Did Opus Dei Just Receive a Slap on the Wrist from the Pope?

The recent papal motu proprio Ad charisma tuendum modifying the oversight of Opus Dei came as a surprise to many. From all outward appearances, Opus Dei is in good standing with the pope and there was no push from any quarter of the Church to make changes to the personal prelature.

The short moto proprio lists six changes, but two stand out. First, Opus Dei will now be under the Dicastery for the Clergy instead of the Congregation of Bishops. This change seems to simply be keeping the oversight of Opus Dei in line with the pope’s recent structural changes to the Roman Curia. As part of this change, instead of submitting a report every five years directly to the pope, now the head of Opus Dei—the Prelate—will submit that report to the Dicastery for the Clergy. This might be a “demotion” of Opus Dei, but it might also just be some bureaucratic shuffling.

The most important change is that now the Prelate will no longer become a bishop. This is significant for a number of reasons. First, having a bishop in charge of the prelature gives it a certain prestige and authority. Second, not having a bishop as Prelate creates a greater dependence upon the Vatican. Opus Dei will always have to ask for a bishop to perform ordinations, for example. A bishop also has a certain freedom of movement in the Church that a priest, even one designated a “Supernumerary Apostolic Protonotary,” does not have. This appears to be another step by the pope to further his goal of greater centralization of the Church at the Vatican (in spite of his outward calls for “synodality”).

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Most observers see these changes as a ecclesial slap at the prelature, although no one’s really sure why this slap occurred. Opus Dei has always been publicly supportive of Pope Francis, so it’s not like he’s correcting a (perceived) wayward group like his actions directed toward traditional Catholics.

Speaking of traditional Catholics, I’ve seen more than a few of them a little too happy about this motu proprio. They are noting that even if you are subservient to Francis, he’ll still come after you. I think this attitude misunderstands the work of Opus Dei, as well as shows a certain uncharitableness.

While it’s true that a few Opus Dei leaders have been a bit over-the-top in their praises of the pope at times, the vast majority of the work of Opus Dei has been to form men and women in holiness in the midst of the world. It’s not about church politics. While I’ve never been a member of Opus Dei, I did for a time attend their evenings of reflection, retreats, and circles. The talks and conversation never revolved around church politics, and never was there any talk of the current pope’s comings and goings. The focus was only on building a life of holiness.

Now I realize that Opus Dei has a reputation for being “conservative,” and that’s well-deserved. So maybe that’s why this pope is suspicious of them and wants to keep them in check. But if that’s true, then he misunderstands Opus Dei as much as some traditional Catholics do.

  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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