A Hard Look at a Work of God


by John L. Allen Jr.

Doubleday, 2005

416 pages, $24.95

Available in bookstores

Readers of Dan Brown's chart-busting novel The Da Vinci Code — and the multitudes who will likely flood multiplexes to see the upcoming movie — are being introduced to a group known as Opus Dei.

Or, at least, a myth-monger's caricature thereof: Brown portrays the group as a dark and dangerous cabal secretly wielding great wealth and power within the Catholic Church. So John Allen's look at Opus Dei, aptly subtitled An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church, could hardly have come at a better time.

Allen is the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter — a fact that might lead some to expect a thorough trashing of a “right-wing” movement in the Church by a writer at a “left-wing” newspaper. Not so. Allen has assembled a fair, well-researched analysis of Opus Dei, an organization whose Latin name means Work of God. Allen gives ample voice to critics, devotees and the organization's leaders. If anything, he may have ended up toeing the group's “official line” a little too agreeably.

But, then, defining Opus Dei has never been easy. It's not a religious order. It can't even be classified as one of the “new movements” in the Church. Canonically, it's a personal prelature — a term often defined as a “diocese without borders” for the pastoral care of a particular group of people.

Allen does a superb job laying out the vision of Opus Dei's founder, St. Josemaría Escrivá, in the process detailing members’ spirituality and responsibilities. He also introduces us to some of Opus Dei's “corporate works,” such as a study center in Chicago's inner city. But the most important thing about belonging to Opus Dei, Allen tells us, is learning how to become a saint through the ordinary circumstances of one's life and work.

“At its core,” Allen writes, “the message of Opus Dei is that the redemption of the world will come in large part through laywomen and men sanctifying their daily work, transforming secularity from within. … It is an explosive concept, with the potential for unleashing creative Christian energy in many areas of endeavor.”

Whether Opus Dei is the “most controversial force in the Church,” as Allen claims, is open to debate. (Call to Action, anyone?) But the author makes good on his promise to go behind the many myths that have grown up around Opus Dei. He interviews scores of stakeholders, including members, ex-members, critics and members of the hierarchy. He pores over reams of official documents and analyzes Opus Dei's finances. And he formulates a balanced perspective based on logic and common sense.

For example, there's an impression in some circles that Opus Dei has undue influence at the Vatican. But Allen does the numbers. And the veteran Rome observer finds that only about 3.6% of the 500 or so policy-level positions at the Vatican are held by Opus Dei members.

Allen ends his study with proposals for how Opus Dei can go forward in a less feather-ruffling fashion. For one thing, in order for people to better understand the group, he suggests that it collaborate formally with other Church entities, particularly religious orders, in corporal works of mercy and education. But Allen fails to show how this can be done without Opus Dei compromising its singular approach to lay spirituality.

On balance, though, Opus Dei succeeds admirably. It leaves its reader with a new appreciation for a spirituality that is open to all Christians — one that can sanctify the ordinary events of daily life and work.

The “unity of life” that Opus Dei tries to engender in its members “leads to an attitude of taking everything one does seriously,” Allen tells us, “whether it's a corporate deal involving billions of dollars … or taking the garbage out at night.”

If there's darkness or danger in that, bring it on.

John Burger is the Register's news editor.

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