Opus Dei – Myths & Reality

The Word From Rome, December 16, 2005, Vol. 5, No. 16
John L. Allen Jr., Vatican Correspondent
jallen@natcath.org John L. Allen Jr.

From Where I Stand

I've been traveling recently related to my book Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic church (Doubleday). I was in Lisbon for the Portuguese launch of the book a couple of weeks ago, and this week I was in New York and Washington. On Monday, I was on NBC's "Today Show," which posted an excerpt from the book on its site: www.msnbc.msn.com

The book itself is available here: www.amazon.com.

By now I've fielded questions from media outlets and ordinary readers in various parts of the world, and I have a fairly good sense of what's on people's minds. I thought I'd present some of this material this week in Q & A format.

Why did you write this book?

I often give talks on the Vatican, the papacy, and the universal church, and almost inevitably during Q & A, somebody asks about Opus Dei: "Are they as secretive as everyone says?" "Are they as powerful?" etc. It doesn't require a great leap of insight to realize that there's public curiosity on the subject.

My original idea was to write a magazine-style piece on Opus Dei, interviewing the prelate, meaning the bishop in charge, about all the standard debates: secrecy, money, power, women, corporal mortification, and so on. To prepare myself, I looked at what had already been published, assuming that someone would have done a straight-ahead reporter's book to separate fact from fiction. To my surprise, I found that such a book did not exist. There's an ocean of literature that Opus Dei itself has produced, and a few highly critical outsider's books, but little else.

That's the hole I wanted to fill -- a book that had no axe to grind, and that didn't carry water for any particular point of view, which would be of use to people in trying to understand what Opus Dei is all about. Further, Opus Dei is a classic illustration of what we might call the "Wojtyla Revolution" inside Roman Catholicism. By way of analogy to the "Reagan Revolution" in American politics, John Paul II changed the terms of debate in the church. In October 1978, it was to some extent an open question, at least in the popular mind, whether Catholicism would evolve in the direction of mainline Western Christianity, embracing steadily more progressive positions on issues such as women clergy and gay rights, or whether it would reassert a more traditional vision of its identity and thereby challenge modernity on its own terms. Not in a narrow or fundamentalist way, but in a clear way, John Paul embraced the second option. On his watch, the old Catholic right became the center, and the center became the left. Opus Dei was in a sense the boat lifted highest by that tide, and thus opens a window onto deeper and broader trends.

Finally, thinking as a Catholic rather than strictly as a journalist, I've long been concerned about divisions within the church. One of the tragedies of 20th century American Catholic history is that we spent the first part of the century clawing our way out of a ghetto imposed by a hostile Protestant majority, and we've spent the second part of the century constructing ideological ghettoes of our own choosing. The polarization surrounding Opus Dei is a case in point. My hunch was that if we can have a patient, rational conversation about Opus Dei, we should be able to do it about anything. back to top

Is your book a response to the Da Vinci Code?

No. For some time I refused even to read the Da Vinci Code so I could avoid going on television to talk about it. It wasn't until well after I signed the contract for this book that I read the novel. I cite it only once, opening my chapter on corporal mortification with Dan Brown's over-heated scene featuring the albino monk-assassin Silas whipping himself into an ecstatic frenzy. (I note ruefully that one reviewer called this lone citation from Brown "the most gripping piece of writing" in my entire book!)

On the other hand, Brown didn't pick Opus Dei at random. In some sectors of public opinion, Opus Dei already had a profile as a dark, mysterious, cult-like force. Thus while my book is not a response to the Da Vinci Code, it is an exploration of the controversies and images surrounding Opus Dei of which the Da Vinci Code represents the most popular expression.

As a footnote, the artist who designed the cover for my book is the same one who did the Da Vinci Code cover. We'll see if it has the same impact on sales! back to top

Are you a member of Opus Dei?

No, and neither is anyone in my family, nor do I have any financial or professional relationship with Opus Dei. This is not an "authorized" study. Further, my experience of traveling to eight countries and logging more than 300 hours of interviews convinced me that I'm unsuited for membership in Opus Dei, in the sense that I'm too insistent about control over my own time and space to feel comfortable for very long with the degree of structure that comes with membership. I therefore came at this book as an outsider, though one trying to understand Opus Dei, as much as possible, on its own terms.

What was your biggest surprise?

To paraphrase Gertrude Stein's famous quip, how little "there" is really there. To judge by Opus Dei's public image, one would think it's a mammoth social force with great wealth and power. Yet even by the standards of the Catholic church, Opus Dei is a relatively small group, only modestly influential, with a profile similar to many other lay associations or even mid-sized dioceses.

To take the basic numbers, Opus Dei has a worldwide membership of 85,000, which is roughly equivalent to the Diocese of Hobart on the island of Tasmania off the Australian coast. The group also counts some 164,000 "cooperators," meaning "supporters." (The majority of both groups is women). Outside Spain, where Opus Dei was born in 1928, Opus Dei represents a tiny, almost invisible, fraction of the Catholic community; in the United States, for example, there are roughly 3,000 members out of a total Catholic population of 67 million.

Opus Dei's global wealth -- meaning the physical value of all the assets listed as "corporate works" of Opus Dei -- is around 2.8 billion. For one frame of comparison, General Motors in 2003 reported assets of $455 billion. Even by Catholic standards, Opus Dei's wealth is not terribly impressive; in 2003, the Archdiocese of Chicago reported assets of $2.5 billion. The American lay organization the Knights of Columbus runs an insurance program which all by itself is worth $6 billion.

In terms of power, Opus Dei numbers only 40 out of more than 4,500 Catholic bishops worldwide, including only two members of the College of Cardinals, and just 20 out of more than 2,500 employees in the Roman Curia, including only one head of a policy-making agency. In truth, Opus Dei's potential to "call the shots" inside Catholicism is far more limited than many imagine. For every Vatican battle Opus Dei members have won over the years, they've lost others.

Despite being a vaunted recruiting machine, Opus Dei's growth rate is pretty small. Worldwide they add about 650 members a year, and in some places they're basically stalled. In the United States, Opus Dei has hovered at about 3,000 members since the 1980s.

All this suggests that Opus Dei is not as imposing as some of the mythology would lead one to believe. Ironically, the people most determined to believe in Opus Dei's occult power are generally not its members, but its critics, who see its modest structure as masking vast unseen influence. back to top

Is Opus Dei a cult?

Sociologists of religion often say that "cult" is not an academic term, but a pejorative word for a religious group someone doesn't like. Hence it's difficult to answer this question with any precision. In common parlance, "cult" usually means a group whose members are under the sway of someone else, no longer thinking or acting for themselves. It often carries a note of potential danger, either to oneself or to others. (Think of the Aum Shinri Kyo cult in Japan that carried out the 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway).

On the basis of my experience, all I can say is that I didn't meet anyone in Opus Dei who seemed to fit that profile. The vast majority of members I met seemed healthy, well-adjusted, intelligent, running their own lives, and posing no threat to themselves or to others.

To be sure, there is a strong degree of cohesion inside Opus Dei on core matters, principally the faith and morals of the Catholic church and the founding vision of St. Josemaría Escrivá. Moreover, there's a degree of structure for members, especially "numeraries" (the 20 percent of members who are celibate and live in Opus Dei centers) that many people would find suffocating. Numeraries generally do not go to movies or sporting events, they are expected to consult an Opus Dei "data base" before reading certain books, they make interventions in one another's lives called "fraternal corrections," and so on.

I never had the impression, however, that anyone was being subjected to this regime by coercion or "mind control." For the most part, members seem to experience this structure as liberating rather than confining, helping them become the kind of person they wish to be.

Is it a secret society?

Not by conventional definitions of the term. Unlike Skull and Bones, for example, Opus Dei's existence is a public fact. You can find listings for their offices in the local phone book, and basic statistical data appears every year in the Vatican Annuario. Opus Dei runs a much-trafficked Web site, offering all kinds of information about the group's history, spirituality, and works. The names of Opus Dei's leaders are a matter of public record, as are the group's statutes (at least in Latin).

Where do perceptions of secrecy come from?

First, Opus Dei leaves it up to members to decide whether to acknowledge their membership to others. For "supernumeraries," the seventy percent of members who are married, live in their own homes, and have normal secular jobs, this provision means that sometimes even friends and neighbors may sometimes be left to speculate about whether so-and-so is "Opus Dei." It also means that whenever a prominent person is rumored to be a member, such as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia or pundit Robert Novak, Opus Dei declines to comment, and so journalists are reduced to contacting these figures individually. (The answer in both cases, by the way, is "no").

Second, Opus Dei does not use recognizable Opus Dei vocabulary to identify its facilities or publications. For example, its student center at the University of Notre Dame is called "Windmoor," not the "Josemaria Escriva Center"; in Rome, its headquarters has the nondescript title of "Villa Tevere."

Third, Opus Dei resists spelling out certain aspects of its internal life, or reducing complex matters of its culture and spirit to the cold language of a policy or procedure. Thus when someone asks what exactly a member of Opus Dei does, or what the reality is about corporal mortification or finances (all perfectly legitimate questions), the usual answer is "come and see," or "get to know us." There's no pamphlet to hand the curious spelling these matters out in black-and-white.

Seen from inside, none of this is about secrecy, but fidelity to St. Josemaria Escriva's vision of a body of lay Catholics, indistinguishable in any external sense from their friends and colleagues, but on fire with the gospel. That's not to say, however, that Opus Dei can't do a better job of making itself transparent.

What about the whips and chains?

Generally speaking, the standard controversies about Opus Dei separate into two categories when you take a hard look: Those that are more or less pure myth (money, power and recruiting efficiency, for example), and those that even after a painstaking effort to understand, still remain matters of debate.

Corporal mortification falls into that second category.

In brief, the celibate members of Opus Dei (thus a minority, roughly 30 percent) engage in two forms of self-inflicted pain each week. First, they wear a spiked chain around the thigh called a cilice for two hours a day, except Sunday; second, they use a small cloth whip called a "discipline" on the back once a week for a few minutes, usually while reciting an "Our Father" or a "Hail Mary." Members are careful to point out that these are carefully circumscribed mild practices, nothing like the bloody self-flagellation described by Brown.

Why do it?

First, use of such instruments has a deep warrant in Catholic spirituality. Great saints of the church, both past and present, have used them, including Sts. Dominic, Francis, Padre Pio and Mother Teresa.

Second, Opus Dei is by no means the only group in the church today to use the cilice and discipline. The difference between these others and Opus Dei is simply that few people have ever heard of them.

Third, Opus Dei spiritual directors say the point of the cilice and discipline is to remind oneself of the realities of physical suffering in the world and of sin, and to identify with the suffering of Christ on the Cross.

My experience, however, is that you can say all this until you're blue in the face, and some people just aren't going to buy it. For a typical 21st century Western sensibility, these practices can't help but seem suspect at best, too easily open to abuse at worst. It's one among several areas where Opus Dei bucks the cultural tide.

One other point worth making … Opus Dei members say the practice of self-mortification is much broader than the cilice or discipline, and usually involves ordinary acts such as being generous with someone, or taking out the garbage when it's not your turn. Nothing about the spirit of Opus Dei, they say, rises or falls on corporal mortification. back to top

What about women?

Here's another second-category controversy, i.e., one that doesn't just go away upon examination.

To lay out the facts, about 55 percent of Opus Dei's members are women. Opus Dei is divided into two separate branches, with one governing body for women and another for men, both in Rome and at every other level of governance. In practice, the two branches are almost autonomous.

Opus Dei's internal life is marked by a strict separation between the genders. Men and women live in separate centers, attend separate workshops and retreats, and those who work for Opus Dei generally do so in separate offices. Opus Dei schools are not only single-sex, but the faculties are segregated as well, so that men teach at a boy's school and women at a girl's school.

There is also a sub-group of roughly 4,000 female numeraries called "associates," whose full-time work is the domestic care of Opus Dei centers. In practice, this often means cooking, cleaning, sewing, and other household tasks. While members stress that associates perform these tasks for both men's and women's centers, the result is that while women clean up after men, the men never clean up after the women.

Once again, there's a logic to these practices.

First, Opus Dei is a novelty in the history of the Catholic church -- an organic body of men and women, lay and clergy, sharing the same vocation and falling under the same canonical authority. Over the centuries, the Vatican had abhorred the idea of men and women being part of the same foundation, out of worries of "promiscuity." Escrivá's response was to erect a wall of separation so high that fears of promiscuity would seem ridiculous.

Second, Opus Dei women told me they experience the separation as liberation. They run their own affairs, without looking over their shoulder for direction from a man. Further, they say, it's sometimes easier to deliver spiritual programming for an all-female crowd, such as a workshop on the spirituality of mothering.

Third, on the subject of the numerary assistants, Opus Dei members usually insist that it's a plain fact -- however politically incorrect it may be to say so out loud -- that women have a knack for home-making that men lack. Further, they say, this institution was part of the foundational vision of Escrivá, and that's that.

Once again, my experience of trying to explain all this to many Catholics, to say nothing of secular observers, is that many may be willing to grant the logic, but they still can't help seeing it as an archaic conception of gender roles that in the end subjugates women.

Doesn't Opus Dei have a lot of influence in secular politics?

Yes and no. It was an article of faith for Escrivá that Opus Dei as such must never have a corporate political "line." He avoided expressing political opinions, for fear that Opus Dei members would feel compelled to follow whatever he said because "the Father" had spoken. His core idea was that individual Opus Dei members, using their own freedom and responsibility, would decide for themselves what the proper political application of Christian doctrine would be in a given set of circumstances.

In practice, this means that Opus Dei has no position on whether there should be a strong central government or a minimal state, no position on whether the war in Iraq is justified or not, no position on budgets or tax policies. In Peru during the 1970s and 1980s, for example, numerary members Rafael Rey and Rodrigo Franco Montes were members of opposing center-right and center-left parties, yet lived together in the same Opus Dei center. (Montes was later assassinated by the Shining Path movement). In Spain, supernumerary Federico Trillio helped lead his country into the Iraq war, while numerary and journalist Pilar Urbano said publicly that Trillio's position was based on "lies." On most political questions, Opus Dei tolerates wide diversity, and it's difficult to identify any particular "agenda" their influence supports.

Yet Opus Dei does nevertheless have a disproportionate political influence relative to its size and means in two senses.

First, because Opus Dei emphasizes "thinking with the church," where the Catholic church has a clear political line, Opus Dei members are in lock-step. On abortion, homosexuality, stem cell research and other "culture wars," therefore, Opus Dei members are almost uniformly on the right, meaning that one can identify an Opus Dei contribution to conservative stances on these issues.

Second, Opus Dei members are probably more likely than Catholics in general to be active in politics, because of their emphasis on the "unity of life." Because sanctification of the secular world is their prime directive, Opus Dei members feel an unusually powerful call to roll up their sleeves and get involved in secular affairs. Hence were Opus Dei members are active politically, they're likely to be unusually committed, and therefore sometimes unusually influential.

Does Opus Dei engage in heavy-handed recruiting tactics? Do they "brain-wash"?

"Heavy-handed" is a slippery term; one person's undue pressure is another's passion. Yet there are enough witnesses, both former members and those who never joined, who testified to feeling their arms being twisted by Opus Dei members to suggest there must be a basis of reality to these charges. To tell the truth, it would be surprising were it not so. Opus Dei members are deeply convinced that God has given them something precious, and their ardent desire to bring that message to as many people as possible means they can sometimes come on a little strong.

Over the years, Opus Dei has had to learn a certain maturity on this point. Cooler heads realize the last thing the organization needs is another generation of bitter ex-members. Indeed, in my travels I often encountered passionate young people who made the opposite complaint; they want badly to join, and Opus Dei directors keep telling them to wait, to pray, and to think.

In any event, Opus Dei is not the voracious recruiting machine of myth. After 70 years, Opus Dei only counts 85,000 members worldwide. It adds about 650 a year. If each numerary were truly doing what some have suggested Escrivá wanted them to do, namely, adding five new members a year, there should have been 82,000 new members each year over the last four years, for a total of 328,000 new members. In reality, the numeraries of Opus Dei fell short of that quota by a whopping 325,397. If this were a corporation and the numeraries were its sales force, most of them would be out looking for work. The evidence suggests that however strong the pressure may be to join, most people are able to walk away.

As for "brain-washing," there is a strong program of doctrinal and spiritual formation inside Opus Dei that produces remarkable uniformity on core principles. Yet my experience is that most people undergoing this formation want it. They signed on precisely because they want to be part of something bigger than themselves, something that offers meaning and direction. If that's brain-washing, so is the Marine Corps, and so on.

On the other hand, the sheer number of critical ex-members around the world suggests their reports are more than isolated cases. Sometimes Opus Dei leaders have exerted undue pressure on people to join, have not responded adequately to legitimate questions, have demanded too much personal disclosure and have insisted too much on obedience to superiors. This seems less so today than in earlier eras, but the potential is still there. Such behavior should be no surprise, because any group made up of passionate believers can sometimes shade off into excess. The on-going challenge for Opus Dei, as for other bodies in the church, is to ensure that accountability and transparency are built into the system; Pope John Paul II said in 1984 that the church should be a “house of glass where all can see what is happening,” an exhortation that applies to Opus Dei as well.

What's the relationship between Opus Dei and Benedict XVI?

To take a step back, there was a strong personal affinity between Pope John Paul II and Opus Dei. Coming out of the Solidarity experience in Poland, John Paul was fascinated by the spiritual meaning of work, and saw in Opus Dei a compelling response to that question. He gave it enormous personal support, including erection as a personal prelature in 1982, the beatification of Escrivá in 1992, and his canonization in 2002.

Benedict certainly knows and admires Opus Dei. One of the most important consultors to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during his tenure there was Msgr. Fernando Ocáriz, the number two official in Opus Dei. Ocáriz was among the primary authors of the controversial 2000 Vatican document Dominus Iesus. As pope, Benedict can be expected to support and encourage Opus Dei.

Yet he does not have the direct, biographical affection for it that John Paul did. Among the movements, his closest ties are to Communion and Liberation, not Opus Dei. I suspect that over time this may prove to be positive for Opus Dei, since part of the resentment that surrounded it in the John Paul years was the perception that it was the "beloved disciple" of the pope, constantly favored at every turn. Under Benedict, it will likely appear as one among many groups the pope smiles upon, generating less of a sense of special treatment.

How has Opus Dei responded to the book?

Officially they haven't said anything. Individually, some members have told me they don't like the book because they believe it concentrates too much on the controversies. Others have praised it, saying that it seems to more or less deliver on its promise of objectivity.

An American cardinal and the prelate of Opus Dei, Bishop Javier Echevarría Rodríguez, discussed my book outside the pope's apartment in late October, but at that stage the prelate hadn't yet read it and so didn't express an opinion.

Bottom line: Is Opus Dei good or bad?

It's not my job to answer that question. At most, I hope the book provides some basic tools for holding a rational conversation on the subject.

There are, however, two points I'd make.

As long as the Catholic church is animated by what John Paul II called the "ecclesiology of communion," diversity should be a source of strength. The constant danger, however, is a kind of ecclesiastical Balkanization. When we see ourselves not as different members of a common body, but more like Croats and Serbs in the old Yugoslavia, we're in trouble. In the post-Vatican II period, this Balkanization has been visible along ideological, theological, and other fault lines. Before we decide whether Opus Dei or any other body in the church is good or bad, we ought first to make the effort to understand it sympathetically.

Further, in drawing judgments about Opus Dei, it's important that the heart of its message be considered, not just the controversies and question marks. The founding vision was what Escrivá called the "sanctification of work," which means that lay men and women are to see the details of their daily activity -- law, medicine, stay-at-home mothering, or collecting the garbage -- as the pathway not only to their own personal holiness, but to the redemption of the world. Escrivá's vision, part of a ferment within early 20th century Christianity about the divorce between religion and secular modernity, was a double challenge to the ultra-hierarchical European Catholicism of the day. It posited that laity rather than priests are the proper ones to figure out what a Christian approach to politics or economics, or to any other secular endeavor, looks like; and it asserted that the modern street is just as "religious" an environment as the sacred precincts of a church building.

Whatever one makes of corporal mortification or Opus Dei's Vatican influence, these are interesting ideas to contemplate.

Anything else?

Just one correction to something I've said on American television and radio this week, which, as it turns out, is not accurate. In discussing the celebrated Ron Hanssen spy case, I've said that Hanssen "is" a member of Opus Dei. In fact, I should have said "was." Members who have not made a permanent commitment, known as the "fidelity," have to renew their membership each year on March 19, the Feast of St. Joseph, or they're automatically no longer in Opus Dei. After his arrest Hanssen did not renew, and hence is no longer a member.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org
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