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Opus Dei: The Truth About Its Rituals, Secrets and Power
by John L Allen
Penguin Books, £8.99 (pb), ISBN 0141024658
Thanks to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (and also the news that Ruth Kelly is a member) popular interest in Opus Dei has never been higher. 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 Josemaría 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. 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 its 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.
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.
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.