instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, September 17, 2007

The work on the Work

Okay, so this isn't the most timely review, seeing as John Allen's Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church first came out two years ago and the paperback reprint three months ago. But I do what I can, when I can, to keep the insect overlords wise and dedicated professionals with a great sense of humor who send me review copies happy.

Between the 2005 hardcover publication and the 2007 trade paperback, the DaVinci Code movie came and went. Allen took advantage of this to frame the preface he wrote for the paperback edition, in which he makes this perhaps surprising claim:
With the possible exception of Pope John Paul II, Opus Dei never had a better friend than Dan Brown.
Brown's absurd caricature of Opus Dei led to "Operation Lemonade," the strategy of using the attention the book brought as an opportunity for the prelature to inform the curious (and the doubtful) about what Opus Dei is really all about.

And if Brown is the Work's second-best friend, John Allen comes in third. From now on, anyone who wants to bring a charge against Opus Dei or its founder will first have to check whether the charge has been investigated and answered by Allen in his book.

He begins with a look at St. Josemaria Escriva, whom some have charged with vanity, Masonry, and fascism, and at the new association he founded, upon the spirituality of divine filiation and sanctification of secular work. Then he looks at eight "Question Marks About Opus Dei": secrecy; mortification; women; money; Opus Dei in the Church; Opus Dei and politics; blind obedience; and recruiting.

Among Allen's conclusions, which may disappoint the anti-Opus Dei folks:
  • "Many of the charges leveled against... Saint Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer... are open to interpretation, and in any event do not seem to disqualify in terms of personal sanctity."
  • "Opus Dei is not especially 'secretive.'"
  • "Practices of corporal mortification... have a long pedigree and accepted theological rational, and do not generally seem to be taken to extremes."
  • Opus Dei is not rich, at least by the standards of other organizations in the Catholic Church...."
  • "The profile of Opus Dei as 'elitist' has some historical validity.... Yet Opus Dei is not 'elitist' in the sense in which people often invoke the term, meaning an exclusively white-collar phenomenon."
  • "Opus Dei's is not an exclusively vertical spirituality; it does have a social conscience."
  • "Opus Dei is not 'taking over' the Catholic Church."
  • "Opus Dei is not the voracious recruiting machine of myth, given the snail's pace of recent grown, averaging 650 new members per year worldwide the last four years."
  • "There's little evidence... that unwilling people are being subjected to this regime [of numerary life] through 'mind control.'"
Even granting that:
  • "A substantial number of ex-members... report feeling damaged by their experience... These reports suggest the need for care in vocational discernment, especially among the young."
Allen follows up with:
  • "Some of the critical testimony of ex-members comed down to the failure of certain officials of Opus Dei to use good judgment. As time goes on and Opus Dei matures, these episodes seem less frequent, and the internal climate seems more open."
Bottom line, and slightly simplifying: Much of the controversy is ill-founded (if often exacerbated by Opus Dei's tone-deaf reactions), and much of the rest is due to Opus Dei's learning curve as it grows from a personal vision of its founder to a self-sustaining, worldwide association of the faithful (i.e., the boneheadedness of iindividual members). I had the sense in reading this book that Allen himself was surprised to come to such a benign impression of the Work.

Still, he offers three suggestions that might help Opus Dei "to thrive, assuaging the anxieties people sometimes have and thus opening new apostolic horizons": increased transparency; increased collaboration with other Church organizations; and increased institutional self-criticism. (Note: All very American suggestions. Even Allen doesn't seem sure they'd have much appeal within Opus Dei. Collaboration in particular is viewed as against "the spirit of the Work," which is directed ad extra.)

In any case, anyone looking for a thorough (in spots thorough to the point of dullness) examination of the controversies surrounding Opus Dei really should start here. Not only because Operation Lemonade and other changes on the prelature's part have made a lot of the criticism anachronistic, but because Allen seems to make a real effort to present both sides of the still-disputed questions surrounding Opus Dei.