Why is Opus Dei So Controversial: A Personal Response

On May 17, 1992, Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, the founder of Opus Dei, was beatified by the Pope in a ceremony in Rome that drew a crowd of over 200,000, perhaps the largest crowd in the Vatican since the declaration of the dogma of the Assumption in 1954. The remarkably quick pace of the beatification — Msgr. Escriva had died in Rome in 1975, only 17 years before — was a source of joy to Opus Dei’s members and its friends, but it was also the occasion for another round of criticism as well.

While most of the criticisms come from those who are simply hostile to orthodox Catholicism, the situation is complicated by the fact that the criticisms also come, at times, from people who are quite self-consciously orthodox, who have undoubted loyalty to the Pope, but who believe that he has been “fooled” in this particular case. Even if these are a minority of the criticisms, they deserve to be taken seriously. Moreover, those Catholics who know little about the dispute might be reasonably inclined to say that where there is so much smoke, there must be at least a bit of fire.

I have been a supernumerary member of the Work since 1968, and after twenty-six years I can say that I know Opus Dei pretty well. On the other hand, I have no “office” in Opus Dei, and I am certainly not claiming to serve as a spokesman for it, which I would have no right to do. I simply want to help people understand what the Work is, to clear up some misrepresentations about it, and to explore how these misunderstandings might have arisen — and, frankly, to admit that at least sometimes we in the Work share the responsibility for some misunderstandings. I will begin with a brief description of Opus Dei, what it is and what its goals and methods are, and then turn to some of the criticisms.

When the Work was founded in 1928, and when it received its first approvals from the Church, there was no place in the law of the Church for something like Opus Dei, a genuinely secular vocation. The initial papal approvals made the Work a “secular institute,” but for a variety of reasons this was not a long-term solution. After Vatican II and the subsequent revision of canon law, in 1982, Opus Dei became the first “personal prelature” in the Church. Erected by the Holy See, the prelature is governed by a Prelate, who exercises jurisdiction over the members of the prelature in those matters pertaining to its specific mission, namely, to help laypeople (and secular priests) to pursue holiness in the ordinary events of everyday life: work, family, and so forth.

 

Three Principles

The key to the Work is that it is a vocation, a personal call from God to transform all the ordinary events of our lives into occasions of loving Him. The implications of this call are best seen by looking at the integration of three different aspects of a layman’s life: prayer, work, and apostolate.

Prayer: There is really nothing “original” about the Work’s emphasis on prayer or the interior life, since it draws on the essential elements of the Christian life. What the Work offers, drawing from practices used throughout the history of the Church, is spiritual guidance and a practical attitude toward developing the friendship with Christ that is the basis for everything else in a Christian’s life.

Concretely, members of the Work live a particular “plan of life,” which consists in various spiritual practices spaced throughout the day. Its most important elements include the morning offering, Holy Mass, periods of personal prayer, spiritual reading, the Rosary, examinations of conscience, and weekly confession. The point of these practices is to keep us in touch with Christ throughout the day, preventing us, in our daily activities, from losing sight of the forest for the trees.

Of course, it is always a struggle to keep routine from creeping in, to prevent these means from inadvertently being treated as if they were ends. The most important thing is to have a constant awareness of the presence of God, a lively sense that we are His children. The goal is to make our faith, not just a vague set of beliefs, but the proximate or immediate motive of all that we do.

Work: The second aspect of a laymen’s life is work. That is what we spend a large part of our lives doing, whether homemakers, professionals, blue-collar workers, students, priests, whatever. If work is a large part of our lives, and if the goal of the Christian life is to offer everything to God, then work too has to be “sanctified.”

The spiritual guidance the Work offers emphasizes two practical aspects of work. First, work cannot be offered to God unless it is done very well humanly. All the human virtues that bear upon work done well — industriousness, perseverance, attention to details, courtesy, study — therefore receive considerable emphasis. Moreover, it goes without saying that work cannot be done well if it is not in conformity with the moral law, including the social teaching of the Church.

Second, work is made holy — becomes a kind of prayer — when it is done with a supernatural intention, with the desire to serve God. This sanctified work adds to God’s glory and can also be a way of helping others. Offering up work for people, with faith that this prayer is the best way to help them, becomes an important daily goal.

Apostolate: The starting point here is that all Christians have the right and duty to spread the faith, to help other people get closer to God. This is based not just on some call to do so by the hierarchy, but more fundamentally on the very fact of our baptism. The attitude that only priests and religious have this challenge of spreading the faith, while the rest of us “just” live it is an unfortunate hangover from an image of Church life in which the laity were not thought to be called to the fullness of sanctity. The founder of Opus Dei anticipated Vatican II by three decades in stressing the universal call to sanctity and apostolate. The key question he addressed was how ordinary laymen too could have an active apostolate of example and word, combined with the “secularity” and “naturalness” that are characteristic of lay people?

The answer he gave was that the lay apostolate was especially an apostolate of friendship and trust. Lay people help other people to take their faith more seriously especially in the context of their friendships.

Perhaps the best example of that kind of friendship is marriage, which is the “first apostolate” of ordinary lay people, because our spouses come first after God in the “order of charity.” The goal of every Catholic marriage is that the spouses help each other to love God more. This is done, not by preaching — which would be insufferable in a marriage — but in the subtle ways that spouses shape each other’s concerns and their very perception of reality and of what is truly important in life: in their shared life and conversation, both ordinary and intimate, embracing the most mundane daily realities and their deeper thoughts and desires.

Unity of Life and Formation: Everything we do, in family life, friendships, work, and social activities, becomes part of the conversation we try to maintain with Our Lord. By struggling to integrate all these aspects of life with our faith, we try to overcome the compartmentalization that is the bane of the Christian life.

What the Work especially provides is a constant, on-going formation, some of it in groups (such as classes, retreats, evenings of recollection), and some one-on-one (such as confession, and regular spiritual guidance with a layman).

The Work is an “unorganized organization,” in which considerable discretion is left to local governance, but a deep unity of spirit (especially a unity with the Prelate) is cultivated. The organization that exists is intended to provide a framework for and to stimulate the real “activity of the Work,” i.e., the personal efforts of all its members to sanctify their daily activities and to spread to others the call to holiness.

 

Criticisms

Some people may wonder why Opus Dei has been the subject of so much criticism. It is accused of being secretive, elitist, “a church within a church,” and an unnecessary obstacle to improvement of parish life. It is said to have enormous hidden financial power, put at the service of right-wing politics. Its members are accused of employing outdated and psychologically imbalanced practices of physical mortification and of other practices amounting to psychological slavery — almost a kind of cult. Its members are sometimes regarded as “pushy” and morbidly concerned with tiny details of life. Is there any merit in these charges?

Secrecy: Probably no accusation about Opus Dei has been repeated more often than the charge that it is “secretive.” Such assertions have been routinely included in the introductions to articles about the Work in most of the secular media.

Members of Opus Dei do not “broadcast” their membership in the Work, and this may strike some people as a kind of secrecy. If people have a vocation that is the framework for their whole existence, isn’t it a bit strange that they don’t identify themselves with it publicly? Generally people in the Work do talk about it with their friends, at least those friends whom they think might have some interest in the Work themselves. But why only this limited group?

An important part of the reason for this lack of publicity about their vocation — and a source of some of the misunderstandings on this point — has to do with the difference between lay and clerical vocations. Priests and religious are called to be public witnesses of the faith. Their dedication is a public one. Religious, for example, make public “professions.” They are “called” out of the world, set apart or “consecrated” for some divine task. Normally, they even wear clothes — clerical garb, habits — that identify their public vocation.

Lay people are not “consecrated” people. They are simply ordinary faithful, ordinary citizens like everyone else in society. Their vocation is fundamentally a private matter between themselves and God, although its consequences, of course, overflow into every aspect of their lives. Vatican II refers to the “secular character” that is “proper and peculiar to the laity” (Lumen Gentium, No. 31). The image drawn from the Gospel to represent the lay vocation is that of leaven, which causes the bread to rise while itself going unnoticed.

People in the Work usually refer to this aspect of their vocation as “naturalness.” Most people are usually put off a bit by a stranger who simply walks up and starts talking to them about spiritual matters. Why? Isn’t it because spiritual matters are among the most intimate aspects of our lives? Without the friendship that ordinarily provides the appropriate context for discussion of intimate matters, such conversation seems — and usually is — unnatural.

This whole notion of naturalness is difficult for some people to understand, especially for those who have a more clerical or religious turn of mind. For them, the religious or clerical state is the model Christian vocation, and all vocations are, consciously or unconsciously, expected to follow it. The idea of a “private” vocation strikes them as oxymoronic.

Paradoxically, this clerical way of thinking is connected with a facet of the history of Opus Dei that contributed to accusations of secrecy. In the Spain in which Opus Dei was born and first developed, clericalism was the norm. Many people in society thought that if you were really serious about sanctity, the only full commitment to God was in the priesthood or religious state. This clericalism was one of the most difficult obstacles against which the Work in its formative years had to contend. The founder of the Work spent a great deal of energy throughout his life fighting to prevent the Work from being misunderstood. Among other things, he counseled members in the early years of the Work to be very “discreet” — not to talk too freely or readily about their being in the Work. Why? Because at that time, if someone said “I am a member of Opus Dei,” many people who shared in the clerical mentality of the environment would immediately have considered that person to have a specifically religious vocation.

Let me give an example to show how such misunderstandings can cause genuine harm. In the 1960s, some members of Opus Dei became members of Franco’s cabinet in Spain. They had every right to do so, exercising their personal political freedom. But their personal political opinions had nothing to do with Opus Dei, since members of the Work are free to adopt a great variety of political opinions, as long as they do not contradict the teaching of the Church concerning faith and morals. Yet some people immediately jumped to the conclusion that Opus Dei had right-wing political leanings, simply because some of its members were part of a right-wing government. Either they did not know about members of Opus Dei associated with other political views or they ignored them. For example, an editor of a Madrid newspaper who was a member of Opus Dei was exiled from Spain for his opposition to Franco.

The tendency of journalists to view everything “politically” — as confrontations between “conservatives and liberals” or “progressives and reactionaries” — also inclined them to assume that Opus Dei must have some underlying group political orientation that was reflected in the activities of its individual members. When people in Opus Dei denied that the Work had any political program of its own, people with these attitudes drew the conclusion that it must be hiding its program, i.e., that this was another example of Opus Dei’s secretiveness.

Elitism: Another charge that is sometimes made against the Work is that it is elitist, in a variety of senses: socioeconomically and spiritually. Sometimes people walk into attractive centers of Opus Dei, see white, middle-class people, often businessman and professionals, and they conclude that it is deliberately aimed only at certain socioeconomic groups. Still others see a kind of “esprit de corps” among people in the Work and perhaps hear comments some of them make about the confusion in which so many people in the Church today find themselves. Finally, some observers have noted the increasing role that some members of Opus Dei play in the Vatican and have concluded that Opus Dei is out to get power in the Church. All of these can contribute to an impression that the Work regards itself as a spiritual elite, and even leads some people to argue that the Work is a kind of “church within a church.”

The founder of Opus Dei used to say that “out of every 100 people, we are interested in 100.” The whole thrust of the Work, after all, is the universal call to holiness — everyone is called. To confine this message to certain socioeconomic groups would be a contradiction. People of every social class, economic level, race, nationality, occupation, and creed are the object of the Work’s apostolate.

But it is easy to see how the misimpression can be created. The centers of Opus Dei generally are nice places (especially after the early years in a given place, during which time financial resources are often tight), and they are maintained beautifully. This has to be the case, since the spirit of the Work is to do things very well, from a human as well as a spiritual standpoint. It is perfectly appropriate for Mother Teresa’s nuns to live in more penurious dwellings, because of the nature of their vocation. But the lay vocation is different — it involves a deep appreciation for the things of this world, as coming from the hand of God — and its spirit of poverty is also different: shown more in an interior detachment, in buying good things (high quality, simple, not luxurious) that will last, and in taking care of them very well.

Opus Dei, to be true to its own nature, cannot be “a church within a church.” There is only one Church, the Church Christ founded, and Opus Dei is one of many ways to serve the rich diversity of that Church. We do think the Work has, and will have, a great impact on behalf of the Church, since there are so many ways in which it can help the Church by living up to its own spirit. And we are happy too that the Holy Spirit is raising up other forms of Christian life in this time of renewal.

Another factor that contributes to this misunderstanding can arise from the stage of development of the Work in a given place. When the Work is in its early stages of development in a country, one of its greatest needs is to have numeraries (celibate members) who are responsible for giving most of the formation to other members, and who therefore need a certain amount of education. Apostolic activities, then, often begin at universities, especially the best universities in the country — so as to be able to do this apostolate with some of the most intelligent and talented young people there. Is this “targeting the elite”? Of course it is, in one sense. The elite, after all, need to be saved as much as anyone else, and, more importantly, they often are able to reach many other people as well. But there is no intention at all — quite the contrary — of restricting apostolate to this group of people.

Where the Work is more fully developed, it is easier to see a greater cross-section of people from all groups in society, especially for those who take the time to have a greater familiarity with it. In this country, Midtown Study Center in Chicago is a great example of work with people from poorer socioeconomic groups and different races, and it has served as a model for projects that are getting started in other cities. Partly due to its success, I would bet that there are as many, if not more, Mexican-American manual laborers in the Work in this country as there are university professors.

 

Some Internal Practices in the Work

Yet another source of concern for some of the critics of the Work is certain practices of either some or all of its members. In particular, there have been references to certain practices of voluntary mortification, “recruiting,” and vague accusations that it is cult-like.

Mortification: Members of the Work do practice voluntary mortification. That is nothing new, of course. Mortification has traditionally been an essential element of Christian life. Our Lord himself said that anyone who wishes to follow him must take up his cross daily, and consequently mortification has been an important element of traditional Christianity. In the past, some saints have carried this to a great extent, inflicting harsh and even terrible physical suffering on themselves.

But whatever we might say about the great mortifications of the saints, that is not what we are talking about when it comes to the typical mortifications of people in Opus Dei. Pride of place among mortifications, for a person in the Work, always goes to the “passive” mortifications — the ones God sends us — and to those which help us to live our vocation well in a spirit of charity with others. For example: putting up with an annoying person in the place where we work, eating cheerfully the dish we don’t like to show appreciation for the work our wives put into making it, putting down the paper to listen to a child with real attention, accepting without complaining some setback we experience in our work.

Recruiting: Apostolate is one aspect of the spirit of the Work, and one form of apostolate is proselytism, the spread of the vocation to the Work itself. Like a healthy family, the Work wants to grow, to bring life to more people. Some people object to the methods of “recruitment,” as they call it, that are employed by the Work.

One things that should be said straightaway is that no one in Opus Dei would ever think of himself as “recruiting.” That word evokes images of getting someone to join a group as a means of forwarding the group, without a primary concern for the person involved.

A better metaphor for what people in the Work are doing — though one with obvious limits — is setting up a date for a friend. Young people who date do so to have fun. They also generally are pursuing a longer term goal of finding an appropriate spouse. If I were a college student who had a very nice female friend who was “unattached,” I might very well try to set up a date between her and one of my male friends. If they hit it off and seemed to enjoy each other, I would probably encourage the friendship. And I would probably be pretty happy if I saw that friendship deepen into love and eventually into a happy marriage. But I would never regard the setting up of the original date as “recruiting” one of my friends to be another friend’s wife!

Likewise people in the Work introduce their friends to activities of the Work because they think they might like the Work and get something out of it. If they do, we’re happy. If, in addition, the person gets closer to the Work and eventually sees that he has a vocation, that’s great too. If not — if God is calling them to get closer to Himself by some other path — then that’s fine as well. Our concern is simply that our friends be happy in the place where God wants them. That’s pretty distant from the images evoked by “recruitment.”

A Sect or Cult?: There have been some accusations that the Work is like a sect or cult. What leads to this accusation is that there are some qualities of legitimate movements within the Church that seem to overlap with those of illegitimate sects or cults. In particular, there is a kind of complete dedication which is common to both. Such dedication is not in itself a bad trait, of course, anymore than it would be bad to be “head over heels in love” with someone. In either case, you’d have to ask questions about the object of this dedication or love, the form it takes, and about its consequences for the person. If, for example, someone fell madly in love with a thoroughly bad person, that would be pitiable. Or if the form of the love was such that a person ceased to engage in any desirable or productive use of his talents, or if it reduced the person to a kind of puppyish or slavish servility, that would be unfortunate. Or if dedication to a group made a person unwilling to have anything to do with anyone else or unable even to see the good in other groups, that too would be objectionable.

But those who know people in Opus Dei will recognize that such traits are not generally characteristic of people in the Work. In fact, apart from their common desire to be serious about their faith, there are few traits they have in common, since there are people with all kinds of different temperaments in the Work.

We’re all human: Finally, another ground of criticism of the Work originates in the fact that we don’t always live the spirit of the Work very well. Sometimes people trying to live certain virtues can go overboard. Someone trying to live the virtue of orderliness can become nit-picky, and another trying to be apostolic can become “pushy.” And anyone who struggles to live a better life can get too absorbed in the struggle itself, forgetting that it is a means, not an end.

None of these dangers is unique to people in Opus Dei. They “go with the territory” for those who are trying to live their faith seriously, because they are a permanent part of the “ascetical landscape” of Christianity. Like every other Christian, people in the Work sometimes fail to live up to their ideals. And when they do fail, perhaps they tend to do so precisely on those points where the Work has particular strengths.

The most important and persuasive evidence for the soundness of Opus Dei is the affection the Church has shown to it in its various approvals and in the beatification of its founder. The Catholic Church, after all, is not generally known for making quick, superficial evaluations of anything. It is an institution that tends to move quite slowly. That is one reason why some people in the Curia remarked to the founder, when he arrived in Rome in the mid-1940s: “you have come a century too soon.” The Church has now had an opportunity to look at the Work and its fruits for many decades. Its conclusion, manifested most recently in the beatification of the founder of the Work, is that Opus Dei is a thing of — to use a phrase from the document erecting it as a personal prelature — “divine inspiration.”

By

When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Christopher Wolfe was a member of the Department of Political Science at Marquette University.

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