Time to slay a few mythical dragons again?

As Roland Joffe’s new film about the founder of Opus Dei and the Spanish Civil War goes on release in cinemas across Spain, some members and supporters of Opus Dei are seeing signs of the recycling of old misinformation about the organisation which did the rounds when Dan Brown’s famously popular and notoriously ill-written novel, The DaVinci Code, hit book stalls a few years ago. The first whiff of this came courtesy of the London Independent which carried a story on Joffé’s movie last weekend.

Joanna Moorhead told us that nearly a decade after Dan Brown’s novel The DaVinci Code propelled it to global notoriety, Opus Dei is hitting back with a new movie that seeks to show its founder, Josemariá Escrivá, in a glowing light.

Rodrigo Santoro in There Be Dragons

However she quotes Elena Curti, deputy editor of the Catholic weekly The Tablet, who reminds us: “Brown’s portrayal was ridiculous, with the mad albino monk and all the strange goings-on. Because of Brown, Opus Dei has been given all sorts of opportunities to set the record straight – as it would see it – and this film is in its way the latest of those chances.”

Moorhead talks of Brown’s book, and the movie based on it, causing something of a PR fall out for Opus Dei. In fact, the organisation saw it as nothing of the sort and famously worked the image of making sweet lemonade out of bitter lemons on the back of the whole Da Vinci code global phenomenon. It generated such interest in Opus Dei that their information offices around the world were inundated with enquiries, enabling it to present the truth about itself on a scale it had never experienced before. Not exactly a PR fallout.

“There Be Dragons cost around $40m (£25m) to make,” Moorhead wrote, “ much of which came from Opus Dei members and sympathisers who were keen, in the wake of what was seen as disastrous PR fallout from The Da Vinci Code, to put their side of the story in a big-screen movie. The film’s backers are making much of the fact that Joffe is an agnostic Jew, but they admit that Opus Dei members had input into the film, and Opus Dei fielded one of its own priests, Fr John Wauck, as on-set adviser.”

“Admit”? Funny word that. Don’t you admit guilt, or admit that you are hiding something? The people behind this movie, members and supporters of Opus Dei – among whom I count myself – are not hiding anything. According to the organisation what is missing in Moorhead’s kind of reading of Opus Dei is the appreciation that members of Opus Dei are free agents. If some put money into a project it is on the basis of their own judgement. This was certainly one which drew their enthusiasm. To be fair to them, however, their investment should be seen as their own private business. The film is not financed by Opus Dei. As Dan Brown would say: Fact.  As for Fr. John Wauck’s role, Joffé wanted to do a good job and got him as an adviser in his own right. That was Joffé being professional. In the case of The Mission, for example, Joffe explained that he had American Jesuit Fr Daniel Berrigan as an advisor. Fr. Berrigan even got a walk-on part in the movie. That didn’t make it a Jesuit movie. None of these facts are “admitted”. They are all on the record.

The truth is that this film is very much Joffé’s own work. The script is his – having rejected an earlier script which some people very much attracted by Opus Dei and its founder had written. When Joffé put the film plan together it looked so good that the funding came together – some from people involved with Opus Dei who recognised a good thing when they saw it.

As Moorhead told it yesterday, There Be Dragons, opening in the US in May and expected to come to UK screens in the autumn, is “peppered with British film talent, including Charles Dance and Derek Jacobi, and in the lead role is the up-and-coming British actor Charlie Cox, who has just landed a part in the US hit series Boardwalk Empire. Other big names include Wes Bentley, whose credits include American Beauty, and Geraldine Chaplin.

Moorhead explains: “The film centres on the early life of Josemaría Escriva, the Spaniard who founded Opus Dei and was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 2002.

“Speaking in Madrid this week, Joffe said he had initially turned down the job of directing the film, but he reconsidered after seeing film footage of Escriva telling a girl who wanted to convert from Judaism to Catholicism that she shouldn’t do it, because it would be disrespectful to her parents. He said he was open-minded about Opus Dei when he took the project on. ‘What I discovered is that there’s no such single thing as Opus Dei; there are individuals who come together, and that’s what they call themselves,’ he said.

Charlie Cox as Josemaría Escrivá

“Cox, who was raised a Catholic although he is not a regular churchgoer, said he was taken on an Opus Dei retreat and spent time visiting Opus Dei houses in preparation for his role. ‘Before I got the part, I’d never heard of Josemaria and all I knew about Opus Dei was what was in Dan Brown’s book,’ he said. ‘When I told my friends what I was doing, a lot of them said I should be very careful, and many people’s response was one of fear. But no one had any real evidence to back up that reaction.’”

Moorhead says “critics of the organisation say its adherents are too closely wedded to Vatican edicts (sic) and refuse to use their own judgement.”

“Too closely wedded to Vatican edicts”?  Hello?  They are Catholics. By “edicts” does she mean Encyclical letters and the Catechism of the Catholic Church? “Refuse to use their own judgement”?  Is every act of faith not ultimately a personal judgement? She fails to tell us who the critics are or cite specific examples so in the end she is not saying much. As Charlie Cox might ask, have you any real evidence to back up that?

The US Catholic commentator John Allen, who wrote a book on Opus Dei six years ago, has called the new film “a sort of anti-Da Vinci Code” and says it makes Opus Dei “seem as heroic and sympathetic as Dan Brown’s potboiler, and subsequent film, made it appear weird and menacing”.

Surely we are in a better place if the record distorted by the gross fantasy of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code – purporting to be fact – is corrected to even some degree. One way or the other, there is more lemonade on the way, or better still, a good bottle of limoncello.

It Does What it Says on the Label…but Read the Label.

Tom Krattenmaker in his column in USA Today (Monday, April 2) makes some interesting points but spoils it all with a superficial lumping together of all sorts of bedfellows under the catchall of fundamentalism. Why can’t otherwise sensible people begin to see how useless and destructive a label this has become through its excessive use?

“The polar ends of the religious spectrum — atheists on one hand, fundamentalists on the other — often eclipse the believers in the middle. Yet the faithful middle provides a compassionate and constructive form of faith that has much to offer our fractured world,” he writes.

“These are not the brightest times for religious moderates. Mainstream Episcopalians, Methodists, Catholics and the like, they’re being upstaged by the more aggressive actors at the polar ends of the spectrum. From Christian conservatives flies rhetoric that pays little heed to the inclusiveness, reasonable tones and subtlety of the ecumenical middle. And from anti-religion author Sam Harris and like-minded atheists comes the damning suggestion that moderates enable violent fundamentalism and that moderation, as Harris puts it, “is the result of not taking Scripture all that seriously.” 

He goes on then to say that “No doubt, the high-profile atheists have a legitimate point when they detail the destructive excesses of fundamentalism. Whether it’s the conservative Roman Catholic group Opus Dei and its practice of self-mortification, evangelical Christians who invoke martial language in their call to “reclaim America for Christ,” or fundamentalist Muslims who legitimize violence in the name of Allah, a tide of harsh, divisive faith seems to be rising around the world.”

This is, frankly, ridiculous. I have been a member of Opus Dei for over 40 years and I know it only as a thoroughly orthodox, mainstream and very moderate in all its exhortation and teaching. Krattenmaker mentions self-mortification, suggesting that this is a mark of extremism. Let us deal with that first. Christian practice obliges all followers of Christ to die to themselves in some way. That is what we mean by mortification (and it has to be “self-mortification” because deliberate mortification of others is in fact sinful). This is all on the basis of Christ’s own words. To mention just one instance, he told us quite clearly that unless a seed dies in the ground it cannot have life. Then there is the exhortation to take up the cross, and many more. Some members of Opus Dei – and other Catholics as well – choose to adopt one or two traditional practices which are relatively uncommon but are no more harmful to the body than the practice of moderate fasting which is the more common practice of Christians.  

Detractors of Opus Dei – Dan Brown at the top of the heap – have painted some very lurid pictures of mortification as something extremist. The Christian apostolic zeal and concern for evangelization of members of Opus Dei is similarly portrayed. Read all of the writings of its founder- in context – and look at the work it does throughout the world and I challenge you to find anything that is not 100 percent consistent with the teaching of Jesus Christ. Taking things out of context is the main source of difficulty here. Take some of the words of Christ himself out of their context, without the balance provided by all of his teaching, and you also be likely to judge them as extreme – like the bit about cutting off your hand if it causes scandal. 

Another source of difficulty is the denial by the some of personal freedom of expression to individual members of Opus Dei. The members of Opus Dei do not speak with one voice. When I write now as a response to Tom Krattenmaker  I do so personally. If some find me somewhat extremist then it is to me that the charge should be addressed. It is not fair to brand all of Opus Dei and paint it in the colours of my personal views.

Kratenmaker remarks that “Because of their good manners, the moderates’ voice has been relatively quiet, and their message has had a harder time breaking through. Unity? Inter-religious understanding? Peace? In a time of over-heated rhetoric from the extreme-opposite camps, it’s almost as though these are things for wimps.” The first sign of good manners in most conversations is the readiness to listen, and listen as carefully as you can. I would like to say that Tom seemed to be listening carefully but sadly I cannot.

– Michael Kirke