic organization founded to help lay people seek holiness in their daily lives." When the Catholic League published an open letter on March 6 to director Ron Howard to label the film as fiction, the request was denounced as an arrogant demand. But Mr. Donohue notes that Sony previously issued disclaimers for "The Merchant of Venice" and "A Beautiful Mind."
While the fiction label may seem to be a no-brainer, author Dan Brown has disingenuously and consistently insisted that the book is based on fact. Anyone versed in the history of the Catholic Church would find the premise of "The Da Vinci Code" totally laughable and dismiss the work as merely entertainment. Unfortunately, many people who've always harbored suspicions of the church feel that this book confirms them.
It's admirable that Opus Dei has chosen to react to the calumny with restraint. As a Catholic, however, I have no problem recognizing "The Da Vinci Code" as an attack on the Roman Catholic Church. Mr. Brown's novel questions the divinity of Jesus Christ and claims this sacred belief was manufactured by the Emperor Constantine, who edited the gospels to secure his political power. Jesus was actually just a nice man who married a former prostitute, and their progeny roam the earth today. Well, no wonder Silas went around killing people trying to expose this secret.
Sheesh! Imagine if Dan Brown were a cartoonist.