[Editor's note: Read an excerpt from John L. Allen Jr.'s book here]
GODSPY: You once described Opus Dei as a cross between the Jesuits and the Rotary Club. Do you find that people have been surprised or disappointed by your benign portrayal of the infamous Opus Dei?
John L. Allen, Jr.: Opus Dei's most determined critics—which includes a broad swath of people—were surprised and some even outraged. They wish the book had been tougher. On the other hand, I think there's a group of Opus Dei members and their more pietistic supporters who would be disappointed that the book covers so many of the old scandals. But the people who've read my work over the years probably weren't terribly surprised with the approach I took.
I'm convinced that, as with most things in the Catholic Church, there's a broad middle out there that doesn't have a particular axe to grind. They're interested in having an account of things that's basically reliable, unbiased, and straightforward. For them, I think the book's been helpful.
In certain circles of Catholic opinion, Opus Dei is the bogey man hiding under the bed of everything that happens.
Has anyone accused you of simply participating in the Opus Dei conspiracy by writing the book for them as a sort of cover-up?
Oh sure. For example, Damian Thompson, the editor of the Catholic Herald, published a review of my book in the Telegraph. He accused me of being involved in a whitewash. His evidence was that I didn't interview , a well-known English priest, ex-member of Opus Dei, and one of its leading critics in the Anglo-Saxon world. Felzmann has said that Jose Maria Escriva was anti-Semitic. I actually did cover this point in the book, but apparently not enough for Felzmann. In general, he said I dealt with every controversial question by resolving it in favor of Opus Dei.
He's not alone, of course. There are a number of people who have been very critical of Opus Dei and who harbor genuine convictions that it's a dangerous force in Catholicism. They think I didn't go far enough to include critical voices and expose what they think are the dangerous aspects.
What was the single most surprising thing you found while doing your research on Opus Dei?
If you go on LexisNexis and type in "Opus Dei"—you have to add, "and not horses" because there's a race horse called Opus Dei in New Zealand so you get the daily race results—you'll see that there's no organization in modern Catholic history that's generated the kind of public fascination they have.
In certain circles of Catholic opinion, Opus Dei is the bogey man hiding under the bed of everything that happens. Mel Gibson is making this movie on the Passion of Christ? Somehow Opus Dei must be involved. Antonio Scalia is sitting on the Supreme Court? I wonder if he's an Opus Dei member. Vatican Radio's not making enough money and the Jesuits might lose their lease? I wonder if Opus Dei's going to swoop in. Everything. Every issue. You get the impression that they must be this vast, world-wide force with an army of followers and infinite resources.
But when you actually start running the numbers and pealing back the onion, you find that they're not particularly wealthy and certainly not large. They have the membership of the Diocese of Tasmania. In terms of influence, they have 40 bishops out of 4,500 in the world. In the Roman Curia of 2,500 people, they have only 20 and of those 20 only three are in head offices and only one office is at the policy level. They just are not the kind of gargantuan reality that the myth would lead you to believe.
The real story, I think, and the more interesting thing about Opus Dei is less how did it have its tentacles wrapped around the Catholic Church, and more how do you get from this relatively modest and unimpressive reality to the current myth?
What do you think?
I think Opus Dei is the perfect storm. First of all, it was born in Franco-era Spain, so it's like there's a penumbra of fascism in its genetic code. Some suspect that somehow it's the last surviving force on earth carrying forward the fascist project. It's true there were some members in Franco's government at one time or another, but he had around 111 different governments over a 36 year period.
The myth of Opus Dei is much more revealing about where things stand in contemporary Catholicism than the reality of Opus Dei.
Then there's the early rivalry in the early 1940s between Opus Dei and the Jesuits. It started with a turf war over vocations in Spain, not anything ideological or theological. This got swept up into Spanish politics, which is very polarized and tends to spin off into dramatic accusation and counter-accusation. There were accusations that Opus Dei was a group of "White Masons" and Escriva was conducting black Masses, and wild stuff like that. The truth is, if you were going to pick an enemy, I'd really suggest that you don't pick the Jesuits. They have a world-wide network, are very smart, and have the capacity to carry forward a debate with great energy and élan. So the accusations about Opus Dei made the rounds in the Church early and often-and they endured.
Next you have the post-Vatican II polarization in Catholic politics. Opus Dei—without really aspiring to the role—became a leading symbol of what many saw, in the John Paul II years, as a kind of restorationist trend, a rolling back the clock or abandonment of the vision of the Council. It became the love-to-hate figure on the Catholic left. It is the Darth Vader of the liberal Catholic imagination. When you start talking about Opus Dei in certain circles, you can tell people are hearing that Darth Vader theme music, "da, da-da-da da ..." You know.
Finally, there's Opus Dei's close association with John Paul II. This was particularly meaningful in the Anglo-Saxon world in the late 80s when impressions of John Paul were beginning to harden. Since many perceived Opus Dei as his beloved older child, those who felt alienated by the Wojtyla papacy transferred those feelings to Opus Dei.
All these forces wrapped into one have lifted Opus Dei up to a level of myth in Catholic debate that it's actual sociological profile doesn't merit. In many ways, the myth of Opus Dei is much more revealing about where things stand in contemporary Catholicism than the reality of Opus Dei.
Did you receive any specific criticisms on the book that made you change your mind about something, or want to make any revisions?
Nobody came forward to challenge a point of fact. There is one criticism I think is probably right. Unfortunately, I forget who made it. Their point was that in the chapter on politics I didn't deal enough with Opus Dei in Latin America. They were deeply involved in Latin American politics, particularly in the 70s and 80s. That was the era of the police state, liberation theology battles, and ultimately the transformation into democracy. This is probably true. That chapter probably reflects my Anglo-Saxon and, more specifically, American bias, because I tend to deal with Opus Dei's political profile in the developed west.
I did talk about their political history in other places, but did it more to demonstrate the internal political diversity within Opus Dei. The point being that all of the members involved in secular politics aren't necessarily a right-wing fanatics—there's actually a lot of political diversity.
Do you think your book will help inoculate the culture against a sensationalist, negative portrayal of Opus Dei in the upcoming Da Vinci Code movie?
First of all, I haven't noticed any significant decline in sales of the Da Vinci Code book since my book came out...
At this stage, I'm not even sure the movie's going to use the term Opus Dei to describe this group in the story. There have been conversations about this. If you're asking is this going to prevent the myth from replicating itself, I'd say, no. In the short term, once something gets out there in the cultural stratosphere, once it's up there with "Skull and Bones" and the Rosicrucians, it's not going to go away soon.
This is part of a long term evolutionary process, much as it was with the Jesuits in the 16th and 17th centuries. It took a long time for the over-heated, hysterical fears about what the Jesuits are up to—which , by the way—to go away. I think the Opus Dei myth is going to endure.
I'm convinced that for any conversation to be productive, it has to be rational and based in reality. I do think there's a gradual shift in that direction regarding Opus Dei, but I'm not naïve enough to think that the myth is going to implode over night simply because I plunked this book down on the market.
Has anyone from the Da Vinci Code movie asked you to consult on it?
No. I've been asked to consult on a couple of Opus Dei documentaries, but not the Da Vinci Code movie. Sony's making the movie and I heard they hired Dick McBrien as a kind of theological consultant.
Based on your own personal experience and encounters, what most impressed you about Opus Dei?
The quality of the people. These are very reflective Catholics. For the most part I find them to be really be walking the talk.
The "talk" of Opus Dei is the sanctification of work, the rendering holy of the ordinary circumstances of everyday life, no matter what occupation you're in. It's not merely to try to perform at the highest levels of secular excellence. And it's not just for your own personal holiness. It's the idea of rendering holy the broader world, transforming secular reality from within.
The 'talk' of Opus Dei is the sanctification of work, the idea of rendering holy the broader world, transforming secular reality from within.
For the most part, I found them very conscious of trying to do just that. They're well versed in the details of whatever work they do, but also very intentional and reflective about how to approach this work from the cultural world of the gospel, the cultural world of the Church. To be honest, I just find them fascinating people to talk to.
Was there anyone in particular you remember who embodied this best?
Yes. I would say , a married member of Opus Dei ("super numerary") in Kenya. She's a novelist. Her first novel, The River and the Source, won every African literature award there is. It's a marvelous piece of work tracing the story of a Kenyan family and focuses on strong female characters. It's very empowering, but it's not ideologically charged; it's a genuine human story. She's also a dedicated, passionate medical doctor, involved with a hospice for HIV positive children in Kenya. She's also the advisor to the Kenyan bishops on issues of family and health. And in addition to all of this, is a wonderful mother to her children.
When I think how busy she is and how well she does each of these things, and at the same time that she has this peace and focus—it's astonishing. If you take her seriously, she'll tell you that the spiritual and doctrinal formation that Opus Dei offered her is an important component of that.
Are they all like her? No. But many are cut from the same cloth. That's what impressed me the most: the quality of the people and the conversations I had with them all over the world. They're really reflective, thoughtful Catholics trying to bring this full-hearted engagement with secular modernity into relationship with their Catholic identity and figuring out what one has to say to the other.
In your book you seem to suggest that if Opus Dei would let their hair down, and let people see their human side, that this would improve their image. Are they considering your advice?
It depends on who you mean by "they". Opus Dei has 84,000 members. There are some who are very open to that message and were open to it before I said it. Others are much more hesitant about that kind of thing. At the leadership level they understand that they need to be more transparent and become better at telling their own story. The evolution in their press and communications operations and offices in recent decades illustrates that.
But they're still hemmed in by a couple of forces. They have a large group of older members who are very skittish about exposing too much of the inner life of the group to public scrutiny. They have a long history of being scarred by that kind of thing. They think, "They're going to beat us up anyway, so why bother?"
Also, since they understand themselves as a secular enterprise, indistinguishable from ordinary laymen and women in the world, they're often reluctant to talk about themselves. They're afraid it would compromise their secularity. They don't want to be perceived as a religious order or a lay movement. The idea is to be a quiet leaven, hidden in the world, transforming it from within.
Now let's be honest. If their aim is to avoid too much public conversation about themselves, I would suggest that they have seven decades of a pretty poor track record, because there's no group in the Catholic Church that's been the object of more public conversation.
Is it too late for Opus Dei to change their public image?
My argument is that, ironically, if you want to lower your public profile, going public a little bit more would actually be a step in the right direction. You have a climate of fear and mystery out there. The only antidote to that is transparency. As much as that may cut against the grain, I think you just have to take the hit.
You also wrote that fears of Opus Dei often tend to redound back on the Catholic Church. Why is that?
No group in the Catholic Church is accountable to itself. We're all part of the greater communio. Since officialdom so clearly embraced and approved Opus Dei and brought it into the mainstream, perceptions of them, ipso facto, become perceptions of the Catholic Church. If the public think there's this nefarious cult-like outfit metastasizing in the heart of the Church, it becomes an obstacle and question mark about the whole Church. So even though Opus Dei's self-understanding and spirit may militate against transparency, my argument would be that that's not an answer.
...the defects and virtues of Opus Dei tend to become wildly exaggerated.
Much of your constructive criticism of Opus Dei—including the "seven sins" (p. 386) that Opus Dei members themselves speak about—seem like they could be applied to other movements (yes, they're not a movement) in the Catholic Church. Do you agree?
Well, if we're going to talk about new groups in the Church in general, yes, of course. It has always been thus. Criticisms like that could have been made of the Jesuits in the 16th century, the Dominicans in the 15th, or the Benedictine's in the 5th. Whenever there's a new burst of life in the Church it is surrounded by great enthusiasm and passion, which sometimes can shade off into a kind of arrogance, or this idea that we've now surpassed everything that went before so the future is with us. Also, you often you get a strong cult of personality around the founder and a certain hyper defensiveness about criticism. The Church is by definition a conservative institution. There's always this period of sifting and discernment that goes on before it's willing to embrace something new. That can be said about a lot of different groups. But no other groups have achieved the kind of mythic status in the public imagination, either inside or outside the Catholic Church, so the defects and virtues of Opus Dei tend to become wildly exaggerated.
You seem to have had many positive experiences during your time with Opus Dei. But, of course, you didn't join up. Why not?
I'd love to tell you that I achieved some noble spiritual insight that this was not my spiritual path, but basically it's the psychology of being an only child. I grew up having pretty much complete control over my own time and space. I just don't like somebody else organizing my day. I like to decide for myself. Opus Dei is one of those environments where there's a pretty thick level of structure. Not that people are under somebody's thumb all the time. But particularly with those who live in community, the "numeraries", there is a clear set of expectations of when you're going to be at Mass in the morning and so on. There's nothing wrong with that and there's a lot that's very healthy about it. But it's too much structure for me. I'm not cut out that way. Also, I couldn't join any of these groups because I'd be accused of having a partisan position. But even if this wasn't the case, I wouldn't join up because it's not my cup of tea.
Your objectivity, and your refusal to tip your hand about your own opinions on Catholic issues has been called "maddening." Would someone given access to your private thoughts about the Church be surprised?
They'd probably be surprised about how few of them I've got. The truth is that the closer I get to a subject, the more difficult for me to draw definitive conclusions about it. There's this old saying that a foreign correspondent, after six months in a new country, wants to write a book about it; but after six years, he's afraid even to write one article. You just know too much. You know that every sentence you write is going to be an exercise in sweeping over-generalization.
I think that's true of the Church as well. I don't know if we ought to ordain women or not. I don't know whether our current approach to the dialogue with Islam ought to be tougher or not. I can see good arguments on all sides of these questions. Really, honest to God, it's not that I'm hiding a set of a priorities about where the Church ought to go. Or that I'm reluctant from some kind of craven personal interest to reveal my views. I'm not saying I don't have views on particular questions. But on most of the hot button questions that we spend so much time talking about in the Church, I don't have a fixed conclusion.
How do you see your role own role in these debates?
I'd phrase it this way. In the classic Thomistic understanding of how we know anything, you have a three stage process. There's sensory experience, taking in reality. Then there's the analysis, making sense of that reality. Then you draw conclusions and decide what to do in response. The nature of modernity, given the acceleration, pace, and bombardment of information, is constantly pressuring us to skip that second step. People want to move immediately from experience to conclusion because they don't have time to think. Even if we did have time, there's far too much information to take it. Where do you stop?
That's all very understandable, but what it means is that we're often operating out of ideological presuppositions and gut instinct, rather than a patient reflection on reality. The more aware of that I become, the more I'm sold on the idea that somebody needs to try to provide tools for reflection without preconditioning the outcome of that reflection. To the extent that I have a role to play in the Catholic conversation, I guess that's it.
The number of people who are dissatisfied with the liberal/conservative divide in the Church seems to be growing. Have you seen this trend yourself, and if so, what do you make of it?
Yes. In fact, I'm kicking around the idea for a book that looks at exactly that, up-and-coming leaders in the Catholic conversation who are trying to think past the divides of history. I think it's a much larger and widely spread phenomenon than people realize because it's not quite visible, we don't have a face for it yet. There's no movement or charismatic leader to embody that instinct yet. But I think both will arrive.
At the same time, I think we're still far too divided. Perhaps the more sociologically accurate thing to say is that we've got multiple, co-existing "catholicisms". When you look around at the Catholic scene, you see that you've got your traditionalist-liturgical Catholics, your social justice Catholics, your charismatic Catholics, your neo-conservative, intellectual Catholics, your Church reform Catholics, and others. They all speak their own language, go to their own meetings, read their own publications, think their own thoughts. If they ever pop their head up above the walls to look at somebody in another circle, it's often not with a genuine interest in the thought of the other. It's with what you might call a "hermeneutic of suspicion". "I'm not really sure where this person is coming from and I'm not really sure if we're on the same team."
This book is a test case for dialogue in a divided Church.
It's tragic that American Catholics spent the first part of the 20th century crawling out of the ghetto imposed on us by a hostile Protestant majority, but that now we've constructed our own ghettos. They're defined not by denominational boundaries, but by ideological ones. This isn't just distasteful on an aesthetic level, but ecclesiologically it's deeply unsatisfactory. We're supposed to be a community of communities—that's what communio ecclesiology is, to which John Paul II and Benedict XVI have been so valiantly trying to call us.
Do you see any practical way the Church in America can move forward to overcome this?
My great hope for this problem of division is the emergence of the former phenomenon we talked about. You can look around and see enough people who are aware of this reality and who are dissatisfied and frustrated with it. They're trying to grope their way forward. One of the challenges is to try to build spaces, and by spaces I mean not just physical spaces, but also virtual spaces where Catholics of different temperaments and points of view can come and engage each other, such as your own GodSpy, as well as others.
You've written that your personal encounters with Ratzinger, and your experience in Rome, changed your perspective on the Church. Can you describe that change?
Ratzinger had this image of the bull in the China Shop, the tough authoritarian. There's this story about John XXIII coming out on his balcony to speak to the people off the cuff. He told the Romans to go home that night and kiss their children and tell them it's from the Pope. For the Romans, that speech was like a "Ask not what your country can do for you" kind of speech. No one forgot it. Well, when Ratzinger was elected pope, the Roman newspaper, L'Unita, ran a cartoon with Pope Benedict XVI on his balcony saying to the people, "Go home tonight and give your children a spanking and tell them it's from the Pope."
However, when you meet the man in person, you realize that's just not who he is. I don't want to cut off legitimate public debate about his policy decisions or theological conclusions. But to jump from that to saying the guy's a jerk is just unfair, to say nothing of untrue. In person, he's infinitely gracious, kind, surprisingly open and collegiate and very humble. We've seen this in how he's conducted himself as pope. He's engaged in this almost systematic deconstruction of the cult of personality around the papacy.
And your experience of living and working in Rome?
Rome is the privileged place to get a sense of the complexity of the universal Church. It is such a cross-roads with its pontifical universities, religious communities, the whole diplomatic scene. A typical day for me might be having breakfast with a bishop from Pakistan, lunch with some colleagues from Chile, and then an evening with German speaking Catholics at the Austrian Embassy.
One story that illustrates the complexity of the Church: Around a week after the document "Dominus Iesus" came out, there was a conference of seminary rectors from around the world. At the seminar they had a session on "". A guy from India gets up and says the document is a disaster because it's going to destroy their dialogue with Hinduism. The Hindus don't understand such exclusive language. The next guy who pops up is from the St. Petersburg seminary in Russia. He says, no, you've got it all wrong. This document's going to save our dialogue with the Orthodox, because they have an even higher Christology than we do and it's the first Vatican document in a generation they've got excited about.
Now, was one right and the other wrong? No. Both were accurately reflecting their own cultural circumstances. The same document, filtered through two different sets of circumstances, gives you two completely diametrically opposed reactions. Now you multiply that a hundred thousand times across the globe, and you'll have some sense of the complexity of trying to set policy for a global Church.
Was this what led to a change in your own perspective?
What I hope my six years in Rome have given me is a greater capacity to see the shades of grey between the black and white. I think I realize now all the different forces that have to come into play to try to resolve questions one way or the other.
To bring this back to Ratzinger, was good at giving a critical perspective of his work. This is entirely legitimate, necessary and valuable, but in the end it left a lot to be desired in terms of balance. There are many considerations, ways of shaping, understanding and perceiving the his decisions that I simply was not in a position to appreciate sitting in a study in Kansas City. Six years of water under the bridge in Rome have broadened my perspective.
Why is it so much harder for American Catholics to live in the radical center of the Church, as people elsewhere seem to be able to do?
I wouldn't romanticize what people elsewhere are able to do. I think to some extent the same divisive tendencies and mutual suspicion exist in other places.
First of all, we're a big Church, the fourth largest Catholic community in the world. (Though it's worth reminding Americans that there are bigger Catholic communities out there and the Vatican has more to think about than our concerns.) Our size in itself imposes a certain artificiality on our relationships. We don't have the capacity to get to know one another personally as much as small Catholic communities do. We tend to relate to one another through the press and other indirect avenues which makes human relationship difficult. It's easier to perceive people through stereotypes, because you never actually have to confront the stereotype with an actual encounter with the other.
Another factor is that we're a nation of rugged individualists to begin with, so this concept of being part of a community and being willing to bracket off our own instincts, own views, in order to be part of the larger community, that's a tough sell for a lot of Americans.
We also have a very noisy and rambunctious press culture in the States that has given us models of dialogue that aren't terribly healthy. How many people think that debate is like Crossfire, the search for zingers? I don't think that helps.
Unlike most places, we as American Catholics have the resources to construct such things as separate media empires and educational structures—like Tom Monaghan's empire—and thank God we do, it's a wonderful thing—but the downside means that we can insulate ourselves from each other in a way that many other Catholic cultures are not able to do.
What do you see as the greatest challenge for the Church in the United States?
The central challenge facing American Catholicism is to live a genuine ecclesiology of communion. We need a much more profound sense of what it means to be inserted into a global family of faith. The Catholic Church is made up of 1.1 billion members scattered in every nook and cranny of the planet. Increasingly the action is going to be in the . I think Nairobi, Jakarta, and Buenos Ares will be what Paris and Milan were in earlier centuries of Church history in terms of intellectual energy and pastoral imagination.
As the leadership and energy of the Church comes from these regions of the world, it's going to mean that people pressing for reforms on certain issues here will feel themselves increasingly isolated. Now, the gut check for many American Catholics is: What does it mean to be living in a Catholic Church, in which, at least on sets of issues, it seems increasingly likely that your vision of where the Church ought to go is not going to carry the day? Are you willing to accept that as the price of admission for having a place at this family's table? And I wonder about that.
The second major challenge is overcoming this ghetto-like American Catholic life. As wonderful a gift to American Catholic discussion as things like Commonweal or First Things or EWTN are, I think the danger is when any one thing becomes someone's exclusive point of reference. I think we should be reading and observing all of these things. I think that's the sensibility we have to construct.
Is that why partly why you decided to write this book?
Yes. My belief is that while there are many subjects on which Catholics are polarized, few subjects polarize as much as Opus Dei does. It's very hard to find anyone who follows Catholic affairs who doesn't have strong opinions about it. My hunch was, if we can have patient, rational, sympathetic conversation about this, we can have one about anything. In that sense, this book is a test case for dialogue in a divided Church.