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.

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