It is frequently said that Opus Dei - the movement within the Catholic Church now popularly linked with The Da Vinci Code - is a strange, secretive, masochistic sect given to self-flagellation. Yet in personal encounters they seem a cheerful, sensible and practical lot. And it is impressive that not a single priest associated with Opus Dei has been accused of sexual abuse or paedophilia, when a slew of such accusations washes around us.
Opus Dei was started in Spain in 1928 by JosemarIa Escriva de Balaguer, priest and visionary. At its core was the idea of "the sanctification of ordinary work", meaning that one can find God in every line, from specialised medicine to garbage collection: a kind of Catholic Calvinism.
After the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s, when older devotions and customs were abandoned, Opus Dei retained many traditional practices: and this advanced its reputation as reactionary. Its networking and Freemason-like rituals have earned it a slightly sinister reputation. When it emerged that Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, is an Opus Dei associate, images arose of cowled inquisitors dictating her every move.
John Allen, a noted Vatican specialist, is at pains to say that he is not anyone's advocate: the book is based on independent research. And he certainly has produced a comprehensive study of a now globalised movement. He reports on all aspects of the Opus Dei cult (including structure and finance, and the practice of mortifying the flesh with a cilice - a barbed chain wrapped around the thigh) and, most usefully, includes details of the bishops and personnel around the world who are Opus Dei clergy. A keen-eyed analyst may thus deduce where the power and influences within the Church may be moving.
Although Allen tries hard not to be a propagandist, his book amounts to something of a case for the defence, since he underlines Opus Dei's admirable points: its emphasis on lay people, not clerical-ism; its view on the use of condoms to prevent Aids, more nuanced than the Vatican's; the dignified approach to work. Some of the movement's eccentricities are even droll: an Opus Dei priest was once ordered to start smoking so as to identify with ordinary Spaniards who puff (he was called Portillo).
Allen concludes that charges of fascist leanings don't really stand up, although the movement's early roots in the Spanish civil war period make it suspect to some. Escriva certainly seemed cordially disposed towards the Caudillo during the 1930s (as most Spanish Catholics were), but overall he rather wisely distanced himself from political engagement.
Strong on faith, prayer and morals, Opus Dei represents the conservative backlash against a la carte Catholicism. It also answers the yearning for commitment that many people feel. It is a grow-ing movement within Catholicism and Allen has done a service in providing so much information about it. Yet any organisation that assigns the housework role to women is, to me, taking the holiness of work too far.
Mary Kenny is the author of Germany Calling: a personal biography of William Joyce, Lord Haw-Haw (New Island Books)