So a guy walks up to the doorman at Opus Dei’s red brick national headquarters in New York City, points at an upper floor and asks, ‘Is that where you keep the torture chamber?’ ‘That’s ridiculous!’ says the doorman. ‘The torture chamber’s in the basement .’ That’s not just a joke. It’s a true story as told by the doorman in question, Robert Boone.
Boone’s tendency to josh amid the scrutiny and ribbing that Opus Dei has been getting since the fictional ‘The Da Vinci Code’ portrayed it as mysterious, brooding and tortured is catching on. Some former members of the group have used the book and movie as an opportunity to criticize Opus Dei as a controlling, authoritarian organization. Instead of withdrawing from public view, the conservative Roman Catholic organization, founded in 1928, is attempting to repair its damaged reputation through public relations campaigns, with members doing broadcast interviews or writing newspaper commentaries. It has also tried humor. Which brings us back to the doorman who works the graveyard shift. Boone said a woman shyly inquired, ‘Is it true women aren’t allowed in this place?’ ‘Nah. You can come in,’ Boone, an aspiring actor, said with studied bluntness. ‘But you’ll burst into flames if you do.’ She laughed, nervously. Even disclosures about some of Opus Dei’s more unusual activities, such as the self-mortification practiced by some members, have spawned in-house wisecracks and a new openness about the activities of the famously secretive organization. Some Opus Dei members have spoken openly about the cilice – a spiked chain worn on the upper thigh as a reminder of Christ’s suffering. In ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ it’s used by Silas, a murderous albino monk, who also whips himself with a ‘discipline,’ or knotted cord. John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and author of the book ‘Opus Dei,’ said the group ‘has always been a magnet for conspiracy theories.’ ‘But it’s changed significantly in response to the book and movie; it’s more transparent and willing to respond to people’s questions,’ said Allen, whose book’s subtitle calls Opus Dei ‘the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church.’
‘So, there’s a sense that the movie did them a big favor,’ he said. ‘Historically, they’ve been seen as a big powerful group that victimizes its members. Now, there’s a sense that it has been victimized itself.’ And that is translating into both introspection and self-parody.
For example, a recent e-mail distributed among members and associates included this: Q: Do members of Opus Dei use the cilice?
A: That question really rubs me the wrong way! And this one: Q: Do members of Opus Dei really use a ‘discipline’?
A: Beats me. ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ which was published in 2003, and the film, which opened in May, suggest that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a child and that Opus Dei is a secretive and corrupt cult. Opus Dei’s response has been that the book and the film are anti-Catholic bigotry and a conspiracy of lies. ‘If you can’t laugh at ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ ‘ mused Opus Dei spokesman Brian Finnerty, ‘what can you laugh at?’