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SHOW: Fresh Air
DATE: November 28, 2005
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In its short history, Opus Dei has become perhaps the most controversial group
within the Catholic Church. The basic principle behind Opus Dei is the
sanctification of work. But critics describe it as the secretive and cult-like
group whose real aims are the acquisition of political power, promoting a
right-wing agenda and financial gain. Opus Dei was portrayed as villainous in
the "The Da Vinci Code," the best-selling murder mystery novel about secret
religious societies. Opus Dei was founded in Spain in 1928 by Josemaria
Escriva. Now a saint, he was canonized by Pope John Paul in 2002.
My guest, John Allen, has written a new book called "Opus Dei" that tries to
separate the myths from the reality. Allen is the Vatican correspondent for
the National Catholic Reporter. He's a Vatican analyst for CNN and is the
author of several books about the Vatican.
Let's start with how members of Opus Dei define Opus Dei. Would you describe
the role of work in Opus Dei?
Mr. JOHN ALLEN (Author, "Opus Dei"): Well, Terry, this is one of those points
where perceptions of Opus Dei from the outside and from the inside tend to
differ dramatically. From the outside, Opus Dei often looks like a
conservative organization intended to advance a particular agenda either inside
the Catholic Church or in the sphere of secular politics. From the inside,
however, Opus Dei is much more a private spiritual path, the heart of which is
the idea of the sanctification of work. That is, whatever your work is,
whether it's being a stay-at-home mom, being a barber, being a bus driver,
being the CEO of General Motors or hosting a famous National Public Radio radio
program, that that is where God has called you to be.
And those are the moments in which you are called to do three things. One is
to sanctify yourself. That is, make yourself holy by taking this work
seriously, trying to do your very best. Sanctify others by taking an interest
in them, not just as automatons or not just as colleagues but as human beings.
And sanctify the world by using this work as a way to bring a kind of holiness
and a sense of reverence and so on to the highways and byways of the secular
world. In the--members of Opus Dei would see themselves as remarkably free in
how they go about it. That is, there's no corporate plan for that. What they
get from Opus Dei is a kind of spiritual and doctrinal formation, and they're
sort of turned loose on the world.
GROSS: As you point out in your group, some people might think that Opus Dei
sounds like a traditional group in some ways, but it's really not traditional
because it redefines lay life. What is different about Opus Dei's view of the
Mr. ALLEN: Well, I mean, there's a sense in which I think it's probably fair to
call Opus Dei traditional in the sense that in the kind of culture wars inside
Roman Catholicism since the Second Vatican Council--that is, the mid-1960s when
the church embarked on this reforming, modernizing, liberalizing path--I mean,
Opus Dei certainly would represent a more traditional alternative to the kind
of progressive wing of the church in that time.
But if you take a broader historic view and go back to the church of the late
1920s and 1930s when Opus Dei was born, it really was quite a revolution
because the idea at the heart of Opus Dei is that you would have men and women,
clergy and laity, all sharing the same vocation, all fully equal inside this
organization and all under one kind of administrative and legal roof, and this
was something that had never happened in Roman Catholicism before. It was
always believed that if lay people were going to be part of some organization,
they had to do so in a kind of derivative way, taking direction from clergy.
And certainly in Spain in the late '20s and '30s, the idea was that if a lay
person was going to act as a Catholic in law or in medicine or in politics,
that that lay person certainly needed to be taking very clear direction from
someone wearing a Roman collar. And Opus Dei sort of set that on its head, so
much so that in '30s and '40s Spain there were actually accusations of heresy
directed against Opus Dei and its founder. And they were at one stage
denounced to the Vatican as a kind of liberal avant-garde in Roman Catholicism.
GROSS: There's several different groups of people, several different levels of
belonging, so to speak, within Opus Dei. Can you give us brief descriptions of
what each of them are?
Mr. ALLEN: Sure. The basic distinction between the lay members of Opus Dei,
which is about 90 percent of the organization, would be between the
supernumeraries and the numeraries. These are terms that come out of Spanish
academic life in the early 20th century. And basically speaking, these
supernumeraries, or about 70 percent of the members, would be married lay
people who live out in the world who have jobs, who have families and, from any
kind of external point of view, are completely indistinguishable from the rest
of the world. They do not make promises of celibacy or of poverty or so on.
Then you have the roughly 20 percent of members who are numeraries. These are
lay people who live full time--that is, 24 hours a day, seven days a week--in
Opus Dei centers. Some of them will have outside jobs, some of them don't, but
they are 100 percent available, so to speak, to the work of Opus Dei. They do
make promises of celibacy and they also make promises not quite of poverty but
to turn over whatever they don't need of their personal earnings to some of the
corporate works of Opus Dei, such as their schools and their social service
centers and so on.
Then, of course, there are the 10 percent who are priests who live a life that
basically is quite similar to the numeraries.
GROSS: There's also a group--I think they're called auxiliaries, a group of
women who decide themselves to cooking and cleaning Opus Dei facilities.
Mr. ALLEN: Right. These are a subset of the numeraries, and they're--you're
quite right, Terry. There are about 4,000 women, and they are exclusively
women inside Opus Dei whose full-time work is what they call the domestic care
of Opus Dei centers. And practically that means--in some cases it means the
financial management of large centers, but it also often means very concretely
the cooking, the cleaning, you know, the laundry, making beds and so on. It
should be said this is not simply a case of the women cleaning up after the
men, because women do the same thing for women's centers. But yet it is a kind
of striking thing in the early 21st century that you have an institution, a
kind of subclass of members within an institution whose task is to cook and
clean that is restricted entirely to women.
GROSS: And what is the thinking behind that?
Mr. ALLEN: Well, I suppose there are two points that are typically made when
you talk--and I interviewed several of this particularly kind of numerary as I
moved around the world. And what I found is, the first thing they will tell
you is that for them, this is analogous to being a mother. That is, that they
feel like they're acting as a mother of the particular family where they live.
That is, the Opus Dei center or the residence or what have you. And so they
see it as analogous to being, you know, a stay-at-home mom.
Secondly, if you press them as to why it has to be women, the answer that
typically is given is that women simply have a kind of special genius for
domestic care from nurture and so on that in most cases men lack, and that is a
kind of, you know, traditionalist conception of things in some ways that is
awfully countercultural in the world in which we live, but it is what they say.
And then finally, if you really press beyond that, what they'll tell you is
that this was the vision of St. Josemaria Escriva. That is, the founder of
Opus Dei. And in my experience, when you're talking with Opus Dei members
about various issues in terms of the internal life of Opus Dei, this is sort of
where argument ends, that they are often quite willing, surprisingly willing,
to be flexible and open about many points. But if you rub up against something
that was part of the specific vision of the founder, Escriva, then that usually
is where argument stops.
GROSS: But this leads to a larger gender issue within Opus Dei, this strict
gender segregation for the people who live in Opus Dei facilities. Obviously,
if you live with your family, then you can live with your spouse and be with
your children. But for everyone else, you know, for the people who live in
Opus Dei facilities, strict gender separation. What is the logic behind that?
Mr. ALLEN: There is a kind of rigid segregation. Now we're talking again among
the numerary members. That's about 20 percent of the members, a rigid
segregation between men and women. And I'll give you one classic example. When
I went to the New York headquarters of Opus Dei at 34th and Lex in Manhattan to
interview the woman who is the American head of Opus Dei, I was--well, it's one
building, but they have separate men's and women's quarters. And so the male
numerary who was walking me over to my appointment actually had to walk me out
of the building and around the block to come back in through another door, and
then told me he was very excited to have this opportunity because although he
and this woman had lived in the same building for three years, he'd never met
her. And this is actually not at all uncommon. And it does--again, I say, for
a kind of, you know, modern Western 21st-century take on things, this seems
Now there is both a historical logic, which is that in the history of the
Catholic Church, the idea of having men and women as members of one organic
body under the same leadership simply didn't exist before. You know, you may
have male Dominicans and female Dominicans, but they're completely separate
under a separate leadership and have nothing to do with one another. And the
concern always was that if you had men and women in the same organization
rubbing shoulders that that might lead to what was called in the old days
promiscuity. And so Josemaria Escriva's answer to that was to raise a wall of
separation between men and women so high inside Opus Dei that promiscuity would
seem laughable. And in so doing, he probably saved his original vision of Opus
Dei as this one organic body unified between men and women and clergy and lay
I suppose the other practical reality, if you ask women inside Opus Dei about
this separation, they will tell you that it gives them a kind of autonomy. That
is that they are completely separate from the men's branch; they run their own
affairs; they manage their own resources; they make their own decisions and
never have the sensation that a man is looking over the shoulder secretly
calling the shots. And so in that sense, they will tell you that the
separation is experienced by them as a kind of freedom.
GROSS: Do the men and women's groups have equal powers within the larger
Mr. ALLEN: Well, yes and no. There are governing bodies for both the men and
the women who have the same powers over the men and women's branches. However,
ultimately, Opus Dei is what's called a personal prelature in the Catholic
Church, which means it is governed over by a prelate, who is usually a bishop.
In the current case, it's Bishop Echevarria--Javier Echevarria, who is the
personal secretary of Escriva, which means that ultimately, at the end of the
day, when you get down to where does the buck stop, the buck stops on the desk
of the bishop who is, by definition, a man. However, I mean, one should hasten
to add that that doesn't make Opus Dei any different than the rest of the
GROSS: My guest is John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic
Reporter. His new book is called "Opus Dei." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Allen. He's the Vatican
correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and author of the new book
Now another thing that makes Opus Dei controversial is the practice of
mortification, self-mortification, which I'm going to ask you to describe.
Describe how it's done within Opus Dei.
Mr. ALLEN: Well, if you wanted to be sort of flippant about it, you would say
it's a matter of whips and chains. That is to say, there are two practices of
so-called corporal mortification--that is, inflicting pain on oneself--that a
minority of members of Opus Dei--again, it's just the numeraries and the
priests, so about 30 percent of the members practice. The first is called the
cilice. This is a spiked chain that is worn around the thigh for two hours a
day, except for Sundays. Sunday are considered a kind of mini feast day. And
then there is a small cloth whip called the discipline that one administers to
oneself once a week, usually on Saturday, during the recitation of a prayer,
like the Lord's prayer or the Hail Mary. So in other words, it's a very quick
thing that might endure a matter of a few minutes once a week.
Now, you know, when you ask Opus Dei people, `Why do these things?,' they will
tell you, first of all, that it's hardly just Opus Dei that does them. Many of
the great saints in the history of the church, from St. Francis all the way up
to Mother Teresa, have used the discipline. They'll also tell you that it's
about reminding oneself of the consequences of sin, identifying with the
suffering of Christ and the suffering of the world. They will tell you that
these are very mild practices that are constantly scrutinized to make sure that
they don't get out of hand.
Now if you ask critical ex-members of Opus Dei, they will tell you that
sometimes, they have, in fact, gotten out of hand, that sometimes, they have
been pushed too far. If you ask most spiritual directors in the Catholic
Church outside of Opus Dei--that is, moderate mainstream people--they will tell
you that they find the practice of corporal mortification, at best, strange
and, at worst, possibly counterproductive, because if you really want to enter
into the suffering of the world, you don't necessarily need to whip yourself.
You could go serve at a soup kitchen or you could work at a homeless shelter
and so on. So I would say this is a practice for which Opus Dei has some
warrant, but it's certainly something that is widely debated in Catholic
GROSS: Critics of Opus Dei and some ex-members of Opus Dei have compared it to
a cult group. What are the comparisons?
Mr. ALLEN: First of all, let me say that if you talked to academic experts on
new religious movements, they will tell you that `cult' is really a word that
often functions for a religious phenomenon that someone doesn't like; that is,
it's very difficult to define exactly what is meant by a cult. But I suppose
in the street sense of cult, people think of, you know, mind control, excessive
control over members, a kind of blind, unthinking obedience that is expected
and so on. And this is, again, one of those cases where I think there perhaps
is some reality to these perceptions, although that reality is experienced very
differently, depending on who you talk to.
Let's talk about the facts. First of all, it is a fact that for numerary
members of Opus Dei--again, that's that 20 percent of lay people who live in
Opus Dei centers--you know, they are expected to consult with other members of
Opus Dei before reading certain kinds of books. They are expected to disclose
details of their personal lives in spiritual direction with other members. They
live in close quarters with one another, and there is a just kind of oversight,
if you like, or a sacrifice of privacy and of control over one's time and space
that is just part and parcel of that experience.
Now if you talk to most Opus Dei members about that and you ask them how do
they experience it, they will tell you they find it incredibly liberating. They
find it life-giving. They find it joyful, that they feel like they have given
their lives over to a very noble purpose, which is serving Christ, serving the
church, serving humanity and that these demands that are placed upon them help
them live the kind of life they want to live.
Now if you ask critical ex-members, who have gone through the very same
experiences, they will often tell you that they found it invasive, they found
it demeaning, they found it overly controlling, and in some ways, they found it
an unhuman set of expectations that, in the end, kind of crushed them and
ground them down. I think this is one of those cases where it's almost
impossible to believe that one side is lying and the other is telling the
truth. I think both are accurately describing their own reactions to a kind of
common set of experiences.
GROSS: Does Opus Dei try to restrict the books or the music or the TV shows,
movies that its members are allowed to see?
Mr. ALLEN: Well, you have to very quickly distinguish between the
supernumeraries who are married, living out in the world in their own homes and
who are effectively beyond anyone's control, and the numeraries who are living
in Opus Dei centers and who, therefore, can be monitored, so to speak, much
more closely. In the case of the numeraries, yes, there is an expectation that
before they read certain kinds of books, certainly any books on the faith or
morals of the Catholic Church, they would consult an Opus Dei database about
books to see what other members have said about it and perhaps be warned off of
it. There is an expectation among numeraries that they're not going to go to
movies, they're not going to go to sporting events and, for the most part, they
don't watch much television, except the occasional news program or documentary.
And this is, in effect, to protect them, so to speak, from unwanted outside
influences that might distract them from their spiritual path.
If you talk to current members, they will tell you that all those controls have
freed them up to live the kind of life, to make the kind of choices, to become
the kind of people that they believe God wants them to become, and therefore,
they experience it as a very positive rather than a very controlling thing.
GROSS: Opus Dei is not officially a political group, but do you think it's fair
to say that the majority of the members of Opus Dei are very conservative in
their political positions?
Mr. ALLEN: Yes, I do. And I think you make exactly the right distinction. I
mean, it was an article of faith for Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus
Dei, that corporately speaking, Opus Dei would never have a political line,
that those conclusions would be left to the freedom of its members. And so
officially speaking, they don't have any positions on tax policy or social
policy or whatever. But certainly informally, if you look at the sociology of
the kind of person who becomes an Opus Dei member, I think it's quite fair to
say that both on church matters and also on secular, political matters, the
center of gravity overwhelmingly would be on the right.
GROSS: And how active is Opus Dei on the political right?
Mr. ALLEN: Well, I don't think Opus Dei as such is active, but certainly there
are some Opus Dei members who are quite active. You know, one thinks, for
example, of England, where the education minister, Ruth Kelly, therefore, one
of the top officials of the Blair government, is an Opus Dei supernumerary.
One thinks of Peru, where the leader of one of the strongest opposition parties
in the parliament, a guy by the name of Rafael Rey, is a numerary. And there
are other examples in other parts of the world.
So there certainly are some individual Opus Dei members who are quite engaged
in politics. For the most part, they would be part of right-leaning parties.
You know, what makes Ruth Kelly such an interesting phenomenon in England, of
course, is that she's part of Blair's Labor Party and, therefore, you know, in
a big-picture sense, sort of center left. Most Opus Dei members involved in
politics would be on the other side of the street.
GROSS: What about in the United States? Who are some of the prominent figures
here who are members of Opus Dei?
Mr. ALLEN: Well, to tell you the truth, there aren't that many. I think it's
easier to talk about people who have been linked to Opus Dei who are not. You
know, for example, justices Scalia and Thomas on the United States Supreme
Court have sometimes been rumored to be Opus Dei members. In the course of
work for the book, you know, both of them, through aides, indicated that they
were not Opus Dei members. The political columnist and TV pundit Robert Novak
has sometimes been linked to Opus Dei. He is, in fact, not a member, directly
denied it to me. Senator Sam Brownback, who is a recent convert to the
Catholic Church and was assisted in that process by an Opus Dei priest, has
sometimes been assumed, therefore, to be a member of Opus Dei. He isn't. So
frankly, the list of politically active Opus Dei members in the United States
is a very short one and, frankly, at the national level, in terms of names
people would have heard of, I'm not sure that they have anyone.
GROSS: John Allen is the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic
Reporter. His new book is called "Opus Dei." He'll be back in the second half
of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, the relationship between the Vatican and Opus Dei. We
continue our conversation with John Allen. Also, Maureen Corrigan reviews a
collection of writings on politics, family and fate by the late Marjorie
Williams. And Ken Tucker reviews the new album by the Detroit Cobras.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with John Allen, Vatican
correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. His new book "Opus Dei"
tries to separate the facts from the myths surrounding this controversial
Catholic group. The group Opus Dei was founded on the ideal of the
sanctification of work, but critics maintain that Opus Dei is cult-like and has
a right-wing political agenda. When we left off, Allen was saying that
although Opus Dei is not a political group, it's members tend to be
conservative in their political positions and some of them are politically
In speaking of the political influence of Opus Dei, I'd like to ask you about
the Catholic Information Center on K Street in Washington DC and this is a
group that's active in lobbying for--I believe anyways, that it's active in
lobbying for conservative causes and it's located in the heart of American
political lobbying. And although it's not an Opus Dei organization, it has
been run for several years by members of Opus Dei. And, in fact, it was one of
those leaders of this group who's a member of Opus Dei who, I think, brought
Congressman Sam Brownback either into Catholicism or into a more conservative
form of Catholicism and also Robert Novak, the political columnist.
Mr. ALLEN: Yeah, well, the Catholic Information Center, at the heart of it, is
a bookstore which is run by Opus Dei priests. At one stage, it was run by a
priest by the name of Father John McCloskey, who was probably the most
prominent Opus Dei member in the United States. It was Father McCloskey who
was involved in bringing Senator Brownback and bringing Mr. Novak and others
into the Catholic church, though not into Opus Dei. I would say the Catholic
Information Center isn't so much a lobby as it is a crossroads for conservative
Catholic political operatives of all sorts. I mean, if you go into the
noontime mass there, you will meet conservative Catholic legislators. You will
meet conservative Catholic lobbyists, people who work at think tanks, you know,
policy analysts and so on. It's a place where, in a sense, they network. And
in that sense, I think Opus Dei more broadly and in a microcosm form in this
particular place, the Catholic Information Center on K Street, provides, in a
sense, a kind of space in which conservative Catholic political activists and
thinkers met and greet.
GROSS: Let me ask you about the relationship between the Catholic church and
Opus Dei. Pope John Paul canonized the founder of Opus Dei, who is now a
saint. The relationship was not always that close. When the religion was
founded, the relationship was not close between Opus Dei and the larger church,
Mr. ALLEN: Well, I think every new reality in the Catholic church, you know,
often runs into the slings and arrows of opposition and certainly that was true
of Opus Dei. It was born in Spain in 1928, and as it grew up it quickly became
the principal rival, so to speak, of the Jesuit order--that's the older,
established Jesuit community religious order--for vocations among young Spanish
men. And so there was a tremendous kind of back and forth rivalry, very bitter
at times, between the Jesuits and Opus Dei that, in some ways, has lasted in
some parts of the world to the present day. And so, in that sense, I mean,
Opus Dei has certainly had its, you know, its ups and downs in terms of
reception in the broader Catholic world.
But I think in many ways all of that came to a end under John Paul II in the
sense that if there were any doubt that Opus Dei had the official approval of
the leadership of the Roman Catholic church, that certainly was resolved under
John Paul. He created Opus Dei as a personal prelature, giving them a very
special status under church law that no one else enjoys, in 1982. He beatified
Josemaria Escriva, the founder, in 1992 and then canonized him in 2002. In
other words, there was a major gesture of papal support and favor at a rhythm
of once every 10 years under John Paul II. No other organization could point
to that kind of clear public endorsement.
GROSS: Do you know why the pope was such a supporter of Opus Dei?
Mr. ALLEN: Yes. John Paul actually had never met either Josemaria Escriva or
Opus Dei in Poland. Actually, Opus Dei didn't arrive in Poland until well
after John Paul was elected pope. But he had been reading Escriva, reading his
works for some time. You have to understand that Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the
man who became John Paul II, came out of the matrix of the solidarity
experience in Poland and probably his number-one theological concern was coming
up with a Christian spirituality of work that would, in a sense, counter the
Marxist reading of work, that is that work is an alienating reality that is
imposed upon the working class by the rulers. Wojtyla, John Paul II, wanted to
come up with a theological reading of work that would be much more positive,
that would actually see work as a kind of participation in the ongoing creation
of the world. And he found in Josemaria Escriva someone who was thinking along
the same lines, someone for whom the sanctification of work and the
spirituality of work was at the heart of his own reflections. And so there was
always a kind of sense of kindred spirit, I think, between John Paul II and
The day before the conclave, that is the event that elects the pope, the first
one in 1978 that elected John Paul I, Cardinal Wojtyla, his last stop before
heading into the conclave to vote for the next pope was to pray at the tomb of
Escriva at the Roman headquarters of Opus Dei in Villa Tevere. So I think
there was a clear, personal biographical affection and connection, if you like,
between that pope and this movement that explains why he favored it at every
GROSS: Is Pope Benedict XVI as sympathetic to Opus Dei?
Mr. ALLEN: Well, I think Benedict XVI supports Opus Dei, but I don't think he
has anything like the deep personal connection to it that John Paul II did.
Benedict's heart is very much with another new movement in the 20th century
history of the Catholic church called Communion and Liberation. So while, I
think, Pope Benedict will continue to support and endorse the activities of
Opus Dei, it will not have--that is Opus Dei--will not have the direct pipeline
to the papacy that it had under John Paul II. I think some observers think
that that might be all for the good, that part of the reason Opus Dei was so
controversial in the Catholic church over the last 26 years was that for people
who had a kind of negative judgment of the pope, that pretty automatically
became a negative judgment of Opus Dei and vice-versa. If there's some
distance between Opus Dei and the pope, as there certainly will be under this
pontificate, then perhaps people can make evaluations that are more directly
focused on Opus Dei in and of itself.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Allen. He's the Vatican
correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and author of several books.
His latest is called "Opus Dei."
Some people who have tried to write about Opus Dei have complained that the
organization is so secretive it's hard to really get to the bottom of things.
Did you find it to be secretive and were there obstacles that you faced in
trying to paint a full picture of Opus Dei?
Mr. ALLEN: Well, you know, I had insisted on getting a pledge of complete
cooperation from Opus Dei before I began this project. And I would say that,
you know, for the most part they held up their end of the deal. The problem
with Opus Dei often isn't so much that it's secretive. It's that it has its
own way of seeing itself that is just very foreign and makes getting even basic
information quite difficult.
For example, Opus Dei would take the position that all of their schools and
their hospitals and their social service centers are locally run enterprises
that are administered by lay people in complete freedom for which Opus Dei
Incorporated, you know, has no responsibility. So that if you go to Opus Dei
in the United States and you say, `I would like a consolidated financial
statement for all of the Opus Dei schools and hospices and so on in the states,
it simply doesn't exist. Opus Dei doesn't collect that information. And the
same thing is true at the international level. So to get a financial profile
of Opus Dei in the states, I and my financial expert had to run around and
collect the 990 forms of every separately incorporated, nonprofit organization
in the country that had some kind of link to Opus Dei. We had to jump through
the same hoops worldwide.
Or on the question of membership, you know, often in the course of public
conversation about prominent people the question will arise: Is he or she a
member of Opus Dei? Opus Dei has the position that when it comes to its
supernumerary members, that's the 70 percent of members who are married and
living out in the world with their own families and so on, that it's a private
choice whether or not that person wants to reveal their membership, which means
that you can never get this information from the organization. You actually
have to go member by member asking the question one person by one person and it
can be an extraordinarily time-consuming process.
So, you know, if you ask me are there times that I felt I wasn't getting
information I wanted? Yeah, that happened actually with some frequency. But I
don't think it's because they were trying to pull the wool over my eyes. I
think it's because they're trying to live a life based on a set of premises
that is just very, very different from how a corporation or a kind of NGO--you
know, a typical NGO in the West--would organize itself. And given those
different points of departure, it can sometimes be difficult to figure out
what's going on.
GROSS: What did you learn about the finances of Opus Dei?
Mr. ALLEN: Oh, simply that there's a lot less `their' there than most people
imagine. I mean, Opus Dei's total assets in the United States--that is, the
value of all of its buildings, all of its real estate, pens and pencils,
everything it owns--is about 340 million. Now, by way of comparison, a major
urban archdiocese in the United States would have assets that are well over a
billion dollars. Or, to take another comparison, the Knights of Columbus,
which is a lay Catholic organization predominantly American, has an insurance
program that all by itself is worth more than 6 billion. So by those points of
comparison, Opus Dei is simply not the kind of mammoth financial octopus that
some people imagine. The most liberal estimate of its worldwide assets is
about 2.8 billion, which again is much less than the assets of even midsized
nonprofit groups, foundations in the United States and elsewhere. So while
those give it some resources, it simply does not have the massive bags of cash
that some people have imagined.
GROSS: What is the money used for?
Mr. ALLEN: Largely to operate what are called Opus Dei's corporate works. It
runs a network of schools that is K to 12, in some cases, schools and
universities. It has a series of hospices and hospitals. It has a series of
social service centers. For example, there's something called the Metro Center
in Chicago that works with poor African-American and Hispanic youth in an
after-school tutoring and sports program trying to keep them out of gangs and
give them an advantage in terms of eventual college admissions. And so the
vast majority of Opus Dei's resources are plowed back into running those
activities. In addition to the centers of Opus Dei, those are the residences
where the numeraries live all around the world, which is kind of the basic
building block of Opus Dei.
GROSS: What reaction have you gotten to your book from members of Opus Dei?
Mr. ALLEN: Well, I think there is a kind of split inside Opus Dei with regard
to the book. I think--some members have told me that they very much appreciate
what they see as a kind of balanced attempt to be fair in the book, and some
have actually said they've learned from seeing an outsider trying to describe
their life and their mentality and so on.
I think other members of Opus Dei have a hard time seeing some of these
controversies we've been talking about today--the money, the women, the power
and so on--they feel they've been through that so many times that it's a bit
like somebody just, you know, ripping open a wound that hasn't yet healed, and,
therefore, would see the book as perhaps being a bit too sensationalistic and a
bit too focused on what they would see as problems as opposed to strengths.
You know, I mean, at the end of the day, one person's balance is another
person's excess in one direction or another and I think you see that reflected
also in attitudes in members of Opus Dei about this project.
GROSS: John Allen, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. ALLEN: Terry, thanks for having me. It was a pleasure.
GROSS: John Allen is the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic
Reporter. His new book is called "Opus Dei." You can read an excerpt on our
Web site, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews a new CD by The Detroit Cobras, a
group known for their wild versions of other people's songs. This is FRESH
TERRY GROSS, host:
The Detroit Cobras are, as their name says, based in Detroit and specialize in
raucous covers of other people's songs. Reviews of the group, who have now put
out three CDs, often emphasize their raunchy, bad-girl image courtesy of lead
singer Rachel Nagy and guitarist Mary Ramirez. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a
review of their new album "Baby" and some thoughts on the pros and cons of not
writing your own material.
(Soundbite of music)
THE DETROIT COBRAS: (Singing) I want to hear you say yeah. I want to marry you
more than all those other boys, because I love you more than a
(unintelligible). And if we are the real thing, another thing I want to hear
you say yeah, 'cuz I want to...
KEN TUCKER reporting:
For as long as rock 'n' roll has existed, white rockers have been covering
black rhythm and blues songs. But as rock has evolved, it became not merely a
point of pride, but a proof of talent for rock musicians to compose their own
material. The Detroit Cobras, however, reject this notion. Instead, rummaging
through the pop, soul, R&B canon and unearthing slightly obscure rich songs,
road testing them in front of audiences by constant touring and then getting
their interpretations down in the studio with as much of their live energy as
(Soundbite of "Slippin' Around")
THE DETROIT COBRAS: (Singing) It's so romantic, slipping around, yes. And it's
so enchanting, stars shining down. We're makin' love 50 miles from town.
(Unintelligible) I ever knew. She jumped in the river and drowned. Slippin'
around, slippin' around, slippin' around with you. Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
TUCKER: That's The Detroit Cobras' version of the Dan Penn-Spooner Oldham song
"Slippin' Around." Penn and Oldham are the authors of better-known hits like
James and Bobby Purify's "I'm Your Puppet" and the Box Tops' "Cry Like a Baby."
One thing I like about The Cobras is that they don't pick obscure oldies just
for the sake of proving their coolness or their scholarship. They pick sturdy
should-have-been hits like that one or this one, a rouser by no less that Isaac
Hayes, Steve Cropper and David Porter and originally recorded in 1966 by Ruby
Johnson called "Weak Spot."
(Soundbite of "Weak Spot")
THE DETROIT COBRAS: (Singing) There he is, standin' in the crowd. Whenever I
see him I want to scream I love you out loud. The man is my weak spot. Sure
'nuff he's my weak spot. I said the man is my weak spot. I mean I love him.
Oh, I mean I love him.
TUCKER: When a vocalist like Nagy roars through a song, cliches like
whiskey-soaked or allusions to smokey cigarettes tend to crop up in reviews.
There's the implication that Rachel Nagy is pushing a loose woman persona when
she sings about raunchy sex as though this was something novel, all of which
just gets in the way of appreciating The Cobras' meticulous musicianship. It
takes a lot of skill to make songs sound so tossed off and yet as stirring as
most of this album can be. Then again, the one original tune on the album is
their sloppiest, a genially silly double entendre joke called "Hot Dog (Watch
(Soundbite of "Hot Dog (Watch Me Eat) ")
THE DETROIT COBRAS: (Singing) Come on, baby. I got no time to waste. Come on,
baby. You're gonna like it once you get a taste. I've gotta a feelin' in my
heart that somethin' good is about to start and there's a hot dog, hot dog,
watch me eat a hot dog. Hot dog, hot dog, come on let's eat a hot dog. You
bring the drinks...
TUCKER: During the heyday of punk rock in the 70s there was a parallel
movement, a revival of white R&B and rockabilly bands who sped up the tempo of
the oldies that they covered. In LA, where I lived at the time, I knew that
Billy Zoom, the guitarist for that town's best punk band X, had been recruited
from a rockabilly band and another group, The Blasters, switched easily between
the two forms. In a similar way now, The Detroit Cobras infuse old music with
fresh energy, making the very term "oldie" irrelevant. This is music that
exists in an eternal present, living and vital, ageless.
(Soundbite of music)
THE DETROIT COBRAS: (Singing) It's rainin' so hard look like it's gonna rain
all night, and this is the time I'd love to be holdin' you tight, but I guess
I'll have to accept the fact that you're not here. I wish tonight would hurry
up and end, my dear. It's rainin' so hard, it's really comin' down. Sittin'
by my window watchin' the rain fall on the ground. This is the time I'd love
to be holdin' you tight. I guess I'll just go crazy tonight. It's rainin' so
GROSS: Ken Tucker is film critic for New York magazine. He reviewed "Baby" by
The Detroit Cobras.
Coming up: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews a collection of writings on
family, politics and fate by the journalist Marjorie Williams who died of liver
cancer earlier this year. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Marjorie Williams was a Washington journalist who wrote profiles for Vanity
Fair, a weekly column for The Washington Post's op-ed page and book reviews for
the online magazine Slate. In 2001 Williams, who was to all appearances in
terrific health, was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer. Against the odds,
she survived three and a half more years. She died this past January at the
age of 47. Williams' husband, Timothy Noah, who is a senior writer at Slate,
has put together a collection of her writings, some pieces published for the
first time in this collection. The collection is called "The Woman at the
Washington Zoo." Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
We're having a technical problem with that review so just give us a moment and
we'll have it ready for you. The book, again, is a book by Marjorie Williams
and here comes Maureen's review of it.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
There's the great Lorri Moore short story about a dancer who's ill. I've
forgotten the title of the story but there's one line in it I've always
remembered. It reads "Dance is life giving death the finger." That line began
running through my head after I read the first few pieces by Marjorie Williams
collected in "The Woman at the Washington Zoo." Williams' sentences dance.
They're acrobatic, graceful and sassy. Her sentences, so full of vitality,
give death the finger even as, in the final section of this collection, they
also give death its due.
You don't have to have been aware of Marjorie Williams' work before her most
untimely death this year to be utterly absorbed by the pieces in "The Woman at
the Washington Zoo." As a reading experience, it's a call not to respectful
tribute, but to pleasure and enlightenment. Williams' husband and the editor
of this collection, Timothy Noah, opens it with a selection of the brilliant
political profiles Williams wrote for The Washington Post and Vanity Fair
during the Bush I and Clinton administrations. Reading them is like
reacquainting yourself with the once familiar rogues gallery of Washington
insiders like Vernon Jordan and Richard Darman, characters who still fascinate
because their personalities are so outsized.
Williams' profile of Barbara Bush is particularly sharp considering, as it
does, the noted schism between the former first lady's public image, now
somewhat eroded, as a helpmate and the titanic force of her caustic private
self. I don't think I've ever heard anyone else besides Williams propose
class, in addition to the social pressure to conform to a traditional wifely
role, as the key to Barbara Bush's discordant behavior. Williams says `The
only way to reconcile the two facets of Barbara Bush is to understand her as a
woman of her class, the American social stratum that has always raised its
children to assume their own superiority and also to mask that assumption at
all times.' So smart.
In the personal essays that begin to infiltrate this collection halfway
through, Williams trains that same acuity on her own reluctance to marry, her
son's fearful fascination with bugs and, in a long shape-shifting piece called
"The Alchemist," on her mother. Timothy Noah discovered that piece after his
wife's death and speculates that she felt it too raw to be published during her
own lifetime. In "The Alchemist," Williams recalls growing up in a family of
five presided over by her bon vivant father, who was a fixture in the New York
publishing world, and her emotionally reticent mother, a gourmet cook who
preferred to stay in the shadows during the literary dinner parties the couple
hosted. Williams observes of her mother that `cooking, which others praised as
her glory, seemed to me her bunker. Sometime during my adolescence the mother
I loved had vanished into the faultless form of giving that ruled her orderly
kitchen. You could eat at her table every night and never once taste the thing
that you were really hungry for.'
The third section of this book is composed of Williams' writings about her
battle, her inexplicable, absurd and terrifying battle with liver cancer. The
lead-off piece, "Hit By Lightning: A Cancer Memoir," appears in print here for
the first time. It's not that these personal essays transcend the journalistic
techniques that inform the earlier sections of this book, rather it's their
journalistic attention to detail, to the telling remark wedded to an
overarching awareness of her own death sentence that grace them with such
Williams writes of chatting on the phone one day, her hand idly roaming on her
stomach and coming upon a lump the size of a small apricot in her lower
abdomen. An ultrasound later locates at least five large tumors that had
metastasized from her liver, the very same day that a clueless au pair is
arriving from the Czech Republic to help tend her young children, then five and
eight. There's much anger in these essays directed at stupid doctors and New
Age idiots who arrogantly lecture her on the psychological toxins she surely
must have harbored to thus bring this cancer upon herself.
And there is grief at leaving a family, a life she obviously loves. The final,
very short essay in the collection is called "The Halloween of My Dreams" and
in it Williams writes of watching her almost nine-year-old daughter go out the
door for a night of trick-or-treating. Adorned in glitter and makeup, she
looks fleetingly like a teen-ager. Williams savors that vision of the future
beyond her own death and her words dance.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the
author of the memoir "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading." She reviewed "The Woman at
the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family and Fate" by Marjorie
Williams. Timothy Noah edited his late wife's collection.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross.