In the basement of a six-story concrete building on the outskirts of Rome, young men and women in suits scurry around a simulated office, fetching documentsand hashing out business presentations for a fake corporate workplace called Junior Consulting.

Along with the Centro ELIS trade school upstairs, it's the brainchild of Opus Dei, the Roman Catholic group that Dan Brown's novel "The Da Vinci Code" portrayed as a killer cult conspiring with the Vatican to hide the true origins of Christianity.

Far from Brown's fictional world, Opus Dei says its image should be that of MBAs, not the book's murderous monk. The 78-year-old group of priests and laypeople has 84,000 members in more than five dozen countries and counts top executives and political leaders in its ranks.

Opus Dei's emphasis on recruiting and training businesspeople sets it apart from other Roman Catholic groups.

"Opus Dei is unique," says Keith Pecklers, a Jesuit priest and professor of theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. "Their approach is finding God in daily life as a Christian, and a big part of that is the business world."

Opus Dei is seeking more high-powered members by funding pizza parties and seminars on embryonic research, physician-assisted suicide and evolution near Ivy League campuses. And it's targeting lawyers and bankers through monthly meetings in London's financial district.

Belief in working hard

Opus Dei promotes Catholic church policy. It opposes abortion and the ordination of women. The group says its goal is to spread a credo that working hard brings people closer to God.

Some members, such as Eduardo Guilisasti, chief executive officer of Santiago, Chile-based Viña Concha y Toro SA, Latin America's biggest winery, advance the effort by giving their entire paycheck to help run Opus Dei's more than 100 technical and management schools.

Cisco Systems Inc., the world's largest maker of computer networking equipment; Vodafone Group Plc, the biggest mobile-phone service company by market value; and Nokia Oyj, the top cell-phone maker, all sponsor courses at Centro ELIS.

Not everyone accepts that Opus Dei's goal is purely spiritual. Dianne DiNicola says the group is out to recruit future executives, separate them from their families and then take their money.

"They proselytize educated, bright people — you're talking doctors, lawyers, corporate types," says DiNicola, executive director of the Opus Dei Awareness Network. The group publicizes Opus Dei's practices, which it says restrict members' personal freedoms.

DiNicola, 63, founded ODAN after her daughter, Tammy, joined and then quit Opus Dei when she was a student at Boston College.

Opus Dei recruits people who have a potential to succeed professionally, both for their influence and their money, DiNicola says, based in part on her daughter's experience as a numerary, a type of member who is celibate and lives in Opus Dei residences.

About 30 percent of the people in Opus Dei swear off sex. The rest, known as supernumeraries, live in their own homes, often raising families.

Allegations of people control

Complaints about Opus Dei almost always come from former numeraries, who as celibates make the biggest commitment when joining and may go through the most stress when leaving, says Opus Dei spokesman Manuel Sanchez in Rome.

"Some people who have left Opus Dei, they rethink what they've done and the things they loved," he says. He says it's standard for members to give Opus Dei as much money as they can afford.

Concha y Toro's Guilisasti, 53, says he has no need for wealth. Opus Dei makes sure he has enough for clothing, food and gasoline for the 2002 Subaru he drives to his company's headquarters in Santiago.

"What would I do with money?" Guilisasti asks, seated in his wood-paneled office, where he keeps a framed photograph of Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, the Spanish priest who founded Opus Dei in 1928. "It's not important to my life."

In one aspect of the novel that crosses into reality, Opus Dei numeraries participate in regular "mortification."

In a weekly ritual, numeraries whip themselves on the back with a small switch while saying a prayer. For a few hours each day, they wear a band with inward-pointing spikes, known as a cilice, around their thighs. It can leave red marks and scars.

Opus Dei, which means "the work of God" in Latin, is expanding from strongholds in South America, Italy and Spain to the English-speaking world.

In the United States, Opus Dei completed its 17-story, $69 million Manhattan headquarters at Lexington Avenue and 34th Street in 2001.