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Controversies about Opus Dei

Opus Dei is one of the most controversial movements within the Roman Catholic Church. While it is supported by various Popes and conservative Catholic leaders, many opponents allege it applies cult-like practices in recruitment and treatment of members. Others allege that Opus Dei has ultraconservative theology, practices misogyny, secrecy, and supports dictatorships. They also criticize its influence in church and society. CNN's Vatican analyst, John Allen, Jr., and Dr. Vittorio Messori, both Catholic journalists, state that these allegations are mere myths, a far cry from Opus Dei's reality.

The opposition to Opus Dei started from its very foundation, started by some Jesuits who interpreted some of its teachings as heretical. Later, this opposition grew as much inside as outside the Catholic Church, mainly when some members of Opus Dei became ministers of the government of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, and other high positions inside this regime. Opus Dei supporters believe that this opposition was taken up by the liberal Catholics and some formed members who later joined forces with secularist groups who form part of the anti-cult movement. Particularly significant critics included supporters liberation theology, a theology and political activism, particularly in areas of social justice, poverty and human rights. The Vatican condemned liberation theology due to its Marxist influence.

Later, some ex-members who felt harmed by Opus Dei practices, joined together to express their experiences within the group. Thus was born the Opus Dei Awareness Network (ODAN) which intends to be a support for those who have been "adversely affected by Opus Dei." Reader Emeritus of Sociology of the University of Oxford, Bryan R. Wilson studied the cults phenomenon and new religious movements. About former members he states that some of these adult members who are "prone to bias" sometimes "learn to rehearse an atrocity story" to meet their "need for self-justification. Although Jack Valero, Spokesman of Opus Dei in the UK says that does not put in doubt the credibility of the people who count their bad experiences.

Dianne DiNicola, executive director of ODAN has said: "The biggest problem we have with Opus Dei is that a person is not free to make their own decisions. They live in a controlled environment and all the while Opus Dei hides behind the Catholic Church." According to Massimo Introvigne, a sociologist and conservative Catholic scholar, these secularists groups could not tolerate what he saw as "a return to religion of the secularized society."

The opposition to Opus Dei reached a special point with the publication of The Da Vinci Code in 2003 and the release of its film version in May 2006. According to observers, the book and film led to a greater awareness of Opus Dei, even bringing about an increase in its membership, while its opponents continued their consolidation of forces.

Allen describes Opus Dei as "the most controversial force in the Catholic Church," receiving both support and opposition.

History of opposition

In the 1940s, some Jesuits led by Fr. Angel Carrillo de Albornoz, who later left the Society of Jesus, denounced Opus Dei's teachings as "a new heresy."

Based on reports from Spain, the Superior-General of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Wlodimir Ledochowski (1866–1942), told the Vatican he considered Opus Dei "very dangerous for the Church in Spain." He described it as having a "secretive character" and saw "signs in it of a covert inclination to dominate the world with a form of Christian Masonry. This allegations against Opus Dei from within well-regarded ecclesiastical circles ("the opposition by good people," Escrivá called it), which happened time and again in its history, is considered one of the root of present-day accusations coming from the most varied quarters. This is the conclusion of some writers, including John L. Allen, Jr., CNN's Vatican analyst.

According to John Allen, one of the original sources of criticism on Opus Dei are some members of the Society of Jesus who did not understand Opus Dei's big difference from religious orders. Opus Dei is composed of ordinary lay Christians who are taking their baptism-based calling to become holy, as the first Christians did without in any way being externally distinguished from other citizens of the Roman Empire, as Escriva explained.

Aside from this full-blown campaign in the 1940s, there were other attacks from Jesuits in the 1950s who told some Italian parents of members of Opus Dei that their sons were being led to damnation. Another Jesuit writer against Opus Dei was Michael Walsh, who later left the Society of Jesus.

According to Messori, the Jesuits and some clerical sectors were also one of the originators of the "myth" and "black legend" that Opus Dei supported fascism. From then on, Opus Dei has been associated with ultra-right wing regimes.

Corporal Mortification

Much public attention has focused on Opus Dei's encouragement of the practice of mortification — the voluntary infliction of pain or discomfort. Mortification has a long history in many world religions including the Catholic Church, but the practice has become rare among most modern Christians.

Opus Dei Numeraries, Numerary Assistants, and Associates practice several forms of mortification. Many are small acts of discomfort or sacrifice such as taking a cold shower, sleeping without a pillow or sleeping on the floor, fasting, or remaining silent for certain hours during the day. Some forms are more extreme, for example, once a week, numeraries briefly flail themselves with a small rope whip called a "discipline".

One of the more-controversial forms of mortification involves the use of a cilice — a small metal chain with inwardly-pointing spikes that is worn around their upper thigh. The cilice's spikes cause pain and may leave small marks, but typically do not cause bleeding. Numeraries in Opus Dei generally wear a cilice for two hours each day.

Members of Opus Dei hold that the mortification helps to remind them of Jesus' suffering on the cross and have a variety of positive psychological and spiritual benefits. Supporters of the practice point out that mortification has had a long history within the Catholic Church and that various popes have endorsed the practice. They further point out mortification was practiced by many highly-revered individuals such as Mother Theresa, Óscar Romero and Padre Pio. According to Opus Dei, the practice of mortification is entirely safe, strictly limited, and closely supervised. Opus Dei supporters accuse the critics of accepting physical pain and sacrifice in other domains (such as athletics, business, and personal beautification), but objecting to similar pain and sacrifice when done for a religious purpose.

Critics have called mortification a "questionable" and "startling" practice. Additionally, they often point out that Escriva himself engaged in more extreme forms of mortification than those typically practiced by Opus Dei numeraries. For example, Escriva's closest aide has described an incident in which Escriva flailed himself over a thousand times. Critics say the practice borders on masochism, and opponents of Opus Dei often criticize Escriva's maxim on suffering: "Loved be pain. Sanctified be pain. Glorified be pain!"

Allegations of aggressive recruiting

Similarly, Opus Dei has been accused of engaging in deceptive or extremely aggressive recruitment practices. Critics point out that Opus Dei puts great emphasis on recruiting, and point to quote Escriva's writings which say "You must kill yourselves for proselytism." Opus Dei has been accused of using friendship as "bait" to entice new members. According to critics, Opus Dei encourages its numeraries to form friendships and go to social gatherings explicitly as a means to recruit. According to its detractors, members of Opus Dei even go so far as to fill out regular written reports on friends who may be potential recruits. Critics also claim that Opus Dei uses a cult-like recruitment technique called "Love bombing," in which potential members are showered with flattery and admiration by members of the organization in order to entice them into joining.

Opus Dei has similarly been accused of putting excessive pressure on potential recruits. Although one must be at least 17 years old in order to join Opus Dei, reports say the recruitment process can often begin in early adolescence, and in 1981 Basil Cardinal Hume issued instructions forbidding Opus Dei from recruiting anyone under 18. Some reports claim that teenagers interested in joining Opus Dei have been instructed not to discuss the decision with their parents. According to one former member, Opus Dei pressures recruits into joining by telling them that ignoring a vocation would "lead to a life of misery" and demanding an immediate decision. Critics cite an article in which Escriva, discussing recruitment, said "This holy coercion is necessary, 'Compel them to enter,' the Lord tells us."

Opus Dei says that joining "requires a supernatural vocation." They emphasize that being admitted to Opus Dei is an extended process which requires at least six months to complete. According to Opus Dei, "One’s life can only be given freely, through a decision coming from the heart, not from external pressure: pressure is both wrong and ineffective.

Allegations of being highly controlling

Critics accuse the organization of maintaining an extremely high degree of control over its members. Ex-members claim that the Opus Dei directors read letters of the members. According to a 2006 report by BBC Mundo Jose Carlos Martin de la Hoz, priest of the prelature in Spain, said that this practice exists, but clarified that it is a manifestation of opening and confidence of the faithfuls of the Opus Dei. In 2001, an Opus Dei spokesman said that the practice of reading the mail of numeraries was abandoned years ago.

About 20% of Opus Dei are celibate. They live in special residential centers where they lead extremely-structured lives— critics say this practice isolates its members from the rest of society and allows Opus Dei to have nearly total control over its members' environments. Critics note that numeraries in Opus Dei generally submit all their incoming and outgoing mail to their superiors to read. They also point to a "Forbidden Books List" that details which books members are not allowed to read without the express permission of their superiors. For some books, a numerary's direct supervisor can provide permission, but for other books, permission can only be given by the Prelate in Rome. According to some critics, Opus Dei pressures numeraries to cut off social contact with non-members, including their own families. Numeraries in Opus Dei generally hand over their entire salaries to the organization, and critics say this has the effect of making numeraries extremely dependent upon the organization.

Opus Dei denies exerting any undue control over its members, and supporters say that Opus Dei places an extraordinary emphasis on the personal freedom of its members. They quote Escriva who said "Respect for its members' freedom is an essential condition for Opus Dei's very existence."

Supporters defend Opus Dei's list of inappropriate books by pointing out that the Vatican itself maintained a similar list until the 1960s. Supporters similarly quote Escrivá, who said that indiscriminate reading of books is like taking all the nice-looking pills in a drugstore. To explain the celibate lifestyle of numeraries and their relationships with their families, supporters quote Jesus's comment that "He who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.

Allegations that Opus Dei is a cult

Some critics accuse the organization of acting as a religious cult within the Church.

They say that Opus Dei shows characteristic cult behavior such as:

  • Undue pressure to join. Vocational crises are staged; threats are issued: saying no to a calling leads to a life of misery.
  • Lack of informed consent on the part of the new recruits. They vaguely commit themselves to a certain "spirit of the Work."
  • Encouraging members to relinquish contact with their friends and families in favour of contacts within the group.
  • Controlling the environment of the member; loss of freedom of the member.
  • Threatening members when they try to leave. The strongest is the threat of condemnation. These threats are not necessarily physical, but psychological.
  • Making members focus on efforts in favor of the growth of the group. The most important job for an Opus Dei member is to attract other people to join the organization. The members' social lives, the circles that they frequent, and the friendships members form are always geared towards proselytism.
  • Requiring numerary members to perform what critics view as highly suspicious practices such as mortification of the flesh, involving the use of the cilice for two hours a day and the discipline ; its founder is frequently alleged by critics to have whipped himself until there was blood on the walls. On the bedside of a dying, pain-striken woman abandoned by her family, he consoled her with the words: "Blessed be pain. Loved be pain. Sanctified be pain. . . Glorified be pain!" These words are written in The Way, point 208, which for his critics implies a strange attitude towards pain.

A sociologist and doctor in law, Prof. Alberto Moncada, a former member of Opus Dei and founding Pro-Rector of an Opus Dei-related university in Latin America, says that Opus Dei is an "intraecclesial" sect, because for the Vatican "radical rightist groups and fundamentalisms are tolerated." (See "Catholic Sects: Opus Dei" in Revista Internacional de Sociologia, Madrid 1992).

Dr. John Roche, a former member of Opus Dei and a lecturer at Linacre College, Oxford stated "I am convinced Opus Dei is a sect, a cult, a malignant growth upon the body of the church."

Allegations of secrecy

Critics have often accused Opus Dei of being intensely secretive. Opus Dei does not publish its memberships lists, and members generally do not publicly reveal that they are part of the organization. . Indeed, according to its 1950 constitution, members are forbidden to reveal their membership without the express permission of their superiors. This practice has led to rampant speculation about who may or may not be a member of Opus Dei. The 1950 constitution similarly prohibited even revealing how many people were members of Opus Dei.

Additionally, critics claim that Opus Dei is secretive about its activities. Opponents cite the fact that Opus Dei often will not directly reveal its relationship to many of its institutions. According to critics, Opus Dei does not allow many of its own rules to be made public. For example, the 1950 Constitution states, "These Constitutions, published instructions, and those which in the future may be published, and the other things pertaining to the government of the Institute are never to be made public. Indeed, without the permission of the Father [Escrivá] those documents which are written in the Latin language may not be translated into [other] languages." Similarly, Opus Dei does not reveal details about its finances.

Allen says, "Opus Dei cannot be called secretive." Accusations of secrecy, he says, stem from mistakenly equating its members with monks and expecting members to behave as clerics. Instead, its lay members, like any normal professional, are ultimately responsible for their personal actions, and do not externally represent the prelature which provides them spiritual training. Opus Dei itself, he says, provides abundant information. Supporters claim Opus Dei's relative silence stems not from a secretive nature, but rather is the result of a deep commitment to privacy, humility, and "avoidance of self-aggrandizement. Supporters argue that Opus Dei "has the obligation to respect its members' privacyThey say members of Opus Dei do generally reveal their membership status to their family and closest friends. The historical opposition to Opus Dei may also have contributed to the need for privacy— as one author speculates, "I think part of it, too, is that, historically, because a lot of people didn't like Opus Dei, there was just a sense that it would be better not to be too upfront because you're just inviting hostility."

Opus Dei and women

The role of women in Opus Dei is another source of criticism. Many of these criticisms are directed not just at Opus Dei, but as Catholicism as a whole. As in the rest of the Catholic Church, women may not join the priesthood or participate in the very highest levels of church governance. The Catholic prohibitions against abortion and birth control have also drawn criticism. While a minority of Roman Catholics have advocated for changing these stances, Opus Dei is generally seen as supportive of them. Many critics of such policies have therefore opposed Opus Dei, as in the case of one author who views Opus Dei "as one of the most reactionary organizations in the Roman Catholic Church today...for its devotion to promoting, as public policy, the Vatican's inflexibly traditionalist approach to women, and reproductive health. Those who approve of the Vatican's policies, meanwhile, applaud Opus Dei's stance on those issues.

Some of these gender-related criticisms have been directed specifically towards Opus Dei. Unmarried male and female numeraries are segregated, with only limited contact between genders— male and female numeraries live in separate centers and attend separate classes and retreats. Opus Dei's U.S. Headquarters even has separate entrances for men and women. Critics have called this an "archaic concept of gender-roles." Similarly, in Opus Dei, there is a sub-group of female numeraries known as "assistants" who perform the cooking, cleaning, sewing, and other household tasks required at the Opus Dei centers. Members emphasize that the numerary assistants clean both men's and women's centers, but critics take issue with the fact that while women clean for men, men never clean for the women. Critics also object to some of Escriva's teachings on women. He once wrote, "Wives, you should ask yourself whether you are not forgetting a little about your appearance. Your duty is, and will always be, to take as good care of your appearance as you did before you were married - and it is a duty of justice, because you belong to your husband." Escriva similarly stated that "Women needn’t be scholars - it’s enough for them to be prudent."

Opus Dei and its supporters reject any suggestion their policies are inappropriate. While they admit women are sometimes treated differently than men within Opus Dei, supporters emphasize that men and women are nonetheless regarded as equals. A spokesman has said the Opus Dei is committed to the "equal dignity of men and women." In the opinion of one member, women should not enter the workforce as "one more" but as a "different one," given that "the only ontological difference among human beings is determined by the sexes," and that care for the family and the home are "eminently feminine. Supporters say that Opus Dei, with its emphasis on work, is a strong advocate of women becoming professionals— according to one scholar, "Opus Dei has an enviable record of educating the poor and supporting women, whether single or married, in any occupation they choose." Supporters also point out that women participate in the governance of Opus Dei— for example, the Central Advisory, which oversees the women's branch of Opus Dei, is made up entirely of women. Thus, John Allen reports that half of the leadership positions in Opus Dei are held by women, and they supervise men. Lastly, the Catholic Church emphasizes that "the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are not the ministers but the saints."

Alleged independence and influence within the Catholic Church

Concerning the group's role in the Catholic Church, critics have argued that Opus Dei's unique status as a personal prelature gives it too much independence. According to critics, elevating Opus Dei to the status of a personal prelature allows its members to "go about their business almost untouched by criticism or oversight by bishops". According to critics, Opus Dei has such a level of autonomy that it has become essentially a "church within a church".

Catholic officials say that church authorities have even greater control of Opus Dei now that its head is a prelate appointed by the Pope and they argue members are "even more conscious of belonging to the Church". They point to canon law which states that Opus Dei members remain under "jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop in what the law lays down for all the ordinary [Catholics]". Similarly, they point out that Opus Dei must obtain permission from the local bishop before establishing an Opus Dei center within the diocese.

Some critics claim that Opus Dei exerts a disproportionately large influence within the Catholic Church itself. They point to the unusually hasty (and otherwise irregular) process in which Escriva was canonized. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have been vocal supporters of Opus Dei, and the former head of the Vatican press office was a member of Opus Dei. An Opus Dei spokesman says "the influence of Opus Dei in the [Vatican] has been exaggerated. Of the nearly 200 cardinals in the Catholic Church, only two are known to be members of Opus Dei. Similarly, of the nearly 4000 bishops, only 20 are known to be members of Opus Dei.

John L. Allen, Jr. said that Escriva's relatively quick canonization does not have anything to do with power but with improvements in procedures and John Paul II's decision to make Escriva's sanctity and message known. (see Opus Dei and politics)

Objections to the critics

When one Cardinal was asked why Opus Dei has faced such opposition, he responded, "It's the critics's own bad conscience!Supporters say that the controversy surrounding Opus Dei stems from bad faith or other bias on the part of the critics. In some cases, supporters accuse critics of merely misunderstanding Opus Dei, its mission, or its novelty. In other cases, supporters charge that feelings of jealousy or vengefulness have led the critics to intentionally spread lies and "black legends" about Opus Dei, in order to slander and defame the organization.

Ex-members as unreliable witnesses

One source of criticism comes from former members of Opus Dei. A former member of a religious group who has renounced their earlier religion is known as an apostate. Their status was studied by Bryan R. Wilson, who studied the phenomenon of new religious movements in general. In one paper, Wilson discussed the unreliability of apostate testimony. Wilson said some apostates themselves "have been first a victim" then "a redeemed crusader" and that their "personal history predisposes [them] to bias." According to Wilson, such an apostate may have "a personal motivation to vindicate himself and to regain his self-esteem" after having quit a religious organization. Supporters also point to sociological research which suggests that apostates create atrocity stories, tales that present events in such a context that the narrator evokes or tries to evoke moral condemnation or horror among the audience. According to Wilson, "Neither the objective sociological researcher nor the court of law can readily regard the apostate as a creditable or reliable source of evidence," he states. Supporters of Opus Dei also note that only a minority of those associated with Opus Dei ever go on to become critics. Jack Valero, Spokesman of Opus Dei in the UK, emphasizes that many people who left the organization actually maintain good relations with Opus Dei. Similarly, Cardinal Schönborn states: "It is unjustified to present personal difficulties within a community as if they were a general experience."


Secularism Opus Dei and its supporters often see criticism as being motived by a religious bias or political agenda. Many supporters of Opus Dei have expressed the belief that the criticisms of Opus Dei stem from a generalized disapproval of spirituality, Christianity, or Catholicism. Expressing this sentiment, one Opus Dei member claimed, "Opus Dei has become a victim of Christianophobia. Another author argues that critics oppose Opus Dei because "they cannot tolerate 'the return to religion' of the secularized society. Another author writes, "There was no longer any room for religion in a postmodern technological culture." Some supporters see the criticisms of Opus Dei as one facet of a widespread prejudice against Catholics; anti-Catholicism has been called "America's last acceptable prejudice.Jesuits, liberal Catholics

Also, these critics were concerned that Opus Dei would take away vocations from the religious orders.

Allen talks about a rivalry between the Jesuits and Opus Dei. Intellectual Richard John Neuhaus said the following: "The opposition to Opus Dei cannot be explained without at least some reference to jealousy. Competition and jealousy among religious movements in the Catholic Church is nothing new, and some Opus Dei members are not hesitant to suggest that theirs is now the role in the Church once played by the Jesuits. The Jesuits, who were once viewed as the elite corps of the papacy, have in recent decades had a sharply attenuated relationship to the hierarchical leadership of the Church. The famous "fourth vow" of allegiance to the pope is now frequently understood by Jesuits as a vow to the papacy in general -- meaning the papacy as they think it ought to be."

"Nothing attracts criticism like success," says Robert Royal, author of several books and President of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington D.C. "In the seventy years since its founding, the Work has grown to almost eighty thousand members, over half in Europe, another third in the Americas, and the rest scattered throughout the world. As Vittorio Messori notes, this movement, which was once thought of as a pre-Vatican II fossil by progressives, has not only survived the heyday of progressive Catholic movements, but continues growing while the left in general, religious and lay, is shrinking."

According to Time Magazine, "church liberals, once riding high, have understood for decades that Rome does not incline their way. They feel abandoned, says Allen, 'and whenever you feel that way, there's a natural desire to find someone to blame.'"

The animosity from within the Church derives from the conflicting views of the role of the Church following Vatican II. At the time, the superior of the Jesuits, Pedro Arrupe, "symbolised the new post-Vatican II ethos, calling his Jesuits to be 'men for others', which in practice sometimes meant joining movements for peace and justice," while "Escrivá walked another path, insisting on the primacy of traditional forms of prayer, devotion, and the sacramental life." Making Opus Dei a "personal prelature" and Escrivá a saint "seemed like a clampdown on the Jesuits - almost as if a torch was being passed." As Allen points out, some of Opus Dei's harshest critics were once Jesuit priests.

According to Vittorio Messori, a major source of hostility towards Opus Dei is the application of political categories to a religious phenomenon such as Opus Dei. These groups against Opus Dei, he says, see everything happening in the world only with the prism of power-seeking, that is, of political spectrums of people in the left versus people on the right. Since Opus Dei is one of the major religious groups, the application of politically motivated campaigns against it is even stronger.

According to Allen, Opus Dei became the lightning rod for the attacks of liberals in the culture wars when John Paul II, perceived to be a conservative by the liberals, granted several favorable things to Opus Dei such as beatification, canonization of the founder, and personal prelature status.

Controversy as a sign of contradiction

Some supporters of Opus Dei have viewed the controversy surrounding the organization as a "Sign of contradiction." Proponents of this view hold that blessed, divinely-inspired Christian organizations will always be criticized, just as Jesus was criticized by his contemporaries. Accordingly, they see the very existence of critics as further proof of the organization's sanctity.

Some Catholic leaders like Cardinal John Carmel Heenan see Opus Dei as a sign of contradiction. Due to this, some sympathizing Catholics see Opus Dei as a sign of contradiction. "Why, then, has Opus Dei received such a bad press?" asks Piers Paul Read. "Its ethos is inevitably 'a sign of contradiction' in a hedonistic and self-indulgent society."

A theological explanation is given by John Carmel Heenan, Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. He commented in 1975: "One of the proofs of God's favour is to be a sign of contradiction. Almost all founders of societies in the Church have suffered. Monsignor Escrivá de Balaguer is no exception. Opus Dei has been attacked and its motives misunderstood. In this country and elsewhere an inquiry has always vindicated Opus Dei.

According to Catholic tradition, a sign of contradiction points to the presence of Christ or the presence of the divine due to the union of that person or reality with God. In his book, Sign of Contradiction, John Paul II says that "sign of contradiction" might be "a distinctive definition of Christ and of his Church."

John Paul II stated, in his decree on the heroic virtues of Opus Dei's founder, Josemaría Escrivá: "God allowed him to suffer public attacks. He responded invariably with pardon, to the point of considering his detractors as benefactors. But this Cross was such a source of blessings from heaven that the Servant of God's apostolate [or evangelizing work] spread with astonishing speed."

Effects of controversy

According to ODAN, Opus Dei has changed some of its practices due to the opposition and the awareness campaigns it has launched. Some Opus Dei spokespersons have indeed acknowledged that they take notice of some of the comments in ODAN to improve things in the prelature.


Books and notes

External links

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