Any organization shrouded in secrecy casts a powerful spell over the imagination. Entities as varied as the Mafia and the Central Intelligence Agency inspire fervid fantasies about their hidden powers that only sometimes accord with reality. La Cosa Nostra, decimated by decades of zealous prosecutions, garners a share of the headlines out of proportion to its actual effectiveness as a criminal entity. The C.I.A., proven by the invasion of Iraq to have known next to nothing about Saddam Hussein’s weapons capacity, is accused every day of engineering the most ingenious of interventions in the affairs of foreign governments. Yet only a fool would dismiss the capacity of either organization to achieve its goals, for sometimes the fervid fantasies are not far from the mark. The Mafia has controlled entire industries—the carting business in New York, for example—and the C.I.A. has engineered many a coup: Iran in the 1950’s, Chile in the 1970’s. Sometimes secrecy has its purposes.
So what is the truth about Opus Dei, which is accused of being the Catholic Church’s own secret society? Is it doing the quiet work of holiness, or is it out to effect a covert and hostile takeover of the church? John L. Allen Jr., the respected Vatican correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter, expended considerable effort interviewing friends and enemies of the 85,491-member organization and has come to the conclusion that Opus Dei has largely gotten a bum rap. He illustrates his findings by comparing Opus Dei to a pint of Guinness. “It’s a strong brew, definitely an acquired taste, and clearly not for everyone,” he writes in his introduction to Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church. One might ask whether Mr. Allen, a reporter for whom the word “dogged” might have been invented, enjoys the taste of Guinness himself. He says he is not a member of Opus Dei—which he insists is not a secret society—but he clearly has become an admirer of many of its members and many aspects of its organization. Allen is particularly taken with the average adherents whom he visits. He shows them to be hardworking, devout and serious, dedicated in an atypical and praiseworthy way to the expression of their Catholic faith in daily life.
Seeking to earn his objective tag, Allen gives a considered hearing to the group’s most vocal opponents and provides airing to the most extreme of conspiracy theories. But he often grants a fairer hearing to Opus Dei’s representatives. In a few instances, he bends over backwards to explain away the harshest judgments against the group.
An illustration of Mr. Allen’s technique can be seen in his examination of the charge that Opus Dei’s founder, St. Josemaría Escrivá, was a pro-Franco fascist. Mr. Allen describes the accusations and fills in the historical background. “[I]t’s worth noting that in the context of the Spanish Civil War, in which anticlerical Republican forces killed 13 bishops, 4,000 diocesan priests, 2,000 male religious, and 300 nuns, virtually every group and layer of life in the Catholic Church in Spain was ‘pro-Franco.’” The author goes on to note that despite this fact, “there is no instance in which [Escrivá] either praised or criticized the regime” throughout its long reign. “In the 1930s and 1940s, when the overwhelming sentiment in Catholic Spain was pro-Franco, Escrivá’s silence was therefore often read to betoken a hidden liberalism; by the 1960s and 1970s, when Catholic opinion had shifted, that same silence was interpreted as masking a pro-Franco conservatism,” he writes. While he concedes that Opus Dei members served in Franco’s ministry, he notes that this was unusual—only eight served over the course of 36 years, in Mr. Allen’s careful account. He also describes how many Opus Dei members joined the anti-Franco opposition. “The overall impression one gets is that Escrivá strove to maintain neutrality with respect to the Franco regime, even if privately he felt some sympathy for a leader trying by his lights to be an upright Christian,” Mr. Allen concludes. “A charge of ‘pro-Franco’ cannot be sustained, except in the generic sense that most Spanish Catholics were initially supportive of Franco.... The most one can say is that Escrivá was not ‘anti-Franco’ either.”
And so it goes. Mr. Allen spends this book sifting through the evidence and, while noting the occasional misstep, coming to the conclusion that Opus Dei does not deserve the condemnation it has so often received. He writes that Opus Dei is not especially secretive, that its regime of corporal mortification is not unique or extreme, that its female members do not regard themselves as trod upon, that it is not as rich as all the rumors, that it “does have a social conscience,” that its 20 officials in the Vatican could never take over the billion-member church, that its members are more diverse politically than the stereotype, that it does not have an excessive control over its membership, and that it is not an overzealous recruiter of new members.
Oh yes, The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s massive bestseller coming to a movie theater near you, is bunk. Mr. Allen quotes an opening section of the book describing an Opus Dei member practicing corporal mortification with a spiked cilice belt and then proceeds to pinpoint the many exaggerations and inaccuracies in the scene. It is perhaps an uncomfortable reality that the excerpt from Mr. Brown’s book, full of dramatic tension and hints of dark conspiracy, is the most riveting piece of writing in Mr. Allen’s tome. There is just something about a secret society, with its unseen ways, that commands attention.