Opus Dei has unquestionably gotten a lot of bad press, originally because of the prominence of some members in Franco’s cabinet toward the end of his regime. But the group has also been accused of, among other things, obsessive secrecy, an authoritarian ethos, being in cahoots with right-wing forces in Latin America, accumulating an indecent amount of wealth, and brainwashing its members. The organization denies all these allegations.

Whether Opus Dei’s adepts ultimately strike one as saintly is, as John Allen might say, “a matter of interpretation.” Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the liberal National Catholic Reporter, a contributor to CNN and National Public Radio, and most recently author of Opus Dei: The First Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church, has earned a reputation for balanced, informed reporting. He does not simply reflect the leanings of the liberal weekly paper that is his primary outlet. Here, that reputation gives credence to much of what Opus Dei members tell him in defending the group’s philosophy and practices. In that sense, Allen may be too liberal for his own good.

What is Opus Dei? First, it is not the nefarious secret society portrayed in The Da Vinci Code. It is a mostly lay group of both men and women devoted to spiritual excellence, although several thousand priests belong. The movement was founded in Madrid in 1928 by Josemaria Escriva (1902-75), a charismatic Spanish priest whose 1939 book, The Way, is considered a spiritual classic by his devoted followers. From the beginning, Escriva targeted top students at universities, and Opus Dei (which means “the work of God”) soon acquired a reputation for elitism. (Today, there are 15 Opus Dei universities, including some of the finest in Spain.) Escriva claimed that God revealed to him the way for ordinary people to become saints, not by renouncing the world, but by excelling in it. The group purports to school members in spiritual practices that enable them to sanctify their lives and their secular work. In being the best laundress or surgeon or lawyer you can be, you are doing God’s work, not just pursuing worldly goals. Opus Dei’s avid proponents believe that shirt collars are more diligently laundered in Peru, and toilets more faithfully scrubbed in Indiana because of the difference the conservative religious organization makes in the lives of its 85,000 adherents worldwide.

Idealism should not be discounted as the secret of the movement’s appeal. Aspirants join because they have discovered a religious vocation: They want to become saints. As a Catholic organization, Opus Dei is somewhat anomalous. In many ways, it is structured like a religious order (such as the Jesuits or Franciscans), and it is led by clerics. Like those in religious orders, members take a vow of obedience, which Opus Dei calls a “contract.” Much of the group’s spiritual discipline–including daily Mass and prayer, regular instruction from a spiritual “director,” weekly confession, and, for some, “mortifications” (self-flagellation)–evokes the stringency common in religious orders before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). And like priests and women religious, Opus Dei’s core adherents, who are called “numeraries” and number roughly 16,000, are celibates who live segregated by gender in Opus Dei residences. At the same time, however, the group thinks of itself as a lay movement–most of its members, whether celibate or not, are not ordained and continue to pursue secular occupations–and the movement criticizes the “clericalism” of Catholics who expect the clergy to do the heavy spiritual lifting for them. Opus Dei claims to have anticipated the Second Vatican Council’s “universal call to holiness,” a dramatic shift away from the Church’s historical emphasis on the superior spiritual dignity of the ordained priest in contrast to that of the layperson. Yet skeptics argue that the group, whose piety and theology are very traditional (celibacy is rarely a secular vocation), operates like a sectarian movement, or even a cult, and has set itself up, with the connivance of the Vatican, as a “church within the Church.”

Because Opus Dei transgresses traditional boundaries separating clerical and lay life, the Church had difficulty finding the right canonical status for the organization. Officially, it is the Catholic Church’s only “personal prelature.” The movement’s head, a bishop, resides in Rome, and members place themselves, for the purpose of spiritual formation, under his authority. Therefore, Opus Dei enjoys a kind of “extraterritoriality” from local dioceses and their bishops that is usually granted only to religious orders of priests and nuns. This unusual status has increased the organization’s independence–and its critics’ suspicions.

Suspicions about the group’s allegedly eccentric character were confirmed for some by the spy scandal surrounding Robert Hanssen, which included a bizarre, voyeuristic, sexual dimension as well. Hanssen and his wife were “supernumerary” members of Opus Dei. Supernumeraries comprise the bulk of Opus Dei’s membership (affiliation is also available as an “associate” or “cooperator”). Most supernumeraries are married, and their spiritual practice mirrors that of celibate numeraries. Hanssen actually confessed his spying to an Opus Dei priest. In a good example of why Opus Dei’s myopic spirituality is worrisome, the priest told Hanssen to stop spying and to give his blood money to charity, but not to turn himself in. His family–at one level Opus Dei is all about (large) family values–came first.

Opus Dei’s reconciliation of Catholic supernaturalism with modern economic and professional accomplishment–Hanssen was a computer whiz–confounds expectations. On the one hand, the group’s valorization of worldly achievement and economic individualism has a Protestant feel to it. Historically, material success was a sign of divine election, of God’s blessing, within Protestantism. Max Weber, of course, linked the Protestant ethic with the rise of capitalism. Sociologist Joan Estruch (Saints and Schemers, 1995) has applied that analysis to Opus Dei, exploring how its discipline of hard work, thrift, and devotion to educational excellence has appealed to elites in Catholic cultures, like Spain’s, undergoing modernization.

Many Catholics in Europe and in the United States regard the movement as politically reactionary, extreme in its spiritual and worldly ambition, and devious. The group’s manner of “recruiting,” especially of college students, has been criticized as overbearing or worse. There is even an organization, the Opus Dei Awareness Network, dedicated to exposing the group’s methods. But Opus Dei has its admirers, who see it as a defender of traditional moral values, especially of the family, as well as a providential source of evangelical enthusiasm, orthodoxy, and unquestioned loyalty to Rome. Chief among those admirers was John Paul II, who presided over the speedy canonization of the movement’s founder. Critics, however, saw Escriva’s 2002 canonization as a sure sign of the organization’s ill-gotten wealth and malign influence.

These conflicting views form the background to the story John Allen tells. On the whole, Allen thinks Opus Dei has been more sinned against than sinning. He compares the group’s stringency to acquiring a taste for Guinness Extra Stout, and wants to give the organization (and Extra Stout) every benefit of the doubt. For example, he rejects objections raised over Escriva’s hasty elevation to sainthood by two veteran observers of the Church, Kenneth Woodward, former Newsweek religion editor, and Cambridge historian Eamon Duffy. “The canonization of the founder of Opus Dei is the most striking example in modern times of the successful promotion of a cause by a pressure group,” Duffy insisted. Woodward called it “a scandal.” Escriva’s authoritarian temperament and sometimes violent behavior were never fully investigated by the Church, say critics.

Allen argues that those promoting Escriva’s cause mastered the bureaucratic procedures and outworked their opponents. “Opus Dei may have played hard and fast, but they played by the rules,” he writes. Opus Dei had the financial resources to press Escriva’s case and, most important, the strong support of John Paul II. Where critics saw a miscarriage of justice, one that brought the Church’s claims to speak the truth into question, Allen sees a clash of worldviews and a failure to understand how the Vatican operates. On the question of Escriva’s sanctity, which is after all the heart of the matter, he cops a plea.

Too often, the “objective look” promised in the book’s subtitle means leaving things at the he-said, she-said level. Amassing an enormous amount of testimony, if not evidence, Allen examines a long list of Opus Dei’s alleged offenses, including its social elitism, secrecy, nefarious influence in the Vatican, conservative secular politics, manipulative methods of indoctrination, gruesome physical mortifications, pursuit of wealth, and sexist treatment of women. In nearly every instance, Allen judges the organization to be as much a force for good as for ill. In short, Opus Dei’s bad rep is largely the result of poor communication.

In making his case, Allen wants to remind readers that a good deal of religious belief and practice is only understandable when considered from a variety of perspectives, what he calls a Rashomon approach, after the 1950 Kurosawa film in which a disputed event is recalled in wildly different ways by different participants. That judgments about disputed questions “come down to matters of interpretation” and “different frames of reference” are insipid observations, however. That people view reality from “radically different perspectives” is where a “look behind the myths and reality” of a religious group should begin, not end.

Especially unsatisfactory is Allen’s treatment of Escriva and the cult of personality surrounding the saint. He acknowledges that Escriva’s writings, largely a collection of pious aphorisms, are thought “banal” by many. Indeed, they read like a cross between the gnomic utterances of Yoda and the bullying of Donald Rumsfeld. They also make clear Escriva’s extreme views on Church authority. “Obedience, the sure way,” begins entry 941 in The Way. “Blind obedience to your superior, the way of sanctity. Obedience in your apostolate, the only way; for, in a work of God, the spirit must be to obey or to leave.” Submission to religious authority is understood to be a good in itself. The language and images of war suffuse Escriva’s writing, as does his contempt for those who are “lukewarm” in their vocation.

As it turns out, Allen’s conclusion is a useful, if unintended, example of the Rashomon experience itself. After 350 pages of bending over backwards to show how Opus Dei’s public image is distorted by “the cultural gap that separates Anglo-Saxon corporate thinking from the rest of the world,” Allen makes a number of sensible suggestions for reforming the movement, all of which fall into that gap. He urges the group to be more transparent in dealings with others and in identifying its operations and reporting its finances, to collaborate with other Catholic groups, whose liberal tendencies Opus Dei has long resisted, and to become more open and self-critical.

But if Escriva’s writing is any guide, “saints” do not value this sort of compromise. Being a saint is not “a matter of interpretation” or a question of developing a taste for one brand of reality over another. Saints don’t believe in choice or taste, but in the will of God. For Opus Dei, the business of making saints is not one option among many–it is the only option. I fear that in explaining why Opus Dei is misunderstood, Allen seems to have misunderstood it. If Opus Dei’s vision of the spiritual life is powerful and compelling–even beautiful and exhilarating–to its adherents, it is precisely because it understands itself to be not just one way of looking at reality, but the only way.

Allen’s recommendations to Opus Dei are based on the liberal (and also Catholic, I would argue) virtues of tolerance, public accountability, individual autonomy, dialogue, and a willingness to change in response to altered circumstances. Yet Opus Dei is a proudly illiberal institution, one whose spiritual identity demands the rejection of any “lukewarm” acceptance of what is understood to be moral error. As Allen acknowledges, a defining characteristic of Opus Dei members is that they cannot admit the possibility that Church teaching could be wrong. Obedience and loyalty, self-sacrifice, ascetic discipline, moral certainty, absolute devotion to the Church, especially to the papacy: These are the virtues Opus Dei seeks to instill. If I were in charge of Opus Dei, I would take Allen’s recommendations with a large grain of salt, for if adopted they will bring into the group the moral and cultural forces for which Opus Dei was so obviously conceived as an antidote.

Paul Baumann

Paul Baumann is the editor of Commonweal.