Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Opus Dei


There are few organizations as polarizing as Opus Dei in the Roman Catholic Church. Made (in)famous in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code its membership of around 85,000 persons seems to attract a disproportionate amount of attention.

Veteran Vatican reporter John Allen has done, consequently, a great service to those interested in learning more about "The Work" in his estimable book Opus Dei.

Let me begin with a caveat: I began reading this book with a presupposition that I would come away thinking less of Opus Dei. Interestingly, Allen's balanced treatment highlights many of the positive qualities and characteristics of Opus Dei while at the same time acknowledging shadowy areas in its practices.

The book is partitioned into four main sections: the Essentials of Opus Dei, Opus Dei from the Inside, Question Marks About Opus Dei, and finally a Summary Evaluation. Each section relies heavily on information provided both by current and former members of Opus Dei. This has led to the accusation that Allen's research is compromised by lack of objective sources. While this may be true, I suspect that John Allen did the best with what he could get and, by the 400+ pages of the paperback, it appears that he did get quite a bit.

What I appreciated about the book is that it is the first time I've learned something useful about Opus Dei. At the core of Opus Dei is the belief that

holiness, 'being a saint,' is not just the province of a few spiritual athletes, but is the universal destiny of every Christian. Holiness is not exclusively, or even principally, for priests and nuns. Further, holiness is not something to be achieved in the first place through prayer and spiritual discipline, but rather through the mundane details of everyday work. Holiness thus doesn't require a change in external circumstances, but a change in attitude, seeing everything anew in the light of one's supernatural destiny. (17)
If this were the only thing people were to learn of Opus Dei, it would be a great gift. A human organization, it has, however, its shadow side. We are all familiar with accusations of abuse, secrecy, and manipulation. Opus Dei is often mentioned alongside the Jesuits as being interested in world domination (there are YouTube videos to back this up!). Allen takes these shadows and specters seriously and even-handedly massages the issues that both sides are often well presented. The end of the book, helpfully, offers something of an "action plan" to help Opus Dei more transparent and less mysterious to many Christians.

A Jesuit favorably reviewing a book favorable to Opus Dei? Yep! There are drawbacks to the text, to be sure: Allen can get somewhat repetitive, the book is long and, while written in an engaging style, it can plod at times. Still, it is quite worth the investment of time and energy in that it does provide a glimpse into the world of Opus Dei.
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