Reporting on Opus Dei
By John L. Allen Jr., National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 2004.

The last couple of weeks I have had occasion to mention Opus Dei, an organization of priests and laity born in Spain in 1928, and the only Catholic group with the status of “personal prelature,” meaning that its internal life is subject to its own leadership rather than local bishops. Opus Dei came up in connection to my recent trip to Peru, and again with respect to the current sexual abuse crisis in Austria, where the apostolic investigator is an Opus Dei bishop.

These references have brought varied reactions. Some readers found the coverage uncritical, such as reader Christine Roussel, who called the columns “egregious examples of unquestioning parroting of Opus Dei’s whole cloth.” Roussel writes:

In July 16th’s issue, we were treated to a tour of Peru which focused on two Opus Dei figures. There was the persecuted but smiling Cardinal Cipriani who was given one-half of the Word From Rome to extol his own virtues and expound his view of not one but two plots of other bishops against him, complete with clumsily clerically forged documents, but omitting the fact that this cardinal was a close collaborator of the former violent dictator of Peru, Fujimori. Allen also allowed Cipriani to grandstand his role in a 1997 hostage crisis (“‘it was heroic'”) and to defame Father Gustavo Guitterrez. The last one-third of the column was on a heroic lay woman and community organizer in a small poor village who just happened to be – Opus Dei.

In the July 23rd Word From Rome we read praise of Pope John Paul II’s naming of Bishop Klaus Kung of the Diocese of Feldkirch, a member of Opus Dei, as apostolic visitor of the diocese and seminary of St. Polten and its very conservative bishop, Kurt Krenn. Bishop Kung is praised for his diligence in beginning his investigation immediately and we are told that the choice of an Opus Dei bishop to investigate a conservative bishop means that the report conclusions will not be seen as the product of ideology. Again, Allen is being disingenuous at best and hopelessly naïve at worst. Krenn has very close ties to Opus Dei and the report is likely to have an ideological bias — that of Opus Dei which has been busy for the past several years trying to destroy the legacy of progressive Austrian Catholicism left by the late, beloved Cardinal Franz Koenig.

Reader Esther Baker, on the other hand, detected an attack on Opus Dei:

Your liberal bias was never more clear than in the disgusting way you tried to hold Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, and by extension Opus Dei, up to ridicule in your column from Peru. Why didn’t you ask the cardinal about any of the good he’s done over many years, rather than dwelling on sterile controversies? Instead of insisting that Opus Dei is divisive, why didn’t you talk about the way it has changed thousands and thousands of lives for the better? Then you seem shocked that a Peruvian woman connected to Opus Dei might actually be doing something positive with her life … Real Catholics can see through your left-wing agenda.

I’m not suggesting that one letter cancels the other, or that the two together prove that I’m in the center and therefore correct. I offer them rather as evidence of the strong feelings Opus Dei tends to generate.

Perhaps it will help put things in context if I explain that I am writing a book on Opus Dei for Doubleday, the publisher of my last two books Conclave and All the Pope’s Men. Part of the impetus for the project comes from the success of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, and the enormous curiosity about Opus Dei it has helped create.

My aim is to produce a book that is journalistically serious, reliable, and balanced. The book will strive to explain Opus Dei’s structure and spirituality, and to separate fact from fiction with regard to issues such as recruiting, spiritual practices, secrecy and finances. It will be an outsider’s work, since I am not a member of Opus Dei and have no special connection to it. Research for the book is why in recent weeks I’ve traveled at my own expense in Spain and Peru, as well as the United States, visiting Opus Dei sites and talking to both friends and foes.

I have been to Madrid to meet with Alberto Moncado, for example, an ex-member of Opus Dei and perhaps the leading Spanish-language critic of the organization. I have been to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to meet with the leaders of the “Opus Dei Awareness Network,” or ODAN, another critical voice. While I was in Peru, I met with Jesuits who feel Opus Dei has sabotaged their social justice advocacy. I’ve also met conservative Catholics who criticize Opus Dei on other grounds. All this by way of saying I am not just taking the guided tour, and the book will reflect all points of view.

At the same time, I am not out to write an anti-Opus Dei book either. My hope is to produce a work that can shed light rather than heat on what is a notoriously fractious topic.

In the meantime, Opus Dei will no doubt continue to surface from time to time in the regular weekly reporting in “The Word from Rome.” Readers will continue to judge, and rightly so, on a case-by-case basis whether I handle these matters fairly. All I can say is that I am trying to be balanced, and I welcome anyone’s feedback to help keep me honest.

The article above is excerpted from his column The Word from Rome. The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org.


Posted August 9, 2004