Will the Da Vinci Code Rehabilitate an Maligned Catholic Group

Every pop culture phenomenon, especially when metastasizing into its most advanced form - the Hollywood blockbuster - comes accompanied by side dramas. For all its outsized impact - three years on the bestseller lists, 40 million-plus copies sold - The Da Vinci Code is no different.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 22, 2006

Every pop culture phenomenon, especially when metastasizing into its most advanced form - the Hollywood blockbuster - comes accompanied by side dramas. For all its outsized impact - three years on the bestseller lists, 40 million-plus copies sold - The Da Vinci Code is no different.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 22, 2006

Will the Da Vinci Code Rehabilitate an Maligned Catholic Group

Every pop culture phenomenon, especially when metastasizing into its most advanced form - the Hollywood blockbuster - comes accompanied by side dramas. For all its outsized impact - three years on the bestseller lists, 40 million-plus copies sold - The Da Vinci Code is no different. As always, there are those whose very existence the book seems to validate, like the 53 per cent of respondents who told one poll that the Code had helped their "personal spiritual growth and understanding" or those angling for their piece of the action, such as the plagiarism claimants and travel agencies offering Code-themed tours of Paris (not to mention the mass media). And then there are the aggrieved parties whose ox has been gored.

No one and nothing has been bloodied by Dan Brown's novel more than OPUS DEI, the conservative and (formerly) secretive Roman Catholic group that's home to most of the Code's bad guys. For most of its 78 years, Opus Dei (the name means "the work of God") has been the most controversial society within the Church. Although it's dedicated to the idea of bringing spirituality to the workplace, a fifth of its members, known as numeraries, are sworn to celibacy and live in special Opus Dei residences. The society's traditionalist beliefs and practices invoke an almost visceral repugnance among many liberal Catholics. Brown didn't create Opus Dei-phobia: as any number of plagiarism litigants will happily testify, the Code didn't invent anything. But, as he did with the notion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were husband and wife, Brown certainly broadcast his caricature to every corner of the globe. By so doing, his novel, which seemed potent enough in 2004 when its rampaging fans forced the exhumation of a long-dead priest in France, ultimately pulled off something even more remarkable: it got the notoriously reticent group talking.

In January about a dozen men, Opus Dei's Code task force, met at its headquarters in Rome to discuss the film's May 19 release. There were two representatives from Spain, the group's heartland and home to 35,000 of its 85,000 members, recalls Msgr. Fred Dolan, Opus Dei's vicar in Canada, "plus a French guy and two Germans, two Americans, a few Italians - and me." Dolan says he was called in partly because he's from North America, the continent where the novel's effects have been most explosive; in Europe, Dolan delicately says, "people have a deeper grasp of history." And partly because "my fellows in Rome seem to think I'm an expert." That reputation dates from Dolan's chance encounter in Montreal with a sympathetic journalist, Robert Scully, in 2003, back when "we were all still bewildered" by the media storm. Scully advised Dolan to seek out the well-connected Michael Levine, Canada's leading entertainment lawyer, for help in the counteroffensive. "He's been fantastic," enthuses Dolan, "opening doors for us in Hollywood and never charging us a cent."

Although those doors didn't lead directly to the filmmakers - Opus Dei has never had a face-to-face meeting with The Da Vinci Code's director, Ron Howard - they did provide access to other industry figures whose advice changed the group's thinking. "One guy, in March 2004, told us we couldn't pay for this level of coverage. He was the first to make the lemonade comment - you know, 'when life hands you lemons' - that became our joke name for what we decided would be an outreach response. Operation Lemonade wouldn't be us, Opus Dei, complaining, but us telling the world what we were really about."

So an organization that was once adamant about protecting "spiritual privacy" is now openly discussing its mission in the world. Officials co-operated with American journalist John Allen, whose 2005 book Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church was the first in-depth study by an outsider. Opus Dei residences welcomed camera crews and freely gave interviews. The group even trumpets its members' successes, particularly when they cut across Da Vinci Code stereotypes about Opus Dei's entrenched sexism and right-wing politics. The recent election of physician Paola Binetti, a full, celibate numerary, to the Italian Senate, says Dolan, means that "two of the most visible Opus Dei politicians in the world - Binetti and Ruth Kelly, Labour minister of education in Britain - are now women who belong to centre-left parties."

The outreach has had its benefits - one New York member said that every time a new article appears in the media, "The next day, we get 200 emails saying, 'I want to join Opus Dei!' " But what about Howard and his $125-million film? Despite its focus on the positive, Opus Dei is far from indifferent to the movie. And it has no idea what to expect. Sony Pictures Entertainment's anodyne website, www.thedavincidialogue.com, a joint project of Sony and Grace Hill Media, a Hollywood-based consulting firm that has worked with religious communities and studios on more than 80 potentially controversial films, is certainly impressive looking. It offers free materials for Christian ministers and links to a long list of experts - including Opus Dei author Allen and Douglas Cowan, a religious studies professor at Ontario's University of Waterloo - but nowhere does it give a hint of what's actually in the film.

Opus Dei's hopes aren't high. After sending two letters to Sony and its subsidiary Columbia Pictures pointing out "hurtful" errors, officials received bland replies. "Sony's letter," recounts a mordant Dolan, "reads, 'We aim to represent the novel with taste, intelligence and sensitivity.' They may pull it off, who knows? But it would take a miracle." And Howard's public pronouncements have, so far, been as gnomic as any conspiracy theorist's: what, in fact, does it mean to say, "In choosing to take this novel to the screen you also have to ask yourself a lot of the questions that the book poses to the reader"?

Of course, the idea of a Da Vinci Code movie that Opus Dei actually approves of is reminiscent of the famous Bingley exchange in Pride and Prejudice. Social balls would be so "much more rational if conversation instead of dancing were made the order of the day," says the sister; "Much more rational," replies the brother, "but not near so much like a ball." If the filmmakers took out everything that troubled conservative Catholics, there would be no film to premiere at Cannes.

So Opus Dei, like the rest of us, will just have to wait. There are crucial points in Brown's story, the adaptation of which will show how - if at all - the filmmakers have responded to Opus Dei's remonstrances. Critics and the plain curious - filmgoers who already know the novel by heart, say - can enter into the spirit of the thing by indulging in a Da Vinci Code-like puzzle game by paying close attention to those flashpoint scenes. The object of the game? Decoding just how deep into Dan Brown's conspiracy-ruled world Howard ultimately immersed himself.

First up, naturally, is Silas, the novel's pious Opus Dei assassin, a deranged, masochistic albino monk who likes to pause between murders to whip himself bloody or tighten the flesh-piercing barbed strap that he (like all real-life numeraries) wears around his thigh. There is, sadly enough from Opus Dei's perspective, little that can be done about Silas, who is absolutely central to the story. Besides, he's already appeared - in all his macabre glory - in the film's trailers. And it seems a shade pedantic to point out that there are no monks in Opus Dei, when what the group would really like to scream from the rooftops is that there aren't any homicidal maniacs either. Perhaps, when it comes to the soon-to-be-iconic shots of Silas mortifying his flesh with his "discipline" - the small, twine, eight-strand whip that numeraries employ once a week - Howard could dial down Brown's blood splatters. The discipline, Dolan says, is "uncomfortable rather than painful - no blood at all."

Brown's error-strewn take on Opus Dei's "world" headquarters in New York (actually its American headquarters) offers room for easy improvement. His description of Murray Hill Place gives it a price tag of US$47 million. Men enter through its main doors; women must enter via a side street and are always separate "acoustically and visually" from the men. Female adherents clean up after the men for no pay, sleep on the floor (men have straw mats), and endure even more corporal mortification. Murray Hill's penthouse apartment is the home of Bishop Manuel Aringarosa, Opus Dei's head and another of Brown's punnishly named characters (Aringarosa means "red herring" in Italian).

All of this is wrong, though it's of no import to the movie that the real head of Opus Dei lives in Rome, or that the Manhattan building actually cost US$69 million, a figure Brown would have used had he bothered to unearth it, since his point was the group's supposed vast wealth. (Murray Hill Place, in fact, came from a single bequest of US$78 million in pharmaceutical stock in 1997; before that, Opus Dei was struggling to raise funds for a three-storey suburban centre.)

But Howard could have corrected Brown's lurid mishmash about women in Opus Dei to earn a little goodwill with Catholics. The sexes do have separate residences in Murray Hill - numeraries are celibate, after all - but men and women mingle throughout the common areas, and use whichever set of doors is more convenient. The housekeeping staff are all female, true enough, but they are paid. Nor are all Opus Dei women fully engaged in bed-making, as the examples of Binetti and Kelly reveal. A single shot of men and women leaving Murray Hill together would show that Howard has been listening. Or he could simply avoid setting scenes there, since it's hardly vital to the Code's plot, just as he could avoid other scarcely germane issues, like Brown's claim that Opus Dei bribed Pope John Paul II into making the group a personal prelature outside of local bishops' control.

On the other hand, images of sex-specific entrances in the film might indicate the director has become a true believer in his source material. That would set filmgoers up nicely for the inclusion - or not, as Howard chooses - of the novel's single nastiest anti-Opus Dei line, the last words of one of Silas's victims: "Jesus had but one true message. I cannot see that message in Opus Dei." Up to that point Howard could easily treat his mad monk in the same way Hollywood has traditionally portrayed evil government agents, as rogue elements in essentially benign organizations. He might do the same here, or he could hew faithfully to Brown's alt-Christian history.

Reasoning along those lines has led some commentators to tentatively predict the movie won't identify its villains, leaving all the mayhem in the hands of an anonymous Catholic sect - that uses whips and barbed thigh bands in its sex-segregated New York skyscraper. It's a bizarre notion, rather like a remade Saving Private Ryan in which Allied forces storm Normandy beaches defended by an enemy left unnamed, at least as long as everyone is willing to ignore the swastika flags waving overhead. Opus Dei's Dolan can hardly suppress a snort of derision. "What would be the point? Everybody and his brother, and I mean everybody, knows we're the bad guys."

Opus Dei, of course, is merely the most visible (and outraged) of the many parties who have a bone to pick with Brown. There's the Parisian church of St. Sulpice, the location of several key moments in the Da Vinci Code. In a now-familiar pattern for Brown watchers, the novelist got just about everything wrong about St. Sulpice. (Or, to be more charitable to Brown's intellect than to his ethics, he deliberately included what he knew to be nonsense, some of it vicious, in the interests of furthering his plot. Strangely enough, however, few of Brown's legion of critics ever accuse him of mendacity.)

In St. Sulpice, it is true, as Brown writes, that the windows at both ends of the church transept display the letters P and S. But those are the initials of its patron saints Peter and Sulpitius, not of the Priory of Sion, the fictitious secret society that guards the true secret of the Holy Grail. There's no evidence the church was erected on the site of an ancient temple to Isis; and the brass line in the floor is not a remnant of the old Paris prime meridian (which actually ran about 100 m to the east). In 2004, after seeing his church swarmed by curious Code fans, Paul Roumanet, St. Suplice's irritated pastor, posted a note correcting what he called "fanciful allegations." He refused to address the issue again. The following year church authorities denied Howard permission to film there, a blow to a film that will find much of its appeal by its visualization of the art treasures and architectural sites featured in the novel.

As for the novel's lengthy talky sections, stuffed full of historical (mis)information, Howard could kill two birds with one stone - improving his film and placating the pious - by cutting the history lessons to a minimum. He can correct the minor mistakes (everything from having a French king lead the first Crusade to Brown's ignorance about the contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls), and quietly drop some of the larger slurs - particularly the grotesque assertion that the Roman Catholic Church (and it alone) "burned at the stake an astounding five million women" for the crime of witchcraft.

But, along with murderous Silas and Christ's marriage, the core fantasy will necessarily remain: some 17 centuries ago, the early Catholic Church, driven by the twin motives of hatred for women and lust for power, violently suppressed the truth about Jesus, ordinary mortal and husband to Mary Magdalene; and elements within the Church are still at it today. Without that, there's no Da Vinci Code.

Opus Dei has crafted its bottom line in recognition of that fact. "Putting aside the parts aimed at us," says Dolan, "what really hurts is the denial of the divinity of Jesus." The group, "at this stage of the game," according to Dolan, would settle for a simple statement of fact, a counterpoint to the notorious declaration that prefaced the novel: "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." Opus Dei's Tokyo office helpfully provided some suggested wording in an April 6 open letter to Sony shareholders, directors and employees. Sony, the letter said, should start the film with "a disclaimer making it clear that this is a work of fiction, and that any resemblance to reality is pure coincidence."

Don't miss the opening credits.


Maclean's May 22, 2006