Breaking the tightrope of objectivity

time on opus deiI guess we’ll never find out whether Opus Dei is a scary “authoritarian and semi-clandestine enterprise” or merely a “teaching entity,” an “advanced school for Catholic spiritual formation.” In this era of postmodernism, where there is no truth, might both realities be presented as truth?

The cover story on Opus Dei in Time magazine this week was a letdown, but not completely unexpected. In portraying the group, Time presented little not already known. As Time attempted to balance both “truths” on the tightrope of objectivity, the rope broke and the story came crashing to the circus floor.

Time was no doubt inspired to explore the controversial Catholic group by the much-hyped movie The Da Vinci Code. Time based a great deal of its pro-Opus information on John Allen’s recently released book Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church (Doubleday). Time says it spoke freely with the organization, but little of the article is attributed to high-level Opus Dei officials.

As a side note, I would like to take issue with the title of the cover piece: “The Opus Dei Code” is quite similar to “Cracking the Opus Dei Code,” which our own Mollie Ziegler wrote in October 2005 for the New York Sun. Go figure. (By the way, Mollie’s piece, which covers a lot of the same ground as the Time article, raises some great issues with Allen’s book that Time failed to address.)

Back to my main complaint. The Time cover piece uses the well-known journalistic trick of taking both sides of an issue and presenting both as meriting equal levels of skepticism and credibility. And it does so unashamedly:

But Opus’ public relations offensive hasn’t quite managed to close the gap between what critics say it is about and its own version of the story. On one side there is “Octopus Dei,” or, as the current issue of Harper’s magazine puts it, “to a great extent … an authoritarian and semi-clandestine enterprise that manages to infiltrate its indoctrinated technocrats, politicos and administrators into the highest levels of the state.” On the other is the portrait painted by Opus’ U.S. vicar Thomas Bohlin, who sat for several hours with Time at his group’s Manhattan headquarters. Opus, he explained, is just a teaching entity, a kind of advanced school for Catholic spiritual formation with minimal global coordination or input as to how members and sympathizers apply what they learn. “You know Dale Carnegie courses?” he asked. “Businesses send their people there to learn to speak better, to organize — they teach all these kinds of things. People go there because they get something out of it, and then when they graduate, they don’t represent Dale Carnegie.”

ciliceJames Martin, an editor at the Jesuit publication America who has written critically about Opus, offers a middle ground between Dale Carnegie and the octopus: “Opus Dei provides members with an overarching spirituality for their life,” he suggests. “It’s an ongoing relationship that helps buttress and further shape the thought of people who are already conservative Catholics. That’s a powerful symbiosis, and there’s a personal connection between members, whether they’re housewives or politicians. It’s not an evil empire, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t serious issues that need to be addressed.”

A first journalistic pass, by Allen or Time, cannot fully resolve all those issues. But it can answer some of the questions that have long dogged the organization, and it may also show how The Da Vinci Code could end up helping Opus Dei.

On seven questions — How did it start? Who are these people? How secretive is Opus? How rich is it? How much power does it have? Do members really whip themselves? What about rumors of mind control? — Time does little more than spew out rumors and attempt to pin down answers.

disciplineFour mini-profiles, two of current “supernumeraries” (here and here) and two of disgruntled former members (here and here), are somewhat compelling because they put a real face on the subject. As a reporter, though, I always add an extra dose of skepticism toward disgruntled former members or employees of any organization. Sometimes what they have to say has real merit, other times the claims turn up bogus. That said, the official line can often carry just as little truth. Digging to the bottom of the story is what journalists are supposed to do, but for profiles, presenting both sides as equally valid is probably the best one can do.

While the Time package fails to live up to its billing, I was able to draw a couple of conclusions from the article. One is that a lot of the initial criticism of the group came from jealous and turf-protecting leaders in the Catholic Church when the group was founded in 1928. The other is that the rest of the criticism comes from disillusioned former members.

Opus Dei’s problem is not that it has encountered turf-protecting priests, or that people leave the group disappointed, but that it has been so secret for so many years. I don’t know the reasons why Opus Dei kept itself in the dark for so long, but if the whole Da Vinci Code drama is indeed responsible for getting Opus to open up to the public, as Time claims is the case, then the end result is good.

Print Friendly

  • Cheryl

    Compared to the review of Allen’s book in this month’s issue of Harpers (not online), the Time piece was downright “fair and balanced.”

    I take issue with some of the language, such as references to St. Josemaria Escriva’s “rigid adherence to Catholic teaching” and “dominance over members’ body mind and soul.” There was liberal use of words like “authoritarian” and “blind obedience.” Then there were the quotes from the Jesuit magazine America’s Fr. Martin about affliation serving to “butress and shape the thought of people who were already ‘conservative’ Catholics.” Under a definition of supernumeraries we are told that it “allows people to have families and live in their own homes.” As if in seeking this vocation one has to have permission to have a family and live in one’s own home.

    In the section on Opus Dei’s “future” we learn that one of the questions a circle of Opus Dei men reflects upon is ‘Do I restrain my curiosity?” followed by the journalists’ theory on why this “telling query” is somehow reflective of Opus Dei’s backward cultural stance and pervasive “negative energy.” Did anyone wonder whether the guys were perhaps thinking simply about the value of restraining their curiosity about the billboards in Times Square or available porn on their computers, I wonder?

    The overriding impression is that independent critical thought is rigidly supressed in Opus Dei, when of course the only way to arrive at a decision to live one’s life as an orthodox Catholic in today’s society is not only through faith but through critical thought. As Fr. Neuhaus of First Things often says, thinking with the church requires thinking.”

    I also loved the unnamed Roman prelate who remarks with confidence that Opus Dei’s approach is “preconciliar” and they “don’t want to dialogue with society as they find it,” when of course precisely the reverse is true. One of the central pillars of Vatican II is the “universal call to holiness,” and Opus Dei was ahead of the game on that by about four decades. And “dialoguing with society as they find it” is a central part of the organization’s mission.

    But of course, my favorite part was the full page photos of self-mortification devices! This is all most people are really interested in. Are members compelled to whip themselves or wear spiked chains? Inquiring minds want to know! (before they head off to practice the principle of “no pain no gain” at the gym or the plastic surgeon, that is :-)

    We live in a society that celebrates hard work and perseverance in just about everything but the spiritual life.

  • Kevin Jones

    Chances are the “curiosity” line in the OD members’ self-examination refers to Thomas Aquinas’ categorization of curiosity as the vice opposed to studiousness.
    Equivocal words are great fodder for journalistic misunderstanding.

  • Cheryl

    Kevin, you are no doubt correct. Thanks for the Aquinas primer.

    As for the whole secrecy reputation, it continues to baffle me. Perhaps things were quite different elsewhere in the past, but in our city they are in the phone book (under the center names) and clearly identify themselves as Opus Dei whenever they present an event, co-sponsor a lecture (often with the Newman Center), etc. The fact that the centers have rather generic names is perhaps unusual, but hardly nefarious (and completely consistent with the aim of “melting” into the world). More than once OD has been the subject of articles in our local press and OD people are unfailingly cooperative and open.

    It’s true they aren’t running recruitment ads and such, but why is private construed as secret? Most Catholics would probably agree that it is a virtue to be humble and unobtrusive when it comes to personal spiritual formation. That’s perhaps one of the reasons why OD people don’t shout their affiliation from the rooftops.

    My .02.

  • Dwight

    Could the term “disgruntled former members” be overused nowadays, offering an easy way to discredit, for example, the stories that many sincere, honest former cult members tell about their experience. The Family (formerly Children of God) and Scientology have convinced a group of scholars of New Religious Movements that they are only non-conformist but benign movements by suggesting that “disgruntled former members” are mentally unbalanced liars. Aren’t many sexual abuse victims of Catholic priests also “disgruntled former members,” but with true stories to tell? Can’t journalists and new religious movement scholars find a less prejudiced word than “disgruntled.” Just some thoughts.

  • scriblerus


    Looks like I’m coming a bit late to this discussion, though I did actually read the article. The piece gets dissected pretty well here. One thing that wasn’t brought up, though, is that the Time article nicely points out the difficulties of ever getting a handle on Opus Dei’s finances, since so much of it is in the hands of organizations to which they only provide spiritual direction, etc. I suspect this is another facet of the whole secretiveness discussion. They have all sorts of organizations but shield their presence in all sorts of ways.

  • Scott Allen

    Is a tendency toward secrecy part of RCC culture? For example, was resistance to educating the faithful, including translations/services in the common tongues, due to a concern with accuracy or was it due to a need to endow only priests with access to Scripture?
    It’s possible that the RCCs sacerdotal focus to the faith is why many catholics delight in “mysteries” and “miracles” instead of the Word, and why others find conspiracy accounts like the Da Vinci Code so believable. How many spooky movies use the premise that “the church suppressed this information” and has secret brotherhoods, etc.? These find fertile ground due to the RCC’s history. Opus Dei is just the latest successor in the grand tradition of using intrigue to make something seem more…intriguing.

  • clem

    I dont see why people believe they have to go through the same pain that Jesus Christ went through. It may be your religious beliefs but I dont understand the fact that people have to harm themselves to be closer to God. If you are a Christian, Catholic or a Jew, surely God will love you for loving him and not feel that you have to cause yourself pain to see what his son went through. Yes, Jesus went through pain at the crucifixion, but surely remembrance is good enough?

  • clem

    Just adding on…
    Opus Dei is a branch of the Catholic religon. I respect peoples beliefs and I know that The Da Vinci Code did exaggerate on the cilice. (blood running down the leg of the wearer.)It is my opinion that no one deserves to be in pain no matter what. I will always believe that and I will not accept Opus Dei’s rules of inflicting pain on the lower members of the religon!