Sainted Or Tainted?

The Times Higher Education Supplement/June 22, 2001
By Paul Bompard

Opus Dei encourages members to live like saints and counts the pope among its supporters, but critics call it manipulative and pernicious. Paul Bompard reports

John 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 Josemar!a Escriv de Balanguer 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." On June 26, Opus Dei will hold a mass in Rome to celebrate the 26th anniversary of Escriv 's death. This will set off preparations for an international congress in January 2002, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Escriv '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.

Today, 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.

Marc 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 -Jthat 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."

One 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.

"Supernumeraries 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."

There 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".

As 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.

"There 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.

"In 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."

Roche 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 (

Much 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.

Although 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 (Pounds 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 Escriv and his successor, Aluaro del Portillo, are preserved and worshipped.

What 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.

The pope's personal spokesman, Joachim 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 Escriv visualised in 1928 as the true path to sainthood.

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