Thursday, February 16, 2006

Is the Bible mere fiction?

Most of my blog postings have just been articles collected here and there about Opus Dei in the press. Since I occasionally answer the emails that get sent to our information office, I thought you might like an example of the kind of remark that the Da Vinci Code has provoked, and the answer I gave. Yesterday we got this email from someone:

Dear Sir. I have just started to read your article , printed on the web today. Your opening statement is to the effect that readers of 'The Da Vinci Code' should remember that it is a work of fiction, not substantiated by fact. I respectfully would like to point out that the same can be truthfully said of the Bible, in all its' forms. Very Respectfully,

signed (name)

The emailer was refering to a press release put out by the Information office on February 14th, which can be accessed
here.To which I respectfully responded:

Dear Sir:

Thank you for your comment on your assumption that the Gospels are not historical. The Da Vinci Code has indeed been the occasion of a great podium to discuss such important matters. I am happy to give you the beginning of a response.

As you can imagine, to suggest that the Old Testament, and even more, the Gospels are fictional, would immediately turn the entire system of Christianity into a farce. It is like saying millions upon millions of people over the ages having been deluded by one document. To refuse to accept some of the tenants of Christianity, or doubt the historicity of certain statements of Christ is one thing, but to say that Christ never walked the earth or that the story of his life was invented by someone, is quite another, and indeed very few people have actually sustained it. So if you believe that, very many people throughout history would disagree with you. At least no serious scholars hold this view.

I have tried to understand why the Da Vinci Code phenomena has brought about such a rejection in certain sectors of basic historic events, and especially the validity of the Gospels as historical documents. It is true that the Bible is not a historical document in the same way as a book on the history of Canada might be. The purpose of the Bible is religious, but the basis of any affirmations in the Gospels is that they actually took place in time, and Jesus specifically came “in the fullness of time”.
Bearing in mind that Dan Brown does not quote the Bible once in his novel, I think part of the answer is that it is an new form of anti-Catholicism. There has been anti-Catholicism in the past, centered in Europe through forms of secularism that sought to undo any influence of the Church in society. They were rabidly anti-clerical and heaped abuse on all forms of Catholic authority. The Dan Brown phenomenon is a bit different. It is a north American phenomenon of anti-Catholicism which uses a literary style we might call the "conspiratorial style", and manages to reduce history and its complexity to two or three conspiracies. This is nothing new, and probably started in the 19th century. The conspirators used to be the Jesuits, then there were the Illuminati, now it is Opus Dei. Behind all these conspiracies is also the "arch conspirator", the Vatican, the badest of all the badies. This tradition has the advantage (especially during times of cultural crisis) of simplifying history enormously, or giving simplistic explanations to history. So a guy riding the metro can be reading the Da Vinci Code and think that he has come to understand all history on the basis of these conspiracies. It makes life kind of easy to understand and it can be attractive for those with little real exposure to the Gospels and their meaning.

I suppose I could ramble on defending the historicity of the Gospels. I imagine you would want evidence. I have selected a bit of the following from this site, mainly about the New Testament, but I'd be happy to provide you with more:
The world invisible

I did a quick selection below of some of the texts that address your question.

Thanks for your interest, and feel free to ask any other questions about your readings. I'll try to find the time to answer. You can also browse some of these sites about Opus Dei.

God bless,

Fr. Eric Nicolai
Opus Dei Information Office in Canada

Here is a selection from that website about the Gospels:
The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt. It is a curious fact that historians have often been much readier to trust the New Testament records than have many theologians.

The Christian Gospel is not primarily a code of ethics or a metaphysical system; it is first and foremost good news, and as such it was proclaimed by its earliest preachers. True, they called Christianity 'The Way' and 'The Life'; but Christianity as a way of life depends upon the acceptance of Christianity as good news. And this good news is intimately bound up with the historical order, for it tells how for the world's redemption God entered into history, the eternal came into time, the kingdom of heaven invaded the realm of earth, in the great events of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. The first recorded words of our Lord's public preaching in Galilee are: 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near; repent and believe the good news."

That Christianity has its roots in history is emphasised in the Church's earliest creeds, which fix the supreme revelation of God at a particular point in time, when 'Jesus Christ, His only Son our Lord . . . suffered under Pontius Pilate'. This historical 'onceforallness' of Christianity, which distinguishes it from those religious and philosophical systems which are not specially related to any particular time, makes the reliability of the writings which purport to record this revelation a question of first rate importance.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Harambee 2006 presentation

"All together for Africa" is the motto of "Harambee," a solidarity project begun in 2002 to commemorate the canonization of the founder of Opus Dei. On February 13, Harambee announced four new African development initiatives.

14 February 2006

Harambee also announced at its press conference in Rome that later this year it will be awarding the second edition of its “Communicating Africa” prize, for television reports that show African development issues in a realistic and positive way.

Harambee 2002 was begun at the canonization of St. Josemaría Escrivá, with the aim of channeling gratitude for the canonization into concrete social outreach to those in need. Since then Harambee has financed 24 African-run projects in 14 African countries.

“All the projects are promoted by local African organizations,” said Linda Corbi, international organizer of the campaign. “Africa will resolve its problems thanks to the Africans. They are already working for the development of the continent, and the only thing they need is a hand to help out.”

Four new projects

At the press conference Harambee announced the beginning of an international fundraising campaign for the following four projects:

1) Sudan: a professional training program for women and youths from South Sudan who have fled the civil war afflicting the country.

2) Kenya: a training program for primary and secondary school faculty.

3) Madagascar: professional training for artisans and their families.

4) Congo: a health service program for women and children in the rural outskirts of Kinshasa.

“The 2006 campaign aims to foster hope in Africans,” said Carlo De Marchi, a Harambee coordinator. “We know that these four projects are only four drops of water in the desert. Nevertheless they are important because they encourage those already working for African development and they are achieving good results.”

The four new projects also aim to offer people a way to respond to Pope Benedict XVI’s call to charity in his recent encyclical “Deus Caritas Est.”

African representatives

Also participating in the press conference were two representatives of projects in Congo and Sudan that will be receiving funds from Harambee 2006.

Patiance Mongo, a nurse in the Monkole Hospital (Kinshasa, Congo) spoke about the efforts they are currently making to offer health care to women and children on the outskirts of the capital. Nearly 500,000 people live in these poor districts, so there is a lot of work to be done. “Mothers are central to the social development of Congo,” she said. “They are the primary ones educating the children, and only with their help will the continent be reborn.”

Sister Liliana Ugolino, a Canosian nun, recounted her experiences in Sudan, where she works on programs for the social and professional development of women. "Over the years,” she said, “I have learned that what helps African women is not so much the education we provide but the encouragement and help we can give them to develop the potential they have within themselves.”

Communicating Africa

The mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni, sent a letter to the Harambee organizers, in which he wrote: “‘Communicating Africa’ is necessary to raise awareness, not hiding Africa’s tragedies, but at the same time praising its richness, which is the patrimony of humanity.”

The philosophy behind Harambee’s “Communicating Africa” prize is that documentary makers “should not hide the problems, but show how Africans are working themselves to resolve them,” said Diego Contreras, prize coordinator.

Harambee is an initiative of ICU, a NGO with headquarters in Rome, which has promoted development projects around the world since 1966.

© 2006, Information Office of Opus Dei on the Internet

When speaking of Opus Dei, forget the rich attack

One of the most outrageous claims repeated against Opus Dei is that its members are rich - or that it's an organization for the wealthy.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Spero News
Robert Duncan

One of the most outrageous claims repeated against Opus Dei is that its members are rich - or that it's an organization for the wealthy.

I suppose that claim is based on what some people have noted: That many people who are "members" of Opus Dei are professionals. With that observation then there is the somewhat logical assumption that since these people are professionals (read: supposedly high-paying jobs), then that must mean they are rich.

But there is a major fallacy in using any such argument, especially when talking about Supernumeraries: Most of the people who are assuming that Opus Dei members - and here I am really writing about Supernumaries - are rolling in dough forget the simple fact that many of these people have large families. This means that realistically they are scrimping and trying to figure out how to make ends meet. In other words, they are just like many other Catholics who have large families - or for that matter any other large family parents.

Secondly, if a person is offering their all, their skills, their education, to God, there is a pretty good chance that person will rise in whatever profession they practice. Think about this. If you believe that you have something to offer God, are you going to want to offer Him second best? If you want, go ahead and call this - as some people mistakenly claim - a "Calvinist effect."

But the fact is that if you are offering your all to God, you will be concerned about the little things and doing a job well-done. In a general sense, it doesn't matter the occupation, as all can be offered to God, and could be running a laundry, or being a taxi driver, or a journalist, or even an attorney.

And this often leads to a secondary effect: A person that does a job well-done tends to rise in the business world. It's not the reason, nor the drive, but it's the effect of doing a job well-done. And mind you, if that doesn't happen (the social or economic recognition) that is fine - after all this is about offering your work as a means of Sanctification, and this is where an Opus Dei "work ethic" differs from Calvinism and predestination-economic theories.

In this sense, it's a private affair between a person and God. If the recognition comes, well then that is thanks to God, and glory to Him. And if it doesn't, then all the Glory to God too! God in his greatness sees all. This isn't about the individual. This is about what can be offered.

Thirdly, there is a generational effect happening. If parents are Supernumeraries, there is a pretty good chance that they are instilling in their children the belief of doing a job well-done. That doesn't mean all the children will become Opus Dei automatons as some would argue - or members - but it does mean that members may have learned from a young age the importance of studies. At the risk of sounding heretical here, or at least politically incorrect, it reminds me of some studies in the US on second generation Asians that excelled in studies. It was found that this was due to the importance that the parents placed on studies.

And there is something else about having large families, that despite what people think, and Hollywood seems to tell us - most normal families don't have maids, but are struggling to just make it to the end of the month. I don't know how many times I have been asked if we could "loan" our maid for a weekend. I have to explain that we don't have that luxury, and that we don't even make it financially to the end of the month - just like most other large families. Of course, the people asking me this favor are usually parents and colleagues with only one child.

All of this is related to what Saint Josemaria taught. That no matter what wealth a person has, they should use those funds as if they were the parent of a large family. It's about responsibility. It's not yours - it's Gods. The reason St Josemaria said this should be quite obvious - because parents of large families know how to make the money stretch, they know what is important, and what isn't. They become masters of finance, knowing the ins-and-outs of bridge financing, and paying the bills.

Besides, money isn't everything anyway. Somethings are worth much more, no matter how trite that sounds. If somebody asks me "are Supernumeraries rich," the answer is would have to be a guarded "yes," but in the sense that they realize that their families are the Domestic Church.

To explain further. Yesterday was Valentines. On my way home I realized that I didn't have anything for my wife. I checked my pockets and could only find 30 cents. Nothing more - and no, I wasn´t going to break out the VISA card for a gift. Instead, I went to a local candy store and asked if they could sell me three pieces of hard chocolate candy. The number is significant, as I know my wife.

On arriving home, I apologized to my wife that I didn't have anything more for her, but I told her that I loved her, that she was all to me. And gave her the three chocolates and a big hug.

My wife in turn hugged me back, and gave me a kiss, told me that she loved me and that I had made her day. And then she gave the three chocolates to our three oldest children for a dessert (the baby cannot have dessert yet).

Now that is a powerful message that our children learned. It's about love, sharing and being family.

Copyright © 2006 Spero

Da Vinci Code could help Opus Dei
Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata
January 31, 2006
Catholic group says bestseller has upped its profile (ANSA) - Rome, January 31 - Opus Dei, the conservative Catholic organisation, says it may eventually benefit from being depicted in spine-chilling terms in Dan Brown's bestseller The Da Vinci Code .
In the hugely popular thriller, a film of which is due out in May, a creepy Opus Dei monk is ordered by his masters to commit murder so that ancient 'truths' about the Christian faith will not be revealed .

Although the organisation wrote a letter of protest to the novel's publisher after its release in 2003, it has not started legal action and appears unwilling to do so, partly so as to avoid feeding controversy. Instead, it is starting to think that The Da Vinci Code - with its thrilling story about a supposed 2,000-year cover-up by the Catholic Church - may even be a blessing in disguise. "Since the book came out, over a million people in the United States alone have contacted our website," said Manuel Sanchez, a press officer at Opus Dei's Rome headquarters. "We have received thousands of messages from people who wanted fuller information on the Catholic Church and Opus Dei." Until recently Opus Dei - which claims to have 84,000 members in five continents - was not very well known in the United States. Now, partly thanks to Dan Brown's fictional work, many more people have at least heard of it .

A film of The Da Vinci Code, starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou, is to be released by Sony Pictures in May and will presumably make Opus Dei known to even more people .

Sanchez said the visibility has given his organisation a chance to explain what Opus Dei really is. "The fictional work is becoming a channel through which to discover the reality," he added. This reality, he said, was "ordinary Christians who love their families and their work, people who want to serve God and others without leaving the world behind." Opus Dei has worked hard over the years to free itself of the suspicion that has traditionally surrounded it in Europe. Founded in Spain in 1928, it has in the past been accused of secrecy, conservative beliefs, a right-wing political agenda and even cult-like methods .

At the front of his book, Dan Brown included the following definition of Opus Dei: "a deeply devout Catholic sect that has been the topic of recent controversy due to reports of brainwashing, coercion and a dangerous practice known as 'corporal mortification.'" Opus Dei rejects all that, as it also dismisses the book's central idea that Jesus Christ was married and had descendants, and that the Church covered this up in order to preserve male dominance in society .

While this does not look like an advert for the Catholic Church, Sanchez noted that if people read the book or watch the coming film, they will at least be thinking about the figure at the centre of Christianity .

"Talking about Christ is always a good thing, even if it is distressing when he is talked about without respect. In a certain sense, the success of the novel confirms that the figure of Jesus Christ is attractive." He declined to say how Opus Dei might react to the release of the film, saying it depended in part on what it was like. José Maria Escriva de Balaguer, who founded the movement in 1928, was canonised in 2002 by John Paul II. The act set the seal on the Catholic Church's full acceptance of a movement which it had initially distrusted .
It is often said to be a highly influential organisation which has members in top positions both in the Catholic Church and in secular society. Its members say reports of its influence are exaggerated .

© Copyright ANSA. All rights reserved
2006-01-31 18:00

Monday, February 13, 2006

Opus Dei aims to improve its public image ahead of Da Vinci Code movie

The Montreal Gazette
The Gazette
11 February 2006

NEW YORK (AP) - The entrance to the national headquarters of the Roman Catholic group Opus Dei is the last place you would expect to find mention of The Da Vinci Code.

The conservative organization has spent the last few years trying to escape the bestseller's shadow, after the novel portrayed Opus Dei as a murderous sect with self-mutilating members who are fixated on power.

But now the low-profile spiritual community is starting a drive to improve its image ahead of a major film based on the book - and that campaign begins at the group's front door, where a sign invites fans of the Dan Brown novel to learn about "the real Opus Dei."

"The unfortunate thing is there are going to be tens of millions of people who will read the novel and see the movie and have that be their only exposure to Opus Dei," said Brian Finnerty, a spokesman for the group. "Because the book is marketed as being in some ways factual, it's difficult for people to tell where the lines between fact and fiction are."

The movie, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard, is set for May 19 release and is already expected to be a blockbuster. Opus Dei is trying to counter with its own productions.

Founded in Spain and now with 86,000 lay and clergy members worldwide, the group has commissioned a short documentary that extols the benefits of its emphasis on personal holiness in daily life.

Leaders are also working with American and British TV networks on independent documentaries about the organization to be broadcast around the movie's release. And reporters are being invited to tour the U.S. headquarters, which is a residence for Opus Dei members and a centre for community activities. The organization plans to highlight its charity projects worldwide, including work with young people in poor Chicago neighbourhoods and a wide range of health and communications efforts in Africa.

They have also turned to the Web for help. Among their many postings is a new blog on The Da Vinci Code by a young Opus Dei priest based in Rome. And in a surprising partnership, the group has struck a deal with the same publishing house for the novel - Doubleday - to release The Way, a collection of spiritual thought by Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escriva, considered a key text for the group. Its publishing date is just 10 days before the movie opens.

Finnerty said Opus Dei would not call for a boycott of the Sony Pictures film. Leaders of the community are aware that bitter criticism of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ helped popularize that movie, he said.

"We wouldn't want to do Sony the favour," Finnerty said. He said Opus Dei approached Sony about their concerns, but received only "vague assurances" in response.

Asked about Opus Dei's worries, Sony spokesman Jim Kennedy said the company views The Da Vinci Code as "fiction that is not meant to harm any organization."

Opus Dei's image problems did not begin with Brown's novel and likely will not end with the Howard-Hanks film.

Ever since it was established in 1928, the organization has been controversial within and outside the church. Inside the church, it is unusual for a group to bring together men and women, and lay people and clergy, in one association to spread the gospel.

Outsiders have especially seized on Opus Dei's practice of corporal mortification. About 30 per cent of lay members have taken vows of celibacy, and they wear a small barbed chain around the upper leg - called a cilice - for part of the day as a spiritual discipline. Some ex-members have started opposition groups, such as the Opus Dei Awareness Network, to raise questions about this and other practices by the group.

Secrecy also is an issue: Opus Dei's historic resistance to revealing the names of its members, leaving that decision to individuals, has sparked claims that it is a cult.

Still, Finnerty said the book brought a new level of hostility. His office still receives e-mails and letters related to the book that he characterized as hateful.

Brown says on his website that he worked "very hard to create a fair and balanced depiction of Opus Dei" and denied that his book was anti-Christian. The novel contends that Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and had children, and that Opus Dei and the church are at the centre of covering it up. An Opus Dei follower commits the murder that sets the plot in motion.

Finnerty said that when the plot was first made public in the trade press, a colleague told him the story line was so silly no one would buy it. Three years and millions of sales later, Opus Dei hopes to turn the notoriety to its advantage.

Said Finnerty: "It's given us a lot of opportunities to talk about who we really are."

Opus Dei, the international Roman Catholic group that zealously adheres to church teaching, says it has long been misunderstood.

They say those misperceptions have taken even stronger hold because of The Da Vinci Code, the bestselling Dan Brown novel that puts the group at the centre of a plot to cover up a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

A major film based on the book is set for release May 19 and Opus Dei is trying to educate the public ahead of that date about its work and goals. What follows is a look at the organization in question-answer form, based on information from its national office and the book Opus Dei, by Vatican analyst John Allen:


Q: Is Opus Dei a religious order like the Jesuits or Franciscans?

A: No. There is no other organization like Opus Dei in the church. The group is made up mostly of lay people, along with a small minority of clergy, and is split almost evenly between men and women. Pope John Paul named it a "personal prelature." Among other things, that means that its leader, a bishop in Rome, has authority over members regarding their work with Opus Dei just as a bishop has authority over a diocese.

Q: What does Opus Dei do?

A: At its most basic, the organization aims to help traditional Catholics grow spiritually. Aspiring members must complete intensive theological training and rigorously observe Catholic ritual in a way that the average parishioner does not.

Q: This sounds similar to training for clergy. How is it different?

A: Lay members of Opus Dei are generally not seeking to become ordained. Josemaria Escriva, who founded Opus Dei in 1928 in Spain, believed that lay people should take a dynamic role in helping spread the gospel within their daily lives and through their secular professions. A majority of Opus Dei members have families and work full time outside of the organization.

Q: What's so controversial about that?

A: The controversies about Opus Dei have more to do with its practices than its message. About 30 per cent of its members take a vow of celibacy, and as part of their spiritual discipline, use corporal mortification. For some time each day, they wear a cilice, a small barbed chain, around their upper leg, partly to remind them of Christ's suffering. Another tool they use during a short prayer is a small twine whip called a "discipline." Some ex-members have questioned the practice. But Opus Dei says these tools have long been used by Christians and are a very small part of their spiritual lives.

Q: How are female members treated?

A: Criticism of women's roles focuses mostly on a category of member called "numerary assistants." These women - about 4,000 members - dedicate their lives to maintaining Opus Dei centres, which means in some cases cooking and cleaning for households of men. However, women hold other Opus Dei jobs where they supervise men. Another practice that has raised questions is the group's strict separation of men and women, including separate entrances in group residences and gender-segregated events and classes. Still, in their everyday lives, Opus Dei members mix with those of the opposite sex.

Q: Who supports Opus Dei?

A: Beyond its 86,000 members worldwide, the group was a favourite of John Paul's, who canonized Escriva, and has drawn support from millions of others who participate in Opus Dei community events, attend their schools and work on their charity projects. However, some ex-members have formed opposition groups, such as the Opus Dei Awareness Network, based in Pittsfield, Mass., and some cardinals and other high-ranking church leaders have expressed concern about how the group operates.

Q: Would I know anyone who belongs to Opus Dei?

A: The group does not generally publicize the names of its members, preferring to allow them to discretely disclose their affiliation on their own. Among their explanations for this approach is that they don't want members to stand out from average people, since their goal is to live out holiness in secular society. However, the practice has led to accusations of secrecy and is viewed by critics as evidence that the organization has something to hide.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Unveiling Opus Dei: An Interview with John L. Allen

Does Opus Dei deserve the infamy inspired by The Da Vinci Code? Or are they at the forefront of bringing the encounter with God into everyday life? We spoke to acclaimed Vatican journalist John L. Allen Jr. about his book on Opus Dei, and the reality behind the perception.

By John Romanowsky

GODSPY: You once described Opus Dei as a cross between the Jesuits and the Rotary Club. Do you find that people have been surprised or disappointed by your benign portrayal of the infamous Opus Dei?

John L. Allen, Jr.: Opus Dei's most determined critics—which includes a broad swath of people—were surprised and some even outraged. They wish the book had been tougher. On the other hand, I think there's a group of Opus Dei members and their more pietistic supporters who would be disappointed that the book covers so many of the old scandals. But the people who've read my work over the years probably weren't terribly surprised with the approach I took.

In certain circles of Catholic opinion, Opus Dei is the bogey man hiding under the bed of everything that happens.
I'm convinced that, as with most things in the Catholic Church, there's a broad middle out there that doesn't have a particular axe to grind. They're interested in having an account of things that's basically reliable, unbiased, and straightforward. For them, I think the book's been helpful.

Has anyone accused you of simply participating in the Opus Dei conspiracy by writing the book for them as a sort of cover-up?

Oh sure. For example, Damian Thompson, the editor of the Catholic Herald, published a review of my book in the Telegraph. He accused me of being involved in a whitewash. His evidence was that I didn't interview Monsignor Vladimir Felzmann, a well-known English priest, ex-member of Opus Dei, and one of its leading critics in the Anglo-Saxon world. Felzmann has said that Jose Maria Escriva was anti-Semitic. I actually did cover this point in the book, but apparently not enough for Felzmann. In general, he said I dealt with every controversial question by resolving it in favor of Opus Dei.

He's not alone, of course. There are a number of people who have been very critical of Opus Dei and who harbor genuine convictions that it's a dangerous force in Catholicism. They think I didn't go far enough to include critical voices and expose what they think are the dangerous aspects.

What was the single most surprising thing you found while doing your research on Opus Dei?

If you go on LexisNexis and type in "Opus Dei"—you have to add, "and not horses" because there's a race horse called Opus Dei in New Zealand so you get the daily race results—you'll see that there's no organization in modern Catholic history that's generated the kind of public fascination they have.

In certain circles of Catholic opinion, Opus Dei is the bogey man hiding under the bed of everything that happens. Mel Gibson is making this movie on the Passion of Christ? Somehow Opus Dei must be involved. Antonio Scalia is sitting on the Supreme Court? I wonder if he's an Opus Dei member. Vatican Radio's not making enough money and the Jesuits might lose their lease? I wonder if Opus Dei's going to swoop in. Everything. Every issue. You get the impression that they must be this vast, world-wide force with an army of followers and infinite resources.

But when you actually start running the numbers and pealing back the onion, you find that they're not particularly wealthy and certainly not large. They have the membership of the Diocese of Tasmania. In terms of influence, they have 40 bishops out of 4,500 in the world. In the Roman Curia of 2,500 people, they have only 20 and of those 20 only three are in head offices and only one office is at the policy level. They just are not the kind of gargantuan reality that the myth would lead you to believe.

The real story, I think, and the more interesting thing about Opus Dei is less how did it have its tentacles wrapped around the Catholic Church, and more how do you get from this relatively modest and unimpressive reality to the current myth?

What do you think?

The myth of Opus Dei is much more revealing about where things stand in contemporary Catholicism than the reality of Opus Dei.
I think Opus Dei is the perfect storm. First of all, it was born in Franco-era Spain, so it's like there's a penumbra of fascism in its genetic code. Some suspect that somehow it's the last surviving force on earth carrying forward the fascist project. It's true there were some members in Franco's government at one time or another, but he had around 111 different governments over a 36 year period.

Then there's the early rivalry in the early 1940s between Opus Dei and the Jesuits. It started with a turf war over vocations in Spain, not anything ideological or theological. This got swept up into Spanish politics, which is very polarized and tends to spin off into dramatic accusation and counter-accusation. There were accusations that Opus Dei was a group of "White Masons" and Escriva was conducting black Masses, and wild stuff like that. The truth is, if you were going to pick an enemy, I'd really suggest that you don't pick the Jesuits. They have a world-wide network, are very smart, and have the capacity to carry forward a debate with great energy and élan. So the accusations about Opus Dei made the rounds in the Church early and often-and they endured.

Next you have the post-Vatican II polarization in Catholic politics. Opus Dei—without really aspiring to the role—became a leading symbol of what many saw, in the John Paul II years, as a kind of restorationist trend, a rolling back the clock or abandonment of the vision of the Council. It became the love-to-hate figure on the Catholic left. It is the Darth Vader of the liberal Catholic imagination. When you start talking about Opus Dei in certain circles, you can tell people are hearing that Darth Vader theme music, "da, da-da-da da ..." You know.

Finally, there's Opus Dei's close association with John Paul II. This was particularly meaningful in the Anglo-Saxon world in the late 80s when impressions of John Paul were beginning to harden. Since many perceived Opus Dei as his beloved older child, those who felt alienated by the Wojtyla papacy transferred those feelings to Opus Dei.

All these forces wrapped into one have lifted Opus Dei up to a level of myth in Catholic debate that it's actual sociological profile doesn't merit. In many ways, the myth of Opus Dei is much more revealing about where things stand in contemporary Catholicism than the reality of Opus Dei.

Did you receive any specific criticisms on the book that made you change your mind about something, or want to make any revisions?

Nobody came forward to challenge a point of fact. There is one criticism I think is probably right. Unfortunately, I forget who made it. Their point was that in the chapter on politics I didn't deal enough with Opus Dei in Latin America. They were deeply involved in Latin American politics, particularly in the 70s and 80s. That was the era of the police state, liberation theology battles, and ultimately the transformation into democracy. This is probably true. That chapter probably reflects my Anglo-Saxon and, more specifically, American bias, because I tend to deal with Opus Dei's political profile in the developed west.

I did talk about their political history in other places, but did it more to demonstrate the internal political diversity within Opus Dei. The point being that all of the members involved in secular politics aren't necessarily a right-wing fanatics—there's actually a lot of political diversity.

Do you think your book will help inoculate the culture against a sensationalist, negative portrayal of Opus Dei in the upcoming Da Vinci Code movie?

First of all, I haven't noticed any significant decline in sales of the Da Vinci Code book since my book came out...

At this stage, I'm not even sure the movie's going to use the term Opus Dei to describe this group in the story. There have been conversations about this. If you're asking is this going to prevent the myth from replicating itself, I'd say, no. In the short term, once something gets out there in the cultural stratosphere, once it's up there with "Skull and Bones" and the Rosicrucians, it's not going to go away soon.

This is part of a long term evolutionary process, much as it was with the Jesuits in the 16th and 17th centuries. It took a long time for the over-heated, hysterical fears about what the Jesuits are up to—which haven't completely died out, by the way—to go away. I think the Opus Dei myth is going to endure.

I'm convinced that for any conversation to be productive, it has to be rational and based in reality. I do think there's a gradual shift in that direction regarding Opus Dei, but I'm not naïve enough to think that the myth is going to implode over night simply because I plunked this book down on the market.

Has anyone from the Da Vinci Code movie asked you to consult on it?

No. I've been asked to consult on a couple of Opus Dei documentaries, but not the Da Vinci Code movie. Sony's making the movie and I heard they hired Dick McBrien as a kind of theological consultant.

Based on your own personal experience and encounters, what most impressed you about Opus Dei?

The quality of the people. These are very reflective Catholics. For the most part I find them to be really be walking the talk.

The 'talk' of Opus Dei is the sanctification of work, the idea of rendering holy the broader world, transforming secular reality from within.
The "talk" of Opus Dei is the sanctification of work, the rendering holy of the ordinary circumstances of everyday life, no matter what occupation you're in. It's not merely to try to perform at the highest levels of secular excellence. And it's not just for your own personal holiness. It's the idea of rendering holy the broader world, transforming secular reality from within.

For the most part, I found them very conscious of trying to do just that. They're well versed in the details of whatever work they do, but also very intentional and reflective about how to approach this work from the cultural world of the gospel, the cultural world of the Church. To be honest, I just find them fascinating people to talk to.

Was there anyone in particular you remember who embodied this best?

Yes. I would say Margaret Ogola, a married member of Opus Dei ("super numerary") in Kenya. She's a novelist. Her first novel, The River and the Source, won every African literature award there is. It's a marvelous piece of work tracing the story of a Kenyan family and focuses on strong female characters. It's very empowering, but it's not ideologically charged; it's a genuine human story. She's also a dedicated, passionate medical doctor, involved with a hospice for HIV positive children in Kenya. She's also the advisor to the Kenyan bishops on issues of family and health. And in addition to all of this, is a wonderful mother to her children.

When I think how busy she is and how well she does each of these things, and at the same time that she has this peace and focus—it's astonishing. If you take her seriously, she'll tell you that the spiritual and doctrinal formation that Opus Dei offered her is an important component of that.

Are they all like her? No. But many are cut from the same cloth. That's what impressed me the most: the quality of the people and the conversations I had with them all over the world. They're really reflective, thoughtful Catholics trying to bring this full-hearted engagement with secular modernity into relationship with their Catholic identity and figuring out what one has to say to the other.

In your book you seem to suggest that if Opus Dei would let their hair down, and let people see their human side, that this would improve their image. Are they considering your advice?

It depends on who you mean by "they". Opus Dei has 84,000 members. There are some who are very open to that message and were open to it before I said it. Others are much more hesitant about that kind of thing. At the leadership level they understand that they need to be more transparent and become better at telling their own story. The evolution in their press and communications operations and offices in recent decades illustrates that.

But they're still hemmed in by a couple of forces. They have a large group of older members who are very skittish about exposing too much of the inner life of the group to public scrutiny. They have a long history of being scarred by that kind of thing. They think, "They're going to beat us up anyway, so why bother?"

Also, since they understand themselves as a secular enterprise, indistinguishable from ordinary laymen and women in the world, they're often reluctant to talk about themselves. They're afraid it would compromise their secularity. They don't want to be perceived as a religious order or a lay movement. The idea is to be a quiet leaven, hidden in the world, transforming it from within.

Now let's be honest. If their aim is to avoid too much public conversation about themselves, I would suggest that they have seven decades of a pretty poor track record, because there's no group in the Catholic Church that's been the object of more public conversation.

Is it too late for Opus Dei to change their public image?

My argument is that, ironically, if you want to lower your public profile, going public a little bit more would actually be a step in the right direction. You have a climate of fear and mystery out there. The only antidote to that is transparency. As much as that may cut against the grain, I think you just have to take the hit.

You also wrote that fears of Opus Dei often tend to redound back on the Catholic Church. Why is that?

...the defects and virtues of Opus Dei tend to become wildly exaggerated.
No group in the Catholic Church is accountable to itself. We're all part of the greater communio. Since officialdom so clearly embraced and approved Opus Dei and brought it into the mainstream, perceptions of them, ipso facto, become perceptions of the Catholic Church. If the public think there's this nefarious cult-like outfit metastasizing in the heart of the Church, it becomes an obstacle and question mark about the whole Church. So even though Opus Dei's self-understanding and spirit may militate against transparency, my argument would be that that's not an answer.

Much of your constructive criticism of Opus Dei—including the "seven sins" (p. 386) that Opus Dei members themselves speak about—seem like they could be applied to other movements (yes, they're not a movement) in the Catholic Church. Do you agree?

Well, if we're going to talk about new groups in the Church in general, yes, of course. It has always been thus. Criticisms like that could have been made of the Jesuits in the 16th century, the Dominicans in the 15th, or the Benedictine's in the 5th. Whenever there's a new burst of life in the Church it is surrounded by great enthusiasm and passion, which sometimes can shade off into a kind of arrogance, or this idea that we've now surpassed everything that went before so the future is with us. Also, you often you get a strong cult of personality around the founder and a certain hyper defensiveness about criticism. The Church is by definition a conservative institution. There's always this period of sifting and discernment that goes on before it's willing to embrace something new. That can be said about a lot of different groups. But no other groups have achieved the kind of mythic status in the public imagination, either inside or outside the Catholic Church, so the defects and virtues of Opus Dei tend to become wildly exaggerated.

You seem to have had many positive experiences during your time with Opus Dei. But, of course, you didn't join up. Why not?

I'd love to tell you that I achieved some noble spiritual insight that this was not my spiritual path, but basically it's the psychology of being an only child. I grew up having pretty much complete control over my own time and space. I just don't like somebody else organizing my day. I like to decide for myself. Opus Dei is one of those environments where there's a pretty thick level of structure. Not that people are under somebody's thumb all the time. But particularly with those who live in community, the "numeraries", there is a clear set of expectations of when you're going to be at Mass in the morning and so on. There's nothing wrong with that and there's a lot that's very healthy about it. But it's too much structure for me. I'm not cut out that way. Also, I couldn't join any of these groups because I'd be accused of having a partisan position. But even if this wasn't the case, I wouldn't join up because it's not my cup of tea.

Your objectivity, and your refusal to tip your hand about your own opinions on Catholic issues has been called "maddening." Would someone given access to your private thoughts about the Church be surprised?

They'd probably be surprised about how few of them I've got. The truth is that the closer I get to a subject, the more difficult for me to draw definitive conclusions about it. There's this old saying that a foreign correspondent, after six months in a new country, wants to write a book about it; but after six years, he's afraid even to write one article. You just know too much. You know that every sentence you write is going to be an exercise in sweeping over-generalization.

I think that's true of the Church as well. I don't know if we ought to ordain women or not. I don't know whether our current approach to the dialogue with Islam ought to be tougher or not. I can see good arguments on all sides of these questions. Really, honest to God, it's not that I'm hiding a set of a priorities about where the Church ought to go. Or that I'm reluctant from some kind of craven personal interest to reveal my views. I'm not saying I don't have views on particular questions. But on most of the hot button questions that we spend so much time talking about in the Church, I don't have a fixed conclusion.

How do you see your role own role in these debates?

I'd phrase it this way. In the classic Thomistic understanding of how we know anything, you have a three stage process. There's sensory experience, taking in reality. Then there's the analysis, making sense of that reality. Then you draw conclusions and decide what to do in response. The nature of modernity, given the acceleration, pace, and bombardment of information, is constantly pressuring us to skip that second step. People want to move immediately from experience to conclusion because they don't have time to think. Even if we did have time, there's far too much information to take it. Where do you stop?

That's all very understandable, but what it means is that we're often operating out of ideological presuppositions and gut instinct, rather than a patient reflection on reality. The more aware of that I become, the more I'm sold on the idea that somebody needs to try to provide tools for reflection without preconditioning the outcome of that reflection. To the extent that I have a role to play in the Catholic conversation, I guess that's it.

The number of people who are dissatisfied with the liberal/conservative divide in the Church seems to be growing. Have you seen this trend yourself, and if so, what do you make of it?

Yes. In fact, I'm kicking around the idea for a book that looks at exactly that, up-and-coming leaders in the Catholic conversation who are trying to think past the divides of history. I think it's a much larger and widely spread phenomenon than people realize because it's not quite visible, we don't have a face for it yet. There's no movement or charismatic leader to embody that instinct yet. But I think both will arrive.

This book is a test case for dialogue in a divided Church.
At the same time, I think we're still far too divided. Perhaps the more sociologically accurate thing to say is that we've got multiple, co-existing "catholicisms". When you look around at the Catholic scene, you see that you've got your traditionalist-liturgical Catholics, your social justice Catholics, your charismatic Catholics, your neo-conservative, intellectual Catholics, your Church reform Catholics, and others. They all speak their own language, go to their own meetings, read their own publications, think their own thoughts. If they ever pop their head up above the walls to look at somebody in another circle, it's often not with a genuine interest in the thought of the other. It's with what you might call a "hermeneutic of suspicion". "I'm not really sure where this person is coming from and I'm not really sure if we're on the same team."

It's tragic that American Catholics spent the first part of the 20th century crawling out of the ghetto imposed on us by a hostile Protestant majority, but that now we've constructed our own ghettos. They're defined not by denominational boundaries, but by ideological ones. This isn't just distasteful on an aesthetic level, but ecclesiologically it's deeply unsatisfactory. We're supposed to be a community of communities—that's what communio ecclesiology is, to which John Paul II and Benedict XVI have been so valiantly trying to call us.

Do you see any practical way the Church in America can move forward to overcome this?

My great hope for this problem of division is the emergence of the former phenomenon we talked about. You can look around and see enough people who are aware of this reality and who are dissatisfied and frustrated with it. They're trying to grope their way forward. One of the challenges is to try to build spaces, and by spaces I mean not just physical spaces, but also virtual spaces where Catholics of different temperaments and points of view can come and engage each other, such as your own GodSpy, as well as others.

You've written that your personal encounters with Ratzinger, and your experience in Rome, changed your perspective on the Church. Can you describe that change?

Ratzinger had this image of the bull in the China Shop, the tough authoritarian. There's this story about John XXIII coming out on his balcony to speak to the people off the cuff. He told the Romans to go home that night and kiss their children and tell them it's from the Pope. For the Romans, that speech was like a "Ask not what your country can do for you" kind of speech. No one forgot it. Well, when Ratzinger was elected pope, the Roman newspaper, L'Unita, ran a cartoon with Pope Benedict XVI on his balcony saying to the people, "Go home tonight and give your children a spanking and tell them it's from the Pope."

However, when you meet the man in person, you realize that's just not who he is. I don't want to cut off legitimate public debate about his policy decisions or theological conclusions. But to jump from that to saying the guy's a jerk is just unfair, to say nothing of untrue. In person, he's infinitely gracious, kind, surprisingly open and collegiate and very humble. We've seen this in how he's conducted himself as pope. He's engaged in this almost systematic deconstruction of the cult of personality around the papacy.

And your experience of living and working in Rome?

Rome is the privileged place to get a sense of the complexity of the universal Church. It is such a cross-roads with its pontifical universities, religious communities, the whole diplomatic scene. A typical day for me might be having breakfast with a bishop from Pakistan, lunch with some colleagues from Chile, and then an evening with German speaking Catholics at the Austrian Embassy.

One story that illustrates the complexity of the Church: Around a week after the document "Dominus Iesus" came out, there was a conference of seminary rectors from around the world. At the seminar they had a session on "Dominus Iesus". A guy from India gets up and says the document is a disaster because it's going to destroy their dialogue with Hinduism. The Hindus don't understand such exclusive language. The next guy who pops up is from the St. Petersburg seminary in Russia. He says, no, you've got it all wrong. This document's going to save our dialogue with the Orthodox, because they have an even higher Christology than we do and it's the first Vatican document in a generation they've got excited about.

Now, was one right and the other wrong? No. Both were accurately reflecting their own cultural circumstances. The same document, filtered through two different sets of circumstances, gives you two completely diametrically opposed reactions. Now you multiply that a hundred thousand times across the globe, and you'll have some sense of the complexity of trying to set policy for a global Church.

Was this what led to a change in your own perspective?

What I hope my six years in Rome have given me is a greater capacity to see the shades of grey between the black and white. I think I realize now all the different forces that have to come into play to try to resolve questions one way or the other.

To bring this back to Ratzinger, my first book about him was good at giving a critical perspective of his work. This is entirely legitimate, necessary and valuable, but in the end it left a lot to be desired in terms of balance. There are many considerations, ways of shaping, understanding and perceiving the his decisions that I simply was not in a position to appreciate sitting in a study in Kansas City. Six years of water under the bridge in Rome have broadened my perspective.

Why is it so much harder for American Catholics to live in the radical center of the Church, as people elsewhere seem to be able to do?

I wouldn't romanticize what people elsewhere are able to do. I think to some extent the same divisive tendencies and mutual suspicion exist in other places.

First of all, we're a big Church, the fourth largest Catholic community in the world. (Though it's worth reminding Americans that there are bigger Catholic communities out there and the Vatican has more to think about than our concerns.) Our size in itself imposes a certain artificiality on our relationships. We don't have the capacity to get to know one another personally as much as small Catholic communities do. We tend to relate to one another through the press and other indirect avenues which makes human relationship difficult. It's easier to perceive people through stereotypes, because you never actually have to confront the stereotype with an actual encounter with the other.

Another factor is that we're a nation of rugged individualists to begin with, so this concept of being part of a community and being willing to bracket off our own instincts, own views, in order to be part of the larger community, that's a tough sell for a lot of Americans.

We also have a very noisy and rambunctious press culture in the States that has given us models of dialogue that aren't terribly healthy. How many people think that debate is like Crossfire, the search for zingers? I don't think that helps.

Unlike most places, we as American Catholics have the resources to construct such things as separate media empires and educational structures—like Tom Monaghan's empire—and thank God we do, it's a wonderful thing—but the downside means that we can insulate ourselves from each other in a way that many other Catholic cultures are not able to do.

What do you see as the greatest challenge for the Church in the United States?

The central challenge facing American Catholicism is to live a genuine ecclesiology of communion. We need a much more profound sense of what it means to be inserted into a global family of faith. The Catholic Church is made up of 1.1 billion members scattered in every nook and cranny of the planet. Increasingly the action is going to be in the global south. I think Nairobi, Jakarta, and Buenos Ares will be what Paris and Milan were in earlier centuries of Church history in terms of intellectual energy and pastoral imagination.

As the leadership and energy of the Church comes from these regions of the world, it's going to mean that people pressing for reforms on certain issues here will feel themselves increasingly isolated. Now, the gut check for many American Catholics is: What does it mean to be living in a Catholic Church, in which, at least on sets of issues, it seems increasingly likely that your vision of where the Church ought to go is not going to carry the day? Are you willing to accept that as the price of admission for having a place at this family's table? And I wonder about that.

The second major challenge is overcoming this ghetto-like American Catholic life. As wonderful a gift to American Catholic discussion as things like Commonweal or First Things or EWTN are, I think the danger is when any one thing becomes someone's exclusive point of reference. I think we should be reading and observing all of these things. I think that's the sensibility we have to construct.

Is that why partly why you decided to write this book?

Yes. My belief is that while there are many subjects on which Catholics are polarized, few subjects polarize as much as Opus Dei does. It's very hard to find anyone who follows Catholic affairs who doesn't have strong opinions about it. My hunch was, if we can have patient, rational, sympathetic conversation about this, we can have one about anything. In that sense, this book is a test case for dialogue in a divided Church.

December 22, 2005

JOHN ROMANOWSKY is executive editor of

Catholic Group Says of 'Da Vinci Code' Film: It's Just Fiction

New York Times
Laurie Goodstein
February 7, 2006

When "The Da Vinci Code" became a publishing sensation, leaders of the Roman Catholic organization Opus Dei realized they had an image problem on their hands.
The assassin in the best-selling thriller is an albino Opus Dei monk named Silas, and the group is depicted as a powerful but secretive cult whose members practice ritualistic self-torture. In a preface titled "Fact," the author, Dan Brown, said his book was more than mere fiction.

When plans were revealed for a movie based on the book, Opus Dei leaders say they tried to persuade Sony Pictures to excise any mention of their group, sending a letter last year saying the book was "a gross distortion and a grave injustice."

Their effort failed.

With the film starring Tom Hanks now set for release on May 19, Opus Dei is trying to sate public interest and cast the group in a very different light than the religious home of a fictional assassin.

The group is promoting a blog by an Opus Dei priest in Rome, revamping its Web site and even arranging interviews with a member said to be the only "real Silas" in Opus Dei — a Nigerian-born stockbroker who lives in Brooklyn.

Silas Agbim, the stockbroker, said that Opus Dei taught its members to hold themselves to the highest standards. "If you do your work well, it's pleasing to God," said Mr. Agbim, a graying father of three grown children who is married to a professor emeritus of library science. "And if you think you will get holy by reciting 10 rosaries a day and doing your work sloppily, that is wrong."

Still, the "Da Vinci Code" movie is sure to revive a long-simmering debate among Catholics over whether Opus Dei is a positive or negative influence in the church. Critics say that while the group is relatively small, a few members seem to hold important positions in the Vatican, including the pope's chief spokesman.

Questions about whether Opus Dei has outsize influence grew when Pope John Paul II granted the group a unique status in the church in 1982, and 10 years later set the group's founder on an unusually speedy track to sainthood.

Opus Dei's reputation for secrecy developed partly because of the group's tradition that members should not publicly proclaim their affiliation. "Is he or isn't he Opus Dei?" guessing games have focused on prominent figures, particularly in Washington.

A controversy exploded last year in England when it surfaced that Ruth Kelly, the young new secretary of education in the liberal Labor Party, was affiliated with Opus Dei. She did not deny it but never clarified her status with the group, prompting even louder criticism. Robert P. Hanssen, an F.B.I. agent who pleaded guilty in 2001 to spying for the Soviet Union, confirmed that he was a member and acknowledged that he had confided his crimes to his priest.

Opus Dei leaders say they are neither secretive, nor particularly powerful, nor lockstep conservatives. They say the group is a decentralized network of more than 84,541 Catholic lay people and 1,875 priests around the world, relatively small numbers in a church of 1.1 billion.

They say they have no aspirations to control the Vatican and believe their calling is to live out their devotion to God by doing their jobs well, be it janitor, senator or full-time mother. Opus Dei is Latin for "the work of God."

Lynn Frank, an Opus Dei member in Walden, N.Y., mother of seven and the owner-entrepreneur of a business that promotes healthful eating, said: "The determination I have definitely comes from my vocation with Opus Dei, because every single day with Opus Dei, you wake up and say, 'I'm giving 100 percent of my day to you, Lord.' And if you slack off, that's a boss you don't want to answer to."

Since its founding in 1928 by a Spanish priest,
Josemaria Escriva
, the group has found favor with several popes, in particular John Paul II, whose theological emphasis on holiness, the importance of the family and the dignity of work meshed well with Father Escrivá's beliefs. In 1982, John Paul granted Opus Dei the status of a "personal prelature," and it remains the only one in the church, meaning that it has its own bishop who reports directly to the pope.

Then in 1992, Father Escrivá leapfrogged other candidates for sainthood and was beatified a mere 17 years after his death. He was canonized a saint in 2002.

Joaquín Navarro-Valls, a spokesman for John Paul and now for Pope Benedict XVI, is a member, as was one of the co-authors of a controversial Vatican document released in 2000, Dominus Iesus, on the primacy of Christianity. When the pope wanted to clean up an Austrian diocese where pornography was found on a seminary computer, he appointed a new bishop from Opus Dei.

Also feeding the impression of influence is Opus Dei's American headquarters, in New York, a 17-story building at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 34th Street on which the group spent $69 million for the property, construction and furnishing.

Mention of the location in "The Da Vinci Code" has brought a constant stream of the curious and conspiratorial to the door, said the doorman, Robert A. Boone. He says he tells them, "You think I'd be working here if there were people like Silas walking around?"

Some Opus Dei members are incensed about how the three-year-old best seller presents not only Opus Dei, but also Christianity. In "The Da Vinci Code," a pair of sleuthing heroes discover that the doctrine of Jesus' divinity was made up by the fourth-century Roman Emperor Constantine, and that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had children.

Mr. Agbim said he had read the book. "It is poison," he said. "It will lead the people to have doubts."

But Opus Dei leaders are taking a less confrontational approach. Opus Dei's United States leader, the Rev. Thomas G. Bohlin, said, "We don't want the controversy to pump up publicity for the movie." Father Bohlin sent the letter to Sony Pictures asking that Opus Dei be left out of the movie and said he had received a "polite but noncommittal" response.

Jim Kennedy, a spokesman for Sony Pictures, said: "We see 'The Da Vinci Code' as a work of fiction and not intended to harm any organization. At its heart the film is a thriller, and we do agree that it really provides a unique opportunity for Opus Dei and other organizations to let people know more about their work and their beliefs."

After researching Opus Dei for a book,
John L. Allen, the Vatican correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter, has concluded that its power and wealth have been largely exaggerated. The group's worldwide membership is about equivalent to the number of Catholics in the Diocese of Hobart on the island of Tasmania, Mr. Allen said.

Opus Dei keeps no central financial records, but Mr. Allen determined its assets to be $2.8 billion, a figure the group's spokesmen say appears accurate. Much of that is tied up in the schools and hospitals worldwide. Half of the expense for the New York headquarters was paid for by a single donation of stock, said Brian Finnerty, a spokesman.

"Opus Dei certainly is a growing force in church affairs, and they probably have a very disproportionate number of those church positions that have impact, but let's not mythologize that," said Mr. Allen, author of "Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church."

Some former members accuse Opus Dei of behaving like a cult, with aggressive recruiting and excessive control over members who choose to live in Opus Dei centers. Tammy DiNicola, who joined Opus Dei as a college student and left in 1990 after two years, said the organization pulled in idealistic and very spiritual people by deceiving them.

"They don't tell you you wouldn't spend any holidays with your family, your mail would be read, you would hand over your salary to them, and you wouldn't be able to watch television or radio or even leave the house without permission," said Ms. DiNicola, who helped found the Opus Dei Awareness Network to help former members.

Mr. Finnerty, the Opus Dei spokesman, said that contrary to accusations by some former members, independence and personal freedom were central to the doctrine.

Seventy percent of Opus Dei's members, like Lynn Frank and Silas Agbim, are working people, usually married, who live in their own homes, a category of membership known as "supernumerary." Although they maintain a rigorous schedule of daily prayer and reading, weekly confession and meetings with a spiritual director, they carry on with their lives and professions.

About 20 percent are "numeraries," who give their lives entirely to the organization, living as celibates in an Opus Dei center. Some hold outside jobs, but many work full time in affiliated institutions, like hospitals and schools. Ten percent are "associates," who are celibate but live on their own and not in Opus Dei centers.

Much of the eerie mystique surrounding Opus Dei comes from the numeraries' practice of "corporal mortification." In "The Da Vinci Code," Silas the murderous monk is shown whipping himself bloody and wearing a spiked chain around his thigh so tightly that it draws blood.

In reality, numeraries do wear a "cilice," a chain with points, under their pants for two hours a day. Once a week, they beat their backs with a small cord while reciting a prayer. Opus Dei says corporal mortification is an ancient Catholic practice that promotes penance and identification with the suffering of Christ.

Ms. DiNicola, the former member, said that wearing the cilice was supposed to be optional but that numerary members were made to feel guilty if they did not. "It does cut and it does leave little blood pricks," she said.

Despite the dismal portrayal of their group in "The Da Vinci Code," Opus Dei leaders acknowledge some benefits from the attention. Doubleday, the publisher of the book, is about to release "The Way," a collection of spiritual writing by Opus Dei's founder. Mr. Finnerty, the group's spokesman, said it was "The Da Vinci Code" that opened the door for the deal.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Tuesdays with Glenwood: The Big Picture Seminar

By Kevin Te, Special to The B.C. Catholic
The BC Catholic (Vancouver, BC)
November 21, 2005.

Tuesdays will never be the same for the 21 Grade 9 and 10 students currently attending the Big Picture Seminar at Glenwood, a centre located at 4050 Osler Street in Vancouver that helps with both the human and spiritual formation of young men.
Glenwood helps high school and university students work towards becoming competent, generous, and responsible men who understand that professionalism and excellence are best directed to serving society. One of the programs it has been offering for the past four years is the Big Picture Seminar, held every Tuesday from September to May, 7 to 8 p.m.
"The purpose of the Big Picture Seminar is to help students in Grade 9 realize the challenges that they are going to face very soon," said Mario Jardon, the Director of Glenwood and the Co-ordinator of the Big Picture Seminar.
Participants listen to talks and attend workshops by people with more life experience. This helps them to prepare for the personal choices they will face about such issues as family and career.
The program is offered mainly to students entering Grade 9; however, in some cases it accepts Grade 8 and 10 students. Jardon said Grade 9 students are at a very critical age, and they are mature enough to understand the content of the program. The Big Picture Seminar is only for boys, but there is another centre that offers a similar program for girls.
Other cities, including Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec, have centres offering the same program. In Greater Vancouver, however, only Glenwood has the Big Picture Seminar. Jardon said that there have been some requests about starting one in Surrey, but they are still studying that possibility.
The cost of the seminar is $150. Interested parents and participants can either apply online or go to the centre. Potential members are interviewed to make sure they really want to be involved in the program.
"It makes a big difference if the young man himself wants to participate in the program, rather than his parents wanting him to attend," said Jardon.
He also said that although there is no official closure of registration, he advises interested people at this late date to register for next year's seminar, so that they will be able to grasp fully the speakers' message.
Christopher Elvidge, a Grade 12 student who attended the program three years ago, said, "I think it (the Big Picture Seminar) is great because they tell you how to get jobs, how to get ahead, and how to prepare for university and life in general."
He said he does not regret participating in the program because once a student takes part, he will be invited to the other activities Glenwood offers, such as retreats, volunteer works, and daily excursions such as mountain climbing and canoeing.
His father, David Elvidge, is so pleased with the effect of the program on Christopher that he now has his younger son attending the Big Picture Seminar. David, who usually stays and listens to the talks himself, said the speakers are teaching the same values he is trying to instil in his children.
He sees this reinforcement of values by non-parents as a benefit of the Big Picture Seminar, and he is happy that the seminar makes participants start thinking about important issues when they are in Grade 9 rather than in the last month of Grade 12.
"It has been worth the effort, from this family's perspective, to provide this additional learning opportunity for the boys," David said.
Despite all the sacrifices they have to make, he still believes that all of it is worthwhile because of the intangible values his sons will gain from this experience.
Jardon added that the people involved in Glenwood are very optimistic about the outcome of the program. They believe that the Big Picture Seminar is a good way to grow. "We care for the formation of young people," he said.
Formation activities at Glenwood are entrusted to Opus Dei, which was founded in 1928 by St. Josemaria Escriva. Opus Dei is an institution of the Catholic Church with the mission of spreading the message that all are called by God to seek holiness in and through their daily work, family life, and social relations.
For more information, visit
Kevin Te is a Corpus Christi College communications student.

Journalist John Allen on Opus Dei

Vatican-Watcher's Book Goes Beyond the Myths

ROME, DEC. 25, 2005 ( In a new book on Opus Dei, an American journalist tries to separate facts from fiction about the personal prelature. The volume is entitled "Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church." In his research for the book, reporter John Allen of the U.S.-based National Catholic Reporter dedicated a year to interview members of Opus Dei in Italy, Spain, Kenya, the United States and Peru, among other countries. The author also talked with former Opus Dei members. The result is 400 pages in which this Vatican correspondent, who also works with the BBC and CNN, touches on topics ranging from the separation of men and women, to the use of the hair shirt, to the organization's finances.

The book has been published in the United States by Doubleday and in England by Penguin.

Q: So ... Opus Dei is not as bad as it seemed, you state. Is this the general idea of your book?

Allen: The aim of my book is to be as objective as possible, on a subject that's not really known for attracting objective discussion. The idea is to separate fact from fiction, providing tools for a rational conversation that's grounded in reality rather than myth or stereotype.

It was not my intent to "convert" readers to any particular position about Opus Dei, and my experience is that most people come away from the book without having changed their fundamental impressions of the group, but perhaps feeling a bit more informed, and a bit less alarmed.

On the other hand, given the highly negative image Opus Dei carries in some quarters, any serious comparison of that image with reality inevitably will make the group seem more human, less nefarious, than some had previously believed.

To take the basic numbers, Opus Dei has a worldwide membership of 85,000, which is roughly equivalent to the Diocese of Hobart on the island of Tasmania off the Australian coast. The group also counts some 164,000 "cooperators," meaning "supporters."

Outside Spain, where Opus Dei was born in 1928, Opus Dei represents a tiny, almost invisible, fraction of the Catholic community; in the United States, for example, there are roughly 3,000 members out of a total Catholic population of 67 million.

Opus Dei's global wealth, meaning the physical value of all the assets listed as "corporate works" of Opus Dei, is around $2.8 billion. For one frame of comparison, General Motors in 2003 reported assets of $455 billion.

Even by Catholic standards, Opus Dei's wealth is not terribly impressive; in 2003, the Archdiocese of Chicago reported assets of $2.5 billion. The American lay organization the Knights of Columbus runs an insurance program which all by itself is worth $6 billion. In terms of power, Opus Dei numbers only 40 out of more than 4,500 Catholic bishops worldwide, including only two members of the College of Cardinals, and just 20 out of more than 2,500 employees in the Roman Curia, including only one head of a policy-making agency.

In truth, Opus Dei's potential to "call the shots" inside Catholicism is far more limited than many imagine. For every Vatican battle Opus Dei members have won over the years, they've lost others. Despite being a vaunted recruiting machine, Opus Dei's growth rate is pretty small. Worldwide they add about 650 members a year, and in some places they're basically stalled. In the United States, Opus Dei has hovered at about 3,000 members since the 1980s. All this suggests that Opus Dei is not as imposing as some of the mythology would lead one to believe. Ironically, the people most determined to believe in Opus Dei's occult power are generally not its members, but its critics, who see its modest structure as masking vast unseen influence.

Q: Money, power, mortification, "Octopus Dei" ... most of your book tries to "purify" the whole mystery around Opus Dei. Do you think you have achieved this clarification?

Allen: I'm not naive enough to believe that prejudices and conspiracy theories that have formed over 70 years are going to collapse overnight because of this book. What I hope, however, is that the factual information provided in the book, much of it for the first time, will represent a point of departure for future discussion.

There's a legitimate debate to be had about some aspects of Opus Dei's internal culture and practice, and in my experience it's a conversation happening, in the first place, inside Opus Dei itself. The question of how Opus Dei could make itself more transparent without compromising its own identity, for example, is a completely reasonable point to press. Opus Dei must increasingly realize that it is responsible not only to itself and the memory of St. Josemaría Escrivá, but to the broader Catholic Church, and hence should do anything in its power to respond to legitimate questions and doubts.

At the same time, Opus Dei has also been a magnet for some of the wildest accusations and speculation over the years, and I hope the book will help to clear up those distractions so a more productive discussion can move forward.

Q: Reading you, it appears that Opus Dei has not as much power or influence as it seems. Why then this controversy and mysterious aura around them?

Allen: To me, this is the greatest single question about Opus Dei: How did this relatively small group, with only modest wealth and influence, become the bogeyman of the Catholic imagination? I think the answer is complex, pivoting on at least four factors:

One, Opus Dei grew up in Franco-era Spain, and hence has long been linked to Spanish fascism. Two, Opus Dei and the Jesuits engaged in fierce "border wars" over young vocations in Spain in the 1930s and 1940s, generating a rivalry which followed Opus Dei wherever it went because of the Jesuits' extensive worldwide network. Three, in the post-Vatican II era, Opus Dei became a symbol of the broader struggles within Catholicism between left and right. Four, in the John Paul II era, Opus Dei received considerable papal favor, generating envy in some quarters and ideological opposition in others. In other words, Opus Dei represents a sort of "perfect storm," where a combination of historical and political factors collided to invest this group with a mythic status that its actual sociological profile doesn't support.

Q: If I were from Opus Dei I would surely thank you for your book. Have you received lots of messages in these terms?

Allen: I've heard from a number of Opus Dei members who are grateful for what they see as the relatively balanced treatment they believe the group received in the book.

Others, however, are unhappy with what they see as excessive focus on the controversies surrounding Opus Dei. They feel as if Opus Dei is their family, and it's always painful to hear accusations against loved ones, even if they're given the most balanced treatment in the world. I would say, by the way, I've received much the same reaction from Opus Dei critics. Some feel the book gave fair voice to their concerns, while others, convinced that Opus Dei is dangerous, feel as if I didn't go nearly far enough in "exposing" its flaws. This reaction illustrates the unfortunately polarized nature of much discussion about Opus Dei.

Q: You think you do not fit into the Opus Dei structure. Do you realize it now, after your research, or you already knew it?

Allen: As a journalist, I don't join groups within the Church as a matter of general principle, because I need to preserve my impartiality.

For that reason, there was never any serious question of my joining Opus Dei, or any other body. Certainly my 300-plus hours of interviews and travels to eight countries for this book, however, brought home for me that if I were to join a Catholic group, it would not be Opus Dei. This is not the result of any lack of respect, or any fears about Opus Dei; quite the contrary, I came to admire most of the people I met in Opus Dei, and I usually found their company highly stimulating and enjoyable. Yet there is a daily "program of life" for Opus Dei members, and a set of expectations about attendance at events and so on, that I would personally find stifling. I'm a classic "only child," meaning that control over my time and space is important to me. I don't like anyone setting schedules for me, or telling me when I need to pray, or how. Let me be clear, however, that this is a matter of personal taste. I admire the commitment I see in most Opus Dei members, and my perception is that most are eminently satisfied with their experiences.
Opus Dei on John Allen's New Book
We're "Neither Angels nor Demons," Says Spokesman
ROME, DEC. 25, 2005 ( An Opus Dei spokesman has expressed satisfaction with a new book on the personal prelature written by an American journalist. Marc Carroggio, who oversees Opus Dei's relationship with international journalists in Rome, said he was satisfied with the book just published by John Allen. "Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church" has been published so far in English, Portuguese and Korean. Carroggio told ZENIT that this is the first book that compares dispassionately the myths and reality surrounding "the Work," as it's called by Opus Dei members. "The author has understood well the nature of Opus Dei," Carroggio said.

Q: You must be happy since this book clears up many issues about Opus Dei.

Carroggio: I worked in the Rome press office while John Allen was writing this book. I can say that I am satisfied with it, especially with respect to its method. Allen spent hundreds of hours gathering a great deal of information and views from all sorts of people. He places all this information in its proper context, and so gives the rationale for many ways of doing things. He has listened to both sides and been respectful to both. Finally, he leaves the readers to reach their own conclusions. These are desirable qualities for a book of this kind. The issues it deals with do not easily lend themselves to dialogue or dispassionate discussion. Hence, any attempt to clear away false stereotypes is positive. I do not like comparisons, but I should point out that the author of "The Da Vinci Code" never visited a center of Opus Dei and, as far as I know, never spoke to any members. The picture of Opus Dei presented in the novel is a figment of his imagination.

I think that John Allen's work can help readers of "The Da Vinci Code" who have no firsthand knowledge of Opus Dei to understand that we are neither angels nor demons. We are human beings with flesh and blood, who are sometimes wrong and sometimes right, who have faults but also want enthusiastically to follow an ideal.

Q: As he explains, the author had access to documents that are not available to the general public. He spent time in centers of numeraries, he interviewed dozens of members of the Work and he has absorbed what it means "to be in Opus Dei." In your view, what more would he need to understand Opus Dei better?

Carroggio: I think that the author has understood Opus Dei well: the nature of its message, the reasons for the things it encourages people to do, its members' mode of life, our ideals and also where we fall short.

This book is a journalist's report, not a dissertation in theology or a treatise on the history of the Church. Its approach is sociological, although it also acknowledges and respects the spiritual dimension of things.

Allen himself says that he does not intend to give an exhaustive account of Opus Dei but rather to compare myths with reality. As a consequence, he devotes a lot of space to matters that are actually fairly secondary in the life of Opus Dei but which have received a lot of attention from the media, especially in the United States.

So, for example, one could say a lot more about the spiritual experience of belonging to Opus Dei and about the inner motivation that leads persons to choose this path in their search for holiness in the middle of the world. This would entail a larger treatment of each person's awareness of his or her own Christian vocation as well as persons' desire to follow Jesus Christ in their work, in their family and in their daily life. For an institution in the Church, the personal and existential dimensions are more important than organizational charts or questions of image.

Q: As part of his research, John Allen has also given the ex-members of Opus Dei a chance to speak. Do you think he has given too much space to their testimonies?

Carroggio: The book is a journalist's report, not a philosophical reflection on questions of principle. It is the result of a great number of interviews with people in a variety of different situations.

In a work like this, it is the author himself who has to determine the proper balance among his sources. I respect Allen's decision here, because it seems completely legitimate to me. Personally I think that he explains well how these sorts of criticisms differ from those that arise, if I might put it this way, from the writers of fantasy. It easy enough to show that Opus Dei is not behind the sinister operations and conspiracies so often attributed to it. It is different, however, when we are dealing with a person who has had a negative experience. You cannot simply deny a wound, or pain, or bad memories. This is not just an issue of lies and truth.

When we encounter a person's negative experience, we have to show our respect for it, we have to share that pain, even though at times we do not share that person's interpretation of the events.

The fact is that the faithful of Opus Dei live out their dedication to God with full freedom, and their dedication helps them to find happiness, at least the relative happiness that can be had in this world. Hence the great majority of those who come to centers of Opus Dei have a lifelong appreciation for the Work. But this is not always the case. And so it does not seem wrong, but rather just the opposite, that a book like Allen's would include these cases, which I consider to be exceptions. When Allen asked the prelate about this matter, Bishop [Javier] Echevarría said that we ask pardon with all our heart of those persons who do not feel that they were well treated. As you can understand, I have nothing to add to that.

Q: Would you like to see a "Part Two" of this book?

Carroggio: Each book is unique and therein, it seems to me, lies its strength. Although John Allen's book is not merely a book about controversies, the emphasis is certainly on the more-debated issues. In my opinion, he treats these questions respectfully and offers factual information more than partisan or ideological explanations of them. Moreover, he makes an effort to summarize some of the essential characteristics of Opus Dei, such as divine filiation, freedom, the sanctification of work and ordinary life, etc.

I would like a future book to develop these aspects, and precisely in journalistic form. Such a book would be able to describe in a fresh way the experience of living one's Christian life in the middle of the world. It would talk about how faith and prayers provide such admirable resources for one's ordinary life, including the more difficult times like sickness, unemployment or the death of a loved one. There is a lot to talk about.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

What to do with the Da Vinci Code Flick

The Da Vinci Movie is coming out on May 19th. This will be a huge public podium to speak about what we love the most in the world: Jesus Christ, the real one. And part of that is clarity on the Church and institutions in it like Opus Dei. The Da Vinci Code gave us the fiction, now we must have the facts. Here is an article in Zenit about the movie and what Opus Dei will do about it.

"Da Vinci Code" -- a Blessing for Opus Dei?
Use the Lemon to Make Lemonade, Says Spokesman

ROME, JAN. 12, 2006 ( The forthcoming film "The Da Vinci Code" might not be so bad for Opus Dei after all.

For the first time, in this interview, a representative of the "evil one of the film" -- the Opus Dei prelature -- offers his view on this production, which Sony-Columbia will release in May.

Marc Carroggio, who oversees Opus Dei's relationship with the international media, told ZENIT that interest about the book and the film "is turning out to be a sort of indirect publicity for us."

Carroggio added that, given the existence of the movie, there will be no fight against anyone. An effort is being made to take advantage of the great interest aroused to propose the figure of Jesus Christ, he stressed.

Q: What do you most dislike about the book and now the movie?

Carroggio: I realize that fiction has its own rules and you shouldn't take it too seriously, but like any Christian I dislike the frivolous way the book plays with the life of Jesus Christ.

Moreover, scripts like this demonize a particular group. It presents the Catholic Church as a band of criminals who for 2,000 years has tried to hide a huge lie.

Although the story is absurd and at times somewhat humorous, it produces a hateful image of the institution and it is well known that hateful images like this produce feelings of hatred in those who lack a critical sense.

I don't think we need more caricatures of any religion. We should all be working for harmony, tolerance and understanding. You cannot be seeking peace with your left hand while you are beating people over the head with your right.

Q: Opus Dei does not usually give official responses to events. Will there be an exception for the "Da Vinci Code" movie?

Carroggio: Some people are waiting for a "declaration of war" from the Catholic Church and from Opus Dei. This might interest those who are marketing the movie -- you know, a big fight in public.

But I can assure you that Opus Dei's only response will be a declaration of peace. No one is going to make threats or organize boycotts or anything like that.

We would have been happy if the producer, Sony-Columbia, had given us some sign that they would respect us. I would call their response so far "polite but noncommittal," with little indication that they intend to respect religious beliefs.

Q: How do you think the members of Opus Dei will react to the movie?

Carroggio: The reaction of the members of Opus Dei, like that of many other Christians, will be to "use the lemon to make lemonade."

Actually this event gives us a wonderful chance to talk about Jesus Christ. After all, it is the figure of Jesus Christ that explains, to a large degree, the popularity of the book.

The novel is essentially parasitical: The author makes a name for himself by attacking a major cultural figure, and he presents it as art. If the plot did not center on Jesus Christ, the book would lose its appeal.

I think that the best response is simply to help people to know Jesus Christ. I suspect that in the coming year, many people will be moved to read the Gospels or a book about the life of Jesus Christ.

They will be drawn to consider the great themes of faith, which give light to the most difficult questions of human existence. For me, these are all ways of turning the lemon into lemonade.

Q: In a certain way, Dan Brown has made Opus Dei more fashionable and given you an opportunity to explain yourselves. Have you noticed an increase in numbers of people seeking information?

Carroggio: Undoubtedly. In the last year, in just the United States, more than a million persons have visited our Web site [] and this is primarily due to interest generated by "The Da Vinci Code."

So we are receiving a sort of indirect publicity. This reminds me of what used to happen in the former Communist countries.

If an official organ published an article against the Church - at times attacking Opus Dei as well - we would receive secret messages from individuals who would read the article "backward." They would conclude that if Opus Dei was being criticized by people who criticized the Catholic Church, then Opus Dei must be interesting.

Something similar is occurring with "The Da Vinci Code." We have already made quite a bit of lemonade with the book and, God willing, we hope the movie only increases production.

We will try to give out as much information as possible and will be completely open and available: The doors are open.

We would like to offer anyone who wants it the chance to know about Opus Dei firsthand. This, by the way, is something that seemed to interest neither the author of the book nor the producer of the movie.

Q: Are you going to take legal action against the movie?

Carroggio: I would be surprised if that happened. Of course there are more than enough reasons.

Suppose a movie revealed that Sony-Columbia was not what we had always thought but was a secret group of assassins run by the Mafia, but included a disclaimer that it was just fiction. Somehow I doubt their lawyers would be satisfied. I am sure they would threaten a suit.

Still, legal action is like an icon of institutional conflict. It would be "Opus Dei vs. Sony-Columbia." To me that just sounds almost surreal. As I said earlier, the only thing Opus Dei is going to do is to make a declaration of peace. It takes two to fight and in this case we lack a quorum.

But there are members of Opus Dei in 60 countries. Some of them, with others, run centers that train farmers and young people who can't find work. They also run hospitals in underprivileged areas. All these activities depend financially on the help of many donors. Obviously the novel and movie could make their fund raising more difficult. For this reason, it would not surprise me if some of these organizations thought about seeking damages.

Q: Is Opus Dei going to advise its members not to see the movie? Or would it prefer that they be aware of the negative perception of Opus Dei in some circles?

Carroggio: Members of Opus Dei are adults. We are not going to advise them either way.

An interesting question is whether this movie should be only for adults. Any adult with a minimum of education can distinguish reality from fiction. But when history is manipulated, you cannot expect a child to make proper judgments.

Merely adding a disclaimer that says "Fiction" is not enough. Just as we protect children from explicit sex and violence, it would seem to make sense to protect them from violence that is more subtle and thus more insidious.

I think it is reasonable to be concerned about this question. Besides thinking about profits, one should also think about possible negative influences on the young. As I said earlier, this is not the time for sowing disharmony among persons, nations and religions, but rather understanding.