from The Times Higher Education Supplement
June 22, 2001
Copyright 2001 TSL Education Limited
Dei encourages members to live like saints and counts the pope among
its supporters, but critics call it manipulative and pernicious.
Paul Bompard reports.
Roche teaches history of physics at Linacre College, Oxford. Between
1961 and 1974 he was a member of the controversial Catholic militant
movement Opus Dei, founded by Spanish priest Josemaría Escrivá
de Balaguer in 1928. Roche is still a committed Catholic, but now
describes Opus Dei as a "pernicious organisation". "They
have a cult of their founder," he says. "They also have
a great ambition - essentially to recruit the whole world."
June 26, Opus Dei will hold a mass in Rome to celebrate the 26th
anniversary of Escrivá's death. This will set off preparations
for an international congress in January 2002, to coincide with
the 100th anniversary of Escrivá's birth. Five days of conferences
and workshops will celebrate the extraordinary success of a new
movement that has acquired enormous influence within and without
the Catholic church.
Opus Dei is the most important and determined militant organisation
in the Roman church. It runs universities throughout the world and
has "cooperative initiatives" involving some degree of
influence or control in hundreds of others - as well as involvement
with schools and training programmes. Discussion of Opus Dei rarely
fails to arouse strong feelings - particularly among Catholics -
ranging from reverential admiration and dedication, to dark suspicion
and loathing by those such as Roche, who see it as an insidious
and deviously ambitious cult.
Carroggio, Opus Dei's information officer in Rome, says: "It
essentially tries to draw Catholic lay people directly into a religious
and saintly life, without delegating everything to the priesthood.
We put into practice one of the themes of the Second Vatican Council
- that the layman is not second-rank, but is the essence and basis
of the church. We tell people that they are called to be saints,
be they Wall Street brokers, cobblers or butchers, and that in their
work and everyday life they can become saintly."
accusation often levelled at Opus Dei, which Carroggio denies, is
that it is secretive. "We have 84,000 members. These include
'numeraries', like myself, and 'supernumeraries'. Numeraries commit
themselves to chastity, poverty, obedience and to living Christian
virtues according to the teaching of the Opus Dei. We live together
in houses, or Pastoral Centres, of which there are 1,654. Each centre
has a director.
are militant members who are allowed to marry and have children.
In addition, there are 'cooperators', or active supporters. There
are at least several hundred thousand of these."
are also about 1,500 Opus Dei priests. Carroggio says lists of numeraries
and supernumeraries are not secret, but they are "confidential"
because religious commitment is a "personal affair".
a numerary, Roche says he accepted the Opus Dei doctrine uncritically
for years, but looks back on it now as "very subtle conditioning".
"Numeraries have their mail read and family ties weakened.
Ordinary friendships are disapproved of because life should be invested
in Opus Dei and in recruitment.
is a weekly talk with the director in which the numerary is expected
to bare his or her soul. There is the use of the 'cilice' [which
appears to range from a chain with spikes to a prickly piece of
cloth worn by numeraries for two hours a day round the thigh. Many
saints are supposed to have worn one permanently, causing terrible
sores.] The cilice is intended as mortification of the flesh and
to remind one of the presence of God. There is also self-flagellation,
usually once a week.
1973, I became increasingly unhappy with the ethics of the organisation,
its methods of recruitment, the networks of influence it tried to
create - a kind of Catholic freemasonry. I put together an internal
report that I showed to my director. I was subjected to a canonical
interrogation and instructed to hand over the material on pain of
expulsion. Soon afterwards I resigned."
is now in touch with families of Opus Dei members. "They are
very distressed," he says. "They only see their children
once a year." The Italian mother of a numerary said that after
her daughter joined Opus Dei she saw less and less of her, because
her daughter was so busy with her duties. In 1991, Dianne Di Nicola,
the Catholic mother of a young American numerary who has since left
Opus Dei, set up the Opus Dei Awareness Network, a support group
for families of young people in Opus Dei (www.odan.org).
criticism has come from within Catholicism, particularly from the
Jesuits. In 1992, British Jesuit Michael Walsh published a book
entitled Opus Dei: An Investigation into the Secret Society Struggling
for Power Within the Catholic Church, and in 1995, Jesuit James
Martin investigated the organisation for American Jesuit magazine
America. The article details Opus Dei's alleged use of psychological
manipulation to recruit members in US universities and the often
traumatic "de-programming" of those who leave. Carroggio
rejects such criticism. "Hostility towards us exists because
we are a new movement and we are successful."
Certainly, in an era in which the rest of Catholicism has suffered
a decline in lay participation, Opus Dei has seen its membership
soar. It is a very efficient organisation that appears to answer
a need for spiritual involvement among the Catholic laity - the
kind of total, non-critical commitment normally associated with
"fundamentalists", "cults" or "sects".
But the accusations of psychological manipulation are numerous enough
to cause concern.
its worldly wealth is impossible to measure, it is surprising how
much real estate Opus Dei has acquired over the past 30 years. A
US headquarters, costing $43 million (£31 million), is about
to open in New York, while the Rome headquarters covers most of
a block in an expensive residential area. Below street level are
two richly decorated churches where the remains of Escrivá
and his successor, Alvaro del Portillo, are preserved and worshipped.
is certain is that the footfalls of Opus Dei's march are echoing
increasingly loudly in the corridors of the Vatican. Pope John Paul
II supports Opus Dei, evidenced by the controversial beatification
of Escriv in 1992. It is even alleged that evidence against the
beatification was suppressed.
pope's personal spokesman, Joachin Navarro Valls, is an Opus Dei
numerary, and recently an Opus Dei priest was appointed a cardinal.
Given Opus Dei's extraordinary success, in 30 years, Catholicism
as a whole might have come much closer to what Escrivá visualised
in 1928 as the true path to sainthood.
God's Work began
Dei - God's Work - was founded in 1928 by Josemaría Escrivá
de Balanguer, a 26-year-old Spanish priest.
small book, The Way, made up of 999 short maxims, is the
Dei grew steadily, and during the Spanish civil war energetically
supported the fascists.
Franco, it became increasingly powerful in Spain and a number of
its affiliates were members of the government. After the war it
spread abroad, particularly to France, Italy, Latin America, the
United States and the United Kingdom.
1954, Escrivá moved the Opus Dei headquarters from Madrid
to Rome, closer to the political centre of Catholicism.
died in 1975 and was succeeded by Alvaro del Portillo. In 1982,
the pope made Opus Dei a "Personal Prelature", a unique
status equivalent to a diocese without territorial delimitation,
that substantially consolidated the movement's standing within the
was beatified in 1992, for which 300,000 supporters gathered in
St Peter's Square.
Portillo died in 1994 and was succeeded by Javier Echevarría.
the organisation is growing fast. In 1995 it had 77,000 members;
it now has 84,000.
Posted to website May 13, 2002