Da Vinci Decoded?

Christophe Rico did not want to read "The Da Vinci Code" at all. "If I want to read fiction, I'd rather read Russian novels," he says.

But Rico had no choice, because he heads the information center (a kind of combined minister of foreign affairs and communications) of the Opus Dei organization in Israel, and the organization he represents is depicted in a very unsympathetic way in Dan Brown's book. In the novel, this organization is supposed to guard the darkest secrets of the Catholic Church (among them the notion that, ostensibly, Mary Magdalene was not just a disciple and admirer of Jesus, as she is described in the New Testament, but rather his wife and the mother of his children). The group is supposed to ensure - using even acts of murder to do so - that these secrets never become public knowledge.

Ever since the novel became an international best-seller, Opus Dei representatives around the world have been busy rebuffing criticism of their organization and of the Church. The film based on the novel, which was released worldwide last week, has given this public relations campaign both extra impetus and a target date. The campaign slogan was formulated by the chief spokesman of the organization in Rome, Marc Carroggio: "If someone gives you a lemon, make lemonade." In other words: If we have become famous despite ourselves, we'll try to take advantage of it for our own benefit.

Indeed, at Opus Dei they are saying that the book and the film have been very useful in giving exposure to the organization, which until now has been shrouded in secrecy. Rico relates, for example, that "in the United States alone, this year there have been 2.5 million entries to our Internet site."

Refuting Brown's story is a relatively easy job, since experts on Christianity have already made it clear that the book has no connection to reality: There is no Catholic group that believes or "knows," supposedly, that Jesus had a wife and children. The Priory of Sion, which Brown describes as an original order established during the time of the Crusades in order to keep the terrible secret, never existed. The entire story is a falsification created in the mid-20th century, which Brown has transformed, whether innocently or cynically, into a best-seller.

In this spirit, Rico is happy to declare unambiguously: "There is not a grain of truth in the book. Not only is the historical story inaccurate, the facts from our own day are incorrect. The murderer in the book is described as an albino monk called Silas, from Opus Dei. In reality, we do have a member of our order in New York called Silas, but he is not a monk, but someone who works on Wall Street, and he is not albino, but rather a black man born in Nigeria. The only correct detail is that we do have a large center in Manhattan, but it is not owned by the organization; it is privately owned by a number of people, only some of whom are members of Opus Dei."

'Holy mafia'

The question, then, is not the extent of the book's authenticity, but rather what in Opus Dei could have led Brown to attribute to it the dark side of his plot. This is a very young organization in the world of the Roman Catholic Church: It was established less than 80 years ago (in 1928) by a young Spanish priest, Josemaria Escriva. Dr. Aviad Kleinberg of Tel Aviv University, an expert on the history of Christianity, says, "Escriva was a reactionary right-winger and the organization was founded in the context of tension between the democratic Republican circles and the Church and the fascist right [tension that reached its peak in the Spanish Civil War, which broke out in 1936 - Y.S.] In this violent struggle the Republicans executed clerics, and the Church for its part supported a similar counter-reaction." After Franco's forces won, many of the Opus Dei people were identified with his regime, and in the 1960s they constituted a large part of the ruling elite.

The mystery and suspicion surrounding the organization can be attributed in part to the fact that despite its young age and its relatively small membership (about 86,000 worldwide), it has managed to win a significant place in the Vatican establishment. This was especially the case during the pontificate of the previous pope, John Paul II, who was known for his conservative views.

Kleinberg says, "John Paul II replaced a considerable number of the holders of offices that were traditionally filled by members of the Jesuit order with Opus Dei people. The reason for this is that in recent centuries, the Jesuits have been becoming more liberal." In addition, in 1992, only 17 years after Escriva's death, John Paul II began the processes of canonizing him, and in 2002 Escriva was indeed declared a saint in one of the hastiest canonization procedures in Vatican history.

The uniqueness of Opus Dei among Catholic organizations lies in the fact that its members do not live in monasteries and do not serve as clerics, but rather lead a layman's life - ostensibly. They establish families, have ordinary jobs and wear ordinary clothes, but their loyalty is to the Church and their lives are supervised to a large extent by the numeraries - the group's highest level. Numeraries, even if their garb and occupations are secular, live a sequestered life in communes (all income and expenses, as in the old-style kibbutz, are administered from a common fund). No wonder, then, that these characteristics have created the image of an arm of the Church that aspires to take control of society by means of members who are planted in every area of life - so much so that in Spain the organization is called the "holy mafia."

An investigation by the German newspaper Der Spiegel in 1995 supported this suspicion. According to the investigative report, Escriva repeatedly preached to his followers that they were destined "to lead." He also preached total obedience ("Obey the way the tool obeys the hands of the craftsman") and one of the organization's leaflets states that it has a strong ambition to sanctify and Christianize the national institutions - including science, culture, civilization, politics, art and social relations.

The Der Spiegel report also states that members of Opus Dei are trained in self-abasement. The numeraries' day begins with kissing the earth and the repetition of the vow "I must serve." Once a week, the member is called in for review by his "personal supervisor" and Escriva himself is cited as having written in his book "The Way" the following instruction for his disciples: "You are filthy, you are sawdust. Do not forget what you are: a garbage pail." Even though in 1996 the Vatican cancelled the Church's list of proscribed books (among them the writings of the founder of Protestant Christianity, Martin Luther, and the playwright Bertolt Brecht), in Opus Dei, the list of banned books still applies.

Prior to the canonization of Escriva in 2002, Der Spiegel again took up the topic of Opus Dei and noted that the organization had been close not only to the fascist regime in Spain but also to fascist regimes in Latin America (like that of Pinochet in Chile and the generals' junta in Argentina). This time the newspaper published testimonies from a number of former members of the organization. Czech priest Vladimir Palzman, who was a senior figure in Opus Dei for 23 years, for example, testified that Escriva once told him that "Hitler was not as bad as they say. He also couldn't even have killed more than three or four million Jews."

Service to God

Rico wants to refute these accusations. According to him, these are simply distorted images. He himself is a numerary: He has been living in Israel for 14 years in one of the organization's two communes here (one for men and one for women, both in Jerusalem). Like the other members of the organization, he looks like an ordinary Westerner. By profession he is a linguist; he works as a lecturer in the French studies department at Hebrew University (he comes from Provence). Yes, his day does begin with kissing the earth and the vow of service, but "this is not service to any human being, but rather to God."

Most of the members of the organization lead normal lives, he explains, not because of an ambition to control the world but rather because of Escriva's theology, the thrust of which is, "The sacred must be sought in everyday life, not in the roles of monk or priest." According to Rico, Opus Dei is a kind of commando for an intra-Christian return to faith; the organization has no missionary aim toward anyone who is not Christian, and Escriva's words "to Christianize civilization" relate only to the desire "to remind Christians of their obligation to a life of sanctity." This is also how he explains the operation of the organization's centers around the world, including in Israel: "The activity is aimed only at the Christians who live here." According to Rico, it does not operate clandestinely and does not intentionally conceal the names of its members.

The obligation to obey and the manifestations of abasement that are cited from Escriva "have been taken out of context, because in the book he talks about tension between two poles: On the one hand, the tremendous value of the human being as having been created in God's image, and on the other, indeed, the man's nullity relative to God." There is no list of banned books, only "books that the organization recommends not reading before the individual is mature and able to deal with their contents, and this recommendation exists in the entire Catholic Church."

The organization is not especially identified with fascist regimes, says Rico, and its members are "free to hold any political position." According to him, it is not possible that Escriva tried to minimize Hitler's monstrousness or the extent of the Holocaust, because "he always stressed that his first love was for two Jews: Jesus and his mother Mary." In the press kit Rico prepared for Haaretz, he included an article by Rabbi Angel Kreiman, formerly the chief rabbi of Chile, in which he thanks Opus Dei members for having always helped him and other rabbis in their work.

The bottom line: If there is one error that Rico is prepared to admit and that he regrets, it is the fact that "we did not open up to the media earlier. This happened because we are a young organization, and it takes time to find the exact framework that suits us within the Church. This is apparently what created our negative image among some people."