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The fraternal corrections: Opus Dei and the Catholic Church.

Discussed in this essay:

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. 403 pages. $24.95.

With the success of The Da Vinci Code, the right-wing Catholic organization Opus Dei has come in recently for some doubtlessly unwelcome publicity--unwelcome, that is, because Opus Dei is hardly the kind of outfit that likes to bawl its business from the rooftops. Its critics have seen it as a cross between the Moonies, the Masons, and the Mafia, with its own religious version of omerta, or the code of silence. Renegade members are not generally found encased in concrete at the bottom of the Hudson, but a number of them describe taking years to recover from the trauma of ever having joined.

What is this strange, secretive association, and why is it in business? Opus Dei, which means "Work of God," is not a religious order but an international association of laypeople and clerics within the Catholic Church dedicated to the task of attaining personal holiness. The aim is to do so not by with. drawing from the world but by remaining active in it. Ironically, this notion of finding saintliness through one's secular calling is more Protestant than Catholic. Unlike some other Christian organizations, however, the group does not exist to help others through works of charity. Members pray together, run projects, and meet regularly for spiritual pep talks, workshops, retreats, annual courses, and meditations. Opus Dei is an odd combination of worldliness and asceticism. If it runs some high-powered business schools, its members also flagellate themselves, and its celibate members--who make up about 30 percent of the organization--wear spiked chains around the upper thigh for two hours a day. Briskly modern in its social and economic practice, Opus Dei is profoundly antimodern in its ideology. The group has at present over 80,000 members throughout the world, some of whom make vows of celibacy and live in Opus Dei centers, whereas others lead ordinary domestic lives.

Opus Dei members are expected to hand over a portion of their salaries to the organization, and some of them work for Opus Dei exclusively. Globally speaking, the movement is estimated to hold assets of about $2.8 billion; it runs fifteen universities, seven hospitals, eleven business schools, and a large number of primary, secondary, and technical schools. Assiduously courted by the late Pope John Paul II, it has become a formidable underground force for traditionalist values and political reaction within the Catholic Church. The setup has many features of a cult, expecting drastic obedience from its members and practicing some draconian disciplines. Its champions view it as restoring traditional holiness to a world bereft of spiritual values; its critics see it as recruiting professional Catholics in order to form a secretive power bloc within nations and governments.

John Allen's survey of this bizarre phenomenon is really a case for the defense thinly disguised as a dispassionate account. His book is partisanship masquerading as objectivity. Allen provides evidence both pro and con, but the tone and tenor of his emollient prose create a general air of exoneration. Opus Dei is rapped lightly over the knuckles from time to time but found not guilty of the grave allegations against it. On the whole, Allen's idea of objectivity is to set out a criticism of Opus Dei and then try to refute it, as though by airing the criticism at all he has set forth the case for the prosecution. A good deal of his material comes from Opus Dei members themselves, which is rather like asking Tom Cruise to spill the beans on Scientology. The book is a masterpiece of disingenuousness, which is not to suggest that it is consciously deceitful. It seems, rather, an exercise in self-deception by a Catholic Vaticanologist who is loath to think badly of such a powerful arm of his church, and who consequently goes in for a scandalous amount of mental shuffling.

Opus Dei was founded in Spain in 1928 by Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, a priest who was affectionately known to his followers as the Padre. * Escriva commented that he never wanted to found anything, since everything he did was supposedly by divine will. The claim conveniently combines groveling humility with absolute authority. Anyone who acted against him thereby acted against God. Escriva was so remarkably humble that he compared his summoning of his disciples to Christ's gathering of His own twelve followers, and habitually ended letters with the words "May Jesus watch over you for me," as though Jesus were a security chief on his payroll.

There is plenty of evidence that this saint of the Church could be paranoid, self-aggrandizing, vain, and dictatorial. He was also a mightily ambitious political wheeler-dealer, despite his pious insistence that his organization promoted only "supernatural" ends, which seem to have included amassing an enormous amount of money. Allen acknowledges a few of the charges against Escriva, quotes some testimony to support them, and then rapidly summons the witnesses for the defense, who speak of the priest's kindness, holiness, and sense of humor. We even learn that Escriva once helped a carsick friend after he had vomited all over himself. The book also records the Padre's cheery, Jay Leno-like way with an audience of devoted fans, cracking jokes, making faces, and generally unburdening himself of a series of platitudes that Alien manages to mistake for homespun Christian wisdom. Since it seems improbable that this politically astute Padre would fly into a paranoid rage in public, turning the air blue with obscenities and beating up those of his followers in wheelchairs, this testimony seems of only limited value. Allen concludes that Escriva was just a typically "blunt," "fiery," "salty-tongued," "proud," "hardheaded" son of Aragon, all adjectives carefully selected to make his vices sound like amiable foibles.

One of the most sensitive issues remains Opus Dei's origins in Francoite Spain. Official accounts of the movement are understandably coy about the fact that from the 1930s to the 1970s the organization served to provide some of the leading cadres of a fascist regime--one that in the name of the Christian gospel had perpetrated a series of monstrous atrocities during the civil war that brought it to power. Several of Franco's cabinet ministers were Opus Dei members; Escriva was once in charge of the Generalisimo's spiritual exercises; and a Francoite cleric appended an enthusiastic preface to The Way, Escriva's intellectually third-rate personal manifesto. Franco himself is said to have remarked that if Opus Dei was attacked, it was because it served his regime. Its members, he asserted, were "honorable and worthy gentlemen."

In seeking to exculpate the organization, Allen points out (a frequent gambit in the book) that others at the time were in the same situation. Most Spanish Catholics supported Franco. But most Germans supported Hitler, too, and hordes of Soviets wept when Stalin died. It is curious for a Catholic like Alien to adopt what one might call the demographic or head-counting theory of morality; Christian faith is supposed to be a scandal to the powers of this world, not an ideology that legitimates them. If Opus Dei's notion of faith had been less privatized, less about inner purity and more about outer righteousness, it might have had the guts to act differently. Another of Allen's limp extenuations is that other Catholic organizations, such as Catholic Action, served the Franco regime, too.

Franco was not just an unpleasantly reactionary Catholic, a sort of John Paul II with epaulets; Franco was a dictator who forbade free speech, ran a fearsome secret police, abolished civil rights, crammed his jails with political prisoners, ruthlessly crushed all political opposition, smashed the Spanish labor movement, and during the Second World War placed some of his nation's military resources at the service of Adolf Hitler. He presided over a repulsively macho regime, full of bogus rhetoric about virility and the martial virtues. Some Opus Dei members apparently volunteered to fight with the Nazi army, though their true intention, Allen reports, was to fight Bolshevism rather than support Hitler. So that's all right then.

Allen argues that Opus Dei included some anti-Franco members as well, and that its policy was, and is, for its members to do as they please in secular politics. The first point may be accurate, but the second is shamelessly sophistical. Is Opus Dei coolly indifferent to the prospect of its members becoming militant anarchists or revolutionary socialists? Allen and his ilk might protest that such politics are (unlike fascism, apparently) incompatible with the teachings of the Church. But there are honorable traditions of Catholic anarchism and Christian socialism; indeed, one adherent of the latter is the present Archbishop of Canterbury. How many political activists on the far left does Opus Dei, which nowadays flaunts its so-called pluralism, actually contain? About as many, one imagines, as there are celibates around Hugh Hefner's swimming pool. Yet if its aim is purely to foster personal holiness, why should it not contain as many leftists as rightists? Or are we leftists holy enough already?

Allen admits (how could he not?) that Opus Dei is overwhelmingly conservative and that the great majority of its U.S. adherents vote Republican. As usual, however, he doggedly attempts to make the best of a bad job, digging out a meager clutch of supposedly nonreactionary Opus Dei politicians, including the British Secretary for Education Ruth Kelly, who may be a member of the Labour Party but is a conservative in everything except name. Allen is notably soft on the repugnantly autocratic Cardinal Juan Cipriani of Peru, an Opus Dei dignitary roundly condemned by the international community for his barefaced denial of human-rights violations. Opus Dei, Allen is keen to point out, has always resisted taking a party-political line. He does not add that it has no need to do so. The White Montana Riflemen for Jesus would not need to be instructed in whether to vote for the Communist Party.

Escriva is reported to have observed that Hitler had been "badly treated" by world opinion, and could never have killed six million Jews. Instead, he is alleged to have added, "it could only have been four million at the most." Opus Dei spokespersons, Allen remarks, find it implausible that their leader ever made such a comment, which is as much of a surprise as learning that the Elvis Presley fan club indignantly rejects the claim that its hero enjoyed watching half-naked teenagers wrestle. Allen goes on to quote a pro-Semitic remark Escriva made to a Jew in a public session (would he have made an anti-Semitic one?), along with one or two approving comments made about the Padre by one or two Jews. As often occurs in this book, the rasping sound of the bottom of the barrel being scraped can be loudly heard.

If Opus Dei maintained a shifty official silence on Franco's Spain, so it did on the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which genuinely did seek to pluralize a deeply authoritarian Church. Escriva and his chums were too canny to denounce this dangerously enlightened event officially; but the Padre remarked in an interview that there was "much heretical propaganda within the Church of God." Allen adds that Escriva was not alone in holding these opinions. So what? Donald Rumsfeld is not alone in the opinion that reducing Iraqi cities to rubble is a regrettable necessity for the defense of the free world. It is scarcely surprising that Escriva, who once described Protestants as having "dry hearts" and who believed that laypeople should be no more than obedient disciples, would have held such troglodytic views. The Church for him was a rigidly hierarchical spiritual army, which needed to be prepared to kill for its beliefs. In this way, he wrote, the "filthy" herd of common folk was to be "purified." There was no room for a charitable openness to other viewpoints: tolerance, for Escriva, was synonymous with surrender; and compromise, with error. It is a Marine Corps view of the New Testament. Jesus, one assumes, should never have hung around with that disreputable crew of whores and heathens, or made such inconveniently pacifist comments.

A good many Opus Dei members who have tunneled their way to freedom report on the group's use of censorship and mind-control techniques. Allen, by contrast, makes the setup sound like an especially rowdy ideological wrangle in the House of Commons. His chapter on the subject, while nodding in the direction of such criticisms, is markedly slanted toward the testimony of loyal insiders who stoutly deny any such manipulation. No less than one Opus Dei member, he tells us zestfully, publicly dissented from what seems to have been the majority's enthusiasm for Mel Gibson's drearily sensationalist The Passion of the Christ. Those skeptics who doubt that Opus Dei is a positive cockpit of pluralism will be dumbfounded to learn from the book that two of its members once disagreed in public about the history of the Catholic novel. Not all Opus Dei members, however, are happy with this unbridled libertarianism. One of them wrote, "Freedom of conscience leads to the loss of faith, freedom of expression to demagogy, mental confusion, and pornography, and freedom of association to anarchism and totalitarianism."

Allen cannot help but concede that Opus Dei used to open its members' mail, and suggests, "No doubt the practice was open to abuse." Having superiors snoop around one's mail is nevertheless presented as a sign of one's "total giving of self," and, as one member helpfully observed, is "just a way of helping people understand that their life should be an open book." Books, however, aren't quite as open in the organization as they might be: Opus Dei's university students are not entirely free to read anything they like, and certain volumes are absent from their library shelves. If you are seen reading something darkly suspect--which according to Allen includes the fiction of that notorious subversive John Updike--a well-meaning colleague might make what is cryptically referred to as a "fraternal correction."

Opus Dei is particularly keen on what it deviously calls "discretion," which means that its members, in Masonic style, have been highly secretive over the years about their affiliation. Allen perversely interprets this secrecy as a refusal to brag. The movement still refuses to publish a directory of its members, and its recruits often refuse to tell their families of their allegiance to it. Its centers and headquarters go under names that conceal their true proprietorship. Allen sees very little wrong with all this, and produces one specious reason after another to justify it.

What, then, of sex, which tends to preoccupy right-wing Catholics almost as much as it does professional pornographers? It is hard not to feel that Escriva himself, who wrote of "the vile slime of the passions" and initially banned both women and married persons from his association, had something of a problem with this rather widespread human phenomenon. Marriage, Escriva writes, is for the rank and file, not for the officers of Christ's army. It is for those too feeble-minded to control their appetites. The New Testament, which sees marriage and not celibacy as sacramental, seems, then, to be out of line with Opus Dei. The Gospels also have strikingly little to say about sex, and when it does crop up present Jesus as being notably relaxed about it. This can hardly be said for the Padre, who once reportedly dropped a key into a sewer rather than live in the same apartment as a young woman. Yet this is not to suggest that he was in the least insensitive to women's needs. On the contrary, he regularly offered the women of Opus Dei advice on how to prepare meals, recommended food magazines, and supplied them with new recipes.

Men and women are strictly separated in almost all aspects of the movement's activities, and all of its domestic work is carried out by female members. Remarkably enough, Allen seems to have been incapable of finding a single Opus Dei woman prepared to make the faintest criticism of her role. Scrubbing a toilet, one of them nobly remarks, is just as important as anything else. In any case, so Opus Dei argues, women have an instinctive aptitude for creating a homelike environment; and as Allen remarks with his usual percipience, it's easier for women to talk about such things as being mothers when men, who prefer to talk about sport, aren't present. The movement even wanted separate telephone and computer systems for men and women in its U.S. headquarters, a form of apartheid that the Taliban might regard as extreme. Allen, however, gallops to the rescue, having unearthed no less than two examples of "strong Opus Dei women," one of whom turns out to teach her Kenyan female students housekeeping rather than mathematics.

Opus Dei women, Allen argues, do not feel like second-class citizens, even though he himself has just shown that they are. There is, he comments with exquisite understatement, a rather "traditional" understanding of gender roles in the group; but if ultimate authority within Opus Dei rests with men, he adds, so does it in the Catholic Church in general. The idea that this, too, might be a disgrace never seems to cross his mind. To his credit, he tells the story of an Opus Dei hostel in which it was thought that the saintly young men were sneaking in women. A director ordered all the fire doors of the dormitory to be locked, remarking that it was better for all the students to burn in this life than for a few of them to burn in hell. Having recounted a narrative somewhat against his own prejudices, Allen rather spoils the effect by describing this horrendous episode as an instance of Opus Dei "eccentricity."

Sociologically speaking, the phenomenon of Opus Dei is not hard to understand. In its original Spanish context, it represented an attempt to harness certain traditional Spanish values--honor, discipline, hierarchy, austerity, and the like--to the project of modernizing a backward national capitalism. For all its talk of inner spirituality, it was, and to a great extent still is, an authoritarian and semi-clandestine enterprise that manages to infiltrate its indoctrinated technocrats, politicos, and administrators into the highest levels of the state. And few supposedly spiritual movements have proved so astute about making money. Opus Dei tries to resolve this contradiction by the two-faced maneuver of not owning in name a huge range of institutions that belong to it in fact. Opus Dei, Allen informs us, is not rich--at least, he adds, not when compared with giant multinational corporations. Neither, on this scale of comparison, is the British monarchy.

With its spiritual elitism, well-heeled suburban mentality, and penchant for the rich and powerful, Escriva's brainchild long ago set its face against the "option for the poor" in the Catholic Church, one closely associated with Latin American liberation theology. Perhaps this is because its members prefer to read Escriva's theologically illiterate The Way rather than the New Testament. At the beginning of Luke's gospel, Mary, rejoicing in her pregnancy, recites some verses that speak of God as casting down the mighty and elevating the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. Some New Testament scholars believe that the words that Luke puts into Mary's mouth are a kind of Zealot chant--the Zealots being underground anti-imperial revolutionaries of the time devoted to ridding Palestine of its Roman occupiers. Opus Dei is about as remote from this kernel of the Christian Gospel as the God-fearing, gun-toting Pharisees of the rest of the Christian Right.

Like a number of other Opus Dei apologists, Allen is at pains to argue that the movement has evolved to suit modern times, changing its old autocratic ways. But one factor speaks strongly against that claim. Just at the point where such change might have come about, the Catholic Church elected John Paul II, a reactionary pope under whose patronage Opus Dei was able to carry on with many of its old habits. The man who fast-tracked Escriva's canonization was also the man who was prepared to see millions die of AIDS rather than use contraceptives. With this irascible authoritarian on the throne of St. Peter, and with his equally conservative successor, there has been no need for Opus Dei to change in essentials, whatever modernizing face it might present to a largely incredulous world. John L. Allen's Opus Dei is one aspect of that questionable self-presentation.

* The "de Balaguer" tacked on the end of Escriva's name denotes the town from which he hailed, though it was probably intended also to suggest entirely spurious aristocratic connections. This humble vessel of the Almighty was not averse to petitioning the Spanish government for the title of Marquis, a move that Allen seeks to mollify on the grounds that Escriva waited between discovering that he had a right to the title and actually acquiring it. Escriva is on record (though Allen does not tell us so) as dismissing titles and honors as "things of air, puffs of pride, lies."

Terry Eagleton's most recent book is Holy Terror (Oxford University Press). He is also the author of more than thirty other books, including The New Left Church.
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Title Annotation:Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church
Author:Eagleton, Terry
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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