An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality
of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church
by John L. Allen, Jr.
by Mitch Finley
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
Allen concludes with remarks that sum up the spirit of his book
as a whole:
own sense is that things inside Opus Dei aren’t
so bad—or 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.
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