Austen Ivereigh reviews a book that dispels myths about Opus Dei – but also raises serious questions about its future
Opus Dei by John Allen, Penguin £20 There used to be only two kinds of books on Opus Dei: conspiracy-fuelled attacks by outsiders were countered by the oleaginous apologias of members, which read like lawyers’ briefs. Maria Carmen del Tapia’s devastating 1989 account of her 20 years in Opus Dei broke the mould, but it left readers wondering why, if it was really like that, she had spent so long inside.
Much of the problem was Opus Dei itself. Nervy and defensive, it seemed to believe it was somehow holy to refuse to satisfy public curiosity. The result was myth: the name itself took on a shadow all of its own, suppurating in the imagination like the word “Papist” in the minds of 17th-century Englishmen. It helps to read René Girard on scapegoats to understand why Opus Dei has had, simultaneously, a unifying effect on the rest of the Church: who else could bring together progressives and conservatives in shared resentment?
Then came The Da Vinci Code, and that flagellated-blood-spattered albino numerary going out to murder nice people who had stumbled on Jesus’s wife. People loved this gunk: 25 million of them. They jammed the Opus Dei website and stood gawping outside the walls of Opus Dei residences. And so Dan Brown’s publisher (Doubleday in the US) decided to cash in on this lust for the “real” Opus Dei by commissioning the National Catholic Reporter’s Rome correspondent to produce one of his on-the-onehand, on-the-other analyses. Opus Dei for the first time agreed to allow an independent journalist total access. And then, finding it was not so traumatic, did the same for Mark Dowd, who fronts a Channel 4 programme, Inside Opus Dei, which is due to be shown sometime before Christmas.
Both are thorough, journalistic enterprises by sympathetic observers, one a vaticanista, the other a former Dominican. Neither would ever be inclined to join Opus Dei but they have done their best to understand those who do. Media scrutiny of this quality cannot be bought; it is salutary (Church media people, take note) to reflect that neither would have been commissioned were it not for Dan Brown’s bestseller.
Allen’s book is exactly what is needed: dispassionate reportage combined with sophisticated analysis. Many will be disappointed at the absence of lurid stories: no mention even of the fact that there is an Opus Dei numerary in the United States called Silas. (Really.) But it is never a dry read. The book divides into four parts: an overview of Opus Dei and a detailed look at the founder, Josemaria Escriva; Opus Dei “from the inside” – through the key ideas of sanctification of work, contemplation in the middle of the world, Christian freedom and divine filiation; and then the longest section, the “question marks” over Opus Dei: its influence in the Church and in politics; its whips, its wealth, and its women. He stuffs his 342 pages with fascinating facts: few will know, for example, that the Jesuit general once proposed a joint JesuitOpus university (Escriva said no.) And he includes a financial audit more comprehensive than anything Opus Dei has ever attempted. Whether you like it or not – Allen describes Opus Dei as the “Guinness Extra Stout” of the Catholic Church, and not for the faint-hearted – this book makes clear that “the Work” is far more complex and frankly admirable than its critics even begin to understand. It is also, very obviously, a holy enterprise, proved, not least, by its paradoxes and shadows.
The uniqueness of Opus Dei – and the cause of almost all the misunderstandings – lies in its radical secular ity. Escriva’s notion that the modern office can be to an insurance clerk or accountant what the fields were to the Benedictine monks of the Middle Ages meets the great challenge of the postconciliar Church. Hear, for instance, Walter Nakasone, a laundry-owner in a poor part of Lima who since joining Opus Dei tries to get out all the stains because “I realise now that I’m not just cleaning the shirt for the client but for God”; or Jim Burbidge, a London supernumerary who drives a bus he keeps spotless, greeting people with a smile, and praying for his passengers as he drives. To be both intensely religious (members are bound to pray almost as much as Muslims) and totally lay is not something lay people often manage: too many are either churchy – clericalised laity – or schiz ophrenic, leaving their faith in the office car park. Having once travelled with a numerary to Barcelona – 20 minutes’ silent prayer following takeoff, then magazines and a chat about gadgets, then another 20-minute rosary before landing – I share Allen’s admiration of the way members can switch effortlessly from talking politics or sport to quiet meditation. This is what members call “unity of life”, and is surely one of the triumphs of Escriva’s vision. It is not always successful: members often seem uncomfortable in the modern world, treating Opus Dei as “a refuge, a safe harbour, rather than ‘setting out in the deep’,” observes Allen, quoting Pope John Paul II. But no organisation in the Church tries harder to crack this nut than Opus Dei. Secularity means temporal freedom: in so far as Opus Dei members are engaged in worldly activity they are not bound in obedience to anyone, and stay quiet about their affiliation to protect the distinction. What people see as “secretive”, therefore, is really “secular”. But Allen rightly raps Opus Dei for exaggerating this principle at the expense of transparency. It seems absurd for the Work to fly below the radar even in its corporate works. Netherhall House in north London may be a university residence open to everyone, but why not mention its affiliation somewhere on a plaque?
Actually, forget the plaques: it is the whips and the barbed knee strap (“rather painful”, says Allen after trying it) that should go first. Hair shirts, fasting and penitential acts are nothing new in the Church, but why does an organisation otherwise so modern use the cilice, an item that belongs to the 1950s hermit’s cell? Secular people need to find mortification, surely, in the world: in the demands of small children, the poor, the elderly; in letting the car in front pull out and keeping your temper in the supermarket queue.
Allen effectively demolishes the idea of an Opus Dei “party” in the Vatican. Just 3.6 per cent of the 500 policy-level positions in the Curia are occupied by members of Opus Dei – much less than the leading religious orders. Allen shows, through examples, that there is no single Opus Dei theological line, but leaves out the best one: an article by a leading Opus Dei moral philosopher which I commissioned while at the Tablet. Fr Martin Rhonheimer argued – reflecting a consensus among moral theologians, as well as thinking inside the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – that condoms in the context of Aids would not be contraceptive if their use was intended to prevent death. The article caused more than cilice-induced discomfort for many in Opus Dei who believed (wrongly) that Rhonheimer’s position was opposed to magisterial teaching. The point is, had Rhonheimer’s allegiance to Opus Dei been above all other loyalties, he would not have wanted it published.
Many of Allen’s most fascinating passages concern the on-off JesuitOpus rivalry which, like the Spanish Civil War, has much of a family feud about it. There have been stark theological divergences, not least Opus Dei’s emphasis on redemption of the world through personal sanctification versus the Jesuits’ post-1975 commitment to challenging political and economic injustices. But in other ways the similarities are striking, and Allen dwells on them. Both were accused of being a “church within the Church”. Both worked with elites, and had a culture of excellence. Both compensated for their canonical insecurity with a special bond to the Pope. Both founders were touchy, mercurial, faux-noble northern Spaniards who spent the latter part of their lives directing their burgeoning enterprises from Rome. But Allen’s story of a numerary giving a talk on Opus Dei in a Jesuit residence in the early 1960s is perhaps most revealing. One old Jesuit said: “I’ve worked for 35 years in Jesuit sodalities, and our constant question is, what is a lay spirituality? It seems to me here’s the answer.” Allen unplugs his weighing machine at the end and sits Opus Dei down for a little talking-to. The advice mostly comes down to greater transparency and a little relaxation therapy. It is good counsel. By allowing Allen to write this thorough analysis, however, it appears already to have taken it. The rather more boring phase of Opus Dei’s colourful history – its slide into the mainstream – appears, with this excellent book, to be well under way.