Opus Dei

The morning I sat down to write this review the weekly magazine of our daily newspaper plopped through the letter box. It contained an article on Ruth Kelly. As secretary of state for education, she is Britain’s youngest cabinet minister by far, and the mother of three. She is also a supernumerary member of Opus Dei. When she was appointed a year ago, I had to remind myself as I stepped into the limo to be conveyed to the BBC’s Television Centre to be interviewed, whether it was the health of John Paul that I was supposed to be talking about, or the secretive world of Opus Dei. Not that she-or Opus-would admit to her connection with the group. “That is a private matter,” spokespersons insisted.

Tony Blair’s selection of Kelly caused a flurry in the British press about the internal workings of Opus. Similar flurries come at regular intervals. John Allen suggests they began in the Anglo-Saxon world only in 1982, when Opus became the first-and still the only-personal prelature to be established by the Vatican, a kind of diocese without geographical boundaries. But at least in Britain the media had taken an interest long before, when the extent of Opus Dei involvement in the Spanish government in the late 1960s and early 1970s became common knowledge. Opus, and Allen, tend to play down the organization’s foray into Spanish politics. Reading the highly respected historian of contemporary Spain, Paul Preston, on Franco and King Juan Carlos, it is evident that Opus Dei’s involvement was much greater than either I had alleged back in the 1980s in my own book (also titled Opus Dei), or than John Allen and Opus itself are now prepared to allow.

The flurry in the 1980s was, I suspect, fueled not only by the issue of the personal prelature, a matter in any case far too arcane for most of the media. More significant was the comparison made at the time between Opus Dei and what are generally known as “cults,” though the more politically correct term-because of its less sinister connotations-is New Religious Movements (NRM). Opus Dei appeared to share many of the hallmarks of an NRM: the founder as guru; the secretive impenetrability (to which I will return); the distress of parents whose children had joined; the apparent psychological damage reported by ex-members; the difficulty (which they also reported) in leaving the organization. Only recently a young lady in the United States was “rescued” from Opus by an anticult activist, a wholly ridiculous undertaking.

Compared to those of the 1970s and 1980s, the latest flurry of media scrutiny of Opus Dei is a veritable blizzard. There have been sundry radio programs, and at least two television documentaries are in the making. These are being made, it should be said, with the cooperation of Opus itself, which has learned a lesson or two. All this has without a doubt been instigated by the colorful but absurd account of Opus in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Not even its sternest critics (into which category, says Allen, I fall) have alleged, as far as I am aware, that the organization conspires in murder. Indeed, reading Allen’s anodyne account of this controversial body, one wonders why there is any fuss at all.

But the answer can be found in this book, and early on. “The political and theological tilt inside Opus Dei,” Allen writes, “is clearly to the right, though with exceptions. This has little to do with the philosophy of Opus Dei, however, but with the sociology of where its ‘market’ is these days.” I find this statement perplexing. Presumably the “market” is somehow related to the “product,” or “philosophy,” to use Allen’s term, Opus Dei is selling. Opus Dei is a right-wing organization (“though with exceptions”) in its very being, in the spirituality it inculcates, and in the theology it espouses. “What Opus Dei does not do,” Allen later adds, “in an institutional way, is involve itself in struggles for social justice.” Fair enough, except the other side of that is what Opus members are so often accused of, support for the status quo, even when the status quo may be regimes that leave much to be desired. That is their choice. It is that attitude that leads to Opus members’ opposition to liberation theology, as Allen suggests. It certainly contributes to the tension, which he records, between Opus and the Jesuits.

Toward the end of the book Allen-rather condescendingly I thought-lists a number of suggestions for improving Opus’s public image. He does not note that some of these recommendations had been laid down by the late Cardinal Basil Hume of Westminster for the conduct of Opus in his diocese a quarter of a century ago. Plus ça change... But it is nevertheless the case that Opus has indeed changed. For example, it apparently no longer screens its members’ mail. It is certainly much less secretive. Indeed, although Allen complains that its constitution is only officially available in Latin, he thinks the group is really quite open. I suspect it is the pressure of criticism that has made it so, because discreción is written into at least its earlier constitution, and into its founder Josemaría Escrivá’s Camino (The Way), his little book of 999 maxims.

Camino is a foundational document for Opus. It is surprising that Allen does not subject it to any great scrutiny. Is this because, despite Opus’s efforts to translate the book into innumerable languages, it is being quietly dropped, and no longer looms large in the spiritual reading of the organization’s members? Maxim 28, for instance, that marriage is for the soldiers and not for the officers of Christ’s army, would otherwise rather contradict the claims of the mother-of-seven in Chicago whom Allen quotes saying that Opus values motherhood. Allen does not comment. He also does not comment, and admits as much, on the founder’s suitability for canonization. It is noticeable that, while “St. Josemaría” is the term on the lips of Opus members he reports, Allen himself generally prefers the rather less committed “Escrivá.” Having been the recipient of so much of Opus’s hospitality in the course of writing this book, perhaps on the matter of the founder’s sanctity he did not want to give offense.

Published in the 2005-10-21 issue: 

Michael Walsh

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