Chapter Nine Opus Dei


A visit to the Opus Dei website ( shows priests grinning from ear to ear at the thought of the good works they perform. You could be excused for thinking that you are on some kind of cyberspace Sunday School trip which is unconnected to the murky organization that Brown depicts. Opus Dei means “Work of God” in Latin and its motto is “Finding God in Work and Daily Life.” It con­trols Vatican Radio and owns huge tracts of land and indus­try throughout the western world.

The full title of Opus Dei is “Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei.” It was founded in Spain in 1928 and remains strong there. In fact, many aggressive religious orders, for example the Dominicans and the Jesuits, have their origins in Spain, perhaps partly as a result of its long struggle against Fascism and its historical role as a geographical bul­wark against its spread.

Although officially a part of the Catholic Church, Opus Dei bears many of the hallmarks of a sect. Many top leaders of the Spanish military are said to be Opus Dei members. They no doubt feel at home in it. The organization is run with brutal efficiency; nobody is indispensable and orders are obeyed without question. Opus Dei in Spain has always targeted the most intelligent people from universities for recruitment. Because of the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere surrounding it, Opus Dei is often referred to there as the “Holy Mafia.”

Despite controversy surrounding irregularities in the eccle­siastical processes and testimonials from thousands who had been harmed by Opus Dei, its founder, Msgr. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, was ordained as a saint on October 6, 2002 after one of the shortest waiting times in history -he died in 19 7 5. This suggests that the current Pope, John Paul II, is either a supporter of Opus Dei or is unaware of its true nature. Accounts of Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer’s life make clear that he was not even remotely pleasant to deal with. He was subject to fits of temper and was intolerant of anyone who was even faintly suspected of being anti-Opus Dei, including Pope John XXIII and Paul VI. The opinion was aired that his beatification could damage the whole ecclesiastical system.

Although some of the members are no doubt good natured and hold the best of intentions, it is indisputable that Opus Dei takes over the lives of its adherents in ways that its critics find most sinister.

There are an estimated 80,000 members worldwide, con­sisting of laity and priests. “Numerary” members of Opus Dei take an oath of celibacy and live in Opus Dei houses. They commit themselves to “the spirit of Opus Dei” with­out, perhaps, understanding the implications.

You do not have to be a Catholic or a male to join Opus Dei. Women are recruited from poor, rural and uneducated backgrounds as Numerary Assistants and also have to make a vow of celibacy. They are also responsible for the upkeep of the Opus Dei residences and are no doubt grateful for recent permission to wear trousers. Non-Catholics may join
Opus Dei as Cooperators. This means that in exchange for perhaps a little Divine Grace in the manner of medieval indulgences, they pay large sums of money to Opus Dei.

The methods of recruiting are aggressive and underhanded. If a potential member is keen on a particular activity, Opus Dei members will organize a weekend centered on this activity to encourage him to join the “brethren.” The Opus Dei-sponsored student group UNIV sometimes organizes trips to the Opus Dei headquarters in Rome during which the pressure for potential recruits to join is ratcheted up.

Members are encouraged to have a pool of twelve to fifteen friends, a number of which are likely candidates to “whis­tle” (join). They submit detailed statistical reports on the progress of the recruiting of these friends. Lonely, intel­ligent, attractive Catholics are the social profile most hunt­ed down. Not only will they be best able to attract new members, but they are also likely to earn more for Opus Dei’s coffers than other recruits. (Readers of The DaVinci Code no doubt feel that recruiting would perhaps not be one of the Silas character’s strong points.) Recruitment is also achieved through “front groups” at universities and other youth organizations. Often Opus Dei members do not reveal their identities as such. Pressure tactics are used to “close the deal.” Potential recruits are encouraged to believe that they are at a crisis point in their lives and if they refuse to “whis­tle” they will lose God’s grace.

The Life of a Member
Once they have joined, the Numerary Members are morally blackmailed into obeying all that they are told to do through the constant reminder of “the spirit of Opus Dei” to which they have agreed. From this point their lives are no longer their own. They are told about the idea of”childhood in front of God.” Thus they hand over all decision-making to Opus Dei in the same way that children leave responsibil­ity to their parents. This particularly appeals to the “eternal victim” type of personality, such as Silas in The Da Vinci Code.

Numeraries are usually college students or young profes­sionals. They are housed in affluent city neighborhoods. These centers are staffed by a Director, an Assistant Director and a secretary.

This is the daily life that Numerary Members can expect:

-They take a vow of celibacy and practice “Corporal
Mortification,” which we will look at in a moment.

-In the manner of a playground bully asking a child for his lunch money, Opus Dei demands members to hand over their earnings. The members then have to request some of it to be returned to them for per­sonal needs and they have to explain in detail how they spend their own money. They are usually not allowed to manage their own bank accounts. There is never any record of how Opus Dei spends the money it receives from its members in this way.

-Correspondence with the “outside world” is secretly monitored.

-All forms of entertainment are strictly controlled and censored, whether it be private or public enter­tainment. Members can watch television only in the company of a chaperone. Books must be pre­approved by the Director and usually only those written by the Founder, an Opus Dei member or a pre-Vatican II writer are permitted. In Article Number 339 of “The Way,” the spiritual book of 999 articles mentioned in The Da Vinci Code, Josemaria Escriva writes, “You shall not buy books without the advice of an experienced Christian. It is so easy to buy something useless or mischievous. Often people believe they are carrying a book under their arm…but they only carry a load of mud.”

-All movements in and out of the Opus Dei residency are subject to permission from the member’s Director.

-Members have to confess weekly, preferably only to an Opus Dei priest. They have to confess not only the normal run of misdemeanors, but any doubts that they may have on any aspect of Opus Dei. If not, in the charmingly poetic way that Opus Dei has of expressing such instances, “the mute devil takes over in the soul.”

-Members’ relationships with their families are dis­couraged on the grounds that they “will not under­stand.” Members are supposed to destroy old family photographs. They are told what they can write in letters to relatives and what to say to them on the telephone. After telephone calls, they are interrogat­ed on their content. Sometimes parents do not learn for months or even years that their children have become members. Similarly, friendships with those who are not marked for recruitment are difficult to maintain and the contact with their personal life in the outside world thus begins to become increasingly remote, eventually falling away entirely.

-All members must learn Spanish and Latin. Spanish is the language of the founder and Opus Dei prayers are recited in Latin.

Members are free to leave whenever they like, but the psy­chological tools that Opus Dei uses go into overdrive to ensure that this does not occur. Members are told that they will never lead a satisfying life if they leave and perhaps after all the indoctrination that has been inflicted upon them, that is correct. It is doubtful that Josemaria Escriva himself could have borne a life of such restraint -the palace where he lived in Rome had 24 chapels alone. The present prelate of Opus Dei, Bishop Javier Echevarria (not to be confused with the fictional Manuel Aringarosa in The Da Vinci Code) was born in Madrid on June 14, 1932.

Corporal Mortification
Many of the painful practices involved in corporal mortifica­tion were common in the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, but, with the exception of fasting, they are now considered anachronistic. Ironically, it’s considered that over-zealous attraction to pain can lead to pride and self-satisfaction.

The Opus Dei practices described in The Da Vinci Code are not exceptions. They form a routine part of the Numerary’s daily life.

The Cilice
Brown cleverly uses the “cilice” to depict Silas as a typi­cally indoctrinated Opus Dei member. A cilice is the spiked chain Silas wears around his upper thigh in The Da Vinci Code. It is obligatory to wear it for two hours a day, on Sundays, and at other prescribed times. Opus Dei is quite reluctant to talk about this. It leaves small prick holes in the skin, which makes Opus Dei members shy to undress in front of non-members. To prevent a member from getting masochistic pleasure out of this, he/she uses it under the spiritual supervision of a Director. Silas uses this instrument to dispel his “guilt” and it is one of the focuses of his obsession. It is perhaps difficult for us to believe in the twenty-first century western world that people in our midst are using the cilice in exactly the same way as Silas does, to willingly inflict physical dam­age upon themselves for religion’s sake, but this is indeed what happens.

Discipline. A knotted cord is used as a whip on the buttocks or back once a week. Members have to ask permission to use it more than that. Many do.

Cold Showers. Many members take cold showers every day, which they offer up in honor of the prelate.

Meals. Numeraries usually abstain from at least one thing that they would consider to be a luxury at meal times. For example they may not take sugar in their tea, they eat unbuttered bread or toast or forgo a dessert. Members fast on certain days and apart from those obligations, have to ask permission to do so voluntarily. Again, many do.

The Heroic Minute. When they receive the wake up knock on their door in the morning, members are encouraged to jump out of bed, kiss the floor, and say “servium,” which is Latin for “I will serve.”

Silences. Members are not allowed to speak, even to say “Good night” or “Good morning” from the time that they make their confessions at night until after the Holy Mass of the next morning. In the afternoons, they generally do not speak until dinnertime. It is not a normal practice to listen to music on Sundays, especially in the afternoons.

There are gender differences in the corporal mortification that is used. For example, women sleep on boards which are laid on a mattress. Men sleep on the floor once a week. Both males and females sleep without a pillow once a week. Women are not _allowed to smoke or enter bars. Men may smoke and are allowed to enter bars only for the purpose of recruiting new members. As a general rule, the founder, Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, considered women to have stronger passions than men and must be tamed accordingly.

In summation, for better or worse the true nature of Opus Dei is harsh and cruel, as revealed by its own literature. The following quotes are taken from the Opus Dei Awareness Network, Inc. website

“Blessed be pain. Loved be pain. Sanctified be pain… Glorified be pain!” (The Way, 208)

“No ideal becomes a reality without sacrifice. Deny yourself It is so beautiful to be a victim!” (TheWay, 17S)

“Obey with your lips, your heart and your mind. It is not a man who is being obeyed, but God.” (Furrow, maxim 374)

“And be watchful, for a spark is much easier to extinguish than a fire. Take flight, for in this it is low cowardice to be “brave”; a roving eye does not mean a lively spirit, but turns out to be a snare of Satan. Yet human diligence, with mortification, the cilice, dis­ciplines and fasting are all worthless without you, my God.” (Furrow, 834)

“They [Opus Dei numeraries] shall maintain the pious custom, for the purpose of chastising the body and reducing it to servitude, of wearing a small cil­ice for at least two hours daily; once a week they shall take the disciplines as well as sleeping on the floor, providing that health is not affected.” (Opus Dei Constituciones, article 147)

“To defend his purity, St. Francis of Assisi rolled in the snow, St. Benedict threw himself into a thorn­bush, St. Bernard plunged into an icy pond… You… what have you done?” (TheWay, 143)
“What has been lost through the flesh, the flesh should pay back: be generous in your penance.” (The Forge, 207)

“If you realize that your body is your enemy, and an enemy of God’s glory since it is an enemy of your sanctification, why do you treat it so softly?” (The Way, 227)

“Your worst enemy is yourself.” (The Way, 225)

“You have come to the apostolate to submit, to anni­hilate yourself, not to impose your own personal viewpoints.” (TheWay, 936)

There is no doubt that Opus Dei performs a useful and char­itable function in society, but it is tempting to conclude that it is better to be a beneficiary of the organization than a par­ticipant. Ultimately, it is not hard to see why Dan Brown chose members of Opus Dei to fill the role of villains in The DaVinci Code; in a sense the organization is an easy target, but perhaps that typecasting is justifiable.