This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  October 21, 2005

By John L. Allen Jr.
Doubleday, 389 pages, $24.95
The facts and fiction about Opus Dei

John Allen investigates secretive organization some call a cult


Anyone writing about Opus Dei is obligated to disclose any ties with “the Work,” as its members call it. John Allen states that neither he nor any member of his family is, or ever has been, a member; and that he has no financial relationship with the organization. Five days in an Opus Dei residence in Barcelona following the official “plan of life” strengthened Mr. Allen’s conviction that he was “utterly unsuitable for membership” in the Work.

My own contacts with the Work have been minimal. Extensive reading over a quarter-century hardened the impression that Opus Dei has all the characteristics of a cult: that it is obsessed with secrecy, manipulates the young, cultivates a narrow and rigid spirituality, is hypersensitive to criticism (hardly a sign of institutional self-confidence) and manifests an elitism that makes members regard themselves as “the real Catholics,” constituting a church within the church. At the same time, the dedication of individual members is clearly admirable. As a pastor, I recruited a married Opus Dei member (a “supernumerary”) for our parish council, confident that he would be more interested in authentic doctrine and worship than in petty parochial politics. At his level, I reasoned, the Work’s negative attributes would hardly be operative.

In his book, to be published Nov. 1, John Allen deals extensively with every one of these charges and others besides: that Opus Dei’s founder, Josemaria Escrivá, was vain and angry, so disillusioned with the Second Vatican Council that he said he “no longer believed in pope or bishops,” and that “the devil was very high up in the church”; that the Work subordinates women to men; that it promotes a right-wing political agenda (always denied, with the plea that members are merely a group of dedicated laypeople trying to live good lives); and that it uses its great wealth (visible in the United States in its $69 million Manhattan headquarters, with separate entrances for women and men) and high-level connections in Rome to implement its right-wing ecclesial agenda (starting with Fr. Escrivá’s rushed beatification and canonization, during which testimony from former Opus Dei members who had lived with the candidate was excluded).

Mr. Allen, a journalist for the National Catholic Reporter, has certainly done his homework. His research involved over 300 hours of interviews in Italy, Spain, Africa, Latin America and the United States. He has read widely in the enormous literature, in several languages. In contrast to the stonewalling encountered by Jesuit Fr. James Martin, author of an extensive report published in America for Feb. 25, 1995, the Work gave Mr. Allen a “privileged insider’s access that no journalist has previously enjoyed.” With the help of Joseph Harris, an expert in church finances, this enabled Mr. Allen to produce the first ever detailed financial profile of Opus Dei in the United States (showing its assets to be comparable with those of a midsize American diocese) and a “best guess” estimate of its finances worldwide.

The book is no whitewash. Mr. Allen cites extensively from the Work’s critics, including former members deeply hurt by Opus Dei. He refers also to critical Web sites, one of them ( truly bizarre. Run by a devotee of the Tridentine Latin Mass, it combines an attack on the Work with the claim that Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor are both antipopes. In case after case, Mr. Allen is able to show that despite ample justification for critics’ charges, it is possible to judge most cult-like aspects of the Work as benign when viewed from another vantage point.

Herewith one small example: the treatment of Josemaria Escrivá’s seminal work, The Way, which has sold 4.5 million copies worldwide. The Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, a favorite of today’s conservative Catholics, called the book a “little manual for Scouts at the upper level,” and its spirituality “insufficient to support a worldwide organization.” By contrast, Mr. Allen quotes Thomas Merton, who wrote of The Way: “It will certainly do a great deal of good by its simplicity, which is a true medium for the Gospel message.” Mr. Allen also cites excerpts from Fr. Escrivá’s later works that are genuinely edifying and not banal.

What comes across most clearly in Mr. Allen’s book is that Opus Dei is often its own worst enemy. Fr. Escrivá’s defenders, for example, do more harm than good. Their claim that the Work’s founder was the first to teach the pursuit of sanctity in everyday life is demonstrably false. Concealing the identity of the Work’s buildings beneath secular names encourages the impression of an organization with something to hide. Still worse is the practice of recruiting young people without telling them (let alone their parents) what they are getting into -- a classic cult practice.

Happily things are changing. Mr. Allen gives many examples of growing maturity and even self-criticism within the Work. An English numerary (celibate member) said he hoped for a new biography of Fr. Escrivá, “warts and all.” Mr. Allen found that once he turned off his tape recorder and talked with numeraries off the record, it was sometimes difficult “to get them to stop talking about the mistakes Opus Dei has made and what needs to change.” Most significant of all is something the Work’s prelate, Bishop Javier Echevarría, said to Mr. Allen in December 2004 about ex-members: “I say this with all sincerity, and from the bottom of my heart. If we have hurt anyone, if we have failed anyone, we ask their forgiveness.”

That is a new tone. Can Opus Dei sustain it? The Work’s reception of this brilliant book, Mr. Allen’s best work to date, will furnish the answer. If the Work’s members can welcome it, despite what they will doubtless regard as flaws, as the best possible answer to their critics, this will be a sign that they are moving into the church’s mainstream, able to enrich spiritually not merely their own members but the faithful at large. If they fall back into the exaggerated defensiveness that has been their hallmark hitherto, we shall all be poorer.

Fr. John Jay Hughes is a church historian and a priest of the St. Louis archdiocese. He has written 10 books.

National Catholic Reporter, October 21, 2005

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: