Opus Dei and the Da Vinci Code: Jesuit Sees Novel as 'Junk Food'

By Zaray, Nicole | National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Opus Dei and the Da Vinci Code: Jesuit Sees Novel as 'Junk Food'


Zaray, Nicole, National Catholic Reporter


As The Da Vinci Code continues to maintain its perch at the top of national bestseller lists, a new round of books explaining and debunking some of the book's "factual" claims is now hitting bookstores. In Secrets of the Code, editor Dan Burstein gathers together a number of scholars and experts to help readers better understand the remarkably popular novel. Included in the new book is a lengthy excerpt from a 1995 article written by Jesuit Fr. James Martin in America magazine about Opus Dei, one of the chief villains in Brown's novel. In this wide-ranging interview, Martin, associate editor of America, discusses the facts and the fiction behind Opus Dei's nefarious role in The Da Vinci Code.

NCR: How much did you know about Opus Dei before writing your 1995 article "Opus Dei in the United States"?

Martin: I knew very little about what they really did, and I think that mirrors the experience of a lot of American Catholics. While they might have heard of Opus Dei, they're pretty vague about what it does, what its purpose is, where it's located and how influential it is in the church. And in my research, I found that articles and books on Opus Dei generally take two different tacks. Either it's the greatest thing since sliced bread, it's the only way to holiness for Catholic lay people and it's this marvelous organization that does nothing but good, or Opus Dei is this evil, cult-like, almost dangerous organization that should never be trusted. I thought it was very strange that there was this dichotomy. So what I tried to do in my article was to present a more balanced view.

In general, most of the people in Opus Dei are good and decent Catholics. However, there are a lot of things that the organization does that deserve a little scrutiny.

What are some of the good things they do?

Opus Dei's mission, essentially, is to encourage Catholic lay people to live holy lives in the world. And you can't get more positive than that. They encourage people to lead Christian lives of prayer and service and to join together in community.

Are there other groups who do the same thing?

There are plenty of Catholic groups who do the same thing. There are small groups in local churches, like prayer groups and Bible-discussion groups and things like that. There are the Knights of Columbus and the Knights of Malta, who do all sorts of charitable works. There are what are called "sodalities," organized around Marian devotions. There are what are known as Christian Life Communities that encourage lay spirituality. So there are all sorts of groups and movements like this in the church.

What makes Opus Dei different is that it is very well organized, very influential and very wealthy. The group is centrally organized; they have specific categories and classes for its members; it is very well funded; and it is powerful and influential in the church to a degree that some of these other organizations simply are not. And they have been given this designation as a "personal prelature" under Pope John Paul II, which has meant that they have been able to go about their business almost untouched by criticism or oversight by bishops. They are, to quote scripture a bit, "a people set apart."

Is being a "personal prelature" of the pope a big deal?

It is a big deal, and the obvious question is, Why do they need it? Opus Dei would say, "We need it because we're so different and so unique in the church and there's never been anything like us before." But I don't think that's correct at all. There have always been plenty of organizations that foster lay spirituality in the church on the local, national and international level. Clearly it's a benefit to Opus Dei to have this designation, because it means that they don't have to worry about the local bishops involving themselves in their affairs. That's one thing that gives rise to a suspicion that a lot of people have about Opus Dei.

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