Fact and Fiction of Opus Dei

U.S. News and World Report/December 22, 2003
By Ulrich Boser

The opening scenes of The Da Vinci Code are pure potboiler. On orders from Opus Dei, an assassin pumps a bullet into an art curator's stomach. That night, the assassin atones for his sins by wearing a spiked thigh bracelet and flailing his back with a whip.

That's fiction to be sure--and to some a brazen instance of Catholic-bashing-- but the truth behind Opus Dei is just as enthralling. Secretive, influential members and obscure practices that include self-flagellation have made Opus Dei the Roman Catholic Church's most controversial movement. But there's little evidence to support a conspiracy theory. "They've become a lightning rod for criticism in fights between the Catholic left and right," says John Allen, a correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. But, in reality, "they're a cross between the Jesuits, a prayer group, and the Elks Club."

Started in 1928 by Spanish priest Josemaria Escriva to help lay people live spiritually conscious lives, Opus Dei now has almost 85,000 members worldwide and some 3,000 in the United States. While the group is small, its members and friends hold powerful positions in the Vatican (the pope's press secretary) and in secular life (perhaps Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia). Opus Dei won't say who its members are. Over objections to Escriva's ties to Gen. Francisco Franco's authoritarian regime, Pope John Paul II canonized the priest last year. But the group may have acquired its most sinister reputation when it came out that FBI mole Robert Hanssen was a member.

Suffering. Opus Dei teaches that each day's activity should be sanctified by offering it up to God. "I'm not looking for Catholic lite," says Laurance Alvarado, who lives in Chevy Chase, Md. He has been with the group for five years and plans to become a full member next year. The lifelong commitment will require him to attend mass daily and contribute a percentage of his earnings to the group. He'll be allowed to live at home with his family, unlike more senior members, who are expected to give all their money to the group and be celibate. They also practice "corporal mortification"--such as whipping oneself--to emulate the suffering of Jesus.

For its part, Opus Dei damns Dan Brown's novel. Yet the fight over Opus Dei's reputation is perhaps just a battle in the war over the soul of the Catholic Church. Progressives lambaste the group because it fights the use of birth control and portrays homosexuality as evil, and conservatives praise it for resisting moral relativism. Says Allen: "There's no conscious political agenda in Opus Dei. They are only trying to translate their Catholic faith into secular life."

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