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Review of John L. Allen, Jr., Opus Dei:
an Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality
of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church

(NY, Doubleday, 2005)

From ARCC Light, Volume 28, Number 3-4
May/June/July 2006

Christine M. Roussel, Ph.D.

As implied in the title, John Allen has set himself an ambitious goal in his latest book: to give a truly objective examination of a highly controversial group greatly favored by the late Pope John Paul II. Unfortunately, the result of his year’s research and labor, while interesting and highly informative, is far from objective. However unintentionally, Allen’s book emerges more as an attempt to refute the most strident charges against Opus Dei. One is almost tempted to add another subtitle to it: “Apologia pro Amicibus Suis?”

What is perhaps the most serious flaw of John Allen’s examination of Opus Dei is his dependence on his subject itself for almost all his documentary evidence and even many of his other sources of information. Because of Opus Dei’s emphasis on secrecy - or, as they prefer to call it, discretion - and its careful guarding of its written documents, even its Statutes, there are no independent archives of Opus Dei’s foundational documents, training materials, or internal memos. When Allen wanted to see a document, he asked the information officer (read PR/spokesman) assigned to help him who told him if it was available or not, and if available, gave it to him to read in Opus Dei’s offices. Thus, there was no external or independent source for Opus documentation. It could show only what it wished to show. The same was true for the much more frequent instances when Allen wanted to know Opus policy or formation for its members on a particular point: again, his only response was the Opus Dei line as stated by a professional PR person.

Another serious problem with Allen being so much exposed to the Opus line is that, like many or even most people today, he lacks the kind of knowledge of history in general and Catholic and theological history in particular that would provide a counterweight against which to measure OD’s claims. The most egregious single example of this is Opus’ oft touted claim that in emphasizing the role and sanctification of the laity, Escriva was a prophet foretelling the insight of Vatican II. If Allen knew a bit about the many lay Catholic Action movements that sprang up all over Europe before World War I, inspired by the publication of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, he might not swallow Opus’ inflated claims so blithely. A better knowledge of the history of the spirituality of the Benedictines, Dominicans, and Franciscans and their extensive Third Orders would provide a similar corrective on the Opus “insights” of the sanctification of work or “divine filiation.” Instead, Allen gushes what a “riveting historical figure” Escriva was (p.43).

Actually, beneath the hype and exaggerated claims, there are only really two main differences between these traditional Third Orders and The Work: first, the creation of a group of lay consecrated virgins (the numeraries, Opus Dei’s shock troops, who constitute 20% of its membership) and secondly, the much tighter rein Opus Dei keeps on its 70% supernumerary membership, “requesting” (read requiring) weekly confession or spiritual direction, whereas the much looser traditional Third Orders have only monthly meetings or events and no specific policy on frequency of confession and spiritual direction. It might in fact be interesting or even instructive to compare the numbers of adherents claimed by Opus Dei to those of the Third Orders of the Franciscans, Dominicans, and the Benedictine Oblates to gain more perspective on this supposedly unique phenomenon of Opus Dei.

The only other external “controls” (very partial ones) on Opus Dei’s monopoly on information on itself is from disillusioned former members who have written about their experiences, like Maria del Carmen Tapia, Miguel Fisac, and the contributors to ODAN, the Opus Dei Awareness Network. These people can testify verbally or in writing to what they experienced but few if any were ever able to take documentation of their claims out of Opus Dei when they left. Allen seems to have read at least some of their accounts (although his omission of a bibliography or footnotes make it difficult to be sure) and even interviewed a sprinkling of the dissatisfied formers, but then he always appears to have asked his OD “handlers” to respond to their charges. Invariably, in his book, much more space is given to Opus Dei’s response or self-justification than to the original charge. Opus Dei also put Allen in contact with former members who left or changed status within OD on good terms, leading Allen to the conclusion that many more have left The Work on good terms than on bad.

Opus Dei’s spokespersons also frequently emphasized that The Work is basically decentralized and its local and national centers have a great deal of independence relating to formation and day-to-day administration. Thus, little in writing, few central records or overall statistics and supposedly few or no written records of the running of their local and national centers by their directors, either for the past or the present. One frequent refrain when confronted with horror stories from ex-members is “well, that might have happened in that center with that director back then, but it certainly doesn’t happen any more. It was an aberration.” Allen doesn’t seem to see the incongruity of Opus Dei’s claims: if centers are independent and Opus Dei in Rome doesn’t have detailed written documentation, how can it claim to know what did or didn’t happen in the past or in the present in its centers? If centers are so independent, how can an Opus spokesperson know what is being suggested, taught or allowed relative to its members?

Allen seems to have made a fundamental decision to believe what Opus Dei tells him. He doesn’t seems to even entertain the thought that they might give him a less than totally honest answer to his questions or might even bend the truth “for the good of The Work.” Since Allen’s didactic methodology is to take the most extreme and strident criticisms of Opus Dei, ask his Opus “handlers” to respond to them, and then draw his conclusions, his almost total lack of scepticism relating to what OD tells him is a major weakness of his book.

These are not vain comments made by someone who merely disagrees with Allen’s opinions. I am a trained historian with specializations in early modern and modern Europe. I have done research in primary sources from the 16th century French wars of religion to World War II’s Vichy government. I also spent 20 years working for a large international law firm and did many “due diligence” investigations of target companies in multi-million dollar mergers as well as other kinds of legal research. Had I ever made the kind of extrapolations or manifested the kind of naivete that John Allen demonstrates in most of his book, I would have been reprimanded or even shown the door.

None of the above is meant to imply that John Allen’s Opus Dei is not a valuable resource. Allen has done a tremendous amount of research and brought together a wealth of materials. This book is a goldmine of well-organized information on Opus Dei, its history, structure and official positions on the controversies to which it has given rise. One can learn a great deal about Opus Dei by reading John Allen’s book. One simply has to recognize the bias of which he seems unaware and exercise extreme caution in accepting his conclusions.

Opus Dei, which is almost as media-savvy as the Legionnaires of Christ, has praised Allen’s book to the skies. They know good PR when they see it.


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