December 6, 2023 | Rome, Italy

John Allen

By |2018-04-20T20:10:58+02:00April 1st, 2006|Interviews|
Journalist and Writer John Allen in 2004.

ohn Allen is the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, a liberal American Catholic weekly. He has also contributed reports on religious affairs to dozens of publications, including the New York Times, as well as serving as a religious affairs analyst for CNN during the 2005 papal election. He spent several years researching a book on the lay Opus Dei order, which has been in the news as result of Dan Brown’s bestseller, “The Da Vinci Code.” Allen’s book was published last fall under the title “Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church.” Publisher’s Weekly called the book an “exhaustive study” that bordered on the “clinical.”

But Allen is not an Opus Dei member, a point goes to great length to make clear. “Every time I give I give an interview about Opus Dei,” he says, “this is what I say at the top: I am not a member of Opus Dei, my family isn’t a member of Opus Dei, I have no special or financial connections to Opus Dei whatsoever.” Allen is the author of several other books about the Vatican, including an “instant” biography of Pope Benedict XVI, published a month after his April 2005 election. Edward Pentin chatted with him in Rome.

“With Escrivá there’s a romantic, exaggerated devotion that in the end I think distorts his humanity.”

You say you’re not a member of the order…

That’s right, I’ll give you my bank account if you want to check it out — you’re more than welcome!

Communion and Liberation is very similar to Opus Dei, but it has no controversy associated with it.

Well in that sense, so is Regnum Christi and so are lots of other groups. That’s part of the journalistic burden of the book is explaining, why Opus Dei? There is a vast galaxy of new movements so why is Opus Dei become the lightening rod? So to some extent that’s oversimplifying because the movements are controversial themselves, and I think the answer to that is well, there are certain things that happened together.

What events transpired to make Opus Dei so controversial?

The first is the Spanish background to this. Opus Dei was born in Spain in 1928 and had its initial development in the 30s and 40s and experienced some enormous, extremely bitter rivalries with the Jesuits in that period of time. They weren’t theological debates because in that period of time in Spanish Catholicism, there was a basic consensus around what we would base as Orthodox Catholicism arguing over the ordination of women and liberation theology. What they were really arguing over at the end of the day was basically that as Opus Dei was growing up, one of the places that started drawing interest among the Marian societies that Jesuits organized were essentially seen as feeders for Jesuit vocations.

What was happening was that some young Spanish men were deciding not to become Jesuits and sign up with Opus Dei instead. And this was, I think, the initial source of tension, that there was this perception that Opus Dei was kind of poaching. And in addition to that, in Franco-era Spain, there were also all kinds of suspicions about what was really going on inside Opus Dei and so a lot of speculation. so in the midst of these controversies, some Jesuits began circulating from my point of view, really outlandish charges against Opus Dei, things like they had secret tunnels under their centers, they were engaging themselves in bizarre rituals like crucifying themselves on crosses in Opus Dei centers. Escriva would levitate or he would fake levitation on spiritual retreats.

So this is when all these dark myths and talk of a mysterious cult started?

Yes. In the context of this kind of intramural rivalry between the Jesuits and Opus Dei and in some way at the heart of those accusations is that it’s a secretive organisation, that it’s cult-like, that it kind of has a hidden agenda that aspires to a kind of occult power in the Church and all of that was born there.

What other causes were there that made Opus Dei so controversial?

The second force shaping all of this is that in the Anglo-Saxon world Opus Dei really came to public prominence in 1982 when the pope created the Personal Prelature and this was at the very beginning of Wojtyla’s papacy, around the same time that attitudes to JPII were beginning to take shape, for good or ill. And so in the Anglo-Saxon world, there’s a natural tendency to identify Opus Dei and JPII and vice-versa. So those people who didn’t like JPII didn’t like Opus Dei. They see Opus Dei as the sort of “shock troops” of this ultraconservative, “restorationist” papacy. So in that sense Opus Dei has been a carrier for larger tensions in the Church to which it never really aspired, but there it is.

The third factor is the historical reality here which is whenever something new is born in the Church — and Opus Dei is a new thing — it’s an organic body of laity and clergy, men and women sharing the same vocation which, canonically speaking, has never existed in Catholicism. And this is just the pattern — when something new was born in the Church, there is always opposition to it. Catholicism is, by nature, a conservative organization in many ways. It resists innovation and it takes time to sort out — and by time I mean centuries — to sort out which innovations are going to survive and of course the majority don’t. When the Franciscans were born, there was tremendous opposition to the idea that you could have men, vowed religious who lived outside monasteries. When the Jesuits were born they believed you could have vowed religious without common prayer — that was a tremendous source of scandal and you know as well as I do that in the 16th century the allegations against the Jesuits if anything put the stuff about Opus Dei to shame. They were of course eventually suppressed by a Pope and to date there’s no indication that that’s going to happen to Opus.

So these are the three factors: the resistance to something new in Catholicism, the historical context in Spain and the Jesuit rivalry, and the third is the coincidence that Opus Dei in our part of the world came to prominence about the same time that people were making up their minds about this pope. For those three reasons Opus Dei has become the kind of lightening rod, par excellence. It’s swept up in the culture wars in the Church.

Did Pope John Paul II and his support for Opus Dei have a moderating influence?

Yes, but the Church has also had a moderating influence. This is what happens with new groups in the Church — they tend to be born in a fit of enthusiasm and passion and the danger of that passion is that it’s going to spin off into a kind of separatism where [they think] “we’ve got all the answers and the normal way of life is correct and everyone else is somehow less Catholic than us.” If you’re going to survive in the Catholic Church, you can’t sustain that [attitude] over a long period of time. You kind of open up and move a bit into the mainstream and die off. Opus Dei’s clear choice has been to survive which means that over the years they have moderated — they’re much more open today than they were 50 years ago.

Is this the reason for their greater transparency now?

Yes, part of it is that they’re no longer living in a police state. Part of it is that this tiny, struggling minority that everyone is sort of suspicious of, they’re now a personal prelature, their founder has been canonized, they’ve got 40 bishops, so their perceived threat to their existence is no longer there. But another part of it is the maturing effect of connection to the ecclesiastical mainstream. That was has to happen to these orders. The Franciscans, as you know, at one stage wanted to live this very pure form of poverty, own nothing, and have nothing which of course implied a judgment on the rest of the Church which did own things, did have things. Over the course of time, even though commitment to apostolic poverty is still very real, it had to be softened a little bit, it had to be broadened. The same thing’s happening to Opus. It’s the same kind of standard trajectory I think.

But some would say there is still more to the organization’s secrecy than this.

I’m not sure that today, you can make an argument that Opus Dei is secretive in the sense that people normally mean it. One needs to distinguish between some Opus Dei members and Opus Dei corporate policy. It is certainly true that you will find some people in Opus Dei today who practice a kind of excessive practice of what’s traditionally been called discretion.

By the way, it’s not just Opus Dei that practices discretion. You know the phenomenon of secular institutes in the Church and 50 percent of them practice a discretion about their membership and won’t admit to being members which is something that Opus Dei used to do and doesn’t do anymore. These days Opus Dei members are, generally speaking, quite open about their membership, though as we know, there are exceptions, [former British Education Secretary] Ruth Kelly being one of them. So I think you have to put it in that context that there is this practice of being discreet about what one does, and the practices.

Is that primarily a personal motivation?

It’s partly a spiritual rationale — the avoidance of self-aggrandizement. That is one should be humble, don’t be the one who’s sitting in the front row of the synagogue, beating your breast, be at the back who no one notices. I think part of it too is that, historically, because a lot of people didn’t like Opus Dei there was just a sense that it would be better not to be too upfront because you’re just inviting hostility. A lot of that has given way. At the level you would use to identify secret societies in the world, I just don’t think Opus Dei rates. Their offices, their headquarters are a matter of public record — the information office puts out information about budgets and membership and all that kind of stuff. So I wouldn’t say it was secretive. There are ways in which they are a little less transparent than they might be.

Could you give us some examples?

In writing the book one of the first things I wanted to do was for the first time put a comprehensive dollar amount denoting assets of Opus Dei facilities and properties around the world. So the first thing you do is you go to Opus Dei headquarters and you say, what I’d like to know is how much you guys are worth. They have no concept, no idea. So you say, can you give me financial statements for all of the Opus Dei studies, all of your corporate works in the universities and schools and hospitals affiliated with Opus Dei. “We don’t collect that,” they’ll reply, because their concept is this and it comes out of the principle of secularity: Opus Dei understands itself not as a religious order but a secular movement of the laity.

Even though there are clergy serving those laity, principally it’s a work of lay people out in the secular world — the idea of redemption of secularity from within. So they take the position that Opus Dei facilities aren’t managed by Opus Dei and don’t even belong to Opus Dei. They belong to lay people who incorporate these things into the civil laws of whatever country they’re in. They’re owned, operated and administered by those lay people. The only thing that Opus Dei does is provide spiritual and doctrinal formation.

So there’s a distinct separation?

Very much so. These are not Opus Dei properties therefore we don’t have anything to do with the financial administration. So you’ve got to go and do one by one — which is what we did — all of these hundreds of things around the world and deduct whatever financial reporting that they do. Thank God in the U.S. it’s all regulated by tax law and they have to file 990s so there’s a standardized reporting, but around the world it’s much sketchier than that. In the end what we were able to do was come up with a definitive value for Opus Dei holdings in the States and an approximate number in the world. You can get the same numbers for the UK as they file the same tax code. It’s basically $72 million as I recall.

To what extent do you agree with the notion sometimes given that there is a similarity between Opus Dei’s emphasis on vocational work and the protestant work ethic?

Yes, they’ve been accused of being the Catholic Calvinists on the grounds that the prime directive of Opus Dei is the sanctification of work. This means that what they want to do is to form lay people, with the spiritual and doctrinal traditions of the Church, and kind of set them loose on the world in and through being doctors and lawyers and bankers and Indian chiefs or whatever the hell they are.

And so they spiritually grow through the work?

Well not only will they spiritually grow through the work but they’ll use that work as a means of redeeming world, bringing a distinctively Christian approach to law or politics — the idea being that it’s better than sitting on the outside of the world and preaching at it, instead you transform it from within. So part of what that means in their approach to things is a real emphasis on meeting the highest standards of excellence in whatever occupation they’re in because you can’t redeem a work if, in the first place, you don’t do it well. So there is in that sense a real kind of work ethic. You will notice, particularly in the numeraries [community-residing celibate members] of Opus Dei that there’s a real kind of drive to being the best at whatever it is that they do.

They will insist of course that it’s different from Calvinism — the Calvinist idea is that you manifest your election through worldly success which they will say is not their spirit. They will say there are plenty of members of Opus Dei who by external standards are not successes, some who are out of work, some whose newspapers went bankrupt and from their point of view. The argument is that as long as these people are approaching us with the proper spirit then their worldly success or failure doesn’t make any difference.

So there’s nothing to compare with the Evangelical Christian Right’s prosperity gospel which sees worldly success as synonymous with God’s blessing?

No I wouldn’t say that you’re more living the spirit of Opus Dei if you’re rich than if you’re poor. I met this indigenous guy in Lima who lives in this shack which is basically a barber’s shop, getting by on less than $5,000 a year. He is every bit as much incarnating the spirit of Opus Dei as a guy who just stepped down as the Chairman of Spain’s largest bank who’s a supernumerary [married member] of Opus Dei. Nevertheless, there is a real sense of the pursuit of excellence, in many ways analogous to the Jesuits in the 16th century who had the same idea.

Another aspect to their transparency is that their facilities have the kind of secular names that are not identifiable. You’re not going to find the St. Jose Maria Escriva Opus Dei Center. It’s always something like, the Wyoming Avenue Center or the Nether Hall, they have these kind of innocuous sounding names that are hard to nail down. And their logic for that is, again, secularity. They don’t want to be a religious community and they don’t want to run specifically religious enterprises — they want to run secular enterprises that have a Christian spirit. Therefore they don’t want to be distinct from the rest of the world. That’s one reason why they don’t wear habits.

But might people not think that’s being rather subversive?

Yes, people not only might, they do. But if you see it from their point of view, it’s not about secrecy but certainly to the outside world it will often look like secrecy. I had a lunch with Jim Nicholson (former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See), and he knew I was doing this book on Opus Dei and he asked me about the secrecy thing and I gave him the same spiel I just gave you. And he said, you know, this business about naming things, that’s the same way the CIA operates. When they show up in a foreign country, if they’re going to create an institute it’s going to be called ‘The Freedom Foundation’ or ‘The Woodhall’ — they’re never going to come out and say this is the CIA front foundation. So that’s how the outside world obviously looks at these things.

Another example in terms of this transparency thing. The whole membership — and I think Ruth Kelly in this is a classic example — even though most Opus Dei people I’ve met, and as I put in the book, I’ve met 200 members of Opus Dei all of whom are identified by name, rank and serial number! So most people I meet are not at all hesitant in acknowledging it but there’s not a requirement of that. In fact, Opus Dei takes the position that supernumeraries it’s up to them whether or not they want to disclose their membership. In the case of public figures like Ruth Kelly, what this creates is a situation like the following which is when journalists go to Ruth Kelly and ask, are you or aren’t you in Opus Dei, and she says, “I don’t want to answer.”

So they go to Opus Dei and Opus Dei have this position which says, “We’re not going to ‘out’ our members’, so they’re reduced to saying things like, “Well she’s in touch with us.” Again, if you follow the chain of reasoning from their point of view, you can understand why they end up saying things like that. But to the outside world that just looks like dissembling, it looks like a cover up.

Shouldn’t they therefore be trying to address that?

Yes, in fact in the last chapter of the book I have a set of proposed reforms, things for Opus Dei to think about and transparency is precisely one of these. Look, Opus Dei is not by classical standards a secret society. They’ve made great strides in terms of openness, but at the same time, at the level of public perception, these things are still problematic, such as collecting basic information about Opus Dei operations around the world. But the issue of membership is another one. I actually put this in the book, that when you’re dealing with public figures, it’s one thing for the barber in Lima who’s leading a quiet life and just wants to be left alone. I understand why he doesn’t need to be thrust into the middle, but members of parliament, prominent men in business Opus Dei ought to, at that level and as a condition of membership, have a right to reveal that person’s membership. My question is, what are you hiding? What’s there to be embarrassed about? And the more thoughtful people I know in Opus Dei completely agree with that. In Opus Dei you’re part of an apostolate, that is evangelising in the broadest sense of the word, so the question is, what kind of evangelising can you do if you won’t even admit that you’re a member? So there are residual trace elements of a kind of lack of openness.

Are they trying to re-brand themselves?

They’re trying to clean up their public image, that’s true. At that level, from being the least communicative groups in the Church, they have actually been one of the most PR savvy groups in the Church. They’ve got information officers everywhere, their guys are typically very, very good. They produce all kinds of literature, DVDs and always hosting events they invite people to. So at that level they’ve become very conscious of this negative image that they carry around is not helpful.

But is there any truth behind this accusation that they’re angling for political power, trying to infiltrate Brussels for example?

You have to ask yourself, are there conservatives in the European parliament who have connections to Opus Dei? Probably so. Are they acting in some sort of corporate fashion on behalf of Opus Dei? If you woke up tomorrow and discovered there were 15 members of the British parliament who were members of the Knights of Columbus, would you immediately assume there was some kind of Knights of Columbus conspiracy trying to infiltrate the British parliament, or would you think, the law of averages? With Opus Dei people automatically bring a sort of conspiratorial filter to it — the perception that there must be some sort of corporate plan here.

But there is an ideology behind it?

Well there’s a cardinal principle behind Opus Dei, and this goes back to Escriva himself, that Opus Dei can never take political positions — corporately, it can never take political positions. Members are free to do whatever the hell they want, but Opus Dei can never take positions and this was true during the Franco era. You will look in vain for Escriva’s published statements on anything he said, favorable or unfavorable about the regime. He never spoke about it and this was the kind of unwavering symbol of theirs on the grounds that it would divide Opus Dei if they did take positions. On spiritual grounds it would compromise the notion of secularity — that political thinking is something for lay people to do, not for a Church organization to do. Therefore, on questions that don’t deal with faith and morals of the Catholic Church, there’s great pluralism. To give you an example, the former Spanish minister of defense in the Aznar government was basically the architect of Spanish policy that took Spain into the war in Iraq alongside the U.S. government. Now probably the most repeated criticism in the Spanish press came from a female columnist who is also an Opus Dei numerary. This wasn’t a question of faith and morals so Opus Dei were all over the map on it. I know Opus Dei members in Catalonia absolutely detest, detest, political policies of Opus Dei members in Madrid because they think Madrid is all about suffocating Catalonian nationalism. In Peru, I can name Opus Dei members who were on all sides of the Fujimori government. And it goes on. So where there isn’t a clear Catholic position, you’re going to find pluralism in Opus Dei just like in any place else. But when we’re talking about something on which the Magisterium has spoken, debate stops in Opus Dei in a way it doesn’t in most other Catholic organizations.

How true is it that Opus Dei members supported Zapatero’s party in Spain’s 2003 election?

Yes, that’s true but that was before Zapatero launched the anti-Church crusade. Some think Opus Dei was 60-40 for Zapatero in Spain because the election was not fought on grounds of gay marriage and such things. It was fought out as a yes and no over Iraq.

Also Aznar didn’t follow through on legislation that was supported by the Church, did he?

Aznar was thought of in the press as a kind of darling of Opus Dei because he had 3 Opus Dei members who worked for him. Most Opus Dei members I know in Spain were anti-Aznar, even those who voted for him didn’t really like him. So yes, I think that’s true. But in the Western world today, the real dividing line between liberals and conservatives is not so much any more foreign policy or economics, it’s cultural issues. Where do you stand on gay marriage, where do you stand on abortion, where do you stand on divorce, and on those questions, because there’s a clear, Catholic position. You will look in vain for a prominent Opus Dei member who’s on the left of those questions. And I’ve looked at this image and realized that if there’s kind of a compact, Opus Dei political front, it comes out of that.

An Opus Dei politician may have a different opinion on how the economy may be organized, they may have positions on the use of military force, they may have positions on whether the UN is a good thing or not. But when it comes to these cultural issues, they all pretty much sing from the same songbook. So therefore it’s very natural for people to assume there must be some kind of block going on, some concerted strategy on their part. I don’t think there’s any concerted strategy, I think that sociologically people who are members of Opus Dei agree with the Church on those questions.

So is the analogy of Opus Dei being like the Christian right in the U.S. a fallacy?

Again, you’ve got to distinguish between corporate policy and sociology. At the level of corporate policy, Opus Dei has no ties or coalitions with anybody including other religious orders in the Catholic Church. This of course is not a religious order but this is, in fact, part of the problem historically with Opus Dei in the Church because they are fanatical about emphasizing their singularity — we’re unlike anything that’s ever been born in the Church and therefore to form alliances with any one else would be to risk assimilation, it would be to risk losing identity. So it’s a steadfast matter of policy that they will never engage in collaborative efforts with anybody.

In the 1960s, Arrupe proposed to Escriva the opening of a university together in Spain as a way of healing these old historical wounds and so forth, and Escriva said no. He said no because “either you’re going to become more like laity and we’re going to become more like religious.” Either way, it’s not a good thing. His phrase was, “doctors and lawyers can’t work out of the same office”. So in a formal way, Opus Dei has no links or collaborative endeavors with the evangelicals. On the hand, sociologically, if you look at a lot of Opus Dei members active in politics and who tend to be engaged in these cultural issues, it’s clear that for many of them, their best friends are conservative evangelical protestants. Take a guy like John McClosky in the U.S. He’s probably the most prominent Opus Dei priest in terms of politics, clearly he would tell you that the best friends in the Catholic Church on these questions would be the religious right.

But don’t you think that they tend to cosy-up too much to the powers that be? I’m thinking of the governments of Peru and Chile in particular.

As I said before, Opus Dei as a matter of faith will never take corporate political positions, so in Franco’s Spain, in Pinochet’s Chile, and under the military junta in Argentina, you will look in vain for a corporate statement of criticism. It’s also true because of their sociology which means that they tend to draw from conservative sectors. It is more likely than not that many members of Opus Dei would have been sympathetic to those regimes, and a proportion higher than your normal Catholic population such as Jesuits and missionaries and so forth because of their preferential option for the poor.

On the other hand, it is also true that those countries you can identify some Opus Dei members who were active in the opposition. In Spain, for example, under Franco I could tick off dozens of members of Opus Dei including those who were chased into exile after being threatened with imprisonment, whose newspapers were blown up by the Falange because they were critical of the Franco government. They never get the press, and in a way that’s fair because they would represent a minority view within Opus Dei, but it’s there.

Which means that Opus Dei, as such, is coming down either in favor or opposed, and you could make the argument that they should be opposed. I think that’s a fair argument to make; that if you are living in a police state that is brutalizing people and people are disappearing and where leaders of the Church are calling Catholics into kind of conscientious objection as was clearly the case in Spain in late 60s and 70s and that was the clear wish of Paul VI, then you can make a legitimate argument that Opus Dei as such, maybe, should have taken a more courageous position. I don’t think you can argue that because they didn’t have a more compact position in the opposition that therefore they were in favor of the regime. I don’t think that’s true either. The most you can argue is that corporately they sit on the sidelines, and allow their members to do what their consciences suggested.

But might it not be akin to a kind of washing of hands, an abnegation of responsibility?

You can see that and I understand that argument. The way they would see it is that they are maintaining the liberty of their members to act as their consciences suggest. It is not the role of Opus Dei to dictate political, economic, civil, cultural choices to their members. Their whole concept is that if secularity is to be redeemed it can’t be because the Church is imposing a political solution. We’ve been through that historically and it hasn’t worked. It led to centuries of anticlericalism and the fact that someone like Rocco Buttiglione can’t get a goddamn seat in the European Commission because people resent this kind of theocratic attempt of the Church trying to impose a certain political model. So their view is that if the world is going to be redeemed, it’s going to be from lay people acting on their own initiative, using their own judgment inspired by the spiritual and doctrinal positions of the Church. In order to maintain that principle, to allow that to happen, their belief is that Opus Dei as such can’t impose a blueprint. It would betray the whole idea that this is work for lay people to do.

But might that not be construed as slightly dishonest as Catholic teaching is clear on so many issues that it offers a comprehensive guide for the faithful?

Well Catholic teaching is clear on things like abortion, gay marriage. But it’s not at all clear on what is the right distribution of economic goods are in society — there are principles that inform that of course but at the level of detail, no. On military force, we’ve lived through four years of very vigorous Catholic debate on this questions suggesting that it’s not a settled question. And their response is, well what do you do about that? All right, should we let the Cardinal of Madrid decide how Spanish politics ought to be ordered? Or do we say that that really is not the role of the clergy? The role of the clergy is to tend to our spiritual and pastoral needs and it’s the role of competent lay people to draw on that information to make these judgments.

So Opus Dei could, inadvertently perhaps, make the Church less political?

Yes, it could make the hierarchy less political because again, they’re speaking about an expanded notion of Church. If you’re identifying Church with hierarchy, then you’ve missed the point from the beginning. I’m not opposed to the Church being politically engaged at all. Many of their members are politically engaged —more so than the average person.

What I am opposed to is the idea that those political solutions could be imposed from on high which in a way is a very liberating concept, I’d say. That’s why in the 30s and 40s, Opus Dei was though of as the far left, the radical avant-garde. Obviously that profile has changed because Vatican II and the 60s happened whereas in the 1940s no one would have thought about having an argument about whether we ought to be OK about gay marriage. No one would have thought about having an argument over whether you could legitimately dissent from Magisterial teaching — everyone knew that not every word that comes from the Pope is gospel, but fundamentally there’s a pretty strong Catholic consensus — when there is a clear magisterial statement on something, that’s it. If you dissented on that, you were thought of as outside the pale. But all of that changed and Opus Dei didn’t but stood with this very, some would say acritical, commitment.

Some people criticize Opus Dei for having a “pre-Vatican II” outlook?

I would say no, they don’t. They will argue until they’re blue in the face that they actually anticipated the council with this notion of the lay rule and that’s true. But they is a sort of, how can I put it, pre-post-conciliar Catholicism. That’s not a very good locution, but you get the idea. What happened in the post-conciliar period is that lots of things that used to be a fixed point of reference suddenly came up for grabs, for good or ill. I think it’s both, positives and negatives.

But they didn’t go with that, they maintained this pre-conciliar model of a kind of absolute and unswerving obedience to authority, that is when Church authority speaks. Also, particularly the moral teachings of the Church are non-negotiable and in a way this is the same point because the it relates to the Magisterium. So cultural debates of the post-conciliar period – when you suddenly had Catholic theologians challenging the Magisterium on things like birth control or sexuality, and there are Catholic positions today that would defend various forms of stem cell research, Opus Dei simply resisted all of that. In this case it was a matter of corporate policy, because their corporate policy is that our members are free everywhere where the Church leaves them free. But if the Church speaks, that’s it.

You’ve been to Opus Dei’s mother house here in Rome. Did you find it the outward devotion to St. Josemaria, in which members are required to kiss his image, rather cultish?

Let me say that in many, many ways, Opus Dei is not my cup of tea. One of the reasons is that I think, for a kind of Anglo Saxon spirituality which tends to be discreet, reserved, not very effusive, there are lots of ways we’re going to feel uncomfortable in this setting. There is a kind of emotionalism about it. There also is this strong cult of personality around Escriva, and the current prelate also, though less so; the further away you get the more it diminishes. But certainly with Escriva there’s a romantic, exaggerated devotion that in the end I think distorts his humanity.

I have no problem with the idea that he’s a saint — that’s a judgment for the Magisterium to make. I also know, however, that he was a human being with his rough edges and in some ways it gets the story wrong to forget all that because the real story is how he managed to do good despite the fact that he had a bad temper and didn’t always see everything: his own, mildly self-aggrandizing tendencies and that kind of thing, very strong sense of Spanish honor and all of that, so that kind of exaggerated devotionalism maybe. There are other things I don’t like about the Villa Tevere (Opus Dei’s mother house in Rome), a stuffy formalism about it sometimes.

I noticed many people there were white, middle class, well dressed and appeared wealthy.

This gets us into the question of Opus Dei wealth. If you go into the common rooms, front rooms of Opus Dei centers, they all look kind of opulent. Villa Tevere especially because it’s the mother ship. But if you go anywhere that’s the case. Now if you go back into the personal quarters you would find that to be much less so, and this brings us back to the idea of meeting a standard of excellence — if you have guests in then we want to put on a good show. It’s not always that they’re rich, sometimes it’s that they’re very good at creating appearances, sometimes on the bases of limited means.

Is there an over-emphasis on appearance, do you think?

It would be very rare to see someone in Opus Dei who was sloppily dressed or would have an unkempt room, because they also have this idea of the little things, that goes under the rubric of life, that you shouldn’t have separate compartments: I’m religious in Church and then I’m something else when I’m making my bed or doing my job, but somehow it ought to be a organic whole.

So even when you’re combing your hair in the morning, that’s still just as religious an act when done in the right spirit as an hour in front of the tabernacle and so there is this kind of strong emphasis which, in my view, can sometimes become manic, about doing everything in the best way you can possibly do it. That means always looking good, it means always projecting the right appearance, and the inherent risk in all of that is that it can become hypocritical — that it can be just a matter of appearance as opposed to substance. And I think they’ve got to watch that, and again I would say the more thoughtful people in Opus Dei are aware of that — there is a sort of self-monitoring going on. But the environment does foster, or create the risk of, a certain kind of attention more to the surface than to the roots.

What do you say to the criticism that Opus Dei are cliquey and elitist?

Again, there is some truth to that. Your point of departure has to be that this is a group that has been savagely attacked for decades so there is a tendency for them to feel comfortable with one another than with outsiders. There is that, and as far as the elitism goes, again I think there’s no corporate policy that they want to be elitist. I went to nine countries for this book and I would set up my own appointments, but there would always be people Opus Dei would want me to see which I was happy to do as that is quite interesting. It’s interesting to see who they want you to see. Every country I would go to, every one, in addition to seeing top officials, they would also get me to see a bus driver, barber or a mechanic because they know there is this perception of elitism and they want you to understand that there are also blue collar people, which is true.

But on the other hand I would say that, again, going back to the sociology, inside the Catholic Church, particularly for young practicing Catholics, it’s a little bit like the Marines — you know, “the few, the proud.” They tend to attract, very driven, idealistic, hard-working, smart people and therefore there probably is an over-representation of what you would consider elites inside Opus Dei which is not their fault, I just think it’s the reality of what their market is. And frankly, even the bus drivers and barbers I met, these were damn hardworking bus drivers and barbers. I’m sure in the local union these guys were president or something like that because they took it very seriously.

About the Author:

Edward Pentin, a Canterbury, England native, assisted with Newsweek's coverage of the papal election and is Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register. Since graduating in international relations at the University of Keele in England, he has taught in Tanzania and spent two years working in an international school in Switzerland. He has a Masters in justice, peace and mission studies.