Opus Dei: Secretive, powerful and growing

"Saints and Schemers: Opus Dei and Its Paradoxes," by Joan Estruch. Translated by Elizabeth Ladd Glick. 352 pages. New York: Oxford University Press. $27.50

On May 17, 1992, more than 200,000 people, including 33 cardinals and 200 bishops, assembled under the hot sun in Saint Peter's square to watch Pope John Paul II beatify Monsignor Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer. It was a mere 17 years after Msgr. Escriva's death and seemed to betoken a swift ascent to sainthood for the founder of Opus Dei, the secretive traditionalist organization within the Catholic Church whose ties reach from Franco Spain to Latin America and the Philippines, with allies as various as Belgium's Queen Fabiola, Italy's Northern League and influential members of the Vatican curia.


Within days, however, rumors surfaced that two of the nine judges assigned to Msgr. Escriva's cause had dissented from the decision and that they were overruled by the Pope, who, as Cardinal Wojtyla, had prayed at Escriva's tomb just before his election.

Other rumors suggested that the Spanish ecclesiastical tribunal collecting evidence about Msgr. Escriva's life had suppressed unfavorable witnesses to his vanity, hot temper and philo-Nazi -- sympathies. Gossip has it that, in the face of these charges of irregularities and unseemly haste, Pope John Paul II has agreed to let the final decision regarding Escriva's canonization await the next pontiff.


Now this is a good story. As a tale of intrigue, ""holy shamelessness" -- to use Msgr. Escriva's own phrase -- success and controversy, it encapsulates the public image of Opus Dei. Unfortunately, it is not in Joan Estruch's new study, ""Saints and Schemers: Opus Dei and Its Paradoxes."

There are two reasons: First, the Catalan edition went to press before any of this happened. Thus, the English edition treats in a short afterword Msgr. Escriva's beatification, the death of his successor in 1994, and the election of another Spaniard as its third leader.

The second reason is more telling. Academics can make any story dull, and sociologists possess that gift in the highest degree. Professor Estruch teaches sociology at the University of Barcelona and is director of its Research Center in Sociology of Religion.

With the best will in the world, he has turned out a sociological history of Opus Dei that, in all charity, can only be described as boring.

Larded with methodological references, professional jargon, and turning on unexplained points of canon law, the book hardly reaches out to the uninitiated.

This is an irony almost as paradoxical as any in the book because reaching out to the laity is what Opus Dei is all about. Officially founded in Spain in 1928 with a handful of adherents, Opus Dei, or the ""Work of God," was a pioneer in the movement of lay holiness.

Today, Opus Dei has 77,000 members in more than 80 countries including 3,000 members in the United States. Only 1,500

members are priests and bishops.


Nevertheless, the underlying vision of Opus Dei was -- and, arguably, remains -- "integrism," a union of church, society, and state opposed to religious pluralism.

To Estruch, they are a Catholic version of Max Weber's Protestant worldly ascetics whose thrifty habits led to the formation of modern capitalism.

Perhaps, but one expects no less of the followers of Msgr. Escriva, whose counsel, after all, was to "carry the cross with style."

* Marc M. Arkin is a law professor at Fordham University, the Jesuit University in New York City. She earned a doctorate in American religious history at Yale University, and has written extensively for journals of a general circulation as well as legal and historical scholarship.