April 18, 2006 -- In Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," Opus Dei is painted as a secretive, power-hungry and extreme sect of the Catholic Church. With the release of a movie on the organization scheduled for next month, Opus Dei is going on the defensive to protect its image.
"Dan Brown was a guy who wanted to make a best seller, and he sure did that, and that's that," said Opus Dei member Michael Burns. "Americans love conspiracy theories."
Burns -- a husband, father and teacher -- is the image Opus Dei would like audiences to associate with the religion. Terri Carron, a spokeswoman for Opus Dei, says the only reason why the public hasn't seen more members like Burns and more of Opus Dei in general, is because there hasn't been an opportunity until now.
"We've had the opportunity to get out there, and we're more than happy to tell everybody what Opus Dei is about," Carron said. "Anything you read or see in 'The Da Vinci Code' is obviously very distorted. … I'm really not surprised people have fallen into this because people don't have a good handle on their faith and they don't know history, so this book feeds right into that."
Today, Opus Dei has 87,000 members worldwide -- 3,000 in the United States. Most of its members are women. Members are divided into three categories: 10 percent are priests, 20 percent are numeraries (members who, though not priests or nuns, pledge lives of celibacy), and 70 percent are supernumeraries (typically married with children). All members are committed to integrating prayer into all aspects of their daily lives.
Fact Vs. Fiction: Corporal Punishment
Critics of Opus Dei have taken issue with corporal punishment.
Until recently, every Opus Dei numerary was expected to wear a cilice -- a small chain with prickly spikes -- on the upper thigh for at least two hours a day. In the book, Silas, a devout follower of Opus Dei, also beats himself on the back with a rope until he bleeds as punishment for his sins.
"I think a few people in Opus Dei just mildly slap it on their back while reciting prayers," Carron said. "Are there physical penances in the church? Yes. Did Opus Dei invent them? No."
Fact Vs. Fiction: The Control Factor
There have also been claims of excessive control. Tammy DiNicola was a freshman at Boston College when she went on her first Opus Dei retreat. She says what began as as opportunity to deepen her faith quickly accelerated into involvement in an all-controlling group.
"Everything becomes gradually controlled," DiNicola said. "Your mail is read. Your salary's handed over. Your reading matter and your movies, all of this is controlled."
Opus Dei acknowledges that many members hand over portions of their salaries, but says that there is no truth behind allegations of excessive control and that its only intention is to teach and coach.
"You have to understand that people who are giving themselves up -- as I do as a supernumerary. … The idea anyone would be controlling me is rather absurd," Carron said.
Two years after joining Opus Dei, DiNicola left with the assistance of her parents and a psychologist.
"You have to understand, this is a lifelong commitment," Carron said. "Many people go into a lifelong commitment, whether it's Opus Dei or a marriage, and sometimes they don't quite gel, sometimes it doesn't work for them and they get out of it and it's very sad when it ends. But sometimes people leave -- and a very small portion do -- and say, 'I didn't make a right choice. I'm moving on.'"
On the Big Screen
Opus Dei has asked filmmakers for a disclaimer on the film based on "The Da Vinci Code," showing they respect Jesus and the Catholic Church. Sony Pictures has not indicated whether it will comply with the request.
Carron plans to see the movie.
"It's my form of mortification," she joked. "That's my penance."