Journalist John Allen on Opus Dei

Vatican-Watcher’s Book Goes Beyond the Myths

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ROME, DEC. 25, 2005 ( In a new book on Opus Dei, an American journalist tries to separate facts from fiction about the personal prelature.

The volume is entitled «Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church.»

In his research for the book, reporter John Allen of the U.S.-based National Catholic Reporter dedicated a year to interview members of Opus Dei in Italy, Spain, Kenya, the United States and Peru, among other countries.

The author also talked with former Opus Dei members. The result is 400 pages in which this Vatican correspondent, who also works with the BBC and CNN, touches on topics ranging from the separation of men and women, to the use of the hair shirt, to the organization’s finances.

The book has been published in the United States by Doubleday and in England by Penguin.

Q: So … Opus Dei is not as bad as it seemed, you state. Is this the general idea of your book?

Allen: The aim of my book is to be as objective as possible, on a subject that’s not really known for attracting objective discussion. The idea is to separate fact from fiction, providing tools for a rational conversation that’s grounded in reality rather than myth or stereotype.

It was not my intent to «convert» readers to any particular position about Opus Dei, and my experience is that most people come away from the book without having changed their fundamental impressions of the group, but perhaps feeling a bit more informed, and a bit less alarmed.

On the other hand, given the highly negative image Opus Dei carries in some quarters, any serious comparison of that image with reality inevitably will make the group seem more human, less nefarious, than some had previously believed.

To take the basic numbers, Opus Dei has a worldwide membership of 85,000, which is roughly equivalent to the Diocese of Hobart on the island of Tasmania off the Australian coast. The group also counts some 164,000 «cooperators,» meaning «supporters.»

Outside Spain, where Opus Dei was born in 1928, Opus Dei represents a tiny, almost invisible, fraction of the Catholic community; in the United States, for example, there are roughly 3,000 members out of a total Catholic population of 67 million.

Opus Dei’s global wealth, meaning the physical value of all the assets listed as «corporate works» of Opus Dei, is around $2.8 billion. For one frame of comparison, General Motors in 2003 reported assets of $455 billion.

Even by Catholic standards, Opus Dei’s wealth is not terribly impressive; in 2003, the Archdiocese of Chicago reported assets of $2.5 billion. The American lay organization the Knights of Columbus runs an insurance program which all by itself is worth $6 billion.

In terms of power, Opus Dei numbers only 40 out of more than 4,500 Catholic bishops worldwide, including only two members of the College of Cardinals, and just 20 out of more than 2,500 employees in the Roman Curia, including only one head of a policy-making agency.

In truth, Opus Dei’s potential to «call the shots» inside Catholicism is far more limited than many imagine. For every Vatican battle Opus Dei members have won over the years, they’ve lost others.

Despite being a vaunted recruiting machine, Opus Dei’s growth rate is pretty small. Worldwide they add about 650 members a year, and in some places they’re basically stalled. In the United States, Opus Dei has hovered at about 3,000 members since the 1980s.

All this suggests that Opus Dei is not as imposing as some of the mythology would lead one to believe. Ironically, the people most determined to believe in Opus Dei’s occult power are generally not its members, but its critics, who see its modest structure as masking vast unseen influence.

Q: Money, power, mortification, «Octopus Dei» … most of your book tries to «purify» the whole mystery around Opus Dei. Do you think you have achieved this clarification?

Allen: I’m not naive enough to believe that prejudices and conspiracy theories that have formed over 70 years are going to collapse overnight because of this book.

What I hope, however, is that the factual information provided in the book, much of it for the first time, will represent a point of departure for future discussion.

There’s a legitimate debate to be had about some aspects of Opus Dei’s internal culture and practice, and in my experience it’s a conversation happening, in the first place, inside Opus Dei itself.

The question of how Opus Dei could make itself more transparent without compromising its own identity, for example, is a completely reasonable point to press.

Opus Dei must increasingly realize that it is responsible not only to itself and the memory of St. Josemaría Escrivá, but to the broader Catholic Church, and hence should do anything in its power to respond to legitimate questions and doubts.

At the same time, Opus Dei has also been a magnet for some of the wildest accusations and speculation over the years, and I hope the book will help to clear up those distractions so a more productive discussion can move forward.

Q: Reading you, it appears that Opus Dei has not as much power or influence as it seems. Why then this controversy and mysterious aura around them?

Allen: To me, this is the greatest single question about Opus Dei: How did this relatively small group, with only modest wealth and influence, become the bogeyman of the Catholic imagination? I think the answer is complex, pivoting on at least four factors:

One, Opus Dei grew up in Franco-era Spain, and hence has long been linked to Spanish fascism.

Two, Opus Dei and the Jesuits engaged in fierce «border wars» over young vocations in Spain in the 1930s and 1940s, generating a rivalry which followed Opus Dei wherever it went because of the Jesuits’ extensive worldwide network.

Three, in the post-Vatican II era, Opus Dei became a symbol of the broader struggles within Catholicism between left and right.

Four, in the John Paul II era, Opus Dei received considerable papal favor, generating envy in some quarters and ideological opposition in others. In other words, Opus Dei represents a sort of «perfect storm,» where a combination of historical and political factors collided to invest this group with a mythic status that its actual sociological profile doesn’t support.

Q: If I were from Opus Dei I would surely thank you for your book. Have you received lots of messages in these terms?

Allen: I’ve heard from a number of Opus Dei members who are grateful for what they see as the relatively balanced treatment they believe the group received in the book.

Others, however, are unhappy with what they see as excessive focus on the controversies surrounding Opus Dei. They feel as if Opus Dei is their family, and it’s always painful to hear accusations against loved ones, even if they’re given the most balanced treatment in the world.

I would say, by the way, I’ve received much the same reaction from Opus Dei critics. Some feel the book gave fair voice to their concerns, while others, convinced that Opus Dei is dangerous, feel as if I didn’t go nearly far enough in «exposing» its flaws.

This reaction illustrates the unfortunately polarized nature of much discussion about Opus Dei.

Q: You think you do not fit into the Opus Dei structure. Do you realize it now, after your research, or you already knew it?

Allen: As a journalist, I don’t join groups within the Church as a matter of general principle, because I need to preserve my impartiality.

For that reason, there was never any serious question of my joining Opus Dei, or any other body. Certainly my 300-plus hours of interviews and travels to eight countries for this book, however, brought home for me that if I were to join a Catholic group, it would not be Opus Dei.

This is not the result
of any lack of respect, or any fears about Opus Dei; quite the contrary, I came to admire most of the people I met in Opus Dei, and I usually found their company highly stimulating and enjoyable.

Yet there is a daily «program of life» for Opus Dei members, and a set of expectations about attendance at events and so on, that I would personally find stifling.

I’m a classic «only child,» meaning that control over my time and space is important to me. I don’t like anyone setting schedules for me, or telling me when I need to pray, or how.

Let me be clear, however, that this is a matter of personal taste. I admire the commitment I see in most Opus Dei members, and my perception is that most are eminently satisfied with their experiences.

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