Magnum Opus

John Allen's new book on Opus Dei attempts to separate fact from fiction regarding the most controversial force in the Catholic Church.

Chances are, for most people, the words “Opus Dei” conjure up the image of an albino assassin monk, Silas, or the mysterious and haunting “Teacher” in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Controversy has swirled around Brown’s fictional interpretation of a number of religious topics since Da Vinci’s publication and, no doubt, was also a factor in making it one of the best selling novels of all time. Interest in Opus Dei shows no sign of waning as the cinematic version of the The Da Vinci Code is scheduled to debut this coming spring. The book’s success has been so phenomenal that a cottage industry of books all claiming to “debunk” or “decode” Da Vinci has even emerged as well.

John Allen’s Opus Dei is not one of those books. Though he does give a nod to a Da Vinci scene in its pages, Opus Dei is a serious journalistic analysis by a gifted and tenacious beat reporter. In a recent article in The National Catholic Reporter, NCR editor Tom Roberts predicted John Allen’s forthcoming book on Opus Dei “would satisfy neither those who wanted to see Opus Dei skewered at every turn, nor would it satisfy those who wanted a glowing portrait of the outfit.” Those who are familiar with Allen, NCR’s Vatican correspondent and a regular contributor to CNN and National Public Radio, know of his relentless commitment to objective reporting, an objectivity so devoid of any trace of personal opinion that some find it maddening. (“I find it so annoying that he doesn’t take a stand,” one magazine editor once told me.)

But whatever one thinks of Allen’s commitment to objectivity, what results in this painstakingly reported book is a sociology of one of the most intriguing (and controversial) groups in the Catholic Church. Thanks to 300+ hours of interviews Allen conducted over a year’s time in Italy, Spain, Africa, South America and the U.S., readers have the opportunity to see Opus Dei as its members (and ex-members) see it.

As someone who embraces a somewhat skeptical attitude toward Opus Dei, I was surprised to find myself agreeing with much of the organization’s spiritual and theological underpinnings.

Allen devotes eight chapters to exploring what he dubs the “question marks about Opus Dei,” including accusations of secrecy, recruiting methods some have described as “cult-like,” the role of women in Opus Dei, and the controversial practice of self-mortification, which is “self-inflicted pain intended to ‘tame the flesh’ and unite Christians with the suffering of Christ.’”

Characteristically, throughout these chapters, Allen presents the facts, and then allows his readers to draw their own conclusions and form their own opinions. In the chapter on self-mortification, Allen points out that for most Opus Dei members, self-mortification takes a very simple form—taking out the garbage when it is not one’s turn, or resisting frustration when one has to repeatedly correct a young child. Only Opus Dei’s celibate members—approximately 30 percent of its membership—use a cilice, a spiked chain one fastens around the upper thigh. (Allen even goes so far as to try one on himself and writes about the experience.) For this reader, the “question mark” chapters were the most interesting portions of the book, but Allen is quick to point out that to reduce Opus Dei to these question marks is to give short shrift to its historical and spiritual foundations.

This is where Allen’s four chapters on “Opus Dei from the Inside” provide a helpful context, and his “Quick Overview of Opus Dei” in chapter one provides an Opus Dei 101 of sorts that is invaluable to those who are new to the group. The core idea behind Opus Dei, (which means in Latin, “the Work of God”) as articulated by its founder, St. Josemaría Escrivá (canonized in 2002), is the sanctification of ordinary work, “meaning that one can find God through the practice of law, engineering, or medicine, by picking up the garbage or by delivering the mail, if one brings to work the proper Christian spirit.” Stemming from this core idea, according to Opus Dei’s message, is that the redemption of the world will occur largely through laypeople sanctifying their work, transforming the secular world from within. (This, according to Allen, is why many Opus Dei-sponsored institutions have names like “Windmoor” and “The Heights,” an attempt to “blend in” to a secular world.) As a theologically-trained layperson, reading these core messages and philosophies, I was hard-pressed to find fault with them. As someone who embraces a somewhat skeptical attitude toward Opus Dei, I was surprised to find myself agreeing with much of the organization’s spiritual and theological underpinnings.

In researching this book Allen gained unprecedented access to the inner workings of this controversial organization, even spending five days in an Opus Dei residence in Barcelona. (After experiencing their way of life during this brief stay, he concluded he was “utterly unsuitable” to membership.) At the beginning of the book, he likens Opus Dei to a Guinness Extra Stout: “It’s a strong brew, definitely an acquired taste, and clearly not for everyone.” Opus Dei may not be for everyone, as Allen concludes, but for Catholics and those interested in Catholic affairs, there’s something for everyone in this book. For the uninitiated, Allen’s basic, beyond-Da Vinci overviews are invaluable and accessible. Those more church-savvy or theologically trained individuals who have closely monitored Opus Dei-related news over the years will enjoy the high-caliber work of a top-flight reporter who clearly has done his homework.