Book review: Opus Dei, by John L. Allen, Jr.

I have reviewed books by John Allen before on this blog, and I have come away with a deep appreciation for his work. It isn't just his style, which is very accessible and down to earth: his research and analysis is consistently thorough and balanced, and he does not draw conclusions without thinking things through. In short, he is the perfect candidate to undertake the investigation of controversial matters — and, since its very beginnings, Opus Dei has certainly fit that particular bill. In fact, the subtitle of Allen's Opus Dei is "An objective look behind the myths and reality of the most controversial force in the Catholic Church".

I must confess that I did not know a lot about Opus Dei before reading Allen's book. I had heard of it, of course, and I was aware of some of the controversy surrounding it. Opus Dei has been accused of many terrible things, some even by brother priests in this diocese, and in a very public way. On the other hand, one of my closest childhood friends had family members in Opus Dei (although she herself never joined), and they were among the more devout and sincere people I had ever met. I therefore found myself in the odd position of knowing and trusting people on both sides of the debate, and having precious few facts to be able to "choose" between them. What was the rule, and what was the exception, to Opus Dei? Were the accusations the rule and my friend's family the exception? Or vice-versa?

Allow me to switch gears a moment and discuss Allen's book itself. First of all, it is long. Sometimes it is also really dry, like when he discussed Opus Dei finances in great detail. But there is no question that it is thorough. After giving some necessary background to the group Allen does not shy away from addressing every major controversy about Opus Dei, probing in great detail all the issues that make Opus Dei such a tempting target for the ink-stained wretches of our world. I mean, how can you resist a book with chapter titles like "secrecy", "mortification", "women", "money", and "blind obedience"? All humour aside, though, there is no question that Allen has written what will be the definitive work on Opus Dei for years to come. This will be the standard by which other books on the subject will be judged — and I suspect most will be judged wanting.

In the end, I have come away with a much greater appreciation for Opus Dei and its place in the Catholic Church. As much as it is accused of being arch-conservative, there is actually a lot within the spirituality of Opus Dei that is very modern and open to the world. For example, did you know that Opus Dei was one of the first Catholic groups in the world to allow non-Catholics (heck, non-Christians!) to become affiliated with it in a formal way? The spirituality of Opus Dei can be summed up as "even the most ordinary stuff of life can be lifted up to God", and the stated purpose of the organization is to teach people how to do exactly that. I was particularly impressed by the figure of St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, and I must confess that I probably agree with his outlook on many things (for example, he was opposed to the Church creating "Catholic" political parties, as am I).

Still, while I may appreciate the core spirituality of Opus Dei more, I also know it is, as an organization, not for me. That's ok too. After all, I appreciate the spirituality of St. John of the Cross a great deal, but I'm not a Carmelite and have never felt called to be one. I appreciate the Rule of St. Benedict and the example of St. Francis of Assisi, without having become a monk or a friar. And, of course, I do appreciate that Opus Dei is filled with imperfect people and sinners — but then again, the same can be said for the Catholic Church in general. The only real issue is: is this fundamentally a work of the Holy Spirit, or not? Allen does not answer this question in his book, of course, as that is not his place. But after having read his book, I feel I am closer to my own personal response, and if you want to see what your answer might be, this book is essential for you as well. My rating: B+. It gets a 'B' simply to indicate that, because of the narrow range of the subject, it probably isn't a 'must read' for your spiritual growth, while the '+' is to acknowledge the overall excellent quality of the research and writing. In short, for what it does, is does it extremely well.