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Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church Hardcover – November 1, 2005

4.1 out of 5 stars 46 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

For readers of The Da Vinci Code, John Allen's book on Opus Dei may be something of a revelation. One opens it expecting to find at the very least GPS coordinates pinpointing albino monk training camps. Or perhaps full disclosure of untold wealth flowing through offshore bank accounts. Instead one finds exhaustive research, interviews and careful analysis that reveal a group alive with ideas and purpose, but a bit short on sinister plans. Removing the sense of mystery surrounding Opus Dei may not serve future thriller writers well, but the journey is fascinating in its own right. Allen's biography of Opus Dei is also necessarily a brief biography of Saint Josemaría Escrivá, born in Spain in 1902, whose vision of the sanctification of work gave birth to Opus Dei, or "The Work" as its members call it. The idea of finding sanctification through work was not original to Escrivá, but the power of his vision certainly brought it to a fuller realization within the Catholic church. Allen explores this central idea that "one can find God through the practice of law, engineering or medicine, by picking up the garbage or by delivering the mail, if one brings to that work the proper Christian spirit." For Escrivá sanctification flowed in equal measure both in and outside the walls of the church. Much of Allen's own work getting to know Opus Dei is done with numerous, wide-ranging personal interviews, from the halls of the Vatican, to Africa, to U.S. suburbs. Allen is also careful to include voices of ex-members. He recognizes the best way to dispel the aura of mystery surrounding Opus Dei is to shine a bright light on it, and with a remarkable degree of cooperation from Opus Dei itself, that is exactly what he does. His aggressiveness in countering conspiracy theory with information reaches its apex in the only slow-going chapter in the entire book, a survey of Opus Dei's financial holdings and activities where a double-shot of cappuccino is recommended before attacking the endless lists detailing financial information. Ultimately, Allen's work comes across as a balanced, perceptive inquiry into a group that, while perhaps not preferring the center stage limelight, does not suffer greatly when exposed to it.--Ed Dobeas

From Publishers Weekly

Allen, an author and journalist covering the Vatican, opens this exhaustive study of Opus Dei by describing the 85,491-member spiritual organization of clergy and lay people as the "Guinness Extra Stout of the Catholic Church"—"a strong brew, definitely an acquired taste, and clearly not for everyone." To undertake his examination of the group, Allen visited Opus Dei outposts around the world, conducting 300 hours of interviews with members and ex-members. He also lived for five days in an Opus Dei residence and had access to high-ranking officials and private correspondence from the organization's archives. Allen thoroughly explains the group's history and motivating ideas and carefully addresses such questions as its treatment of women, secrecy, financial holdings, wielding of church and political influence and recruiting practices, concluding with recommendations for ways to improve Opus Dei's image. Allen's balanced, even reporting sometimes borders on the clinical, as when he lists the numbers of Opus Dei members inside the Vatican or analyzes the group's finances. Harsh critics of the group and those expecting more titillating details may be disappointed, but readers who are curious about this often mysterious organization will find Allen's opus on "the Work of God" most informative. (Oct. 18)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday Religion (November 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385514492
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385514491
  • Product Dimensions: 7.8 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,544,537 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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The address for Opus Dei's headquarters in New York is given in Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code." Unfortunately, in yet another one the book's inaccuracies, Brown gives the location of the entrance to the women's quarters (which are separate because the members are celibate). The story is that many readers of Brown's book loiter outside this entrance, trying to get a "peek" into the mysterious world of Opus Dei. And what do the women members do? They invite them in for coffee, they answer all of their questions, and they give them literature so that these "gawkers" can learn more about the Prelature of Opus Dei.

John Allen's book is a door opening. He was apparently granted incredible access not only to members (some of whom might have rightly resented an intrusion into their religious practices, an inherently private matter), locations and history. The result speaks for itself. This book is not propaganda, but a look inside an organization that has touched (and continues to touch) many lives. These are "normal" people, friends, who want to cooperate with God and be the best human person they can be.

Although reading names of members will make this book appear "juicy" (kind of like the annual listings in Finland - released yesterday - of people's net worth or finding a list of country club members in your home town), the value of this book is how it represents a sort of Opus Dei "Glasnost" for the common man. Why are Opus Dei members given names like "numerary" or super-numerary"? Isn't that kind of "masonic"?? Short answer: they are common civil and academic terms used in Spain, where the founder of Opus Dei was born and raised. What is the purpose of Opus Dei? Doesn't it involve arcane rites and devious practices??
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Format: Hardcover
Unlike other reviews, this is not a debate on the merits and flaws of Opus Dei, that unique, fascinating and often-mysterious Catholic institution. Rather it is a review of the book itself and its literary and journalistic attributes.

The author, veteran "National Catholic Reporter" Vatican correspondent and noted CNN and NPR commentator, has fashioned a well-written and balanced journalistic exploration of the Church's most puzzling organizations. Opus Dei - maligned and venerated for both reality and perception - is given and objective and comprehensive look by a well-organized and polished writer/journalist. With a keen investigative eye, Mr. Allen interviewed numerous Opus Dei members, ex-members, supporters, critics, allies, and opponents to paint a comprehensive, yet nuanced portrait of the group, so prominently (and often erroneously) featured in contemporary fiction.

Mr. Allen's writing is clear: the reporting, thorough; and the style, brisk and engaging. As with his similar books, including CONCLAVE, ALL THE POPE'S MEN, and THE RISE OF BENEDICT XVI, this effort helps the reader develop a thorough understanding of the group, without either a stridently supportive or adversarial agenda. The objectivity is the greatest mark of a journalist and Mr. Allen ably meets the mark.
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Format: Hardcover
It's a cliché by now to say that someone has "wrestled" with a difficult question, but to the extent it can ever be applied appropriately, I believe this book merits it. John L. Allen has tacked a large and complex topic -- one that is surrounded in myth and mystery, brings out strong feelings from critics and defenders alike, and involves questions of deep, even eternal, importance. He has done it remarkably well.

I've read, I believe, all of John Allen's books, including both "Cardinal Ratzinger" and "The Rise of Benedict XVI," and one thing that has always stood out for me is his dedicated, even strenuous, objectivity. That's especially evident in this book. Readers expecting Allen to confirm the apparently ridiculous portrayal of Opus Dei in "The Da Vinci Code" (I haven't read that book myself) are sure to be disappointed. But other fair-minded readers should be satisfied with a study that neither whitewashes nor savages "the most controversial force in the Catholic Church."

Perhaps the most difficult part of Allen's task is solving the Rashomon dilemma: reconciling different observers' view of the same event or phenomenon. Part of the solution is Allen's deceptively simple conclusion that Opus Dei isn't right for everyone: behavior or doctrine some would see as controlling or stifling, others interpret as orderly, even helpful. There's also the difficult question of whether one person's individual experience is typical of the organization as a whole. As I said, Allen has wrestled with these questions, and clearly put a lot of thought and effort into how he asks and answers them. It's not for nothing that John Allen is so highly respected as a journalist and writer.
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Format: Hardcover
John Allen's book on Opus Dei is an exquisitely articulate analysis of the organization and its standing in the world. His portrayal of Opus Dei as a "strong brew, an acquired taste which is clearly not for everyone" is the freshness that his independent view brings to the discussion about Opus Dei. It is something that Opus Dei has not been willing to admit -- they insist they are a lay vocation for everyone. And although it is now in the public record, it is the opinion of an outsider, and quoting from John's book is not likely to help a pressured recruit convince his director to back-off.

Quite adroitly, John points out that Opus Dei has been caught up in post-Vatican II ideological wars and other "hot button issues" which have nothing to do with its message, but they do have an image problem and complaints from ex-members are too widespread in time and place to be brushed off as insignificant.

John has invested considerable effort researching his book and he lays to rest many of the wild rumors and stories about Opus Dei. In an attempt to be balanced, he tells the Opus Dei story from their point of view. He says that if you want to try to understand them, you have to hear the way they think of themselves. But he also documents a number of major challenges and recommendations to Opus Dei and goes on to lay out many of the complaints against Opus Dei, although he fails to capture the personal intensity involved when Opus Dei provokes a vocational crisis in a person and the level of psychological control they impose. And his suggestion that Opus Dei is like a Catholic "Rashomon", in which everyone describes it from his own point of view seems superficially inadequate.

In closing his book, John leaves everything in an upbeat note.
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