Book explores truth of Opus Dei

Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church
By John L. Allen Jr.
Doubleday, $24.95

Almost everybody from Kilimanjaro to Kalamazoo seems to know Opus Dei as a “rich, powerful, secret sect” that’s supposedly out to rule both the Catholic Church and the world. But most of this prevalent public image of Opus Dei (Latin for “Work of God”) seems based on a combination of anecdotal complaints from ex-members and popular fiction such as Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel “The Da Vinci Code.”

Brown produced a highly entertaining book that apparently has convinced millions that its claims about Opus Dei are factual while bearing little resemblance to the real organization, according to Opus Dei representatives.

John L. Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the independent National Catholic Reporter newspaper, had a different objective in mind: Comparing myth with reality. He is likely the only person to visit eight countries on four continents at his own expense for this purpose.

While his newest book won’t settle all questions to everyone’s satisfaction, it at least provides a factual basis for evaluating the 85,000-member movement’s character and practices.

Allen lays out his investigation and his conclusions in thorough detail, yet in a lively, eminently readable style.

He engages the reader while giving both defenders and critics of Opus Dei a due hearing and showing that many statements and attitudes in Opus Dei are open to differing interpretations.

Allen sees a significant gap between the myth and reality on almost every point: corporate wealth, elitism, secrecy, blind obedience, discrimination against women, an ultraconservative political agenda, manipulative and relentless recruiting tactics and concern for social justice. Yet he shows why the myths appear plausible to many.

Without casting doubt on critics’ claims of high-pressure, deceptive recruiting and mind control tactics, Allen concludes that such behavior is largely a thing of the distant past and even then was very exceptional, not the rule.

He points to the much larger numbers of Opus Dei members and ex-members who have had happy experiences with the movement and extol its contributions to their spiritual lives.

Whatever Opus Dei’s recruiting tactics, its nearly flat membership growth pattern seems to belie the image of an octopus-like monster grasping for control. Ditto for its finances. Its U.S. financial holdings are more analogous to a mid-sized diocese than to a corporate giant.

Most Opus Dei-related institutions aren’t owned by Opus Dei as such but by its members who found and operate them, he says.

Power in the Vatican? Same thing. Only about 20 Opus Dei members work there, and they tend to be in middle-level jobs without major influence. Only two cardinals and 20 bishops in the world have Opus Dei connections.

Two points where image and reality agree, he says, are Catholic orthodoxy and the resort of a minority of Opus Dei members to physical mortification.

On the first point, Opus Dei unapologetically emphasizes “thinking with the church” on matters of basic, settled doctrine. But he adds that most people who gravitate toward Opus Dei tend to be theologically conservative already; such attitudes aren’t imposed on them by Opus Dei.

Corporal mortification isn’t limited to Opus Dei and has centuries of history in Catholic spirituality, although it’s rare today. While crediting Opus Dei leaders for candor and sincerity, he encourages them to be pro-active in de-mystifying the movement’s finances, affiliated institutions, policies and the demands it makes on its members so as to dissipate the widespread suspicion.

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