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Examining Opus Dei: Secret Societies and The Da Vinci Code

The controversial Catholic sect called Opus Dei is the only secret society mentioned in The Da Vinci Code that may well have some of the smear coming. This is not to say that Silas, the mad and murderous Albino monk, is even remotely a fair depiction of the organization. It does seem fair to say that part of the philosophy behind the organization could easily become twisted, delivered up in just the right way to just the right suspicious mind.

Opus Dei was founded in 1927 by St. Josemaria Escrivá, a parish priest in rural Spain. In later years, in Rome, he became a member of the Pontifical Academy of Theology and a prelate of honor to the pope. At his death in 1975, thousands of lay Catholics and a third of the world's bishops asked the Holy See to open a case for canonization. Pope John Paul II beatified Escrivá in 1992 (which is a sort of pre-saint status) and then canonized him ten years later on October 6, 2002.

The organization is in 61 countries worldwide, with around 87,000 members, and it's involved with education and relief work. At its spiritual core, Opus Dei is founded on the belief that God should be a part of daily life. The phrase Opus Dei means "Work of God" in Latin, and the group is sometimes referred to by its members as "the Work." The overwhelming majority, 98 percent, are lay Catholics (not priests or nuns) governed by an apostolic convention headed by a bishop.

Despite this article's title, Opus Dei is not a secret society. If it's anything negative at all, it may be a religious cult. Whether it's a harmless one is a matter of debate. They do incorporate a lot of medieval belief into their Catholicism, and that can make modern people nervous.

There are four types of membership in Opus Dei:

  • Supernumeraries: Supernumeraries make up over 70 percent of members. They lead traditional lives, work, raise families, and so on, and they rarely practice such rigorous habits as celibacy or "corporal mortification."
  • Numeraries: Numeraries, about 20 percent of the membership, are men and women who live in the Opus Dei centers, celibately, in segregated quarters. They are encouraged to be college graduates and to work outside of the center, donating most of their money back to it — a very cultish practice.
  • Numerary Assistants: Numerary Assistants are celibate women who live in the Opus Dei houses. They do not have outside jobs; they take care of the cooking, cleaning, and other domestic matters of the center. The accusation of gross discrimination against women is generally aimed at the treatment of the members of this rank.
  • Associates: The last small category of membership, Associates have a high level of devotion but have obligations that require them to live outside the homes.

Numeraries, Numerary Assistants, and Associates live in celibate group homes, and so are far more likely to be considered by outsiders as members of a religious cult. Of course, to others, they might look more like monks in a monastery.

Not everyone in Opus Dei is expected to remain celibate. In fact, home and family are both emphasized deeply, as you may expect of a Catholic organization. Yet, parallels with the Knights Templars exist in that both are organizations "attached" to the Church but are quasi-independent — in the case of Opus Dei with something called a "personal prelature," a status that has existed only since Vatican II — and both require a far higher degree of sacrifice from their members than just attending Mass on Sunday.

Part of their tradition is a monastic practice called corporal mortification, the idea that inflicting pain on yourself (or deprivation, as in a fast) is a way to "scourge yourself," to help achieve a state of grace. This practice was common in medieval Catholicism, though extremely rare today. It has also been practiced by other faiths besides Christianity. Members believe that this self-punishment, which is supposed to be inflicted in various mild forms, is their way of "taking up the cross," or in other words, sharing in Christ's pain in order to reach oneness with him.

Corporal mortification is only recommended in its mildest forms by the powers that be, who sometimes can't be held responsible when some nutcase decides to carry it over the edge. Members are encouraged to make small sacrifices here and there of the creature comforts we've become so used to: take a cold shower, sleep without a pillow, fast, or remain silent for a certain number of hours each day.

But some in the group houses let it get out of hand. Sometimes members flail themselves regularly with a small rope whip they call a discipline, while others go even further, using a device called a celise, mentioned in The Da Vinci Code, that would make any sane person's flesh crawl — it looks like a cross between a Slinky and a piece of barbed wire, and it is to be worn beneath the clothing for a specified time, usually two hours, wrapped around the upper thigh, spikes pointing inward. According to Opus Dei, members are told not to draw blood with it. Terrific.

To be fair, corporal mortification isn't quite as loony as it sounds. In fact, aspects of it survive in our own culture in some very unlikely places. Its fans in Opus Dei describe it as a way of tuning in to a deeper level of awareness, a philosophy seen in many guises. Have you ever been driving home in the pouring rain, and you glance off to the side and notice a runner on the sidewalk, going for all he's worth, his face wearing a really unsettling grimace, but with sort of glassy eyes? Runners sometimes call this "being in the zone," a place where the pain is no longer felt, and the mind is at peace. As the body toils, even painfully, the mind clears, and a zone of inner serenity is reached that allows them to face their problems later with clarity and calm.

A nonprofit organization called Opus Dei Awareness Network exists to reach out to people who have experienced a "negative impact on their lives" at the hands of the organization. According to the network, although Opus Dei isn't exactly a cult, they certainly do use many cult practices and, in general, exercise a high degree of control over their members — particularly, of course, the ones who live in Opus Dei houses.

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