Politics & Policy

Opus Dei 101

Investigating a "history" class.

So here I am facing another Minnesota winter, looking to expand my mind. Naturally I turn to “The Winter & Spring 2006 Community Education Catalog” of the Eden Prairie, Minnesota public schools, where I see the very first course offering is

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Da Vinci Code Historical Seminar

Did you find the historical events in the 2003 fictional best-seller interesting but too fantastic to believe? Actually, most of the background items cited in the book were tied to events purportedly recorded in history.

I struggled with “purportedly recorded” for a while, but decided to move on. As the rest of the description made clear, the point of this course is to explain how The DaVinci Code, the Dan Brown novel that claims Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a baby and that Opus Dei is a murderous conspiracy charged with protecting the Divine Descendents, is like, you know, historical and stuff.

What really made me pause however was this line: “The Priory of Sion actually existed since 1099, and Opus Dei frightfully exists right here in the U.S.A., today!”

The Priory of Sion–the even older alleged conspiracy to protect the alleged descendents of Jesus Christ–certainly did not exist since 1099 (or ever), being a 1960s fabrication of a convicted French swindler. Asserting in a public-school program–even one for adults–that it actually existed amounts to using the public schools to spread anti-Christian and specifically anti-Catholic propaganda. The line about Opus Dei’s very existence in the U.S. being frightening suggests the same, and then some.

Meet the Historian

I’m not a fan of Catholics joining the whiners’ club. A few sub-literate paragraphs in a course catalog aren’t the end of the world. Ultimately, though, it was the incompetence that prompted me to look into what was going on. The way the course description read, somebody had probably just been asleep at the switch. They’d probably want to know.

I called the school district and asked to speak to the person in charge of community education. I was referred to Ann Coates, the executive director, but was told she was not in. So I tracked down Mr. George Tkach, the teacher of the “Da Vinci Code Historical Seminar” in Eden Prairie’s “Adult Academy.”

Mr. Tkach (pronounced t’kosh) is a retired Navy officer. Describing himself as a “major fan of art history” who is “deeply interested in the Gnostic Gospels and Coptic Christianity.” He also told me he was trained as an engineer.

Mr. Tkach is a nice man, more in the great American autodidact–harmless-eccentric tradition than the not-so-great American white-sheet-wearing tradition. He chatted amiably about the lecture he’s planning, though he did want to know if I was Catholic before going into details.

He asked me if I had read the novel. When I told him I had (as much as I could stand, anyway–its’ a really lousy book) he seemed relieved.

“That’s good,” he said. “Some dioceses have outlawed the book, you know. Several bishops have forbidden people to read it.”

(Later I called the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, just on the wild chance this might be true. After an astonished “What?” the spokesman there said, “I never heard of such a thing.”)

Mr. Tkach went on to tell me he is not a Catholic and has no direct experience with Opus Dei. He did have some friends who were members, and he found his experience with them “unsettling.” I asked if his friends ever found Opus Dei unsettling. He said no–in fact, they were still members.

He then explained that the crucial point is that Opus Dei is “not a part of the Catholic Church. It’s an arm of the pope. They’re patterned on the Jesuits. The Jesuits’ motto is ‘The end justifies any means.’” (That would have to be a somewhat loose translation of “Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam,” more typically rendered as “To the greater glory of God.”) Not all that surprisingly, Mr. Tkach didn’t know very much about Opus Dei, not even many lies. He was strongly of the opinion that it is “elitist.” “If you want to be a member you’d better have a master’s degree and a couple hundred thousand in the bank. They own a 47-story in midtown Manhattan, you know.” (It’s 17 stories.) When I asked him why he thinks it is frightening that Opus Dei exists “right here in the USA, today!” he told me if he had it to do again, he would have left “frightfully” out. In fact, he’d had concerns about the word at the time, fearing it might be too controversial. He discussed it with Ann Coates, though, “and she said to leave it in.”

Constitutional Issues

I called Ann Coates back. Three more times in fact. She was out of the office; then in a meeting; then out of the office again.

While waiting, I decided to call the local diocesan newspaper. I got an editor on the phone almost immediately “Hey, are you guys following the Da Vinci Seminar story?’

“Oh yes. Yes we are. In fact I’m going to the lecture myself.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, no. Tonight at 7 P.M.”

“Um–this lecture isn’t until April.”

“Oh.”

I read her the catalog description. She seemed unable to get her mind around the issue.

“I don’t have any problem with people calling Opus Dei frightening. A community college–”

“Community center, ” I corrected. “It’s community education.”

“–is not a church institution, they don’t have to be in line with church teachings.”

I have to admit, that one floored me. It had just never occurred to me that the reason public schools don’t teach the Catechism of the Catholic Church is that, not being Church institutions, they don’t “have to.” I had always thought it was because, under the U.S. Constitution, they were strictly forbidden to teach or critique any particular religion. “It’s a tax-supported center,” I told the editor, hoping that would make the issue clear.

“People can make a choice to go or not go,” she said, playing the sacred “choice” card. She seemed to think I’d be crushed by the weight of its awesome power.

“They can’t make a choice about paying their taxes,” I said.

“We are not the Catholic Defense League,” the woman said huffily, and the conversation ended.

Still no Ann Coates. So my husband, who is nothing if not an original mind, suggested I call the ACLU. “I bet they laugh in your face. Then you can write about it and expose them for the anti-Catholic hypocrites they are.”

What the heck. I called the ACLU. Once again I got somebody almost immediately. He listened patiently while I told my story.

“Hmmm,” he said, “sounds to me like there’s an issue of anti-Catholicism there, and using the public schools to promote it, too. What you need to do is file a formal complaint with us, which I can show you how to do. Then we’ll see if there’s anything we can do.”

I filed the report, but haven’t heard back from the ACLU yet. I don’t really expect to. Frankly, I’d be happy if they’d just explain the Constitution to the Catholic press.

A Novel Approach to History

Finally, I got to talk to Ann Coates.

First of all, Ann Coates is a woman of excellent literary taste–it took her a year and a half to read The Da Vinci Code because she found it so stunningly boring. “I just didn’t think it was that good,” she admitted. “And I am not interested in reading anything else by Dan Brown.” Still, she decided to host the seminar. “Between the movie and the book, I thought it would be good to offer a forum.”

I asked her what it was about Opus Dei that was so frightening.

“Well,” she said, “for one thing, nobody even knows if they exist or not!”

I tried to break it to her gently.

There was a moment’s silence.

Then Ms. Coates burst out, “Look, I don’t even know what Opus Dei is! All I know about it is from the novel!” And as to the “frightful” part, the executive director explained, “I didn’t question the description. I just go with what the teacher writes.” She denied that she recommended using the word, saying, “I have no memory of that conversation.”

A couple of days after I spoke to her, Ms. Coates talked with the Superintendent of the Eden Prairie Public School District. Despite a number of phone calls protesting the course, and despite Ms. Coates’ apparently not realizing that a novel is a work of fiction, they decided to go ahead and offer the course as planned, as a “historical seminar.” They offered no apology for calling an institution of the Catholic Church “frightful” and stood by the course description as it appears in the catalog.

Mr. Tkach remains unruffled. “I know how to handle protesters,” he says. “If they show up, I’ll be ready.”

Unless, of course, someone shows up with a couple of facts under his belt.

Susan Vigilante blogs from Minneapolis at www.desperateirishhousewife.blogspot.com.

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