Book Review - Opus Dei An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church

Cultic Studies Review, 5(1), 2006,159-164

Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church

John L. Allen, Jr., 2004

Reviewed by Joseph Szimhart

Not much irritates a former member of a cult more than to hear someone misrepresent details or exaggerate what happens in the cult. If that last statement is true, think how irritated a current member of a controversial group can be in the same situation. A misrepresentation of one’s group or culture is a misrepresentation of one’s behavior and identity: “That is not what we did; that is not who I am.” To understand the nuances and complexity of any group, a critic must avoid reliance on stereotypes and the extreme behaviors that do not represent the common experience of group members.

Soon to be released as a major motion picture, The Da Vinci Code, a best selling work of fiction, has dragged one controversial Catholic group into more controversy than it deserves. That work of fiction by Dan Brown claims to represent Opus Dei as an extremist group willing to kill and bribe to retain its powerful, conservative position in the Catholic Church. A key Opus Dei character in the book is a hooded albino monk who not only does the killing, but also flagellates himself in acts of bloody penance purportedly required by his sect. At least that is the impression I easily got from Brown’s book.

John L. Allen, Jr., is the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and a Vatican analyst for CNN and National Public Radio. He is the author of the best-selling book Conclave, about the selection process of a new Catholic pope. Allen has the skills, connections, and breadth of experience to tackle this unwieldy subject. Opus Dei (literally, “the work of God”) is a personal prelature of the Roman Catholic Church. People familiar with Opus Dei merely call it “the Work.” Inspired by a vision in 1928, Opus Dei’s recently canonized founder, Saint Josemaria Escrivá, conceived his movement as a nonreligious order in which all Catholics, lay and religious, can participate by dedicating themselves to Catholic principles and applying those principles in every phase of life, especially secular. There is even a category in Opus Dei for non-Catholics.

Allen opens his book by calling Opus Dei the “Guinness Extra Stout” of the Catholic Church. In a world of “lite” and “diet,” Guinness takes us back to an old tradition of a drink with a punch, a real beer, if you will. Allen calls Opus Dei “the most controversial force” in the church. Not a religious order like the Jesuits or Franciscans, Opus Dei occupies a special category as a personal prelature—the prelate is an elected leader who may or may not be a member of a religious order. Opus Dei has a structure based on intensity of commitment. Numeraries at the high commitment level are 20 percent of membership. Numeraries are celibate, live in centers of separate genders, and follow the daily rituals as strictly as possible. Numerary assistants, a special category, number about 4,000 women that serve as maids and servants at Opus centers. Associates are celibate members that live with their families, may or may not be married, and otherwise have commitments in the world. Supernumeraries, comprising 70 percent of Opus Dei membership, are less committed, not celibate, and can be householders with children and businesses. There are also cooperators, who may or may not be Catholics, but who nevertheless practice principles of a Christian life as espoused by the group. Opus Dei members are socially invisible, meaning that the member wears no identifying costume or emblem and while working in society rarely reveals that he or she is a member. This last feature, fairly or not, has given Opus Dei the reputation of a secret society.

Personal purification rituals in Opus Dei are voluntary but highly touted. These rituals include the discipline or flagellation of the back with a small, whip-like cord. Another ritual is enduring the cilice or barbed strap worn tight around the thigh for short periods. The cilice can cause minor skin wounds. An eye witness reported that Escrivá whipped himself so long and hard that he would leave splashes of blood all over the floor. However, Escrivá never required anyone to imitate him. According to Allen, Escrivá taught that no one in the movement should do anything that compromises his or her health. These seemingly barbaric rituals are to be done in private and endured silently. Opus numeraries also practice mortification by sleeping on thin boards that cover the mattress. Men will sleep on the floor once a week. Members practice small corporeal mortification at meals by skipping sugar, extra butter, or dessert. Members fast on prescribed days and on their own. But Allen notes that the time he spent with Opus Dei members over a year of research proved that members are “not especially fastidious about denying themselves food and drink.”

Members might have an assigned spiritual director who acts as a guide and confessor of sorts. Ritual prayer several times a day keeps each member aligned with his or her purpose and cause, which is to represent Christ’s message in everything. In general, Opus members are very dedicated to family, job, church, and the mission. Members tend to follow conservative values that align with Catholic principles. For this reason, critics see the group as a throwback to a pre-Vatican II era.

Some ex-members describe Opus Dei as another harmful cult that uses deceptive recruiting and brainwashing. But is it harmful? And if it is harmful, how could a pope as astute and worldly wise as John Paul II support an extremist organization that could damage the Church that he so served and loved?

John Allen wrote Opus Dei both to examine these criticisms and to expose Opus Dei to the light of journalism. This means that he traveled far and wide to Opus centers around the world, interviewed both members and ex-members and apologists and critics alike, and read about the group till he thought he could not take it any more. What he left out of his book would fill many volumes, I’m sure. What he put in should go a long way to explain many facets of the Escrivá movement in Catholicism. Allen summarizes the history and structure of the group and its leader in Section One. In Section Two, he covers the group from the inside and describes its purpose as members generally see it. The title of chapter 4 is telling: “Contemplatives in the Middle of the World.” In Section Three, Allen addresses the criticisms about the group’s attitude toward secrecy, mortification, women, money, politics and the Church.

Allen addresses “blind obedience” among members, and the cult label. In chapter 13, he relates an interview with cult expert David Clark, who exit-counseled a female member who later founded Opus Dei Awareness Network (ODAN). ODAN has Internet presence and functions as a forum for former members. In his last section, Section Four, Allen gives a fine “summary evaluation,” with some advice for Opus Dei as it moves into the future.

I must admit, having come from a career in the “cult awareness” field, that I hold a bias toward Opus Dei as a kind of Catholic cult with harmful elements. I am also a Catholic. My early sources of information about Opus were not only ex-members’ stories, but also several books published before 1990, including The Secret World of Opus Dei by Michael Walsh. Allen’s book has given me a better understanding of this movement, and I am thankful for his hard work that lays out all the Opus Dei laundry, both clean and soiled. The author brought me more in touch with the average member who appears to suffer no undue harm. Allen reports that members and leaders were more secretive prior to 1990, but this secrecy may have been a flaw that is slowly being corrected. By following a principle of humility to work silently in the world without bringing attention to oneself, the member is actually following a commandment of Christ.

On the flip side, outsiders noted the lack of transparency in a group that, for its relatively small size (less than 90,000 among a billion Catholics worldwide), has considerable influence. Allen reports that Opus attracts people of financial means who have sophisticated fundraising ability. Some critics believe that Opus Dei has too much influence over the Vatican, and that it may be the driving force behind the conservative backlash to liberalizing elements inadvertently released by Vatican II. (In fact, only 0.9 percent of those who are Catholic bishops are Opus members). Allen looks squarely into the problem of transparency as one of the flaws in the group, which even the group acknowledges has led to considerable misunderstanding. The secrecy lends itself to extreme misrepresentation in The Da Vinci Code, for example, because there is no accessible popular information to contradict it!

Allen substantiates charges of deceptive recruiting, pointing out that some members would invite friends to Opus Dei activities without mentioning that the group was behind the activities. Another tendency was to not reveal the high demands initially to new recruits. A third tactic was to “provoke a crisis of vocation” when a recruiter believed that someone was ready for it. But Allen notes that not all Opus Dei members among the hundreds he interviewed behaved this way, nor were they all politically conservative. In fact, Allen discovered that the deceptive tactics are not a policy from the top, but the result of overzealous members. Most members, he found, do fall into the conservative camp, however. In principle, each member votes according to individual conscience—Opus Dei member groups in South America, for example, have entirely different political and social climates than those in the United States or Spain. Another myth that Allen exposes is that Opus Dei works in high places and does no charitable work. Opus members have in fact set up schools and medical charities for the poor in third-world countries. These members are actually following the spirit of the founder, who expected every member to act in the world as Christ would.

If I have a criticism of Allen’s book, it regards factors that may be beyond his scope. From his book, we learn that new movements, like saints, are flawed entities and often rub contemporaries the wrong way. Allen tells us about Josemaria Escrivá’s flaws, even if his devotees shrink from recognizing anything beyond the legend of his holiness. But Escrivá and his more dedicated devotees envision more than just another movement equal to hundreds of others spawned within Catholicism. Their purpose is to infiltrate all aspects of society with God’s grace through “the Work.” The path emphasizes work on oneself through mortification, as if this will bring more of God’s grace into being.

Allen quotes Escrivá from his writings in The Way (227): “If you realize that your body is your enemy, and an enemy of God’s glory since it is an enemy of your sanctification, why do you treat it so softly?” In The Forge, by Escrivá, he states: “What has been lost through the flesh, the flesh should pay back: be generous in your penance.” Although members will dispute it, in this latter regard, Opus Dei falls into the radical dualism of the Gnostic cults that denigrate the corporeal self in favor of a spiritualized self. In addition, Gnosticism as one of the early Gospel heresies, like much of occultism in general, emphasizes a magical union with the divine through ritual prayer and mortification. Simply put, God gives you more grace if you pray more or fast more. The Gospel and especially the writings attributed to St. Paul do not support this nonsensical approach to God. In effect, such cults tend to separate members from a reasonable approach to faith, and to cut off one’s reason in matters of faith is always dangerous.

Allen does not offer a neat answer to the question of how harmful Opus Dei is. His research indicates that some ex-members have legitimate complaints, but, like any new organization, Opus Dei has made adjustments and decreased what appears as secrecy during the past two decades. Using his analogy that Opus is like strong beer, one can understand how the group members might lose the more sober approach to religion common to Catholics. His book corrects misperceptions about conspiratorial power, and it places the mortification rituals in context. Unless Allen missed something, I got the impression that I suffered more mortification playing high-school football for four seasons than an Opus Dei member will in a lifetime of religious practice!

Overall, I liked this book. It should be required reading for anyone who wishes to get beyond the distorted image of Opus Dei portrayed in The Da Vinci Code.

Cultic Studies Review, Vol.5x, No. 1, 2006, Page