Catholics scrutinize enigmatic
by Ron Grossman
December 7, 2003
on the eye of the beholder, the teaching kitchens of Lexington College,
bedecked with pots and pans, mark either a place where young people
learn an employable skill in a Christian setting, or a clandestine
battlefield in an intense struggle for the soul of the Roman Catholic
College, a school on Chicago's Near West Side that specializes in
food-service management, is run by Opus Dei, a tiny religious movement
brought to public attention by the best seller "The Da Vinci
Code," a kind of ecclesiastical mystery novel featuring a Machiavellian
Opus Dei operative who takes orders from a sinister, off-stage presence
called "The Teacher."
the group briefly made headlines when it was learned that Robert
Hanssen, the FBI agent turned Russian spy, sent his children to
a Washington-area private school run by Opus Dei--Latin for the
"Work of God." Recently, the group opened a new multistory
headquarters in the heart of Manhattan, a sign of its abundant financial
resources. All of this has shone a spotlight on a group that has
been something of a mystery, even to other U.S. Catholics. Yet it
has tentacles of influence stretching all the way to the Holy See,
where the pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, is a member.
story set off a brief but intense frenzy of speculation about who
else in the nation's capital might be associated with the group
that, in other countries, has been politically cozy with the far
right. Speculation has it that its members have risen to the highest
levels of the U.S. government, including the Supreme Court and the
Dei's policy is to not disclose who is or isn't a member. But officials
say that if public figures belonged to the group, surely that would
have been known in a culture where the lives of the famous are open
movement's critics--and some of the most vocal are Catholics--don't
buy that argument. They claim a pledge of secrecy is written into
the rules of the group, which some see as an underground conspiracy
aimed at capturing power in the church by stealthily boring from
possible activity could any Catholic group be engaged in that justifies
secrecy?" wrote Catharine Henningsen, in SALT, a liberal Catholic
journal of which she is the editor.
Dei members respond that they aren't secretive but simply value
privacy. "We just built a 17-story headquarters in New York,"
said spokesman Brian Finnerty. "How can you operate a secret
society from a skyscraper at 34th and Lexington?"
Opus Dei, whose first U.S. outpost was in Chicago, consistently
produces diametrically opposite responses--depending on whether
a question is being answered from inside or outside the group.
Catholics say it is theologically antediluvian and decry it for
pandering to ultraconservatives unreconciled to more recent changes
in the church. Opus Dei supporters claim their founder, St. Josemaria
Escriva de Balaguer, was on to the need for updating Catholicism
three decades before the reformist Vatican II Council of the 1960s.
members claim it is a cult that pressures psychologically vulnerable
college students into joining. Group members say Opus Dei has provided
a meaning to their lives that they lacked in a secular and materialistic
are put off because, as part of their devotional regimen, some Opus
Dei members inflict pain on themselves that seems to border on masochism.
Supporters respond that mortification of the flesh is an ancient
and honorable Christian practice that puts them spiritually in touch
with the great saints of the past.
Dei members are furious about the unflattering portrayal in Dan
Brown's novel, "The Da Vinci Code," where their religious
regimen seems to inspire not piety but evildoing. They also point
to the novel's historical inaccuracies.
critics alleged that Escriva's character faults made him ineligible
for sainthood. An English priest, and former member, claimed that
Opus Dei's founder told him Adolf Hitler had been "badly treated"
because "he could never have killed 6 million Jews. It only
could have been 4 million at most." Supporters say Escriva
would not have said such a thing, and they note that a third of
all Catholic bishops supported his candidacy for sainthood, which
was proclaimed in 2002.
and supporters agree on one thing: The group has stirred up a fuss
way beyond its numbers. Of the estimated 1 billion or more Catholics
in the world, only about 85,000 belong to Opus Dei.
are about 3,000 members in the U.S., divided as in other countries
into two principal categories: "supernumeraries" (about
70 percent), who live in the secular world and may marry, and "numeraries"
(about 30 percent), who live communally in Opus Dei residences,
called Centers, and are pledged to celibacy. Revolving around them
is a support group, the "cooperators," who aid the movement
with prayers and financial contributions.
the monasticlike existence of the numeraries, Opus Dei members are
not, for the most part, clergy. Only about 2 percent are priests
and some were lay members for years before being ordained. That
makes the movement unusual in the Catholic Church, a hierarchical
was precisely that top-down approach to religion that inspired leaders
of the Protestant Reformation to leave the Catholic Church. Indeed,
when Opus Dei members stress their movement's emphasis on ordinary
believers, they sound more like Martin Luther or John Calvin than
like the ultraconservative Catholics their critics say they are.
of the laity'
is the era of the laity," said Sharon Hefferan, who runs Metro
Achievement Center, an Opus Dei tutoring program for Chicago public
school students housed in the same building as Lexington College.
is a busy place. Young professional women come from their Loop offices
to the Center to volunteer, helping girls from Chicago's less fortunate
neighborhoods with homework. Lexington College, named after the
West Side street where it began, has been training women for the
hotel and restaurant industry since 1977.
clergy have a role, and that's fine," said Hefferan, who joined
the movement in 1988. "But ultimately the church is about lay
if there is a modernist side to Opus Dei, other aspects make its
critics say that it seems a throwback to the fire-and-brimstone
preachers of the Middle Ages.
Clasen, who lives in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, was introduced
to the group as a Boston College freshman. The dormitories were
full, so a friend recommended Bayridge, an off-campus women's residence
hall run by Opus Dei. She moved in, was attracted by the warm and
supportive atmosphere and eventually became a member.
I joined, they gave me a barbed-wire chain to wear on my leg for
two hours a day and a whip to hit my buttocks with," said Clasen,
who has since left the group.
Marty Miller, chaplain at Lexington College, said Opus Dei's use
of privation and pain reflects a sinner's need for physical penance.
Because everyone falls into that category, members are expected
to sleep on the floor or a board one night a week. The whip, he
said, is called a "discipline," the leg binding is a "cilice."
hurts a bit, but I don't tighten it too much," Miller said.
"It's said that our founder would draw it so tight, he drew
Dei's founder--and members always capitalize the title and speak
of him with reverence--was a Spaniard who entered the priesthood
on the eve of his homeland's civil war of the 1930s. Because the
church was identified with the ruling class, many priests were killed,
a fate Escriva narrowly escaped by going into hiding. When Gen.
Francisco Franco won the war, Escriva allied his movement with Franco's
authoritarian regime, with several Opus Dei members occupying key
positions in his government. Opus Dei officials, however, currently
downplay Escriva's actively supporting Franco.
the subsequent Cold War, Opus Dei expanded to other parts of Western
Europe and the Americas, attracting support by projecting itself
as a bulwark against the advance of communism. Along the way, it
drew to its ranks some financial whiz kids who reportedly made the
movement fabulously wealthy. In his book "Their Kingdom Come,"
critic Robert Hutchison says Opus Dei has even bailed out a hard-pressed
insight was to recognize that the task of maintaining a viable Christian
presence in an increasingly secular world was too big for the clergy
Dei is based on the idea that lay people can spread the Gospel by
going out from their Centers to regular jobs and making workplace
contact with others. By Escriva's design, Opus Dei was to be the
shock troops, or the elite corps ready and able to take on church
problems wherever they may be--a position traditionally occupied
by religious orders, such as the Jesuits.
John Paul II gave the movement a unique status in the church, making
it a "personal prelature." That exempts the group from
the jurisdiction of local bishops, a move Opus Dei had long campaigned
for and which previous popes resisted. Some observers think the
pope, a conservative, saw the movement as a useful ally in the church's
version of the culture wars--the struggles between progressives
and traditionalists ongoing since Vatican II.
the other hand, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, a noted liberal,
gave Opus Dei priests control of a Chicago parish, St. Mary of the
Angels, on the Near Northwest Side, a privilege the movement enjoys
in few other places.
movement's success has provoked resentment in other quarters of
the church, said James Hitchcock, a history professor at St. Louis
University, a Jesuit school.
some cases, it's produced almost a paranoia," Hitchcock said.
"There are Jesuits who hear you express conservative religious
views and say: `Are you a covert member of Opus Dei?'"
sought recruits at Spain's universities, judging that there was
a critical mass of alienated students put off by the secular atmosphere
of modern education. His movement still follows that approach, proselytizing
on college campuses and operating high schools, including two in
the Chicago area. Opus Dei also runs charitable programs locally
appeal to the idealism of youth," said William Dinges, a professor
at Washington's Catholic University.
Bucholz first made contact with Opus Dei through an after-school
program the movement ran in Puerto Rico. She joined and was sent
to a Center near Marquette University in Milwaukee.
told you are the elite guard of God," said Bucholz, who says
she quit out of resentment for having her life tightly controlled.
Ex-members report that they were isolated from their families and
their reading was censored. Opus Dei officials deny using coercive
DiNicola was introduced to the group when a member she met at Boston
College brought her to functions at the Opus Dei house. She remembers
being idealistic and looking for a way to serve God.
I didn't realize was that I was a target for recruitment,"
DiNicola said. "But when I joined, they said you should have
10 to 15 friends that you're working on. You had to fill out forms
each month and have meetings to develop strategies to get them to
and DiNicola are bitter when they look back at their experiences,
but officials of Opus Dei say others have decided that the life
is not for them but remain supporters.
Bruer was a numerary for almost 18 years.
stopped being a member when I realized my vocation in life was being
married," said Bruer, who lives in the Los Angeles area.
there have been notable defections from the higher ranks.
del Carmen Tapia was Escriva's personal secretary and a regional
director of Opus Dei in South America. In a memoir, "Beyond
the Threshold: A Life in Opus Dei," she recalls an Escriva
far different from the movement's reverential portrait. The "Founder,"
by her experience, was dictatorial and threw temper tantrums.
gradually realized that by isolating its members Opus Dei makes
them overly dependent, even childish," Tapia wrote. "Similarly,
its lack of ecumenical spirit makes its members inflexible in human
for former members, no less than loyal members, the experience of
Opus Dei has shaped their lives for years afterward. DiNicola and
her mother run a support group, the Opus Dei Awareness Network,
or ODAN, that helps former members make contact and counsels current
members wrestling with the issue of leaving, or their families.
who runs the Chicago tutoring program, said her commitment to Escriva's
principles is as real a presence in her life as it was when she
joined 15 years ago. Working with needy kids in Metro Achievement
Center and performing Opus Dei's rituals are part of a seamless
spiritual existence, she said.
a quiet apostolate," she said. "Opus Dei is our humble
effort to live a life in imitation of the life of Christ."
persists in Opus Dei
85,000-member Opus Dei was founded in Spain in 1928 to give Catholics
a vocational path for daily life emphasizing prayer, sacrifice and
fidelity to the pope. The first U.S. chapter opened in Chicago in
1949. Today, there are 3,000 members in the U.S.
Dei operates spiritual retreat centers, a college and several schools,
including the Midtown Educational Foundation in Chicago. Members
fall into two main categories:
30% of members
Live in Opus Dei residences (men and women separately)
Pledged to celibacy
Attend daily mass and spiritual readings
Men can work outside Opus Dei
They wear a sharp band of wire around the thigh two hours daily
and whip them-selves for minutes each week
70% of members
Can be married
Live with their families
Volunteer in Opus Dei centers and schools
of Opus Dei who make financial contributions but are not members
are called "cooperators."
Prelature of Opus Dei in the U.S., staff reporting
Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune
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