The Daily Princetonian
March 22, 2005
By Neir Eshel
Growing up in the small port city
of Alton, Ill., Tom Haine '08 never expected to attend an Ivy League
school. A lifelong Catholic, he considered the University of Notre
Dame, St. Louis University and various state schools - but Princeton
was far from his mind.
That changed one day junior year
when he received a flier promoting a Plato seminar at Princeton.
The event was hosted by a chapter of the international Catholic
group Opus Dei. A week of events at the group's home on Mercer Street
convinced Haine to apply to the University - "the only reason
I even thought about it," he said.
It was another successful effort
by Opus Dei members to forge closer spiritual and intellectual ties
with University students and faculty. Today, Haine attends prayer
sessions and Friday dinners at Mercer House, the Opus Dei residence,
and uses its chapel and study room.
Haine is also a junior fellow in
the University's James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.
The group, which studies constitutional law and political thought,
has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from
organizations linked to Opus Dei.
Some of those multi-million dollar
organizations, which until recently were housed in an office building
across the street from the University, were created explicitly to
support Opus Dei. Others have given to a range of academic programs
at the University and around the world, from Princeton's Council
of the Humanities to schools in Latin America. But they are all
tied together by Luis Tellez, who sits on the boards of many of
those organizations and serves as the director of Opus Dei in Princeton.
Critics, including some former members,
charge that these organizations represent veiled attempts by Opus
Dei to spread its influence in elite academic circles. They say
the group - which was depicted in Dan Brown's bestseller, "The
Da Vinci Code," as a murderous cult - relies on secretive and
aggressive recruiting techniques.
Indeed, Opus Dei's Princeton chapter,
which is not officially recognized by the University, has a spotted
history. Fifteen years ago, an Opus Dei priest affiliated with the
University was dismissed because of concerns about his recruiting
tactics and overbearing relations with students.
Interviews with more than 20 students,
faculty and individuals close to the group at Princeton and elsewhere
suggest that over the past six to eight years, relations between
the University and Opus Dei have improved.
Members say they have put their
troubled history behind them and seek only to support the faith
of willing students.
"People try to create this
dark aura of conspiracy," Tellez says. "And it's just
That view is bolstered by former
critics of the group. And despite the financial links, University
officials say the donations to Princeton programs come with no strings
attached and have nothing to do with spreading Opus Dei's influence.
The money path
Founded in 1928, Opus Dei - a Latin
phrase meaning "Work of God" - has 85,000 members worldwide
and 3,000 in the United States. In Princeton, about a dozen students
attend events at Mercer House, a white clapboard building behind
the U-Store's parking lot that has been home to Opus Dei for 15
It is also home to Tellez, a priest,
two graduate students and several others. The house is a hub for
Opus Dei activities in the area, from morning mass to circles on
Christian doctrine and dinners with University professors.
The group is distinguished by its
emphasis on rigidly following Catholic doctrine - including good
deeds, prayer and self-denial - in everyday life.
This approach appeals to Haine's
basic beliefs. Opus Dei leaders "don't tell you what to believe,"
he says. "They help you see why their beliefs are correct -
why the truth is the truth."
Like many of the students who attend
activities at Mercer House, Haine participates as a junior fellow
in dinners and lectures sponsored by the James Madison Program,
created in 2000 by politics professor Robert George.
The program's recent activities
included a conference on "Bridging the Racial Divide: Evangelical
Christians in Contemporary Politics" and lectures titled: "Lawrence
v. Texas: The Worse Supreme Court Opinion in History?" and
"Religious Liberty: The Political Claim." The program
has invited to campus such prominent conservatives as Supreme Court
Justice Anthony Scalia and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Haines said that he participates
in the Madison Program and other Princeton groups - such as Princeton
Pro-Life and Aquinas - to "bolster my faith and provide a support
and basis group of people who feel the same way."
"But Princeton's students overall
also make me feel comfortable, because they are all open to new
ideas, knowledgeable, and fun to discuss such things as God and
life with," he continued.
During the past five years, the
organizations affiliated with Tellez and Opus Dei have contributed
more than $500,000 to University professors and programs, according
to a review of tax records. The bulk of the money has gone to the
Madison Program. Tellez is also on the program's advisory council.
The money has sometimes taken a
In 2002, a nonprofit with $50 million
in assets called the Association for Cultural Interchange (ACI),
which Tellez leads, received $40,000 in contributions from a Harvard
alumnus and a Princeton alumnus. That money was then transferred,
Tellez said, to another nonprofit called the Higher Education Initiatives
Fund (HEIF), which in its turn gave the money to the Madison Program.
ACI mainly - though not exclusively
- supports Opus Dei initiatives, Tellez said, adding that HEIF was
created to support all kinds of scholarship and will close soon.
Tellez said he asked the donors,
whom he and the University declined to identify, to give to ACI
with the understanding that the money would shift to HEIF. This
would secure HEIF's status as a public charity for tax purposes
because the money was coming from ACI, an established charity. This
is a common practice among nonprofits known as fiscal sponsorship.
From 2000 to 2002, HEIF gave more
than $330,000 to the James Madison Program. But other foundations
Tellez has run also have supported University programs.
The Clover Foundation, a $25 million
foundation that sponsors Opus Dei programs, gave $180,000 to the
University's Humanities Council to support its yearlong sequence
tracing Western civilization from ancient Greece to the present.
In 2000, Clover gave $30,000 to
George to help launch the Madison Program. Two years later, Clover
gave another $30,000 to HEIF to support the program.
Other major donors to the program
include the John Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation,
publisher Steve Forbes '70 and Donald Drakeman GS '88, president
of Medarex Inc. and chair of the program's advisory council. In
its first two years, the Madison program raised $8 million.
Tellez said he raised all the money
from his friends - some but not all of whom are in Opus Dei - and
that the Clover board authorized the grants as a "gesture of
gratitude for my work" instead of an interest in specific Princeton
A group of outside observers, long
critical of Opus Dei, is wary of such donations. They charge that
Opus Dei tries to recruit members and spread its intellectual conservativism
by creating clusters of foundations around prestigious colleges,
including Harvard, Columbia and the University of California at
"Opus Dei is not what it seems
to be," says Dianne DiNicola, who co-founded a watchdog group
called the Opus Dei Awareness Network after her daughter reported
having a harrowing experience with Opus Dei in college. "Underneath,
there's a whole web of activity that they don't reveal. Everything
they do is to increase their own power."
ODAN's website lists dozens of foundations
like Clover and ACI that DiNicola maintains support academic programs
at universities to furtively expand the influence of Opus Dei.
But Tellez suggested links between
his scholarly contributions and Opus Dei is a "bunch of baloney."
The foundations he's affiliated with, which total about $75 million
in assets, are structurally independent from Opus Dei, he said.
They give money to the University and other academic programs because,
he says, it's the right thing to do.
"We help people who are not
even Catholic," Tellez said. "We support scholarship that
has a specific thelos and that is honest about the pursuit of truth.
That will narrow the scope of what we support."
"I'm trying to be a good member
of Opus Dei and the Catholic Church," said Tellez, who recently
founded a new initiative, the Witherspoon Institute [link
to website], to support scholars nationwide. "That doesn't
make me a peon of Rome. That doesn't make it a conspiracy."
Program officials, too, say that
Tellez's involvement is unrelated to Opus Dei.
"With respect to fundraising,
Luis Tellez has helped the Madison Program, just as, I understand,
he has helped other university programs," program associate
director Bradford Wilson said in an email. "He is not on the
board to represent any religious view or organization, nor is his
religion counted for or against him in any way."
At the Humanities Council, chair
and history professor Anthony Grafton says the program takes no
money that has strings attached.
"We're always delighted to
receive donations," he said. "There's never enough money."
Regarding Opus Dei's efforts to
support scholarship, Grafton said that "there's an old connection
there. Princeton was always humanistic, but who founded it? The
Since coming to the United States
in 1949, Opus Dei has faced scathing criticism nationwide. That
criticism tends to raise suspicion, at ODAN and elsewhere, about
what Opus Dei is trying to do with its affiliated foundations.
Some former members have accused
the group of being a secretive sect with sometimes violent practices.
Critics also say Opus Dei harbors a political agenda, with ties
to former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and Chilean leader Augusto
At the University, the group was
involved in the stormy, publicized departure of the associate chaplain
of Princeton's official Catholic group, Aquinas Institute, in 1990.
Students and faculty accused Father C. John McCloskey, an Opus Dei
priest who arrived in town in 1985, of being overly aggressive in
recruiting and impinging on academic freedom by warning against
anti-Christian books and classes. [See
"Princeton Catholics Divided."]
"Put simply, McCloskey was
a very controversial, very polarizing man. He rubbed everyone the
wrong way," said politics professor Paul Sigmund, who petitioned
Aquinas to dissociate from Opus Dei at the time.
Though McCloskey denied the charges,
Father Vincent Keane, then Aquinas director, dismissed him as associate
chaplain in 1990. McCloskey has since become a high-powered figure
in Washington, D.C., converting syndicated columnist Robert Novak,
Senator Sam Brownback, Judge Robert Bork and others to Catholicism.
The pattern of concern about Opus
Dei activities is echoed at college campuses around the country.
In the early 1990s, for example, student complaints at Stanford
University led the director of ministry to ban all Opus Dei activities
DiNicola's daughter, Tammy, said
she joined Opus Dei as a sophomore at Boston College in 1988. During
her two years with the group, she said she was required to keep
a list of 12 to 15 friends who were thinking of joining and report
monthly on her progress in persuading them. If the friends seemed
unlikely to join, she said she was required to drop the friendships.
She also had to hand over her salary
to Opus Dei, sleep on boards in a nearby Opus Dei residence and
refrain from leaving without permission, she said. She decided to
quit the group in 1990, and then spent two weeks attending a treatment
facility in Ohio for people who believe they have been abused by
"The bottom line is that Opus
Dei has these houses near Universities so that they can find idealistic
young recruits," Tammy said. "Anything that's a good thing
they're doing is a way to find and recruit the people they want."
Since founding ODAN, Dianne DiNicola
said she has received hundreds of calls from parents who have run
into trouble with Opus Dei. The ODAN website includes testimonies
by dozens of former members criticizing Opus Dei's approach.
While Tellez acknowledged problems
in the past, he said Opus Dei is now more careful.
"I can't think of a single
incident since 1998 [when McCloskey officially left the area] when
any student has felt we're not trying to help them," he said.
"In no way am I saying that everything Opus Dei members do
is right. But in a generalization, I think Opus Dei members are
more honest, thoughtful and careful about avoiding mistakes. We're
only interested in helping students."
For Tellez, lingering criticism
of Opus Dei stems from objections to the Catholic Church.
"Opus Dei is morally conservative,
and we live in a secular culture," he said. "We follow
the same line as a church, and therefore we are a threat to those
who are more secular."
Tellez accused critics of distorting
the truth by focusing excessively on the mistakes - the "human
frailties" - of Opus Dei members.
"Of course members of Opus
Dei can do wrong. Of course I have made mistakes. But they only
apply this kind of scrutiny to Opus Dei, not themselves, not other
institutions. It's hypocritical," he said.
As for recruiting, Tellez said,
the situation at Princeton is different.
"Nothing I do is a recruiting
tool," he said. "None of that happens on my watch. I'm
interested in people joining Opus Dei, but I know that the only
way that's going to happen is if God wants it and if they want it.
So there's no pressure."
"The process starts with the
person," Tellez added. "People make up their minds on
their own; I'm simply a facilitator."
Close observers seem to agree on
Opus Dei's helpful role on campus.
"Relations between Aquinas
and Opus Dei have been very positive," Aquinas chaplain Father
Tom Mullelly said. "I've been impressed by their hard work,
their commitment. I've seen them as being helpful to Catholics in
Sigmund, the professor, said: "Opus
Dei wasn't operating quite by the rules [in McCloskey's era], but
now it is."
Indeed, Juan Velez, who has been
the Opus Dei priest in Princeton since 2001, said he is aware of
the group's history and takes care not to repeat it.
"Once I learned that there
had been some conflict, some heated debate, I made a mental note
to avoid that," he said. "I'm always trying to avoid confrontations,
and that's very much in keeping with the spirit of Opus Dei. Our
approach is not to push something on people."
Students affiliated with Opus Dei
say their experience with the group is positive and powerful.
Nic Teh '05, an astrophysics major,
said he began visiting Mercer House in his freshman year. Since
then, he has regularly attended masses, circles and the Friday night
"I see Opus Dei as a great
aid to the church," Teh said. "Anything that helps promote
holiness, the message of the Gospel, I see it as a good thing."
Teh sees Opus Dei as analogous to
other organizations in the church - such as the Franciscans or Jesuits
- but with greater emphasis on "holiness in the world and workplace."
"We learn the most human of
things - how to be a good friend, how to be virtuous," he said.
"Opus Dei helps people understand their faith better, helps
people become better Catholics. It's a matter of education."
Posted April 14, 2005