Opus Dei Members Decry 'Da Vinci' Portrayal

Dan Brown's bestselling novel "The Da Vinci Code" has generated controversy since it was first published in 2003. First, Christians opposed the very premise of the novel, which calls into question a key facet of Christian faith. Then, authors of another book sued publisher Random House claiming Dan Brown plagiarized from their book. Now, with the movie version of the novel due out in May, "The Da Vinci Code" faces another critic: Opus Dei.

Dan Brown depicts Opus Dei as a dangerous, power-hungry organization under the auspices of the Catholic Church. In the novel, an albino Opus Dei monk, Silas, commits murder in the name of religion and "purifies" himself through self-flagellation and "corporal mortification."

In fact, there is an organization known as Opus Dei and there has been since it was founded by a Spanish priest named Jose Maria Escriva in 1928. It was even given the unique status of "personal prelature" by Pope John Paul II, meaning the head of Opus Dei reports directly to the Pope.

Opus Dei followers claim the depiction in the novel is untrue and unfair, beyond the most basic fact that there are no monks in the organization. Father John Wauck, an Opus Dei priest, has even created a blog aimed at debunking Dan Brown's depiction. Discussing "The Da Vinci Code," Wauck says, "If you are looking for facts, you're better off watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail."

Linda Ruf, a mother of six, joined Opus Dei many years ago. She and her husband try to go to mass every morning at 6:30 a.m. Despite the supposed mystery surrounding Opus Dei, she describes herself as a "very normal" person.

"I get out of bed and get on my knees and say today I'll serve you Lord," she says.

Linda is in fact very typical of the organization in which most members are so called "supernumeraries," or lay people who live relatively ordinary lives. As she explains, Jose Maria's original intent for such supernumeraries was to "live a holy life in the middle of the world."

Others have called into question some of Opus Dei's actions, however. Jim Martin, a Jesuit priest who has written about the organization, says that their "recruiting techniques can be very heavy handed at times," and that "the way they separate sexes is really against kind of a contemporary understanding of religion." He also questions their tendency toward secrecy.

It is also true that Opus Dei's most devout members -- known as numeraries, rather than supernumeraries -- adhere to a strict regimen. Numeraries, whether priests or lay people, live celibate lives and practice corporal mortification, or self-inflicted pain. It is much less severe than described by Brown in his book, however.

Father Frank Hoffman, an Opus Dei priest who lives outside of Chicago, describes such techniques as "not nearly as hard as fasting."

Ironically, despite the negative slant that "The Da Vinci Code" presents, the exposure may actually bring new members to the group. And, Opus Dei is capitalizing on the opportunity, releasing their own book, "The Way," based on the teachings of their founder.