19 octubre 2005


[John L. Allen Jr. is an award-winning Vatican correspondent of CNN and the National Catholic Reporter and National Public Radio. He is the author of The Rise of Benedict XVI and All the Pope's Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks. His Internet column, The Word from Rome, is considered by knowledgeable observers to be the best single source of insights on Vatican affairs in the English language.

To undertake his study -Opus Dei: secrets and power inside the Catholic Church, ed. Randon House & Allen Lane, 400 pp.-, John Allen visited Opus Dei outposts around the world, conducting 300 hours of interviews with members and ex-members.

The autor also lived for five days in an Opus Dei residence and had access to high-ranking officials and private correspondence from the organization's archives.

Allen divides his study into four sections: essentials about Opus Dei; a long look inside Opus Dei; questions about Opus Dei; and a summary evaluation.

The autor has produced an exhaustive work, packed with endless facts. This is an serious book: "The method Allen follows is to take the case against Opus Dei and sift it. Thus, he takes an article published in the magazine America in 1995 which says the statutes of Opus Dei are secret. Next he interviews the article’s author. Then he finds that the statutes are all in a book printed by an Opus Dei affiliated publisher, and there is a translation on the internet too. He also quotes a prohibition of secrecy in the statutes of Opus Dei themselves, approved by the Vatican in 1982."

The Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei, commonly known as Opus Dei (Latin for "Work of God"), is a Roman Catholic prelature, composed of a prelate, secular priests, and lay people, whose stated aim is to contribute to the evangelizing mission of the Church by spreading the message that everyone is called to become a saint and an apostle. The Opus Dei Prelature "encourages Christians of all social classes to live consistently with their faith in the middle of the ordinary circumstances of their lives."

Readers who are curious about the Opus Dei will find Allen's book most informative.

We post here the review published on The Tablet.]

#224 Varios Categoria-Varios: Etica y Antropologia

by Christopher Howse

In 1987 Cardinal Hume wrote to the Archbishop of Seoul, who had asked if it was a good idea to let Opus Dei start up in his diocese. “I know that Opus Dei contains many good people and does good work,” he replied, “but – strictly between ourselves – I would always be cautious in their regard. I don’t like the secretiveness that seems to surround their activities, and I have suspicions about pressure that can at times be put on youths.” This previously unpublished detail on the late Cardinal’s thinking is typ-ical of the spadework put in by John Allen, the Vatican correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter, in this determinedly unsensationalist but deeply intriguing study.

In my experience the most frequent reason given for disliking Opus Dei among bien- pensant English Catholics is that it is “right-wing” in ecclesiastical terms. John Allen does not see it that way. “It’s not quite right to call this a ‘traditional’ alternative to a more ‘liberal’ post-conciliar Catholicism, since from a historical point of view Opus Dei is not traditional at all.” Indeed, he goes so far as to say that its founder’s “insistence that the real work of bringing the gospel to the world is to be carried out by lay people through their secular occupation marks something of a Copernican shift for Catholicism”.

This worldwide organisation (the Church’s only “personal prelature”) of 85,000 men and women was founded in Spain in 1928 by a 26-year-old Aragonese priest, Jose-maría Escrivá. He was canonised in 2002, 27 years after his death, though to his opponents this seemed indecent haste. John Allen gives a chapter each to what he calls “question marks” about Opus Dei: corporal mortification; attitudes to women, money, politics; “blind obedience”; recruiting; and the two items in his subtitle, secrecy and power in the Church.

In giving answers, John Allen’s 388 pages are so full of facts (mostly accurate, though he writes “teapot” on page 19 when he means “kettle”) that sometimes the shape of the wood is lost, though the trees are correctly identified. He has tirelessly under-taken a string of interviews – in Africa, Peru, the United States and Rome. And here I am on page 288, “an ex-numerary who reports that he was not traumatised by the process of leaving, which he elected to do in 1988”. (The weird-sounding category of member “numerary” refers to the unmarried minority in Opus Dei. The married majority are called “supernumeraries”. The terms were originally adopted from Spanish academic life as terms with ordinary and secular connotations, which they lack in English.)

On the authority of that bestselling shocker The Da Vinci Code, plenty of readers are left only with the impression that Opus Dei is a cult of pain. “Corporal mortification” to many non-Catholics now conjures up the image of the discipline, made of knotted cords, which most members of Opus Dei do not use, but some do. The use of the discipline might have been fine for Cardinal Newman, but it is unusually old-fashioned today. Yet interest in it is, I fear, largely prurient, and a red herring. “Mortification” in Opus Dei usually means things like making generous use of one’s time, not gossiping and keeping one’s temper.

Opus Dei is criticised for its attitude both to women members who are married, and to those who are not. The married ones are expected to be good Catholic mothers, es-chewing contraception and welcoming children. Some of the unmarried ones carry out cooking and cleaning at Opus Dei houses, and critics find this sexist and demeaning. On the other hand, women members receive high-level theological training and some become experienced spiritual advisers. John Allen’s cautious conclusion is that “Women in Opus Dei do not, for the most part, feel like ‘second-class citizens’.”

As for money and power, both political and ecclesiastical, the charge is that Opus Dei has too much. Its members, moreover, are said to do as they are told, and are too pushy in recruiting. Then, returning to the central question of secrecy, about which Cardinal Hume had doubts, people complain that Opus Dei does not publish a list of members, and they do not wear special uniforms. The fear is of unidentifiable influence.

The best-known recent example in Britain was the media dance around Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Education. She apparently did not want the equation to be made: “Opus Dei equals New Labour apparatchik”. She did not volunteer information about her membership (though she admitted being influenced spiritually), so Opus Dei felt honour-bound to refrain from comment on it.

It is one thing if poor Miss Kelly feels the weight of Opus Dei being judged by her. But there is a bigger argument, if a subtler one, for members not defining themselves by their membership, and it is to do with the essentially lay (lay, that is, as opposed to consecrated religious) but spiritual nature of their vocation. Members’ secular work is something for which they are individually responsible, and for which Opus Dei is not. A greengrocer who is a member of Opus Dei might sell you a rotten apple, but there’s no point taking it back to Opus Dei headquarters in Bayswater.

Throughout, John Allen, the author of the critical biography Cardinal Ratzinger: the Vatican’s enforcer of the faith, is surprisingly sympathetic to his new subject. He has a striking chapter on “divine filiation”, the awareness of being children of God, a hallmark of Opus Dei. And at one point he is so puzzled by the disparity between hostile accounts of Opus Dei and friendly ones that he is reminded of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, a tale told differently by several narrators.

The method Allen follows is to take the case against Opus Dei and sift it. Thus, he takes an article published in the magazine America in 1995 which says the statutes of Opus Dei are secret. Next he interviews the article’s author. Then he finds that the statutes are all in a book printed by an Opus Dei affiliated publisher, and there is a translation on the internet too. He also quotes a prohibition of secrecy in the statutes of Opus Dei themselves, approved by the Vatican in 1982.

Though struck by the “startling ferocity” of criticisms by a proportion of former members, Allen concludes that Opus Dei is no Gothic horror. One of the funniest passages comes when he investigates what he has been told by a hostile ex-member is the “Opus Gulag”, housing “mad numeraries” on the notorious fourth floor of a clinic at the Opus Dei-run University of Navarre. Instead, the author finds a mild-mannered psychiatrist of international standing who shows him round and tells him that of the 25 men and women presently being treated at his clinic, none is in Opus Dei.

Allen’s findings are generally deflationary. Opus Dei’s membership is only equivalent to the diocese of Hobart, he notes; it has only 39 bishops out of the 4,564 in the world; its presence in the Vatican is limited, with only 20 members working in the Curia. None of its priests, he thinks it worth saying, has been accused in the US child abuse scandal. Allen does not see Opus Dei expanding as fast as tales of relentless recruitment suggest, since by his calculations it gained only 650 members a year in the past four years.

As for money, in a chapter analysing the picture in the United States, he puts its assets at $344 million, compared with an annual revenue for the Catholic Church in the United States of $102 billion. By comparison, General Motors has assets of $455 billion. The worldwide revenue of Opus Dei, he says, equals that of a mid-sized American diocese.

All this is fairly interesting on the level of debunking Da Vinci Code images of Opus Dei as scarcely human in its depravity, but it is beside the main point. The real question remains: is Opus Dei, as it behaves now, an element in the Catholic Church that should be encouraged? In answer John Allen makes two distinctions, first between the institution and its message, then between the philosophy of Opus Dei and its sociology. He argues that “whatever one makes of the fact that a minority of Opus Dei members wear a barbed chain called a cilice around their thigh for two hours a day”, still at its core “the message of Opus Dei is that the redemption of the world will come in large part through lay women and men sanctifying their daily work, transforming secularity from within”.

While its philosophy, he says, is a secular one that forms no group policy (on tax policy, say, or the war on terror), its sociology is aligned with the sort of people who think that abortion and homosexual acts are wrong. I’m not sure how useful these distinctions are, since an institution’s ideas and standards are contained in its very structure. In the sociological examples he gives, of attitudes to abortion and homo-sexuality, he assumes that they hold else-where the political significance that they do in America. In British politics those issues do not loom large.

In conclusion, Allen judges that Opus Dei is “not especially secretive”, is “not rich” and does have a social conscience, with “the bulk of Opus Dei’s corporate works designed to serve the poor and excluded”. In secular politics “Opus Dei as an organisation has no line”; ecclesiologically, “Opus Dei is not taking over the Catholic Church.”

The biggest negative he asserts is that “a substantial number of ex-members of Opus Dei, enough to suggest that this is something more than isolated cases, report feeling damaged by their experience.” That, I think, is chiefly because they once saw member-ship as a vocation, and vocations are not changed like clothes.

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