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

by John L. Allen, Jr.
Doubleday, 2005

review by Mitch Finley

Catholic Church watchers and Dan Brown fans alike will surely welcome the publication of this new book by John Allen (Vatican correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter), which may prove to be the best book on Opus Dei for a long time to come. Opus Dei (Latin for “the work of God”) is an international association of conservative Catholics, which Allen describes as “the most controversial force in Roman Catholicism.” Making use of thorough, if not exhaustive, research, Allen divides his study into four sections: essentials about Opus Dei, a long look inside Opus Dei, serious questions about Opus Dei, and a summary evaluation. On all counts Allen is fair, frequently putting to rest inaccurate opinions about or judgments of Opus Dei. At the same time, when he sees warts on Opus Dei’s face, Allen shines on each the bright light of day.

If you want to hear from critics of Opus Dei, including ex-members, you’ll find their voices here. If you want to know what dedicated apologists for Opus Dei have to say, you’ll find them here, too. The author’s account of the life of the founder of Opus Dei, Father Josémaria Escrivà de Balaguer (1902-1975)—officially canonized a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2002, amidst considerable controversy—is enlightening, and does away with some of the more common assumptions about him, particularly among liberal Catholics. In fact, Escrivà seems to have been a more theologically balanced person, particularly on the pastoral level, than he is sometimes said to have been. Allen does a remarkable job of addressing questions about Escrivà including the nature of his relationships with Hitler and Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. He also discusses the ways in which Escrivà responded to the Second Vatican Council and how he approached his role as a spiritual teacher.

Particularly interesting and enlightening is Allen’s discussion of what Escrivà was like in person. More than a few films were made of Escrivà speaking before audiences and even responding to questions from audience members. “The first impression one gets from watching Escrivà ‘live,’” Allen writes, “is his effervescence, his keen sense of humor. He cracks jokes, makes faces, roams the stage, and generally leaves his audience in stitches in off-the-cuff responses to questions from people in the crowd.”

Escrivà was filmed expressing “great affection” for Muslims. A man who was Catholic but whose mother was Presbyterian asked Escrivà what he could do to bring his mother into the Catholic Church. Escrivà responded, “Do your work well. Be a good son, a faithful husband, and for the rest, be patient”—a response that would sit well with even the most progressive Catholics.

Allen concludes that “even as a flawed human being, there is testimony that Escrivà changed people’s lives for the better, giving them a sense of being loved by God and called to help build God’s reign.

Author Allen concludes with remarks that sum up the spirit of his book as a whole:

…my own sense is that things inside Opus Dei aren’t so bador at least they’re much better than is sometimes believed. Paradoxically, I suspect that the people of Opus Dei would be more successful in convincing the rest of the world of that if they took a breather from extolling the virtues of Saint Josemaria, or the great principle of sanctification of work, and showed us a bit more about where they’re vulnerable, flawed, and in need of help…

John L. Allen, Jr.’s Opus Dei is an informative, expertly researched and written study written in a lively and frequently entertaining style. It deserves a great many readers.

Copyright ©2005 Mitch Finley

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