In the novel The Da Vinci Code, author Dan Brown introduces many controversial issues that, for some, shake the foundations of the Church and religion. The overall validity of his arguments and information has been both questioned and attacked by the general public and the Church. One passionate reaction came from the Catholic organization of Opus Dei, claiming that Brown’s depiction of its practices and internal structure are entirely false. Since Opus Dei and the mentalities of its members are a driving force within the novel, the validity of Brown’s claims deserve examination. Are the Opus Dei characters Silas and Bishop Aringarosa in fact representative of some of the astonishing aspects of the true Opus Dei, and are there even more atrocities exist within the group than those included in the novel?
In the prologue of his novel, Brown introduces Opus Dei with factual information. “The Vatican Prelature known as Opus Dei is 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.”
The truth in Brown’s statements depend upon testimony from credible anti-Opus Dei organizations, ex-members who have escaped from Opus Dei’s required silence, and examples of Opus Dei’s inconsistencies. These overarching discrepancies of Opus Dei offer specific proof against its claims and testimony to its atrocities. The story of 18-year member Maria del Carmen Tapia can facilitate the understanding of Silas and Aringarosa’s behavior, subsequent internal justification of their impious actions, and explanations for these types of behavior as a result of Opus Dei’s mind molding practice, the “making of a fanatic.” (pg 30)
A written testimony has been issued from the United States Opus Dei Headquarters in direct response to The Da Vinci Code, the novel which the group refers to as “a work of fiction” and “not a reliable source of information.” (www.opusdei.com) This testimony employs a common Opus Dei public relations technique, which ex-members warn is used to glorify Opus Dei and slant the truth. The testimony attempts to discredit Brown’s assertions about Opus Dei. Statements by ex-members refute the Opus Dei testimony, and also reveal that many Opus Dei documents are deceitful in nature and strive to cover up truths of the group.
Opus Dei expert Michael Walsh explains that “according to Opus, it is, was, and always has been a distinctly lay organization (lay as opposed to clerical, not run by “clerks” or priests). The group’s written Constitution is betrayed in practice even though it is the central document of the organization The 1950 Constitution, however, is, in anyone’s estimation, distinctly clerical” (pg 54). It is possible that Opus Dei’s tendency to say one thing and do another resulted in the drafting of Article 12 of the Statutes of Opus: “(1) no papers or books are to be published as belonging to Opus.” (pg 47).
The official statement from Opus Dei discredits the novel’s reports that the organization has “unenlightened views on women.” This statement offers excellent introduction to the glaring inconsistencies within Opus Dei’s documents, and the overall “unorganized organization.” The Regional Delegate for prelature of Opus Dei in the United States defends Opus Dei, claiming that women hold offices of all levels within its government, and therefore clearly have internal power and leverage. It is true that women hold government posts, however an ex-member reveals that after 17 years of membership in Opus Dei and working as business director under directors in a cloud of secrecy, she still does “not have a clear impression of what some of the directors actually did” (www.odan.org). By comparing the Men’s and Women’s Branch of Opus Dei, many astonishing differences emerge that fully refute Opus Dei’s claims of internal equality.
Walsh attributes the current discrepancies between the sexes to the fact that the founder, Jose Maria Escriva, “was unable to take women seriously as equal to the male members of his institute” and his assertion that “women had passions that required more discipline to tame” (pg 57). Walsh also reports that “Escriva’s fear of promiscuity was such that the most rigorous rules were laid down to safeguard the prohibition against mixing. At Netherhall House, the London University residence in Hampstead, double doors separate the two houses and are ritually locked each night” (pg 109).
The Founder’s sentiments continue into modern practices; men sleep on the floor once a week, but women must sleep on boards laid on mattresses every night. Men are permitted to smoke while engaging in its aggressive recruiting practices, but women may never smoke. Opus Dei has been known to refuse specifically women’s requests to be bridesmaids in their sister’s weddings, attend baptisms, or visit home.
During male gatherings within Opus Dei, members recite the prayer “Holy Mary, Our Hope, Seat of Wisdom, pray for us.” The women speak an amended version, “Holy Mary, Our Hope, Handmaid of the Lord, pray for us.” Women numeraries hold power within Opus Dei, but at the end of the prayer session, Opus Dei makes sure that women idolize Mary as a mere servant, encouraging them to strive for only subordinate positions.
In the constitution of 1982, the roles of men and women are outlined. Both groups are encouraged to obtain a professional status under the guise that they will be able to gain work skills to offer to God. In reality, it is beneficial for Opus Dei members to attain high status so they can to be influential across many professional spectrums. Tapia attributes this push for mens’ professional status as a means to gain power and ability to pull strings for Opus Dei’s puppet show when needed. Maria Angustias Moreno claims to be a victim of such a puppet show affair; Opus Dei dismissed her after many years of her membership, meeting widespread opposition to its decision with allegations that she was a practicing lesbian. Walsh discovered that she fought for an apology in court, but without success because of “technical reasons….because of the machinations of Opus.” (pg 168)
It is important to remember that since this “encouragement” is written into an Opus Dei official document, it is inherently indefinite. Members’ encouragement and permission to work is actually subject to revocation at will. Technically, a professional role exists for women numeraries as “auxiliaries.” However, possessing this job title means only that you are an official Cooker and Cleaner for an Opus Dei center, a subordinate handmaid as glorified in the Women’s Branch prayer. Only when women are performing their constitutionally required work of “administration or domestic upkeep” are they allowed into the men’s quarters. More lavish bedrooms are provided for priests, though the constitution states “let us not waste our time building houses, let us use though already built” stating that lives of luxury were unnecessary.
The second and third clauses of Article 12 of the Constitution are different from the traditional writings of Opus, as they reveal the truth about the organization instead of strive to cover it up. The Article (2) forbids members “to wear any distinctive sign of membership; and (3) members should be persuaded against speaking to strangers about Opus.” (Walsh, 2004 pg 47) This secrecy causes most curious minds to wonder why membership should be hidden, and also why outsiders should be granted no access to the group until after they are members. It can be inferred that the organization has something to hide, which most Opus documents strive to cover up. However, true to its public relations trend, Opus Dei attempts to publicly answer angry questions and ease suspicions about its secrecy, by denying all allegations against them. Maybe some speculators were easily convinced that if the Founder of the sect claimed that Opus wasn’t hiding anything, than maybe it wasn’t. Escriva stated that “It is easy to get to know people in Opus Dei. It works in broad daylight in all countries…the names of its directors and of its apostolic undertakings are well known. Anyone who wants information can obtain it without difficulty.” (Walsh, 2004 pg 60) If people knew Tapia’s story, they would have remained unconvinced of any openness and public truth about Opus Dei.
The Article, a statute of the Constitution, is a highly controlled article within Opus Dei. The aforementioned anonymous 17-year member reveals that Opus Dei states that they give out copies of these statutes to all bishops, solely for the purpose “of showing how open they are.” (www.odan.org) When she, as a numerary, asked to see the documents from her bishop, her request was denied! In further disproof of Escriva’s statement about the open nature of Opus Dei, there actually exists a set of three documents called The Sacred Congregation of Religious, which exemplify Opus Dei’s desire to keep the smaller and less-known aspects and divisions of Opus Dei continually secret from the Church and the public.
Opus Dei has been criticized for its overly-aggressive recruiting policies. Its general public defense has been that members cannot be formally inducted into the first level of membership, or “admitted,” until the age of 18, which appears to be an age where people possess acceptable levels of intelligence and independence. This deceiving policy simple states that members will not be officially admitted until age 18. However, the recruiting practices they are rightfully notorious for molest, harass and dupe children much before their 18th birthday.
The prerequisites to admission are extensive and invasive to young lives. Typical recruiting or “fishing” sites for new members are Catholic middle and sometimes elementary schools, with or without the encouragement or permission of the school authorities. Opus Dei officials have been known to fraternize with Catholic school officials to gain access to students. Walsh discovered that a school in London banned Opus Dei’s presence at the school after finding out that they had recruited new students to unauthorized meetings.
Once a young person has been successfully hooked, they are brought into youth organizations that are not formed for enjoyment or relaxation, but rather interviews and scrutiny by priests over your religious worthiness and status as a prospective member. Visiting these clubs leads to alienation from families, as does the policy of secrecy about all aspects demanded of the young children by Opus Dei. The alienation leads to the child becoming dependent on Opus Dei and the ability to confide in its members. Walsh reveals about the meetings and interviews that “In the beginning it is difficult for them. Afterward, they need it.” One ex-member claimed that once you go on the Easter Pilgrimage as a reward for completing time in the youth clubs, “you’re just begging to join” (www.odan.org).
After confirming interest in Opus Dei, usually an event that occurs as a result of a superior pressuring children into filling their assigned quota, a year and a half of work for Opus Dei must commence. Along with these required years of approved affiliated with Opus Dei, still necessary for admittance are the “personal qualities” (not enumerated in any document) of an Opus member, desire for spiritual development, and the represented ability to earn a doctorate. Opus Dei denies membership to anybody who has previously been in another similar or rival organization, or has completed certain kinds of religious schooling. Former member John Roche tells that “every member is supposed to have at least fifteen friends that are suitable for recruitment.” (Walsh, 2004 pg 175) These pressures for members to drag in new members result in the continuation of this recruiting cycle.
After understanding the basic background information on Opus Dei practices, beliefs, and secrets, an true insider prospective is necessary to fully understand the mentality of Opus Dei and how it affects its members over time. The story of Maria del Carmen Tapia supports and illustrate of earlier points, offers introduction to new atrocities, and lends further insight into the brain of Silas, Aringarosa and ultimately Opus Dei.
While working in Spain, as a young woman, Maria del Carmen Tapia went on an Opus Dei retreat led by Raimundo Panikkar, the boss and Opus priest whom she was working under. She entered into the endeavor to strengthen her spiritual life before her marriage against the advice of friends and family, who strongly opposed Opus Dei and were rightfully wary of its recruitment practices and ideals. At the beginning of the retreat she asked to see a copy of the establishment’s Constitution, not knowing her request was laughable because no established Constitution had yet been drafted.
To most, the absence of a central doctrine would lead them to skepticism of the group, but this red flag representing the overall impure politics and characteristics of the group that still exist did not save Maria from proselytation. After the retreat, Maria was in “tremendous anguish,” suddenly questioning whether to cancel her wedding for the sake of God, or continue on with her original life and get married “knowing that [she] had refused God’s invitation to a life of dedicated service to him in Opus Dei.” Her trusted boss Panikkar informed her that her suffering was a result of God cleansing her.
Maria was reminded constantly, after first being admitted to Opus Dei and commencing to break ties with her fiancé that she was never allowed to inform anybody outside of Opus Dei of the lifetime commitment as a “numerary” that she had made to the group. After a short time within Opus Dei, she decided to re-establish her relationship with her fiancé and to revoke her lifetime pledge to the Founder and Opus Dei, and maintain only the lowest level of affiliated to Opus Dei. Panikaar informed her of his deep disappointment and how her decision had made his own cross heavier. This type of guilt-inspiring reaction is typical towards new members, “new vocations,” who try to leave Opus Dei.
Soon after her decision not to become a numerary, an Opus Dei official issued a request that Maria not attend one of the conferences for her external full-time job. Calling it a “favor,” the priest in charge of the Women’s Branch of Opus Dei asked this of Maria simply because the conference was in Barcelona, an area where Opus Dei was somewhat criticized. He feared the possibility of gossip and scorn resulting from her presence in the city. Maria refused to yield, and the Father “resorted to blackmail.” Just as Silas reassured himself that his obscene and impious actions were justifiable since they were of “God’s will,” Maria also succumbed to the same powerful false justification that she was doing the best thing. She officially split with her fiancé against all advice and support from those she knew, and officially gave in to submitting her life to Opus Dei.
Maria was a member of Opus Dei for eighteen years. During that time, she was never permitted to visit her parents’ home and was rarely allowed near her home city of Madrid, and she was never allowed to even visit with her parents at an Opus Dei establishment to explain to them her life and the structure of Opus Dei. Instead of having the decency to let a woman speak with her parents, which Opus officials claimed to be analogous to tossing their spiritual thoughts and emotions into a “sewer,” Opus Dei reinforced the idea that parents were the Devil’s “tool” with which new members were destroyed or removed from the glorious establishment of Opus Dei. This secrecy from parents and friends, slyly termed “discretion” within Opus Dei, is still practiced by new members, as families are still viewed as the new vocation’s, and therefore Opus Dei’s “worst enemy.”
Maria recalls her introduction to the practices of corporal mortification within Opus Dei. The cilice, as worn by Silas in The Da Vinci Code, is a barbed belt worn around the upper thigh to remember Christ’s suffering and discourage sinful behavior, usually worn for two hours per day. Silas was sure to wear it, convinced that “absolution required sacrifice.” The tightness of the belt is referred to as the “generosity”, and the generosity determines the severity of the wounds, scars, and infections the belt incurs. The “Discipline” is a cord-like whip of penance used traditionally once a week only on the bare buttocks, but sometimes used on the back even though lung damage can result. Many members request permission to use the Discipline more than the allotted time, possibly as a way to bring their selves closer to the Founder, whose frequent and fervent auto-flagellation left bloody streaks in Opus Dei quarters.
Silas’ actions reflect the Founder’s mentality; after feeling as if he had failed the church, he used the discipline until he feeling “dizzy and weak” and felt the cilice and “blood trickling down his inner thigh,” but in disillusionment he could not justify ending his mortifications. During the Every night before sleeping, members are required in the “examination of conscience” to ask “have I omitted the customary mortifications?”
As a member of Opus Dei, Maria del Carmen Tapia, as encouraged by the Opus Constitution, had taken classes. She was liberal leader in her Venezuelan Women’s Branch Opus center, where she fought for equality between the sexes within Opus Dei and a simple allowance for women to wear short sleeved shirts. She also worked to gain the right to choose which Opus priest to confess to, as was allowed by both the Constitution and the Canon law, but forbidden by Opus Dei.
When she finally decided to leave Opus Dei and Venezuela to take classes at an American university, she tried to have her classes and credit transferred. Opus Dei claimed that she “had never taken them,” so she went to the Vatican for help. She was then informed that there were many others in her same situation, and soon after Opus issues a statement to the Vatican stating that “unless the members pass a revalidation of their studies, Opus Dei never keeps a record of the studies taken.” This practice clearly goes against the educational clause in the Opus Constitution, and shows the groups inconsistency between what it claims it will do and support, and what actually occurs.
When Tapia had wanted to leave for the university, she tells that she was “fired personally [from Opus Dei] by the Founder.” She was sent to Rome and put essentially on an 8-month house arrest, with no external communication permitted. A Venezuelan numerary obtained a post office box for Maria’s use, and when it was discovered and she refused to expose which box number was hers, an Opus Dei member informed her that she was committing a “mortal sin.” During her time in captivity in Rome, her hair turned white and she was denied the right to return home to Spain. After finally being released from her confinement, she was accused of damaging the unity and integrity of the organization as a result of her liberal actions in Venezuela. She finalizes her disgust with the organization and her treatment stating “my astonishment is infinite when I hear now the Monsignor Escriva is in the process of beatification.”
When boss Raimundo Pannikar grew miserable within the confines of Opus Dei, he was sent to India and was told that he was never allowed to return to Europe without the trip being sanctioned by Opus Dei. He was permitted to attend a meeting in Israel, but at the request of a French woman, had also planned to stop in Zurich. “Opus alleged the he was having an affair with her.” During his trip he was informed that Escriva wished to see him, and when he thought he was being taken to meet with the founder he was actually taken by Opus priests to trial and charged for “misdemeanors.” Opus Dei lied to Pannikar’s family about his whereabouts, and then shipped him home to India for good.
A life within Opus Dei may lead some on a path of enlightenment and good daily Work, but its structure and practices can lead many people to frustration, anger, feelings of entrapment, and ultimate suffering. Silas gave his life to Opus Dei, and Opus Dei readily took it all away from him. Attempts to escape Opus Dei are met with guilt-inspiring lectures, and many fear going against higher officials. Though some people are allowed or expelled from the group for “curious” reasons, it is more common for people to become trapped within the group. Suicides have been reported, and others have “wasted away.” One Opus Dei member was discovered dead “of natural causes, though he seemed to have destroyed himself through neglect.” Many members feel that “when you leave you become a non-person, and no one who is a member is allowed to help you.” This rule applies even to family members, who are also not allowed to support other family members who may leave the group and need support, another principle that does not follow Escriva’s goal of unity.
As shown through careful examination of a plethora of supporting evidence, Brown’s depiction of Opus Dei is true by all honest and credible accounts. Opus Dei is not a religious group, but much more of a cult-like organization, with impious practices, atrocious strategies for obtaining power, and abilities to control the lives of others. Silas and Aringarosa represent the many unfortunately brainwashed Opus Dei members who act as one controllable unit.
To fully assess the truth in ex-member statements, I wrote a letter to Opus Dei, and now have my own Opus Dei story to tell. The nature of the letter was simple, good-natured, and had clearly outlined questions about the Opus Dei faith and practices. My respondent, Rev. Bradley Arturi, answered promptly with recruiting practices reflected immediately with encouragement to visit with a numerary, and complete a retreat with a group. He worked to convince me that a I must “act absolutely freely.” His requests are dichotomous. Free will does not exist within Opus Dei. Silas and Aringarosa stop at nothing to save what they think is right, but their depiction of “right,” as supported by numerous Opus Dei experts and ex-members, is engrained in them by Opus Dei, and does not reflect their own free will.
In my letter, I had expressed concern about the “segregation” between men and women. Rev. Arturi corrected me, terming this separation “merely independence,” explaining that it is necessary for the two diverse groups to be apart so that “themes of a particular interest to one group or another” could be addressed. I do not feel that encouraging women to worship “Mary, the handmaid” is a more necessary topic for women than is the study of Mary in the “seat of wisdom.” He specifically assured me that never “could women feel that men are somehow dominating their activity” if they were allowed to govern themselves and run their own branches. Tapia’s story attests to the fact that women actually hold very little power in all of Opus Dei, and men dominate all activities besides cooking and cleaning. Rev. Arturi would not accept this refutation though, for he refers to her story as “ancient history” that was “largely discredited” long ago.
In his closing remarks, Rev. Arturi emphatically reminded me that “Opus Dei is in no way secret.” Any logical, free-thinking person would be able to acknowledge that Opus Dei hides truth, and Dan Brown has revealed it. The group has also been shown to issue false information to the public and others just like me about their practices, and everything that was told to me in the letter was similar to the lies told to others who were roped in. Opus Dei is no more than a dangerous cult that controls its members’ thoughts, desires and dreams; Opus Dei is far from what God could ever want.