These days, with a very small number of notable exceptions (Denver International Airport comes to mind), no one seems bothered to inject mystery or hidden meaning into anything. One needs to go back to the Beatles album covers to find that kind of mischief afoot.
At the heart of The Lost Symbol is a conflict between the Free Masons and some of the Holy Orders the Catholic Church. As it turns out, however, both sides of this conflict seem to be dying on the vine.
Free Masonry was designed to weather persecution. There was once an anti-Masonic political party, and my alma mater was active in the anti-Masonic movement. It has been condemned by the Pope. Apathy, however, proved a more challenging adversary. The Masons still own some prime real estate in Washington D.C., Denver and elsewhere, and still have some powerful members. But, service clubs of all kinds have seen their memberships age, their membership rolls shrink, and their participation decline. The Masons have not been an exception to this rule. In 1941, they had about 4.1 million members in the United States, as of 2006, the total membership was about 1.5 million. The aura of power surrounding the Masons has also faded. The Masons are enjoying a minor resurgence, but the average age of a Mason in California is still 65 years old.
The Roman Catholic religious orders of monks and nuns featured in Dan Brown's earlier two books have seen an even more stark decline. Last year, the Church announced that:
[B]etween 2005 and 2006 the number "members of the consecrated life" fell by just under 10%.
The number of members, predominantly women, some engaged only in constant prayer, others working as teachers, health workers and missionaries, fell 94,790 to 945,210. . . Of the total, 753,400 members were women, while 191,810 were men, including 136,171 priests and 532 permanent deacons.
The situation in the United States is not the exception to this trend:
When Vatican II closed, sisters numbered 180,000 in the United States. Today there are about 65,000 sisters, with an average age of 69.
There is also a shortage of priests in the Catholic Church, although a less dramatic one, even though the church's membership ranks are healthy (1.1 billion worldwide). For example:
Only 23 seminarians are expected to be ordained for New York City over the next four years. . . . Currently there are only 648 diocesan priests for the Archdiocese of New York, which has 2.5 million Catholics.
As the number of Catholics in the United States has risen, the number of priests has steadily dropped. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, there are nearly 29,000 priests, about 20 percent fewer than 40 years ago.
There are more than 60 million Catholics in the United States, about 2,000 per diocesan priest, nationally. More statistics along the same lines can be found here and here.
The trends are likely to continue:
"Ninety-one percent of nuns and 75 percent of priests are 60 or older, and most of the rest are at least 50."