The Dan Brown phenomenon 

 

The Da Vinci Code: The Work of Sion

The stand-off between the two main forces at work in the novel is that between Opus Dei and The Priory of Sion... two players who have only ever crossed swords within the pages of this novel.

Philip Coppens


Every fight needs to have two groups or people set against each other; it is the classic stand-off. To make it epic, we need two organisations that have met and fought across the span of time, in which the present fight will go down in the annals of history as just another pass of arms. Bringing this into The Da Vinci Code, Brown is an author who is a “realist”: he does not invent an imaginary “Order of the Chilled Peacock”; he wants to convince the reader that what they are going to read, could be real. He does this by stipulating two “facts”: that Opus Dei exists and that the Priory of Sion is real. As this is a work of fiction, he is merely arguing – and in essence nothing more – that he has not invented “a” Priory of Sion: the Priory of Sion exists; non-fiction authors have written about it. And he then provides a brief introduction to what those authors have written about the Priory. That’s all. Though too much has been made of it since, and it has to be said that this was no doubt said in the interest of publicity, Brown himself seemed caught out during the ensuing publicity campaign, when he had to “defend” the inclusion of Opus Dei and the Priory of Sion as choices.

Brown’s mission in The Da Vinci Code was a struggle for his survival as an author. He needed a global fight, one that already involved Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the world’s best known individuals, to which he added Jesus and his possible relationship with Mary Magdalene. Who then could he use as the two opposing forces? He found himself at an immediate disadvantage, for he had played the card of the Vatican in Angels and Demons (in my opinion a superior novel to The Da Vinci Code), opposed against the Illuminati. Who remained? In the role of archenemy, he could have cast Freemasonry, but their historical main opponent is again the Vatican, and it’s not easy to find another organisation that has a similar problem with Freemasonry on an epic scale.
At the same time, the “natural” framework of Leonardo and Jesus had already directed him towards the Priory of Sion, which is eminently mentioned in The Templar Revelation, which revolves around the question whether Leonardo Da Vinci was a member of this “underground stream”. Brown must thus have known the controversy that surrounded the organisation (whether it actually exists, or not); furthermore, as a largely made-up organisation, with little of substance written about them (as opposed to the Freemasonry which comes with three centuries of antagonism), he had largely a blank canvas to work from.
Unfortunately, the Priory of Sion has no natural enemy; they are a cause, a desire for change, a force that tries to re-address the balance. As such, they do go against the Vatican, but not “openly” – if only because they are, in real life, not a “real” organisation. Brown resolved this problem by making the sketchy Priory the opponents of shady characters inside the Vatican: a cabal of men that are not part of a common organisation, but have a common purpose: the preservation of the Vatican’s superiority over “the truth”. To add a sense of “realism”, Brown took Opus Dei – the Work of God – as a channel through which to consolidate the Vatican’s conservationist platform. So if the Priory is trying to destroy the Vatican’s doctrine, Opus Dei will try to preserve it. And that has to involve assassinations and other crimes, in an effort to eradicate the cancer of the Priory heresy, in Brown’s novel, a cancer resident inside the world that the Church has tried to eradicate for millennia but has never been able to completely destroy. We note that throughout the non-fiction literature that has been written on the Priory of Sion, Opus Dei has never been identified as their “main enemy” – in fact, most of the times, Opus Dei is not even mentioned.

Using Opus Dei as the bad guys is dangerous and it has resulted in a lot of controversy. Only Scientology seems to invoke even bigger controversy these days, it seems. Casting “The Work of God” in the role of the bad guy is nevertheless easily do-able. Over the past decades, Opus Dei has created a lot of controversy and it’s fair to state that Brown merely popularised what had been said before. Books like Robert Hutchinson’s Their Kingdom Come on the organisation preceded Brown and he does not mince words, even though at the time most of the media was either not interested or decided not to bring it to the attention of the masses. Despite the book containing some errors, anyone “in the field” was nevertheless aware of the contents of this book, which was for many the first confirmation of the various rumours that were circulating about the organisation. In many Catholic countries, there have been consistent stories about extreme pressure and intimidation on certain individuals who had left or were thinking of leaving “The Work”. In Belgium, such direct exposure was witnessed by many. It resulted in the Belgian Government, via a Parliamentary Commission Report on April 28, 1997, to officially classify Opus Dei as a sect.

This reality is in stark contrast to the glib statements their spokesmen have since made on documentaries about The Da Vinci Code. Or of men such as Dr. Massimo Introvigne, a man with an agenda of his own, who has stated that Opus Dei has been, for many years, the prime target of secularists who “cannot tolerate ‘the return to religion’“ of society. For sure, in some instances, that will be the case, but surely not in all cases? Introvigne suggests that every ex-member wants to blacken the image of Opus Dei. I would argue that we take the victim’s word for it, rather than see a conspiracy to smear Opus Dei by people that are in reality isolated individuals who tried to get away from the indoctrination and brainwashing, endorsed with corporeal punishment – though Opus Dei would like to call it “corporeal reminders”. Our society currently listens to the victim, whether it is of paedophilia, incest, rape or any other crime, and holds these as legitimate until the official enquiries afterwards find them to be incorrect. So let us treat the victims of Opus Dei similarly, and debate their “false claims” if any such enquiry of their claim is ever shown to be false.

John L. Allen Jr. has probably become the best known critic of the organisation, seeing he published his work in 2005, riding on The Da Vinci Code’s publicity. But, as mentioned, criticism goes back decades. The Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Wlodimir Ledochowski (1866–1942), told the Vatican decades ago, after receiving reports from Spain, that he considered Opus Dei “very dangerous for the Church in Spain”. He described it as having a “secretive character” and saw “signs in it of a covert inclination to dominate the world with a form of Christian Masonry”. This attack against Opus Dei from within the Church itself has happened time and again in its history. Its status, as a personal prelature, is largely identical to that of the Knights Templar in medieval times, and though such comparison is easy to whip our imagination into a frenzy, we need to note that the errors of the Knights Templar should be learned and better not be repeated. If anything, the Knights Templar were a formidable economic force and it was this economic position that antagonised the French king and led to his plotting of their downfall; Opus Dei is a similar economic force, often investing in schools or educational programs that are more economic than religious in orientation.

Most commentators did point out that the image painted by Brown about the “problems” of Opus Dei did exist, but that the organisation had “dramatically changed” in the past few years. That is an altogether too glib statement – and the documentaries largely let Opus Dei get away with it. The last decade has not been scandal free at all. Louis Freeh, Director of the FBI from 1993 to 2001, was exposed as an Opus member after the department was heavily pruned and allegations had surfaced that pyrotechnic devices were used to speed the end of the Waco Adventist siege in 1993. FBA agent Robert Hansen, who was jailed for life in 2001 for spying for the Russians over a 15-year period in return for payment of almost a million pounds, was exposed as a devout Opus Dei member. It surfaced that “Hansen’s brother-in-law was an Opus Dei priest in Rome whose office is only a few yards away from the pope. One of their daughters is an Opus Dei numerary, a woman who has taken a vow of celibacy while remaining a layperson”. A coincidence? Not really. Hansen’s motive for his treachery was a desire to afford the Opus Dei lifestyle, and send his children to Opus schools.
In September 1994, the Portuguese magazine VISAO carried an article entitled “The Pope’s Secret Army”, which was critical of Opus. VISAO was subsequently bombarded with unending Opus correspondence. “Curiously enough, the offices of VISAO went up in flames shortly thereafter and since then VISAO has lost their appetite to criticize Opus Dei.”
A lot of controversy has equally surrounded the speed at which Escriva, Opus Dei’s founder, is being made a saint – it seems to outperform fast-food in waiting time. The necessary ingredient – a miracle – for Escriva’s beatification was the miraculous, overnight healing of a Carmelite nun in 1976. The miraculous cure was authenticated “in part” by Opus doctors, which could reveal a certain predisposition towards a miraculous outcome. The second miracle, necessary for Canonisation, was the healing of Dr. Manuel Nevado Rey’s skin condition. Here, Opus has denied any complicity, but according to Jesuit Fr Reese’s Inside the Vatican, it is understood that there are “members (of Opus) in every (Vatican) department”. It is a general statement and indeed without evidence, but I use it to show the precarious position Opus Dei finds itself in – and why it was used as such by Brown: an octopus that lurks behind every corner and has influence everywhere, without knowing who, where or what exactly.

Still, they are not the “threat” some would think they are. Though powerful, they cannot be labelled as a cancer within the Church that is totally out of control. This false image is nevertheless partially to be blamed on Opus Dei themselves, who like to portray themselves bigger than they actually are. Riding on the controversy of The Da Vinci Code, it was shown that in some European countries, their membership was only 300 big – a contributing factor why they were labelled a cult in Belgium. In the UK, Labour MP Ruth Kelly is a prominent member and riding on The Da Vinci Code controversy, a parliamentary reshuffle placing her in charge of Equalities invited the question whether her belief didn’t automatically preclude her from such a position – homosexuality is more than frowned upon by Opus Dei, and of course, the rights of homosexuals is quite a key issue in any Equalities debate. I am not suggesting Ruth Kelly cannot separate her job from her religion; I am saying that before The Da Vinci Code, Opus Dei already had a bad image, but there would never have been a political controversy that made it to the front pages of the national newspapers regarding Kelly’s religious affinity – for without the book, reporters would not have known much about Opus Dei and/or would have been unable to sell it as a major “flaw” in her character.

Brown labelled Opus Dei a “Catholic sect”. That is definitely what ex-members have reported and it is how it was classified in Belgium in 1997: aggressive recruitment whereby members initially hide their links to Opus Dei, persuade recruits not to tell their families, or maintain contact with their families, forbidding phone calls and use threats of condemnation. Opus Dei now admits errors were made, but that this is no longer the case. There are three possibilities: Opus Dei has indeed cleaned up its act; we are just waiting for a new wave of deserters from the organisation to validate or deny this clean-up campaign; Opus Dei have perfected their intimidation techniques, which means we will never know, as no insider will be able or dare to speak out. But it remains a “fact” that it has been labelled a “Catholic sect”. So Brown could use that as a “fact” – irrelevant of how many documentaries are trying to suggest it is not.

When Brown was challenged about the “facts”, he largely stuck by what he had written, some of it inaccurate – as we will see when we delve into the problem of the Priory of Sion. But at the same time, the fact that he was not intimately familiar with the subject matter, could be seen as a blessing for the likes of Opus Dei. He could have woven in P2, either as a substitute for Opus Dei, or as a partner in crime.
P2 was in essence a Masonic lodge, notorious in the early 1980s for destroying the Vatican Bank. Seeing the novel is also set in London, the P2 story itself has a London connection: the death of Italian banker and prominent P2 member Roberto Calvi, who hung himself from Blackfriar’s Bridge. Calvi officially committed suicide, following the problems of his bank, his alliance to P2, and other aspects. But today, the case has been reopened and a murder enquiry is being held, the suicide verdict now overturned.
What epic proportions would it have taken if Brown had suggested that Calvi’s death was part of the Priory of Sion puzzle? That P2 were in cahoots with the Vatican if not Opus Dei, to stamp out the Priory heresy? That P2 was merely using Vatican money, using it to finance the fight against the Priory, and hence that the emptying of the Vatican bank by this organisation was not just a money-making crime, but instead done to finance the fight against the cancer that is the Priory? Such a scenario would have made it indiscernible to many whether it was a novel, or whether it was someone writing a true story in the form of a novel, to get the truth out. It would have made the problem to distinguish fact from fiction, which sits at the heart of this work, even more difficult.
Finally, let us note that there has never been any suggestion that Opus Dei has got a series of killers. In fact, from memory, Opus Dei has never been linked with any bizarre “deaths”. But some researchers will hint at the existence of an Octopus-like assassination group, willing to kill for the Church… which is so little known that Brown definitely could not use them in an epic fight…

So what to say about the Priory of Sion, and especially, how do we prevent from repeating what has now been said about the controversy ad nauseum? The Priory was officially founded as a French association by apparently not more than three men, one being Pierre Plantard, in 1956. It seems that it did not have any activity after the initial few months, thus, after a period of ten to twelve years, was automatically deleted from the French list of associations. Still, in the mid 1960s, Plantard and some of his (new) friends began to deposit, in the French National Library, certain treatises speaking of important parchments, linked with the mystery of a French priest, Saunière, in the village of Rennes-le-Château, as well as a forgotten dimension to the Merovingian kings, who ruled parts of France around the 7th century AD.
By 1982, three UK based researchers, Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln had recreated the latter premise in a new premise: that the Priory of Sion were the protectors of a bloodline, namely that of the descendents of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and that the Merovingian kings may have been part of this bloodline. This theory – not based on any facts provided by Plantard, who actually fervently denied this scenario to Lincoln’s face, who nevertheless commented that “though Plantard said no, I could see he meant ‘yes’” – became the major revelation that puts the problems of Langdon and Neveu into perspective: why they are being chased, why her grandfather was murdered, etc.

The bloodline theory was not native to the 1982 book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by the above mentioned authors, either; one of the partners of the authors had actually used the same plot in one of her novels before Holy Blood, Holy Grail became an international bestseller – though it has sold better since the publication of The Da Vinci Code than in the preceding twenty years put together. It was mainly the usage of “the bloodline” that made Baigent and Leigh decide to sue RandomHouse – rather than Brown, for copyright infringement. Though the “Priory bloodline” was indeed an invention of Baigent and Leigh – and an invention it is, for it is unsupported by any evidence and, as mentioned, firmly denied by the person who created and pretended to be the leader of the Priory – Brown in his witness statement argued he came across it in the introduction to Charles Addison’s book on the Templars, as mentioned in the previous part. It is, unfortunately for Baigent and Leigh, the case that when you write a book that itself is a major bestseller and has become the centre of controversy, others will build upon your work, and hence there is a multitude of possibilities where Brown could have read it, without actually reading the source itself. Just like millions have read The Da Vinci Code, but who has read the statutes of the Priory of Sion?

Is the Priory of Sion just a figment of Plantard’s imagination? In 1956, Plantard officially saw the Priory of Sion as an organisation that would organise pilgrimages towards the top of Mount Sion – not the one in Jerusalem, but a local mountain near his hometown of Annemasse. He hoped to also hold retreats on the slope of the mountain. Nothing ever came of that and the organisation “merely” published pamphlets whose contents and nature had nothing to do with the official goal of the organisation.
In the early 1960s, Plantard began to appear in books by the French writer Gérard de Sède, first about the existence of a possible Templar treasure in the French town of Gisors and afterwards about the possible existence of a… treasure in the French village of Rennes-le-Chateau. As anyone will notice, there is a certain trend there. Soon, Plantard mixed the two together, and he claimed to be the head of the Priory of Sion, who were originally part of the Knights Templar, but then separated from them… at Gisors, in 1188… and who were now the proud protectors of the treasure of Rennes-le-Château. At the time, the mystery of Rennes-le-Château was seen as a treasure, possibly buried in a tomb, possibly of a Merovingian king, or linked with a king… or possibly a tomb of a king or queen containing a Merovingian treasure. Plantard himself was never explicit and though his critics have held this against him, in my opinion, Plantard himself was genuinely looking for “the secret of Saunière” and formulated certain theories based on the evidence he had been able to acquire from the few remaining people still alive at the time of his enquiries; this included one Joseph Courtaly, a priest who had known Saunìère and who would become a primary source of information of de Sède’s book – it was dedicated to him.
So what is the Priory? In my opinion, the Priory was several things, at various times. In 1956, I have argued that it was a front, behind which people like Plantard were able to organise political rallies in support of the then emerging political star Charles de Gaulle. In the 1960s, Plantard used the Priory as a mechanism through which he could enter the mystery of Rennes-le-Château in a somewhat authoritative manner. In the 1970s, mainly due to Henry Lincoln and largely him alone, the Priory was transformed into “the secret guardians of the truth of Christianity”. Plantard always firmly denied this, but as the story grew, he was time and again asked to confirm or deny this or that question. In the early 1980s, when Holy Blood, Holy Grail was published, Plantard seemed, now a man in his early sixties, more than happy to be interviewed and play the role of “grand master”. His own creation had literally exploded and as he could not run, he had to live with it – and play the role. A small group of people – who for legal reasons will not be mentioned – were happy to play along with him and some have since the death of Plantard in 2000, happily continued the myth, as and when they feel wont to “have fun”.

The best example of this “post Plantard era trickery” is a letter allegedly from the Priory of Sion, dated December 27, 2003 – almost four years after Plantard’s death. It carries the signatures of Gino Sandri, a real person, and “Chyren”, the pseudonym used by Plantard. The letter has been discussed by Picknett and Prince in The Sion Revelation, the follow-up to The Templar Revelation.
In my opinion, this letter was someone’s idea of having fun – and nothing more. The letter is known as the “Priory of Sion relaunch”, and states that “The Assembly of the Provinces is convened for 17 January 2003. It will meet in the very heart of Paris.” Many have seen this as an erroneous date – that it should read 2004 instead of 2003, but we note it reads 2003, not 2004. Furthermore, on January 17, 2003, there was a meeting of a group of people in the very heart of Paris, including characters who had hung around Plantard from the early 1970s onwards – as well as several wannabes. A major incident occurred during this meeting, involving one of these “Plantard supporting tricksters”. It seems possible that person wanted to have revenge for what happened during this meeting and hence concocted this letter, using the name of Sandri and Plantard, the latter who could not object as he was dead; the former has never commented.

Was someone trying to make it sound as if this group of people were going to be the “relaunch” of the Priory? Our “suspect” had elsewhere hinted as much. The letter also states that “an office will soon be created, destined to serve as the official link between the general public and the Order of Sion.” Much happened with this group of people between January 17 and December 27, 2003. Most importantly, the man these people were setting up as their new “front man” – “the office soon to be created ?” – (about which he was totally unaware at the time) had a major falling out with the many of the members of this group, an event that started to boil over from September 2003 onwards. The rupture was complete by late December – in fact, a few days before December 27. Coincidence?
In short, if a “relaunch” was ever part of the plans, it never happened… though Picknett & Prince do point out that by a bizarre twist of faith, the gods did bring out such a relaunch through the success of The Da Vinci Code.
With such incidents, itself just one in a long series that stretches over four decades, the Priory has grown into a larger than life myth. There is nothing really behind the myth, but various groups of people have claimed to be the Spanish or Italian or English branch of the Priory – and there is nothing anyone can really do to disprove it, for as the Priory is nothing but a myth, there is no evidence – only absence of evidence, a void these characters can fill up with stories to their heart’s content.
As such, it is possible that the myth will be abused, either by Plantard’s original hangers-on, or new stars on the block. Thus, it may be that there will indeed be a “relaunch” of the Priory. After all, the Works of Zion are never finished… and no-one can deny that from humble beginnings, the Priory of Sion has achieved mythic proportions, often incorporated in books on “secret societies” as if they were a true secret organisation. Having thus acquired the accolade of “mythical” Priory of Sion, they have achieved immortality, and layer upon layer can and will be added to them… not so much by the likes of Dan Brown, but by people intent of either having fun with the general public by creating bogus revelations, or political agitators hoping to use the Priory myth and use it for their own purposes… after all, political agitation was the true origin of the 1956 organisation.