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“Princeton Catholics Divided”
Opus Dei leaves liberals worried
by Deborah Kovach, Staff Writer
From The Trenton Times
Sunday, October 22, 1989


PRINCETON BUROUGH – A simple white clapboard home at 34 Mercer Street is the symbol of what has become an increasingly divided house in Princeton’s Roman Catholic community.

Two weeks ago officials of Opus Dei, a worldwide, doctrinally conservative Roman Catholic lay organization, confirmed they would pay $600,000 for Emily “Cissy” Stuart’s home on Mercer Street, where Stuart was stabbed to death last April. The murder has not yet been solved.

Opus Dei members say it will be a residence for four group members, two of them students. The organization emphasizes forming an intensely spiritual relationship with God and promoting excellence in professional life.

But a group of Catholics, most of whom are connected with Princeton University, say the purchase is a threatening sign that Opus Dei is moving to create two Catholic chaplaincies and the basis for an intellectually closed and authoritarian Catholic community. The Catholic chaplaincy, which is housed in the Aquinas Institute on Stockton Street has for decades been the refuge for Princeton's liberal and progressive Catholics both on campus and in town.

"The overt pitch is they want to encourage people to take their religion seriously," said Walter Murphy, a renowned professor of constitutional law at Princeton and a Catholic who has written about his church. "How can any person oppose that? But it's the specific kind of teaching and how they gravitate politically."

SINCE ITS founding in 1928 in Spain, Opus Dei (Latin for Work of God) has become one of the most influential, controversial and mysterious movements in Roman Catholicism according to a number of articles printed in periodicals during the past decade.

In 1982, Pope John Paul II granted Opus Dei a new status called a personal prelature. The prelature, a position achieved by no other church group until now, gives Opus Dei autonomy as a worldwide, nonterritorial jurisdiction. Opus Dei is not a religious order, as are the Jesuits (Society of Jesus) for instance, but like religious orders, the group reports directly to the Pope. However, Opus Dei says in its own statutes say it will not establish itself in any diocese without the express permission of that diocese's bishop.

According to the recently published book, People of God, by award-winning journalist Penny Lernoux and a 1984 article in Time magazine, Opus Dei members were among those who supported the Central Intelligence Agency-backed coup that overthrew Chilean President Salvador Allende and who are now linked to the right-wing dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

According to the same sources, Opus Dei is also particularly known for its ties to the government of the late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, whose Cabinet included many devout Opus Dei members.

But Luis Tellez, a regional director for Opus Dei in New York who spends some of his time at Princeton, denied those charges. He said that though some Opus Dei members were Cabinet members, there were other Opus Dei members who opposed Franco, at least one of them a prominent Spanish journalist who was exiled by the dictator.

In a 15-page rebuttal to Lernoux's book, Opus Dei communications director William Schmitt wrote of the allegations concerning the Chilean government. "The facts contradict the author's allegation that members or sympathizers supported an illegal criminal coup that was widely condemned by international public opinion. No member of Opus Dei has ever worked as a minister or adviser in the Pinochet government nor occupied any high-level directive function during the Pinochet regime."

SOME FORMER Opus Dei members have charged that the group is cult-like in its adoration of founder Monsignor Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer y Albas, a Spaniard who died in 1975, according to Lernoux's book, 1983 articles in the National Catholic Reporter and a 1984 article in The New York Times magazine.

According to the rebuttal, Opus Dei "is no more of a 'cult' than any other lawfully established part of the Catholic Church -- such as, for example, the Archdiocese of New York or any religious order or congregation. The exercise of any form of 'worship of the founder' by Opus Dei or any of its members, which does not exist, would immediately result in the most serious form of disciplinary action on the part of the church.

Some former Opus Dei members also charge that Opus Dei is sexist. According to the National Catholic Reporter piece, The New York Times magazine and Lernoux's book, men and women are separated in Opus Dei facilities, and women sleep on boards so that they will not have sexual fantasies.

Tellez said he does not know whether or not women sleep on boards, but he said of the charge, "I find that totally preposterous and outrageous." [See former member's testimony of sleeping on boards.]

He said, however, that Opus Dei does have two branches that separate women and men. "The reason there are two separate branches is this is how God wanted it from the beginning and Escriva saw that it works. It gives women, in fact, greater ability to lead on their own. They address women's issues much more effectively."

He also pointed out that about 30 percent of Opus Dei members are celibate, making the separation of the sexes a practical matter.

According to The New York Times magazine and Time articles, some members worldwide practice self-flagellation, and Escriva was known to flagellate himself with a whip to such a point that he drew blood.

TELLEZ SAID that though Escriva did practice such self-mortification, he later decided this was not what God wanted for the members of Opus Dei and he forbade members from those practices. [See former member's testimony of practicing corporal mortification.]

Opus Dei members, who reportedly number about 4,000 in this country and 80,000 worldwide, vehemently deny they have any political leanings.

Among the notable members, Tellez said, is Russell Shaw, the former press secretary for the National Catholic Conference of Bishops and now the director of communications for the Knights of Columbus.

Tellez said there are about 40 Opus Dei members in the Princeton area.

"Opus Dei's aims are strictly spiritual," Tellez said. "Members are free to hold their own political and economic views as long as they do not go against what the Church teaches. . . We have the permission of the bishop to be here. We want to foster unity. We want to be part of the community.

"All we have done since we got here is buy a house. Is that a crime?" said Tellez, who will be one of the occupants of the house.

But Murphy said: "They have this earned (right-wing) reputation, and they will not admit it and they will not deny it. To say that a group that will support military dictatorships is only concerned with religion is absurd."

The Rev. Charles Weiser, who was chaplain at the Aquinas Institute for 18 years prior to June 1988, sees Opus Dei's arrival in Princeton as less menacing.

"What you have is an internal strain between different sorts of Catholics," said Weiser, who is now serving a parish in Long Branch. He said he left Aquinas because diocesan authorities told him he had been at Aquinas too long. "Most people who attend the Aquinas Institute hold dissenting views (from those of the Vatican). I found it funny that those who held the dissenting views were so intolerant of orthodox Catholics."

The current chaplain at Aquinas, the Rev. Vincent Keane, did not return phone calls last week. Bishop John Reiss of the Diocese of Trenton, under whose jurisdiction the Aquinas Institute falls and who has been asked by Catholics opposed to Opus Dei to mediate the dispute, declined the comment on the matter.

Weiser said Opus Dei first came to town from New York in 1985, with the arrival of the Rev. C. John McCloskey III, now the associate chaplain at Aquinas.

"When I learned they'd be in town I decided the best way to deal with them was to watch them," Weiser remembered last week. "I was more than skeptical. Our first meeting was very heated. The diplomats would call it a frank exchange of views."

Weiser said his parishioners -- students, professors and townspeople -- also were immediately nervous.

"This guy was coming down three times a week and people are paralyzed by anxiety," Weiser said. "The immediate feeling I had was that they were acting like an elephant jumping on a chair trying to get away from this mouse. People were afraid Opus Dei was going to take over."

Initially, McCloskey made visits to Princeton to meet with interested Catholic students. But Weiser, wishing to avoid dividing the chaplaincy, said he decided to bring McCloskey under the Aquinas umbrella and later made him an associate chaplain.

But, soon after that, conflicts developed, according to several professors and students opposed to Opus Dei.

IN INDIVIDUAL interviews over the last two weeks, at least five Catholics who are opposed to Opus Dei said McCloskey used aggressive, intimidating tactics in his drive to recruit Catholic students as members. They said he asked sexually explicit and embarrassing questions during confession sessions.

History professor Michael Jimenez, a Catholic who has opposed Opus Dei because of its ideology and tactics, is among those who contend that McCloskey told students not to take courses with certain professors because they were "dangerous," and told professors he would advise students not to read philosophers such as Nietzsche and Hume because they were also "dangerous" to young minds.

"Opus Dei is to intellectual Catholics what Jimmy Swaggart is to intellectual Protestants, " said Murphy, the constitutional law professor.

In an interview last week, McCloskey refused to discuss the specific charges and the controversy at Aquinas last year.

"All of this is a closed episode and to talk about it would be divisive," he said. "If you're proclaiming the word of the church in any university community, it's not surprising there might be problems. Universities are hotbeds of secularism."

McCloskey said, "It's no secret there are people who have problems with the basic teachings of the church. It's no surprise they have trouble with Opus Dei because they have trouble with the basic teachings of the church. It shows an ignorance that is abysmal. . . All we ask for is fairness and unfortunately many times we don't find that."

Despite the controversy, he added, "It's been remarkable the great welcome we've received in Princeton among the Catholic community."

MCCLOSKEY SAID those who oppose Opus Dei "are going to have to learn that Opus Dei is not going away. We're here to satisfy the needs (of Catholics) and serve in the diocese. We bring peace, not a sword."

The situation at Aquinas culminated last February in what turned out to be an explosive two-hour meeting of about 100 people, half students and half townspeople, at the Aquinas Institute.

According to senior Robert Taliercio, a group of students who were disgruntled with Opus Dei composed a two-page statement they read during the meeting. Among the statement's five points was a call to remove McCloskey from the staff of the Aquinas Institute.

"Because of a pattern of actual, documented problems with Father John McCloskey, we insist on his disassociation from the Aquinas Institute," the statement read. "These problems fall under the following categories his partisanship prevents him from ministering to all members of the community, and which in fact has fostered divisiveness. Father McCloskey has questioned students' Catholicism and asked inappropriate questions that have offended and alienated persons from the community; and he has embarrassed some members of the community and has contributed to Aquinas a bad reputation in various sectors of the university."

Taliercio said, "That opened up a huge debate, as you can imagine. It was a very important meeting. For the first time the community came together."

Central to the students' call for McCloskey's removal were 12 signed letters from students complaining about McCloskey that were collected by several students and presented to Keane, Reiss and the Rev. Sue Anne Steffy-Morrow, acting dean of the chapel.

ACCORDING TO university sources, who preferred to remain anonymous because they were frightened that Opus Dei would take legal action against them, the letters described intense questioning by McCloskey about their sex lives, their parents' marital status and their parents' religion. The questioning often sent students crying from McCloskey's office, the sources said.

But Tellez, the Opus Dei regional director, said of the controversy: "It's blown up way out of proportion. As far as I know there is a handful of people who are disgruntled. I would deny the characterization of Father McCloskey's way of dealing with people to the point of calling (the accusations) libelous."

He said of the letters: "To my knowledge none of the allegations reflected what was found in those few cases." And he said that none of McCloskey's questions were "beyond the scope of what a priest can ask. (A priest) should never make a person feel guilty. That's along the lines I would characterize Father McCloskey's way of dealing with people. He made the suggestion, 'Would you like to go to confession?' I would never say his view was 'You must go to confession.' Never."

But Taliercio said he opposes Opus Dei because he has personal experience with it. In July 1987, he went on an Opus Dei retreat in Spain, where he taught English to Spaniards.

HE CALLED the Opus Dei center in Madrid "very luxurious," a situation he felt was "hypocritical" because of the Catholic Church's call to help the impoverished in the world.

In addition, Taliercio said, men were separated from women, who did all the housework, including cleaning up after the men.

"After that, I came back and said this is not for me," Taliercio said.

He said he was initially attracted to Opus Dei because "it provided security and it makes complicated lives very simple. Everything is black and white. You don't have to think."

Taliercio said, "Opus Dei is dangerous in the sense that this reactionary Catholicism can take over what is really mainline Catholicism and stamp out those who do not agree."

He said worried Catholics took their concerns to Keane and Reiss, but no decision has been made yet.

"The new house changes the situation," Taliercio said. "The house has been a divisive move on their part. It looks like another Catholic chaplaincy is being formed."

"Definitely there is going to be some kind of engagement," said Taliercio. "The issue is not over. We are still pursuing the agenda of last semester, especially disassociating McCloskey and the re-examination of Opus Dei's role at Aquinas, especially in light of the purchase of the house."

The house is now vacant, but Tellez, McCloskey and two students plan to move in later this month.

"There are some individuals whose personalities don't mesh, and McCloskey has a personality that take a while to get to know him and where he's coming from," said Sharon Fraser, a Princeton University senior who is active in Opus Dei activities.

"When I came to Princeton I considered myself a Catholic but I never received adequate religious instruction," she said. "You arrive at Princeton and you have to make up your mind about things very quickly. I just had the desire to know what the church teaches and why it teaches what it teaches."

JIMENEZ EMPHASIZED that "Opus Dei has the right to proselytize. But it is very problematic for me that Opus Dei should be officially represented on the university's Catholic chaplaincy, especially in the position of associate chaplain. Their definition of Catholicism and style preclude open inquiry, which any Catholic chaplaincy needs to be respectful of and indeed promote.

"This was a Catholic community that was liberal and had a pastor that provided support for broad views," Jimenez said. "I think we got lazy in defending what Catholicism meant. I think we became a complacent community of liberal Catholics. . . I believe Opus Dei is the Good Lord testing us to see if we can remain a people of faith."