Tuesday, May 16, 2006


At an exclusive private club in a fashionable Toronto neighbourhood, hundreds of adherents or supporters of the local membership of (ba-ba-ba-BA-AHM!) OPUS DEI gathered for an annual communal meal in honor of one of the successful works of "The Work." The colour red was everywhere in evidence, and between courses the assembly was "whipped" into excitement by these strange performing creatures.

Actually, this
was the entertainment portion-- ably provided by the WuShu Kung Fu Club-- of the annual fund-raising gala dinner in support of the Hawthorn School for Girls.

Yes, it
was Saturday night, named for that pagan deity Saturn (the god of Euro-looking Sedans with Respectable Gas Mileage), but it was nevertheless a pretty typical private school fund-raiser, this time on a "Far Eastern" theme, full of parents, teachers, administrators, board members, friends, and students working together to beef up the budget of an independent school-- one where, as it happens, I taught part-time and, later, volunteered over a period of four or five years in the late 1990's.

And no, I never did join-- didn't get recruited, press
ured, intimidated, seduced, or, in the end, dismissed. I think Opus Dei does wonderful work in the world, and they have my blessing, but I feel no call to sign up for anything. Everybody's happy with that. We remain on friendly terms and they receive our family's support-- and I spent a bunch of money at the silent auction.

See all the weird people? See the zealous cruelty in their eyes? See all the fanatical monks inflicting m
asochistic suffering upon themselves? (Well, the dessert wasn't too good, but the Teriyaki chicken was superb.)

Hawthorn School (the name is a dead giveaway, by the way, if you know "how these things work") is o
ne of the Works of our local Opus Dei community. Though not officially called a Catholic school (not because they want to hide it, but because the Archdiocese asserts a monopoly over the use of that designation, and Opus Dei people are notoriously OBEDIENT AND RESPECTFUL of the authority of the local Ordinary, as Catholic Bishops are called).

Hawthorn is Catholic in ethos and atmosphere in every respect. However, its operating principles are articulated through a vocabulary which is applicable and relevant to all persons of good will-- that is, its traditional Catholic vision is expressed in terms of The Virtues. This is an approach which fits
comfortably within the Natural Law tradition embraced by the most revered Catholic philosophers (Augustine, Aquinas, and all their homies, right down to Pope John Paul the Great), while it allows the school staff to offer academic values, leadership, and moral guidance that appeal to many parents regardless of cultural background.

The students at Hawthorn are predominantly Catholic, but the school has also served Protestant, Jewish, Sikh, Muslim, and Jehovah's Witness students. The non-Catholics are not compelled to take the religion classes (but many do, quite successfully), and their separate traditions are respected: Jehovah's Witnesses are not required to sing the National Anthem or observe popular holidays (like Mother's Day); Muslim girls are given the library for prayer at lunchtime during Ramadan, and all other students are instructed not to eat break-time snacks in front of them, since they must go hungry until evening.

Why would these non-Catholic parents want to put their daughters (or sons, at Northmount Boys School) into an unapologetically Catholic learning envorinment? Because they know that the school will demand that its staff and students learn and live universal standards of Virtue-- standards which are either absent from or actively undermined by most public educational institutions.

Somewhere in the information package given to parents and enquirers is the phrase "Hawthorn School is operated under the Opus Dei Prelature of the Catholic Church," or words to that effect. Until recently, that might be as much as any non-Opus Dei person would ever know about the Prelature's role in the school, unless they were curious enough to check it out elsewhere or specifically ask a staff member. And, absent another single detail about what the words "Opus Dei" mean, parents could happily see their child through twelve years of solid education at Hawthorn without it mattering one whit.

What they would see would be a well-run, utterly joyful, small and personal school, built from the ground up by a group of parents who began in a church basement, now overseeing a well-appointed suburban campus [don't think red-brick-and-ivy-- it's a brilliantly converted steel-sided warehouse]-- a school with well-prepared, highly-motivated students who go on to successful higher education and careers, and who take with them into the world a sense of confidence built the old-fashioned way-- out of decency, compassion, modesty, and self-respect-- rather than the newer model built on aggressive self-esteem and indignant entitlement.

I hadn't been to a Hawthorn Gala in several years, due to other May-time engagements. One thing was different this year though, and I expect it's a difference that is rippling through Opus Dei communities around the world (that's for the total worldwide membership of just over 85,000-- for comparison's sake, that's about half the total enrollment at the nine University of California campuses-- Oooooooh! Ver-r-ry Sca-a-a-ry!).

The difference was that I heard the words "Opus Dei" spoken more times in that dining room Saturday night than I had heard it spoken in all the years of my association with the school (which began in 1994) combined-- that includes teaching two days a week, spending hours directing or assisting with theatrical productions, plus a ten-day trip to Rome (during which I shared a room with a "Numerary"-- together all day, every day, and guess what? At no time was she ever visibly bleeding from her corporal mortifications, even in white slacks!!!!).

On the whole I am of the belief that nothing good whatsoever can come of the existence of The Da Vinci Code, in either book or film form. Everything about the book is a lie, including (as Mary McCarthy said of Lillian Hellman) the words "and" and "the"-- but most especially the critical opinion that it is a good, or even readable book at all, when it is, in fact, a literary disaster. [For an abbreviated account of the book's many offenses, religious and literary, and one suggested "non-response", read and take The Da Vinci Code Pledge for Thin-skinned Christians.]

But if there is one bright spot on the horizon it is that Opus Dei has been forced out of the closet and into the light of day. (Maybe they'll stop giving their schools and other residences names that sound like boring suburban housing developments: Hawthorn, Northmount, Riverside, Mapleglen, Shady Oaks-- I made up those last three, but that's the usual model.) They have chosen to be as positive as they can about the unwanted attention being brought to them-- the "when you're handed a lemon, make lemonade" strategy. That is quite literal-- it is in exactly those terms that the Prelature expressed its planned response to the film's libels.

It is, of course, entirely too mild a response to what can only be called a "blood libel" against both Opus Dei and the Catholic Church as a whole, but it is, unfortunately, the only one which has a prayer of succeeding. The legitimate response-- lawsuits, mass demonstrations, book-burnings, Church sanctions for any Catholic promoting the story or downplaying its significance-- all would be perfectly justified, and utterly pointless, even counter-productive.
[There's been a pretty good educational counterpoint campaign going on for a couple of years now. Excellent de-bunking and fact-finding conducted here, here, here, here, and here, just for starters.]

There was one possible, Church-wide action that could have been taken, and wasn't, which is that the Pope could have written a brief and pointed denunciation of the book and the film, naming some of the widely available materials which thoroughly debunk its falsehoods, and decreed that this be read from every Catholic pulpit in the world the week before the film opened. He would probably have been ignored in some places, but he could have tried, and I'm sorry he didn't. Beyond that, though, the Opus Dei strategy is a superior one for reaching the people who will not be sitting in Catholic pews on any given Sunday. It has been an informative exercise for the wider world, and a healthy change of attitude for the Prelature itself. In that respect, it's a good thing-- but so good as to be worth the damage this film will do? No. Never.

In some respects Dan Brown is the least of the villains in this piece, poor schmuck, since he was just floating along with all the thousands of other paperback writers, flotsam on a greasy sea of mediocrity, moderately successful but too unimportant to rate even the investment of a good editor. I think both he and his publishers were unprepared for the success of his fourth little novel, a success grounded in nothing more than the public and critical appetite for anti-Catholicism. Brown had unwittingly concocted the winning recipe for a gumbo of the public's most deeply held prejudices (Arthur Scheslinger had it right on this subject), and publishing history was made. (The only thing "historical" about the whole mess....) Dan Brown is also a dolt-- that's always a mitigating factor in assigning responsibility.

Ron Howard, on the other hand, is a genuinely creative and talented artist, and, more importantly, there is nothing "unwitting" about what he has tapped into in hopes of making a success of his film-- he has been warned, by the outrage expressed at the book, which compounded with the announcement and progress of the film. Howard heard all there was to hear about how offensive this story is to all Christians and other believers, and at some point he decided that they and their woundedness did not matter. He looked at the project, eyes wide open, assessing with a better mind than that of the book's author the meaning of what he was doing, and went ahead with it anyway. (Apparently he's equally unfazed about insulting people's intelligence too-- the movie trailer reveals that he has repeated Brown's fundamental factual error by calling The Last Supper a "fresco" -- it's not. It remains to be seen whether Howard has repeated the rest of Brown's historical sloppiness.)

Screenwriter, former nun, and excellent Catholic apologist Barbara Nicolosi watched Howard doing publicity for the film on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and felt she was observing a man who has suddenly become acutely aware that he has sold out God for money. He was a giddily babbling nervous wreck. Nicolosi thinks Opie's basically still a good guy-- and he's done a very bad thing. She thinks he now knows it, but he has no excuse for having taken so long to realize it, now that it's too late to stop it.

If the spiritual awakening of Opie is a result of the filming of The Da Vinci Code, it's a helluva a price to pay for one guy's enlightenment (the price being the soul-threatening deception of tens of millions). A good thing, but too dearly bought.

I have in earlier posts, on different subjects, used the onslaught of the Orcs at Helm's Deep, so perfectly realized on the screen in Peter Jackson's film of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, as the consummate image of the power of lies. The Orcs are not the jihadists, or the KKK, or the Wiccans, or the Communists, or the French (!), or the Democrats (or even the Republicans)-- the Orcs are the lies.

They sweep onto the field and mow down all and everything in their path-- ugly, merciless, nearly omnipotent. Worse, they seduce or enslave all who are fool enough to consider entertaining them-- they are the impossible, imperious, immovable houseguest. Open your door to one and it will occupy your mind, and won't leave until it has rubbished it top to bottom. And it has an army of friends.

There are plenty of books, films, public spectacles of comedy, song, or spoken word where one little dig, or a couple of nasty shots, have cordially invited a lie or two about Christian belief in among an appreciative assembly. With the film version of The Da Vinci Code, Ron Howard has made a conscious decision to "loose the Orcs." It will have large consequences. They will be overwhelmingly bad. They will be answered for, in or out of time.

Barbara Nicolosi is one of the most prominent identifiable Catholics in Hollywood, and has therefore been inundated with requests to opine on the film as its release date approaches. She's sick of it, and doesn't want to say much of anything. She is urging all concerned people to do the one thing that will make an impression on the insulated, impervious, and impious community that has deliberately hyped the thing out of control: GO TO ANOTHER MOVIE-- DRIVE THE DVC INTO LOW OPENING NUMBERS by concentrating attendance on the kind of film audiences have shown that they prefer, given their choice. It's called an "OTHERCOTT" -- fill the seats in every theatre showing OVER THE HEDGE, another promising animated kids' film, a pleasure for the whole family, and the genre that ACTUALLY MAKES THE MOST MONEY FOR HOLLYWOOD PRODUCERS. Help these boneheads GET THE PICTURE. TURN BACK THE ORCS.

In the final days of publicity rounds in the U.S., both Ron Howard and Tom Hanks have been doing their best to dismiss the significance of The Da Vinci Code by saying it's "just a movie." Says Howard, "...it is a work of fiction. It's not meant to offend, it's not theology." Hanks went even further: "The story we tell is loaded with all sorts of hooey and fun kind of scavenger-hunt-type nonsense... If you are going to take any sort of movie at face value, particularly a huge-budget motion picture like this, you'd be making a very big mistake... It's a damn good story and a lot of fun... all it is, is dialogue. That never hurts." ("Dialogue" never hurts-- remember where you heard that the next time somebody gets prosecuted, or murdered, for "hate speech.")

All of this is, obviously, a desperate attempt to reduce the heat suddenly (belatedly) being turned up on the coming Orc-fest. It is also a day late and an apology short, and is patently insincere-- after all, check out the movie posters. Are we supposed to believe that Ron Howard had no say in the graphic mantra above the title, "SEEK THE TRUTH"? Please.

So just remember, for anyone who decides to shell out their bucks and see The Da Vinci Code: the revered leading actor has told you what to do.