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Pope Benedict XVI, left, salutes Monsignor Javier Echevarria Rodriguez, the head of the conservative Roman Catholic institution Opus Dei, during an audience with youths of Opus Dei at the Vatican, April 10, 2006. (AP Photo/L�Osservatore Romano)
Opus Dei: Beyond Dan Brown's fiction
CBC News Online | May 12, 2006

Opus Dei is Latin for "the work of God" but the name has gained a darker association for readers of Dan Brown's book The Da Vinci Code, which has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide. Brown's novel paints the real-life religious organization as a sinister Catholic cult, embodied by the book's villain, Silas. Brown depicted Opus Dei as a secretive, powerful and murderous sect, whose members whip themselves bloody. Members of Opus Dei say their portrayal in the book is a mistaken and exaggerated caricature. But Brown's image will reach an even larger audience when the big-budget movie based on the book and starring Tom Hanks opens in theatres on May 19.

Long before Brown wrote about Opus Dei, a shroud of mystery surrounded the organization. Numerous writers and journalists have tried to pin the group down. And despite the media blitz Opus Dei has launched in anticipation of the film's release, there isn't one clear picture.

What is Opus Dei?

Opus Dei is a worldwide organization of people and priests, within the structure of the Roman Catholic Church.

"The mission of Opus Dei is to help people, normal people, to integrate their faith in their day-to-day life," says Monique David, the director of the Opus Dei Council of Women in Canada, and a member of Opus Dei's press office.

David says members of Opus Dei hold prayer and study meetings, retreats, classes and workshops. These are held at either an Opus Dei centre - there are 19 in Canada - or at a church or private homes. Members also do charity work in the name of Opus Dei and in connection with other organizations.

It was started in 1928 by Josemaria Escriva, a Spanish priest who became a saint in 2002. Opus Dei had an all-male membership until 1930.

In 1982, the organization became a personal prelature, which means that it is part of the church's structure. Like a diocese, it is overseen by a bishop and has its own clergy and lay representatives, but instead of being defined geographically, it is defined by its purpose worldwide. To date, Opus Dei is the only personal prelature under the Vatican. David says Opus Dei members still belong to their local parishes, but participate in the prelature's activities. The governing bishop - or prelate - is elected by members, and approved by the Pope. The current prelate is Bishop Javier Echevarria. Opus Dei is seen as a conservative organization - remaining true to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Who are the members of Opus Dei?

There were 87,116 members worldwide in 2005, 1,902 of whom are priests. Members are in 61 countries, including Canada and the United States. About 55 per cent of members worldwide are women. In Canada, about 60 per cent are female.

Catholics who have been involved in Opus Dei activities may become members if they make a lifelong commitment and are at least 18 years old, although it takes five years after the initial devotion to become a full member. Anyone, even if not Roman Catholic, can take part in Opus Dei activities.

There are three types of members:
  • "Numeraries" commit to celibacy but do not become priests. They make up less than 30 per cent of the organization and often live in Opus Dei centres.

  • "Supernumeraries" are generally married Opus Dei members, and make up about 70 per cent of the organization. Their "path to holiness" is generally achieved through the sanctification of their family duties.

  • "Numerary assistants" are generally women who perform domestic duties full-time in Opus Dei centres.
Other volunteers, known as "cooperators" or friends of Opus Dei, help with prayers or give their work or their time. They don't necessarily need to be Catholic or even Christian.

How much of what is portrayed about Opus Dei in The Da Vinci Code is accurate?

Dan Brown, on his website, says his book is a work of fiction, but he adds, "[it is] based on numerous books written about Opus Dei as well as on my own personal interviews with current and former members."

Brown characterizes the group as a reclusive organization - with monks who kill at will - and wield special influence in the Roman Catholic Church.

David disputes this, and says they're just a small organization of religious people. "There is no monk in Opus Dei. There is no murder," she laughs.

David says Brown got only one thing right: "The way [Brown] has spelled Opus Dei. That's the only thing that is OK. All the rest is pure caricature, mistaken and misleading."

John Allen, a journalist for the National Catholic Reporter and CNN's Vatican correspondent, says the truth is somewhere in between. Allen was the first journalist who was given insider access to Opus Dei. He wrote the book Opus Dei: an objective look behind the myths and the reality of the most controversial force in the Catholic Church.

"I think the bottom line is there's a lot less there than people might think," said Allen, during a November 2005 interview with CBC Radio's The Current. "They are simply not as rich, not as influential, not as successful in gaining new recruits, and so on, as people imagine."

But Dianne DiNicola, an American whose daughter is a former numerary, says Opus Dei has "questionable practices." She says her daughter Tammy became reclusive and her personality changed after she joined the group. DiNicola says her daughter was strictly controlled, turned over her paycheque to Opus Dei and needed permission to leave for outings.

"They condition a person so that they get their mind, and they don't realize that they don't have freedom," she says. "And in my daughter's case, she left after a family intervention."

DiNicola started the Opus Dei Awareness Network in 1991 to tell people what they experienced. She says their website posts testimonies from about 25 other former members.

Still, DiNicola says Brown's depiction is inaccurate and "is a sensationalist view of Opus Dei."

Do Opus Dei members practise corporal mortification - the practice of wearing a spiked chain around the leg or striking themselves with a small whip once a week?

Yes, but it's voluntary and not violent, says David. She says it's only practised by about 30 per cent of members, only the numeraries.

The cilice - a spiked chain worn around the leg - is used for two hours a day. David says it leaves "a little pinch in the skin." But, she emphasizes, there is no blood.

"In the Da Vinci Code, it is a grotesque caricature of the reality."

The discipline they perform on themselves is done with a rope with knotted strands and is used once a week. David says this is used on the back, lightly, and for a short period of time while reciting a prayer.

"If you know the Hail Mary, I think it's 40 words. That's it. � It's more symbolic than anything else."

Both the cilice and the discipline are used as a reminder of Jesus' suffering on the cross, she says.

"It's not for everybody," says David. "But it's not Opus Dei who invented it either." Many saints of the church used it as well, including Mother Teresa, she says.

Allen agrees. "It would certainly be something that most Catholics would have a hard time understanding or accepting," he said. "But it is a practice that comes with the full approval and warrant of church authority."

However, Escriva once left blood on the walls after using the discipline. The event was described in Allen's book and in an Escriva biography by Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli.

It happened in Madrid during the Spanish civil war. Escriva and his followers were stuck in the Honduran consulate. Escriva's chief aide - and eventual successor as prelate of Opus Dei - Alvaro del Portillo, was sick and couldn't leave the room. Escriva asked Portillo to cover his head with a blanket while he used the discipline. Portillo said he heard "more than a thousand terrible blows" and "the floor was covered with blood, but he cleaned it up before the others came in." But, David notes, Escriva explicitly told members not to imitate this.

How wealthy and influential is Opus Dei?

This, too, is hard to pinpoint. Their assets are estimated at $2.8 billion, with an annual budget of $1.7 million, according to Allen. These figures are based on financial statements for programs in Rome, Spain, the United States, the United Kingdom, Kenya, Peru and Argentina. However, this isn't a complete financial profile. Because many of their "corporate works" like schools, and universities do not "belong" to Opus Dei, but rather are owned by the laypeople, who also operate them. This includes the $69 million, 17-storey headquarters in New York City.

David, however, adds that the building's purchase was covered largely by a donation from an Opus Dei cooperator. She adds there is no specific amount of money members are required to give to the organization. But, she says, numeraries usually give the remainder of their paycheques after living expenses are taken, amounting to about 20 per cent of their income.

Some critics say that Opus Dei wields considerable power in politics, but specifically within the Catholic Church. Many arguments centre on Escriva's "fast-track" to sainthood. Pope John Paul II canonized Escriva in 2002, 27 years after his death.

David agrees that's faster than normal, but says no steps were skipped. And, she adds, the canonization process was sped up for all candidates, not just for Escriva.

Other criticisms include that as the only personal prelature, Opus Dei has a special place within the church. David, however, refutes that. "It's not a special status for Opus Dei," she says. "It is a juridical form that exists in the Catholic Church. And the goal of that is to perform some specific mission that is entrusted to them by the Vatican."

The group has a reputation for being secretive, but Opus Dei has recently gone on a public relations blitz, in anticipation of The Da Vinci Code film release. David says Brown's novel - and the movie - may help the organization in the end.

"Before, we were not interesting for the media," she says. "And now, the media is interested in knowing what the real Opus Dei is, so we're taking advantage of it."



CBC Audio Feature: The Current looks at Opus Dei

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Investigating the Catholic Church's practice of arranging confidentiality agreements with people who've been abused by priests.

Archives: The 1987 Papal Visit

Archives: The 1984 Papal Visit

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