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Opus Dei tackles image problem

A spokesperson for Opus Dei - villainised in Da Vinci Code - refutes most claims of the novel.

india Updated: Feb 15, 2006 16:52 IST

Portrayed in the best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code as a secretive cult willing to murder to defend a fictional 2,000-year-old Catholic cover-up, Opus Dei is promoting its softer side before the movie of the book arrives in May.

Published in March 2003, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code is one of the most popular books in publishing history with more than 40 million copies in print worldwide in 44 languages.

The book is also controversial because the plot stems from the idea Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and had children. Because of this, the novel has been condemned by the Roman Catholic Church.

"It's very sad that Opus Dei and the Catholic Church were portrayed unfairly in the novel," said Opus Dei spokesman Brian Finnerty. "What we're trying to do is take advantage of the interest to explain what the real Opus Dei is all about."

Opus Dei is a far-flung, conservative Catholic organization blessed by the Pope in 1982 with a special status in the church. Founded in 1928 in Spain by Jose Maria Escriva with a mission to teach Catholics to strive for holiness through their work, Opus Dei has 85,000 members worldwide, of which around 2,000 are priests. Escriva was made a saint in 2002.

But as the whipping boy of church liberals for years and with estranged members telling of co-ercive recruitment tactics and corporal mortification, Opus Dei has been controversial. Now, because of The Da Vinci Code, it has to do even more to overcome the unblessed image portrayed by the book.

Opus Dei appears in the story as a shadowy cult whose henchman is a murderous albino monk named Silas, who makes himself bleed with a cilice -- a spiked metal belt strapped tight around the upper thigh -- for penance.

Passersby who approach the organization's 17-story building in Manhattan are invited to reach for a leaflet to learn about the real Opus Dei, which means "God's work."

Finnerty's job these days is to promote the group and give reporters tours of the building, a $69 million corner edifice in midtown Manhattan housing a luxurious conference center on five floors as well as accommodations and offices for around 65 members.

COUNTRY-HOUSE STYLE

Waiting rooms and lounges are furnished in country-house style with leather armchairs, antique-style furniture and elegant bookshelves carrying religious and historical works as well as novels by the likes of Willa Cather and Jane Austen.

An airy conservatory leads out to a roof-top terrace with deck-chairs, potted plants and a small statue of the Virgin and Child. Two middle-aged men were discussing "investment philosophy" in the conservatory when a visitor passed through.

A few floors down is what looks like a hotel VIP lounge with a grand piano and views of the iconic Chrysler Building.

"It's like a very nice home," Finnerty said. "It's not at all like a monastery or a Da Vinci Code setting. You won't see anyone like Silas walking through here dripping blood."

John Allen, author of a book on Opus Dei, said it had long been a "lightening rod" for liberal Catholics to criticize.

"Dan Brown didn't make up the idea of Opus Dei as the boogeyman of the Catholic Church," Allen told Reuters in a phone interview from Rome, where he reports on the Vatican.

"Critics would often say Opus Dei is a very conservative version of Catholicism. Some would say it is a very worldly version of Catholicism focused on wealth and power," he said.

The late Pope John Paul II was an admirer of Opus Dei, but Allen said its influence was not as strong as some think.

Allen said just two of the 115 cardinals who elected Pope Benedict were Opus Dei, and the group claimed only around 40 of the world's 4,500 bishops as members.

"They simply don't have the stranglehold on power that people imagine," Allen said, adding that Opus Dei's wealth was also exaggerated by critics. Worldwide assets were around $2.8 billion, he said, with U.S. assets of $350 million -- around the same as a mid-sized diocese.

Finnerty emphasized Opus Dei's charitable work, including schools and hospitals in the United States and Africa.

But some former members writing on the Web site of the Opus Dei Awareness Network say that aspect is overshadowed by coercive and cult-like recruitment tactics that alienate members from their families and pressure people into harmful practices such as the use of the cilice.

Marc Carroggio, an Opus Dei spokesman brought in from Rome as a reinforcement before the film, said corporal mortification was a small and "marginal" element of Opus Dei, and voluntary. Finnerty added that Mother Teresa wore a form of a cilice.

He said Opus Dei wrote to Sony Pictures asking them to leave the organization out of the movie but to no avail, so it now aims to use the film as a "teaching moment."