OPUS DEI: Secrets and Power Inside the Catholic Church

By John Allen

During the Spanish civil war, Josemaria Escriva, the founder of the controversial Catholic organisation Opus Dei, was stranded with a band of his early followers in Madrid. Escriva retreated to the bathroom daily to do “spiritual exercises” in privacy, but on one occasion a colleague was so sick that he couldn’t vacate the smallest room. So Escriva insisted that he put a towel over his head to stop him looking.

“Soon,” the ailing disciple later recalled of what Escriva did on that occasion, “I began to hear the forceful blows of his discipline (a hand whip favoured to this day by Opus Dei members). I will never forget the number: there were more than a thousand terrible blows, precisely timed, and always inflicted with the same force and the same rhythm. The floor was covered with blood.”
If it sounds like a scene from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, then Escriva would be delighted. Such mortification of the flesh has a long tradition in some (now mainly extinct) branches of Catholicism as a way of vicariously sharing Jesus’s sufferings on the cross. However, whether possessing such a capacity for self-harm made Escriva, who died in 1975, a saint or a deluded nutter (both charges have been laid against him as the international influence of Opus Dei has grown within Catholicism) is a question that preoccupies many.

Dan Brown, in The Da Vinci Code, saw Escriva’s followers as secretive and sinister, capable of murder to defend their traditionalist view of the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II, on the other hand, was so impressed by Opus Dei that he rushed through its founder’s canonisation in record time. And Ruth Kelly, cabinet minister and rising Labour star, is perhaps the best known of St Josemaria’s handmaidens. The debate, it would be fair to say, has become polarised.
Blessed are the peacemakers, the gospel tells us, and into the role has stepped the thorough and balanced John Allen, Vatican correspondent of CNN and the American National Catholic Reporter. He will be upset that I started with the organisation’s taste for whipping, which along with the habit beloved of Opus Dei members of wearing a cilice (a tight, spikey, metal chain around the top of the thigh so it bites into the skin) has been given, he claims, too much attention.

Well, that is a matter of opinion. It is, by any standards, a very strange thing to want to do and suggests a distorted view of self, flesh and sexuality. But, if we put that to one side for a moment (as Allen himself admits he had to after trying for the purpose of research to wear a cilice), there are bigger questions in the battle over Opus Dei that he seeks to address: namely, its attitude to women, its finances, its power within the Catholic Church and its politics.

In the many properties it owns around the world, men and women are kept strictly segregated, except when the girls come in to clean up after the chaps. Some Opus Dei office buildings even have separate male and female entrances. Old-fashioned, Allen concedes, but apparently the women with the mops love it — or so they tell him. They feel they have found their true vocation. Allen is more convincing in disentangling Opus Dei’s opaque accounting systems to show that, while it does have many millions, next to the accumulated wealth of many large Catholic archdioceses, it is a financial minnow. And on influence he is hard to contradict. There are roughly 85,000 clerical and lay members of Opus Dei in a church of 1.1 billion souls, including just a handful of bishops among the many lines of purple-clad oldish men who lined up at the recent papal funeral. They cannot with any justification be called the power behind St Peter’s throne.

This is an admirable book and should be the first stop for anyone interested in a dispassionate overview of the subject. But such an even-handed approach misses what it is that intrigues most of us who come into contact with Opus Dei — the sheer oddness of it all. There may be perfectly good reasons why members are as they are, as Allen shows, but these pale slightly when you are experiencing the sense of suddenly being on another, not entirely attractive spiritual planet.