Can "Rashomon" ever be reconciled? If so, Allen does.
Dec 19, 2005
It's a cliché by now to say that someone has "wrestled" with a difficult question, but to the extent it can ever be applied appropriately, I believe this book merits it. John L. Allen has tacked a large and complex topic -- one that is surrounded in myth and mystery, brings out strong feelings from critics and defenders alike, and involves questions of deep, even eternal, importance. He has done it remarkably well.
I've read, I believe, all of John Allen's books, including both "Cardinal Ratzinger" and "The Rise of Benedict XVI," and one thing that has always stood out for me is his dedicated, even strenuous, objectivity. That's especially evident in this book. Readers expecting Allen to confirm the apparently ridiculous portrayal of Opus Dei in "The Da Vinci Code" (I haven't read that book myself) are sure to be disappointed. But other fair-minded readers should be satisfied with a study that neither whitewashes nor savages "the most controversial force in the Catholic Church."
Perhaps the most difficult part of Allen's task is solving the Rashomon dilemma: reconciling different observers' view of the same event or phenomenon. Part of the solution is Allen's deceptively simple conclusion that Opus Dei isn't right for everyone: behavior or doctrine some would see as controlling or stifling, others interpret as orderly, even helpful. There's also the difficult question of whether one person's individual experience is typical of the organization as a whole. As I said, Allen has wrestled with these questions, and clearly put a lot of thought and effort into how he asks and answers them. It's not for nothing that John Allen is so highly respected as a journalist and writer.
In making his analysis, Allen employs some tools that critics of the organization seem to regard as invalid. Most importantly, he draws a distinction between Opus Dei as an organization and the individuals who make up that organization. If Opus Dei members tend to be politically conservative, does that mean Opus Dei as an organization promotes a rightist political agenda? If the director of a large company belongs to Opus Dei, can that corporation's assets be said to be "controlled" by Opus Dei? Many critics would, and have, answered both questions "Yes." Allen says No, and cites Opus Dei's emphasis from the beginning on members' independence in their secular and professional lives. Allen has interviewed Opus Dei members who are left-wing politicians, outspoken journalists, and directors of big businesses who all attest that at no time has Opus Dei or any of its leadership attempted to sway their voting, writing, or business management.
Similarly, Allen does a good job placing Opus Dei in its historical context, both as a movement within the Catholic Church and as something arising from twentieth-century Spain. To those who charge the founder of Opus Dei was pro-Franco, for example, Allen concludes that he was, at best, not anti-Franco. But he also makes the valuable point that nearly all of Spanish Catholicism in the 1930s was to some degree pro-Franco. After all, the Republicans had by that time already murdered literally thousands of Catholic bishops, priests, and religious (both male and female). It strikes me that it would have been a particularly self-hating Catholic who would have embraced the Republicans at that point in history.
Mentioning Allen's use of history and interviews brings up one complaint I've had with his earlier books and which sadly applies here as well: he still -- still! -- doesn't include a bibliography. That's especially annoying here, in a book which is chock-full of interviews, references to other books and monographs, and a lot of history. Allen will even excerpt other writers' work (Mary Vincent's on page 57, for example) without bothering to give us the name of the book cited. Please, John, I'm begging you here...
Apart from that long-standing complaint, however, I think Allen has to be congratulated for the obvious effort he put into this book, and for how well it turned out. Extremists on both sides of the question may not be satisfied, but readers with an open mind, an open heart, or just an interest in a dramatic movement in the modern church should find a lot to interest them, and a lot to think about, within these pages. I looked forward to reading this book since I first heard Allen was working on it, and it certainly repaid the wait.
Ever since Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code came into print and was then later brought to the big screen by Ron Howard, misconceptions immediately arose around Opus Dei and its beloved founder, Saint Josemaria Escriva. Sometimes deemed a cult with manipulative and unorthodox recruiting tactics, others see the lay Catholic organization as a divinely inspired miracle whose purpose it is is to evangelize a secularized and wounded society and culture, the latter being something closer to the truth. … more
I have never (to my knowledge) met a member of Opus Dei; I had no previous knowledge beyond the most superficial about this group. Allen's book starts off strongly and finishes in the same eager spirit, as he addresses Opus Dei with his own suggestions about how they could dispel the myths and be more straightforward with the rest of us about their mission, their indocrination, and their allegiances. Friends of mine knowing my own religious interests had been asking me what I knew about Opus Dei … more
For readers ofThe Da Vinci Code, John Allen's book on Opus Dei may be something of a revelation. One opens it expecting to find at the very least GPS coordinates pinpointing albino monk training camps. Or perhaps full disclosure of untold wealth flowing through offshore bank accounts. Instead one finds exhaustive research, interviews and careful analysis that reveal a group alive with ideas and purpose, but a bit short on sinister plans. Removing the sense of mystery surrounding Opus Dei may not serve future thriller writers well, but the journey is fascinating in its own right. Allen's biography of Opus Dei is also necessarily a brief biography of Saint Josemaría Escrivá, born in Spain in 1902, whose vision of the sanctification of work gave birth to Opus Dei, or "The Work" as its members call it. The idea of finding sanctification through work was not original to Escrivá, but the power of his vision certainly brought it to a fuller realization within the Catholic church. Allen explores this central idea that "one can find God through the practice of law, engineering or medicine, by picking up the garbage or by delivering the mail, if one brings to that work the proper Christian spirit." For Escrivá sanctification flowed in equal measure both in and outside the walls of the church. Much of Allen's own work getting to know Opus Dei is done with numerous, wide-ranging personal interviews, from the halls of the Vatican, to Africa, to U.S. suburbs. Allen is ...