Keywords: Religion, politics, current affairs

Title: Opus Dei

Author: John Allen

Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd/Doubleday

ISBN: 0141024658


Thanks to Dan Brown's 'Da Vinci Code', popular interest in Opus Dei has never been higher. Add to this the news that British cabinet minister Ruth Kelly is a member of the strict Catholic group, and you can see why many people are interested in finding out more about this secretive organisation. Journalist John L. Allen has sought to present an objective account that dispels some of the myths and conspiracy theories that have accrued around the organisation founded by the recently canonised Spanish cleric Josemarķa Escriva.

Allen does indeed attempt to present a balanced account of Opus Dei. As part of this he has spent more than a year in the company of members and officials of the group, in different parts of the world and in many different contexts. He gives voice to the many individuals that he has spent time with, letting them speak about their experiences, views and ideas. Allen tackles many of the controversial questions head on: the practices of 'mortification', secretiveness, political policies and influence, the life and times of Escriva, sexism and so on.

In all instances Allen appears to give Opus Dei the benefit of the doubt. For example on the vexed question of political influence Allen repeatedly quotes the party line that Opus Dei allows it's members freedom of conscience. With respect to the practices of the 'mortification of the flesh', a practice that excites feverish interest because of its sado-erotic nature, Allen is content to point out that other Catholic sects also engage in the practice. He does not entertain any questions as to the sexuality of such activities.

This is not to say that Allen does not quote from opponents or former members of the group. But by and large many of charges laid at the door of the group are either dismissed as local aberrations or personal failures. The Opus Dei that emerges from this account is charged with no more than being a bit on the secretive side. Aside from that minor grumble, Allen paints a glowing picture of an organisation that he believes is sincerely engaged in doing good and bringing Christ into the real world rather than stuck inside a church or other holy place.

It should be noted that Allen is a Catholic himself, and therefore the kind of criticisms that an atheist or secularist would make of Opus Dei are not natural to him. The fact that other Catholic orders engage in similar activities to Opus Dei would not normally be considered a good defence. Still more, Allen has had very direct engagement with Opus Dei and has obviously developed strong relationships with the organisation and that this too will have had an influence on the shape of the book.

Possibly the most important point that Allen makes is that Opus Dei attracts a certain type of person. The demands it makes on members are exacting, and the devotion it shows to Papal authority (and a high degree of veneration of Escriva himself), means that even without a formal party line, Opus Dei is firmly on the right when it comes to social questions. There doesn't have to be a conspiracy, by its very nature Opus Dei members will think along similar lines, even if they are nominally members of different political organisations.

Those looking for a counter-point to the salacious and conspiratorial view of Opus Dei will find that this book takes great pains to set the record straight. However, those looking for a more critical response will be disappointed, Allen has produced the sort of recruitment manual that the organisation itself could not have delivered.

Contents © London Book Review 2006. Published November 8 2006