books

Secrecy, power and mortifying the flesh

A Catholic writer offers an exhaustive look at the myth and reality of Opus Dei

BRIAN BETHUNE December 5 2005
books

Secrecy, power and mortifying the flesh

A Catholic writer offers an exhaustive look at the myth and reality of Opus Dei

BRIAN BETHUNE December 5 2005

Secrecy, power and mortifying the flesh

books

A Catholic writer offers an exhaustive look at the myth and reality of Opus Dei

BRIAN BETHUNE

Silas, The Da Vinci Code’s pious Opus Dei assassin, is a deranged, masochistic albino monk who likes to pause between murders to whip himself bloody or tighten the flesh-piercing barbed strap he wears around his thigh. Although the competition is stiff, he may be the most over-the-top travesty in author Dan Brown’s parade of caricatures. Given the novel’s runaway success—121 weeks and counting on the Maclean’s bestseller list—not to mention the upcoming film version, Silas is also a PR nightmare for the real Opus Dei, a conservative and secretive Roman Catholic group. Silas didn’t spring full-blown from Brown’s imagination. The novelist tapped into an existing well of suspicion surrounding Opus Dei—Latin for “the work of God”—that’s as deep-rooted among Catholics as it is in the outside world. It’s that profound split in opinion within his church that brought John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the U.S. weekly National Catholic Reporter, to write Opus Dei (Doubleday), an exhaustive look at the most controversial force in modern Catholicism.

Opus Dei is a meticulously objective study, based on 300 hours of interviews with dedicated insiders, bitter ex-members and what few neutral observers Allen could find. “I had to write it that way,” the author told Maclean’s. “This is the third rail of Catholic debate: every sentence is going to be parsed by each side.” Wariness and even paranoia marked some of those conversations. When Allen telephoned one former member, she wouldn’t answer his questions until he responded to one of hers: did his wife belong to Opus Dei? “I had to laugh out loud, since Shannon is, first, Jewish and ambivalent about Catholicism in general and, second, very left politically.” As it turned out, Shannon Allen had sent an email to friends that mentioned, in passing, that she’d been to a going-away party for an Opus Dei

woman. From there grew the cyberspace rumour, says Allen. (For the record, neither Allen, a 40-year-old practising Catholic from Hays, Kan., nor any member of his family has ever been affiliated with Opus Dei.)

Controversy has dogged Opus Dei from its inception in 1928, the creation ofjosemaria Escrivá, a young Spanish priest who saw a way to bring holiness into the world by dedicating everyday work to God. Spain remains Opus Dei’s heartland, home to 35,000 of its 85,000 members, 500 of whom live in Canada. There are fewer than 2,000 Opus Dei priests, and it’s the lay members—more than half of them

A fifth of the group's members are celibate. They whip themselves and wear the cilice, a barbed thigh band.

women—who are in charge. Lay power was an almost tectonic liberal shift within Catholic thought, which has always seen the clergy in control, and it provoked suspicion among conservative Spanish churchmen. But Opus Dei is otherwise very traditional in its doctrine and its devotional style, both of which have inspired a visceral hostility in liberal Catholics.

Opus Dei emphasizes absolute fidelity to the papacy, and to the entirety of Church teaching on faith and morals, including its strictures against contraception and abortion.

Members follow many age-old practices in worship: daily rosary, for example, and—for the fifth of adherents who are full-scale, celibate members called numeraries—what’s known as “corporal mortification.”

Those aspects of Opus Dei emerged in the English-speaking world after 1978, when Cardinal Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II. “It was a match made in heaven,” says Allen. “The new pope had come out of the Solidarity situation in Poland where the Church was struggling to find a Christian concept of work to counter Marxist theory. And he found it in Escrivá’s thought. John Paul admired Opus Dei.” Papal patronage never wavered: Escrivá was “beatified” in 1992, only 17 years after his death, and in 2002, he became St. Josemaria Escrivá.

Each mark of papal favour made Opus Dei ever more of a lightning rod for criticism in liberal and secular circles. Allen thoroughly scrutinizes all the claims and counterclaims. Is the order rich, secretive and powerful? Excessively secret about its membership, yes, in Allen’s judgment; the argument that the order is protecting its members’ “spiritual privacy” doesn’t wash. Rich, hardly—Opus Dei directly controls assets in the U.S. of about $344 million, less than the annual income of the St. Vincent de Paul charity. Its most visible sign of wealth, a US$69-million Manhattan skyscraper, came from a bequest of US$78 million in pharmaceutical stock in 1997. (Before that unnamed donor died, Opus Dei was trying to raise funds for a three-storey suburban centre.) As for power, only three members hold high Vatican office. Allen shrugs off the lurid details of the cilice (the barbed thigh band) and the “discipline,” a small twine whip self-administered while a numerary recites a brief prayer. “When I give talks about Opus Dei in Spain or Italy, I get lots of questions about power and money, but almost none about the cilice. There’s an ancient tradition of spiritual athleticism in Mediterranean Catholicism.” But Allen argues that some zealous young recruits don’t know what they’re getting into. “For most members, after following its program for a few years they find themselves happier than they could have imagined, but some—especially those prone to thinking ‘if a little pain is good, then a lot of pain ...’—wake up feeling broken and betrayed.”

FINALLY A BOOK ABOUT...GROUPTHINK

Science writer David Berreby explores the “tribal mind” in Us And Them (McArthur): the innate human tendency to sort people into groups. Tribalism has its good side—it frees us from the confines of the self and tells us how to behave with others—as well as its potentially lethal exclusionary aspect. The trick to emphasizing the positive, Berreby argues, is to maintain a conscious awareness of our instinctive reactions whenever we encounter someone new.

Allen believes many of the excesses cited by ex-members, especially spiritual directors who push newcomers too hard and too fast, are now things of the past. Some Opus Dei loyalists, taking a very Catholic long view, believe these birth pangs of a new spirituality will be forgotten a few centuries from now. Perhaps, Allen concludes, or it may be Opus Dei itself that will have been forgotten. M