Catholic Media Watch
Demonising Opus Dei
by Michael Mullins
As editor of the CathNews electronic service, I recently received an email from a reader requesting us to stop quoting John L. Allen because "he is 100% pro-Opus Dei and a secret member".
Allen is the Rome correspondent of the US weekly Catholic newspaper the National Catholic Reporter. The paper is regarded as left of centre, which would make it incongruous to have a member of Opus Dei in such a prominent position on the staff.
I do not believe that John Allen is a member of Opus Dei, secret or otherwise. But in the popular staunch left-wing imagination, his failure to demonise Opus Dei makes him a member of Opus Dei. Obviously the reader has studied with disapproval, Allen's non-conspiratorial, matter of fact observations about Opus Dei in some of his columns.
We all put labels on most people we connect with in our imagination or in real life. It's human, and necessary, to do so. I am doing that myself when I refer to the "popular staunch left-wing imagination". People would vanish from our consciousness if we were not able to organise them into mental categories. Unfortunately individuals become fixed in particular categories of our imagination, and we don't make it easy for them to redefine themselves.
Allen is perhaps best known for his weekly web column The Word From Rome. In last Friday's piece, he speaks of being with a group of liberal Catholics at a symposium in San Antonio the previous weekend. He hears them speak of the need for dialogue, "with secularity, with the young, with different cultures".
But he observes that they are not even ready for dialogue with the different cultures present in their own Church.
"In one session, it was mentioned that a new bishop in Austria comes from Opus Dei, and the gasps were audible, as if he had said the bishop was a member of the Nazi party or the Klu Klux Klan," he recalls.
In his capacity as an outside observer, Allen is able to suggest gently to the participants that they are not ready for dialogue with other cultures if they are so hostile to cultures within their own Church.
"Dialogue, like charity, I said, begins at home."
What Allen is doing is making them aware of their own prejudice, in the hope that they might acknowledge it. The process has a lot in common with overcoming, or at least living with, alcohol or other forms of addiction. It's inevitable, even necessary, that we will have preconceived ideas about the individuals and groups we engage in dialogue. But the dialogue isn't going to get very far if we actually believe what is essentially our own propaganda.
This is about identifying stereotypes, aware that much of our communication and mass media depends upon them. Headline writers love harnessing the popular imagination to massage a few prejudices against Cardinal Ratzinger in order to make him seem more far-fetched than ever, such as last week's "Ratzinger says cloning more dangerous than weapons of mass destruction".
Allen, once again, reflects back to his San Antonio audience: "I heard descriptions of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's top doctrinal official, as if he were Genghis Kahn."
Such stereotypes have a part to play not only in demonisation, but saint-making as well, in the form of non-critical hagiography. According to British cultural studies expert Dr Gezim Alpion, Mother Teresa had a darker side. She was, he suggests, a powerful propaganda machine and public relations guru who manipulated the media to mould her public image.
It can be kind of fun to demonise, like groups of children in the schoolyard ganging up against individuals or groups that do not conform to their tastes. But it's not very nice, certainly unjust, and something most people grow out of. As Allen concludes one of his own columns on Opus Dei, progressive Catholics need to forget about demonising Opus Dei in favour of a deeper, more self-aware form of reflection that is based on arguments rather than accusations.