The Catholic Right: John Allen's Sins of Omission (Ninth in a Series)
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Sep 03, 2006 at 10:27:37 AM EST
John L. Allen, Jr.'s recent book, Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church, (Doubleday, 2005) is unfortunately, well short of being objective.  
Mr. Allen is the Vatican correspondent for the progressive Catholic periodical National Catholic Reporter.  The weekly paper, which also features Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J.Gumbleton and Sister Joan Chittister, often provides the necessary counter-argument to the well-funded outlets of the Catholic Right. When Allen himself appears as an expert on cable news roundtables he is often a refreshing change from Catholic "theocons" such as George Weigel or Michael Novak.

Based upon the reputation of NCR, I expected  a more thorough investigative report. Instead the result is a near puff-piece. Many obvious questions about members such as Rev. John McCloskey or cooperators such as Robert H. Bork, Robert Novak or Antonin Scalia are never asked, let alone answered. As Peter McDermott observed in his recent critique in The Irish Echo:

We might have hoped for a rather livelier engagement with the Personal Prelature of Opus Dei, which is its official title; instead Allen sounds like a conservative academic or judge who's been asked to look into a controversial subject. He's scrupulously fair, there's to be no cover-up, but the official version is in before he even starts and it's in favor of the establishment. He even issues some recommendations at the end.

In the introduction Allen sets the tone observed by McDermott. He strangely compares Opus Die to "Guinness Extra Stout" -- a strong brew that is not apologetic at all for its extra calories and full taste. He then contrasts Opus Dei with "lighter brews," as if to say that if you do not buy into Opus Dei's brand of the faith, you're less of a Catholic. Right at the outset Allen has bought into his subject's framework of the discussion. Whether it be from the numerous lunches or fried chicken Friday night get-togethers he had with the groups' members during the research phase of this book, I got the sense that the author went through a writer's version of Stockholm syndrome with his subject.

The book does contain some pertinent information, such as which bishops and cardinals are affiliated with Opus. The author is also very informative about who with Vatican City is Opus Dei. However a pattern emerges in Allen's product: after every critical testimony what almost always follows is the rehabilitative statement of either a satisfied member or former member. But as someone who has researched Opus Dei over the past three years I found it is what Allen left out of the book or glanced over to be most troubling.

Among Allen's most significant omissions:

The Aforementioned Failure On Cooperators. Within the Introduction Allen defines the roles of various levels of Opus Dei involvement. The only real mention of Cooperators is found here. At pages 145 and 278 there is mention of the likes of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Mel Gibson and Robert Novak not being actual members of the prelature (As Allen points out at page 233, Gibson is not a member of Opus Dei, which vows loyalty to the Vatican; he is actually a member of Holy Family, a splinter sediavacanist group that believes the last legitimate pope was Pius XII). Perhaps this is true but their affiliations with Opus Dei are not further explored. What makes this omission critical is the importance of Cooperators. As described by the conservative-leaning EWTN network noted:  

This help can be spiritual or material. The spiritual dimension of being a Cooperator is a commitment to offer one's prayers, daily if possible for the Prelature and its work of apostolate. The material dimension can take the form of alms or of a contribution of time and services for an apostolic endeavor of the Prelature.

Judging by the actions of Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) in following the Vatican line on embryonic stem cell research or his colleague Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) in taking a similar tack in opposing gay rights, and possible the roles Escriva's teachings may have played in the decisions rendered by Supreme Court Justices Scalia and Thomas in Bush v. Gore a well placed Cooperator can have a significant impact on public policy. (i)

His Failure To Be Objective About Rev. McCloskey. On page 266 Allen writes, "There's no doubt that McCloskey  could be blunt." To put it mildly, that is an understatement.  

In the various sections of the book where Rev. John McCloskey is mentioned, Allen often seems to go out of his way to downplay his influence within both Opus Dei as well as the world of politics. As writers such as Chris Suellentrop and Talk to Action's Andrew Weaver have detailed Rev. McCloskey's influence. Even Allen describes (page 266) the combative McCloskey as " the highest-profile Opus Dei priest in the United States.

At pages 275-276 the author begins to discuss some McCloskey's more controversial writings, particularly his "Perspectives" piece that is essentially a fantasy of smaller, more exclusive and very orthodox Catholic Church. Yet instead of exploring the implications of such potential divisiveness Allen just lets the discussion fizzle out by saying it is McCloskey just speaking for himself. A more serious discussion would have reviewed McCloskey's political activities, particularly in regard to the Institute on Religion  and Democracy

Needless to say, there is not one mention of the many other Opus Dei members involved in the IRD in Chapter 12 that covers politics, nor in any other part of the book. When we consider Andrew Weaver's  recent Media Transparency piece on the Opus Dei presence IRD, this is perhaps Allen's most glaring omission.

His Failure To Discuss Pope Paul VI's Refusal Of Opus Dei's Offer of "Financial Rescue." This should have been discussed in chapter eleven (Opus Dei in the Church; it is mentioned in passing at pages 231 and 337). Other well respected authors who have written on the Catholic Church's dealings with Opus Dei (Peter Hebblethwaite and Garry Wills (ii)) have described an incident that occurred in the wake of the Vatican Bank's role in the Sidona scandal.  

Apparently the Vatican had kept income assets that were supposed to be applied directly to charitable purposes. Allegations of malfeasance first came to light in 1968 when Italian law was amended to allow for greater transparency of the dealings of financial institutions.  Pope Paul VI then turned to Michele Sidona--a banker with ties to very powerful, but shady characters--and appointed him as its financial advisor. His task was to camouflage the Vatican's mishandling of its income.  

Sidona began trying to hide Church assets through money laundering schemes involving both the Mafia and the illegal P-2 Masonic lodge, the latter having neo-fascist ties. This was carried out with the help of Roberto Calvi, who managed the Banco Ambrosiano . The resultant scandal left Banco Ambrosino in default for approximately $3.5 billion (The Vatican Bank was Banco Ambrosiano's primary investor).

Although the Vatican never admitted to involvement in the scandal, it did acknowledge "moral involvement" to the tune of $241 million in creditor payments. As Hebblethwaite reported, Opus Dei, then not yet a Prelature of the Church went to Pope Paul VI offering to cover the Church's financial shortfall caused by Sidona--but with stings attached. In exchange the pope would have to give Opus Dei the elevation in status they had been seeking. Paul VI, wary of the group's play for greater power and influence, declined the offer.  

The only comment about Pope Paul VI's relationship with the movement is at page 239 wherein Allen describes "a cooling off" between the two parties in the later years of the pontiff's reign.  

This begs the question: if both Garry Wills and the very well respected Peter Hebblethwaite (Pope Paul VI's biographer) found this incident important enough to discuss, why didn't Allen? One of the allegations constantly levied against Opus Dei is that the organization is power hungry. But reporter Allen casually dismissed it at as a "rumor."

His Failure To Discuss The More Pernicious Teachings of Escriva's The Way. As raised in Part Two of this series:

Some of the founder's beliefs besides being factually incorrect (such as on the creation of the Roman papacy and the concept of papal infallibility) reflect some disturbing rules for behavior. In two of Escriva's books, The Way and In Love with the Church, he urged secrecy in his apostolate (The Way, No. 839), defines compromise as laziness and weakness (The Way, No. 54) demands blind obedience to Church teachings (The Way, No. 617), calls non-Catholic schools, "pagan schools" (The Way, No.866), mocks Voltaire (The Way, No. 849). His book In Love with the Church cites such questionable authorities such as the openly anti-democratic Pope Pius IX (This was the same Pius IX who ordered a young Jewish child kidnapped from his parents in Bologna and raised him in the Vatican to become a priest, all against his family's will).

Both The Way and In Love With The Church reflect some the movement's founder's most deeply held beliefs. Quite a few of them are clearly anti-democratic, favoring a view of society where the Catholic Church determines public policy for all.  

Yet John Allen amazingly fails to fully analyze Escriva's written declarations on these controversial issues, even though the book has an extensive discussion of Escriva and this thinking -- as you would expect since he was the founder of Opus Dei.  

Escriva strikes me as an autocrat whose dictums are often confused with what the Catholic faith should truly be about: serving God by treating each other with dignity and respect. Yet the founder's ego becomes apparent at page 25. There Allen defines the role of women in Opus Dei as "numerary assistants" whose job it is to cook and clean at the order's centers. The author does raise the point that many of Opus Dei's critics describe this as a form of discrimination. He then goes on to point out that in the group's view women are more attuned to cooking and cleaning (something I thought a bit strange since as with any young man who went away to college for a few years I did my own laundry, cleaned my own room and sometimes cooked for myself) but more importantly, since this is what Escriva' wanted it should not be changed.  

Other Important Omissions. Two other issues appear to be brushed over by Allen. The first being that of recruitment while the second being of banned books.  

While the author does a good job describing the process of becoming a member, many former members have complained about the intensity of Opus Dei recruiting methods. The recurring description is that of using "bait" to first attract new members, then to use undue pressure to keep members within the movement.  

Allen does devote a whole chapter to "Recruiting," even discussing the "bait" technique. But the predictable rehabilitation again takes place. After approximately five pages worth of bad experiences--including that of the Opus Dei Awareness Network's founder Diane DiNicola--the happy stories follow. The objective reader must begin to wonder if Allen simply stumbled on all these pro-Opus refutations or if he was directed to them by the prelature in anticipation of bad publicity.

As for the issue of forbidden books (discussed at pages 312-313) Allen fails to go deeper when it is required. Other than mentioning how one member was disturbed by another member reading, of all people, John Updike, the author never discusses other frowned upon writers. What more can be said of a sect that strongly discourages its members to read Locke, Rousseau or Voltaire?  

But whether Allen realizes it or not, an esoteric reading of Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church reveals a religious movement within the Catholic Church that believes in censorship, believes in the control of individuality and clearly desires a secular world that follows ultra-orthodox Catholic morality.  

John Allen's study must be read with one important thought in mind: Escriva' taught his followers to put away their scruples. That basis for skepticism can be found in his book The Way, Numbers 258 and 259. In light of this "ends justifies the means" mentality the many voices of rehabilitation too often relied upon by the author actually winds up betraying a cynical organizational ethic. Such a force as Opus Dei that asks its members and cooperators to put aside ethical considerations that inhibit action can only be seen as a threat to both the Church itself as well as the greater society it shares with others.  

The Catholic Right: A Series, by Frank Cocozzelli :  Part One  Part Two  Part Three   Part Four  Part Five  Part Six   Intermezzo   Part Eight  

(i)  As I observed in Part Two of this series, "These books also attack human sexuality (Opus Dei clergy such as Archbishop Myers of Newark are in the forefront of battles over biological issues such as choice and stem cell research) Escriva also taught his followers to put away their scruples (The Way, Nos. 258 and 259), seemingly teaching that the ends always justify the means. It must be remembered that Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are Straussians who are at the least Opus Dei "cooperators." Perhaps maxims 258 and 259 might explain Scalia's and Thomas's ability to abandon both their states' rights and strict constitutionalist constructionist principles in Bush vs. Gore. Clearly, much of what Escriva preached dovetails nicely with the neoconservative ideal of a society built upon religious orthodoxy."
(ii)  Wills, Garry, Why I am a Catholic, pages 243-244.

I've always found it more dangerous when a mainstream journalist buys into a fringe organization's spin than when someone else from the same part of such a group's part of the spectrum does the same.  That is just what John Allen has done with his book. And as a Catholic who has often found his past work stimulating, the was a great disappointment.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Sep 03, 2006 at 10:33:35 AM EST


Thank you again for the latest installment. I fear that the McCloskeys have too much clout in the Vatican at present. Interestingly enough, there was an editorial in this week's National Catholic Reporter that took Rockford bishop Thomas Doran to the woodshed for his heavy-handed attack on the Democratic Party (they called him Pat Buchanan without the panache.) In addition, they also took George Weigel to task and noted that Weigel and the other rightwing Catholics are unhappy with Pope Benedict as they feel that he has been insufficiently willing to act as a theological enforcer.  

On a related note, the quote you have from Garry Wills's Why I Am A Catholic mentions Archbishop John Myers. Myers, New York Archbishop Edward Egan and Bishop Hubbard of Albany (NY) are presently defendants in a lawsuit in federal court in New York in which the plaintiff, a priest, alleges Myers derailed his career and interfered with investigations of sexual abuse. The complaint in the lawsuit also alleges that Myers, Hubbard and Egan are closet cases who are trying to conceal their being gay. The only paper that reported on the allegations in detail was the Village Voice.


by khughes1963 on Sun Sep 03, 2006 at 06:32:56 PM EST

Just knowing you read this series with great interest makes it well worth the effort to research and write.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Sep 03, 2006 at 08:14:16 PM EST

I had the same impression of disappointment with the book.  I am still trying to decide if it is due to the sensational nature of the things I read before-was my mind made up already?  We had a family member involved (recruited at a young age at a technology oriented campus, using the methods described in the Tapia book).  I began reading about the organization (which I had not heard of until then) in order to try to understand what was happening to him.  It seemed that they controlled and manipulated him via his scruples and fears.  He was urged to hold out and pressure his wife until she fell into line on certain matters.  Of course, this, sadly ended their marriage (two little children lost their home!).  Very sad.  I guess that I cannot help but to be biased in a negative way toward Opus Dei, after that!  Thank you for illuminating some specific ways in which the book fell short- it helps to explain my general impression of it.  The practice of always letting them have the final rebuttal was a subtle but effective technique.

by Ginger on Tue Sep 05, 2006 at 01:31:13 PM EST
Your story is not uncommon. My cousin's brother-in-law was strongly recruited by Opus Dei. Luckily, when they began pumping him for money his wife put her foot down, got him away from them and kept their family together.

As a Catholc I think they go to extremes. One does not have to wear calices and deny oneself so much. All that is required is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. As Hillel observed, that is the whole Law; the rest is commmentary. Opus folks seem to be hung up on the commentary.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Tue Sep 05, 2006 at 01:59:19 PM EST

All that is required is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. As Hillel observed, that is the whole Law; the rest is commentary

That set of statements should be inscribed everywhere in a Church, and as many publication headings as possible, much as others have placed garlic to ward off Vampires.

With that as a foundation stone the right wing Authoritarian, of any denomination, has no place to stand.

by FreeDem on Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 10:51:23 AM EST

'nuff said.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Feb 26, 2007 at 07:44:52 PM EST

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