A Vatican writer discusses the Roman Catholic Church’s most controversial organization—and how it was misrepresented in ‘The Da Vinci Code’
March 24 – In Dan Brown’s best-selling thriller, “The Da Vinci Code,” Opus Dei is depicted as a dark and mysterious cult within the Roman Catholic Church, a secretive society of men and women who have sought political power to further the interests of a wealthy elite. Yet the true nature of Opus Dei, Latin for the “Work of God,” is more prosaic, say those who have studied the organization.
Founded in 1928 by Spaniard Josemaria Escriva, who was made a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2002, the 85,000-member organization has a simple aim: to provide a structure for lay Catholics so they can better live their journey of faith while fully immersed in the world. For a few celibate members, that road includes self-mortification, wearing a strap with spikes on it. But it is not, they say, of the exaggerated and bloody sort depicted in Brown’s book.
John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, is the author of a new book on the mysterious organization due to be published by Random House later this year. Allen—who says he is not a member of Opus Dei—spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Edward Pentin in Rome.
NEWSWEEK: Why is Opus Dei so controversial?
John Allen: The first is the Spanish background to this. In the 1930s and ’40s [Opus Dei] experienced some enormous, extremely bitter rivalries with the Jesuits [because] some young Spanish men were deciding not to become Jesuits and signed up with Opus Dei instead. And this was, I think, the initial source of tension, that there was this perception that Opus Dei was kind of poaching … Some Jesuits began circulating, from my point of view, really outlandish charges against Opus Dei, things like they had secret tunnels under their centers, they were engaging themselves in bizarre rituals like crucifying themselves on crosses in Opus Dei centers.
What other causes have made Opus Dei a magnet for controversy?
A second force shaping all of this [is that] there’s a natural tendency to identify Opus Dei [with] Pope John Paul II and vice-versa. So those people who don’t like Pope John Paul II don’t like Opus Dei. They see Opus Dei as the sort of “shock troops of this ultraconservative, restorationist papacy.” The third factor is [that] Opus Dei is a new thing—it’s an organic body of laity and clergy, men and women sharing the same vocation which, canonically speaking, has never existed in Catholicism. And [when] something new is born in the church, there is always opposition to it.
Has Pope John Paul II and his support for Opus Dei had a moderating influence?
I would say the pope has, but the church has also had a moderating influence. Opus Dei’s clear choice has been to survive, which means that over the years they have moderated—they’re much more open today than they were 50 years ago.
Some say that the organization is still far too secretive. How true is this?
I’m not sure that today you can make an argument that Opus Dei is secretive in the sense that people normally mean it. One needs to distinguish between some Opus Dei members and Opus Dei corporate policy. It is certainly true that you will find some people in Opus Dei today who practice a kind of excessive practice of what’s traditionally been called discretion.
Is that primarily a personal motivation?
It’s partly a spiritual rationale—the avoidance of self-aggrandisement. That is, one should be humble. I think part of it, too, is that, historically, because a lot of people didn’t like Opus Dei, there was just a sense that it would be better not to be too upfront because you’re just inviting hostility. A lot of that has given way. Their offices, their headquarters are a matter of public record—the information office puts out information about budgets and membership and all that kind of stuff. So I wouldn’t say it was secretive.
A lot of media attention was paid last year when Ruth Kelly—who has connections with Opus Dei—was appointed as Britain’s new secretary of state for education. Why was she reluctant to reveal her association with the group?
Opus Dei takes the position that for supernumeraries [married members of the organization,] it’s up to them whether or not they want to disclose their membership. In the case of public figures like Ruth Kelly, what this creates is a situation when journalists go to Ruth Kelly and ask, “Are you or aren’t you in Opus Dei?” [and] she says, “I don’t want to answer.” So they go to Opus Dei, and Opus Dei have this position which says, “We’re not going to ‘out’ our members,” and so they’re reduced to saying things like, “Well she’s in touch with us.” Again, if you follow the chain of reasoning, from their point of view you can understand why they end up saying things like that. But to the outside world that just looks like dissembling, it looks like a cover-up.
This also applies to property, doesn’t it? Why are their schools, universities, for instance, not easily identifiable to the outside world?
Their logic for that is, again, secularity. They don’t want to be a religious community, and they don’t want to run specifically religious enterprises—they want to run secular enterprises that have a Christian spirit. Therefore they don’t want to be distinct from the rest of the world. That’s one reason they don’t wear habits.
Ruth Kelly’s appointment heightened some people’s concerns that Opus Dei is has a political agenda. How true is it that the organization is very political?
There’s a cardinal principle behind Opus Dei, and this goes back to Escriva himself, that Opus Dei can never take political positions—corporately, it can never take political positions. On spiritual grounds it would compromise the notion of secularity—that political thinking is something for lay people to do, not for a church organization to do. Therefore, on questions that don’t deal with faith and morals of the Catholic Church, there’s great pluralism.
So there’s no “Opus Dei plan,” as some speculate, to infiltrate the European Parliament in Brussels?
Based on my experience, moving around in this world, I just don’t think it works like that. I just don’t think there’s an Opus Dei plan for European politics or anything else. I think there’s a sociological reality, that the kind of people attracted to Opus Dei tend to be extremely hard working, tend to be pretty smart and pretty talented, and tend to be conservative, theologically and politically. Put these together and it’s no surprise
Why is work so important to them?
The prime directive of Opus Dei is the sanctification of work … they’ll use that work as a means of redeeming the world, bringing a distinctively Christian approach to law or politics. Part of what that means in their approach to things is a real emphasis on meeting the highest standards of excellence in whatever occupation they’re in because you can’t redeem a work if, in the first place, you don’t do it well.
A common criticism of Opus Dei is that it appears to be a cliquey and elitist organization. Is it?
There is some truth to that. Your point of departure has to be that this is a group that has been savagely attacked for decades, so there is a tendency for them to feel comfortable with one another than with outsiders. As far as the elitism goes, again I think there’s no corporate policy that they want to be elitist. I went to nine countries for this book [and in] every country I would go to—every one—in addition to seeing top officials, Opus Dei would also get me to see a bus driver, barber or a mechanic because they know there is this perception of elitism and they want you to understand that there are also blue-collar people, which is true. But on the other hand I would say that, again, going back to the sociology, inside the Catholic Church, particularly for young practicing Catholics, it’s a little bit like the Marines—you know, “the few, the proud.” They tend to attract very driven, idealistic, hard-working, smart people, and therefore there probably is an overrepresentation of what you would consider elites inside Opus Dei which is not their fault, I just think it’s the reality of what their market is. And frankly, even the bus drivers and barbers I met, these were damn hardworking bus drivers and barbers.