Depending on the eye of the beholder, the teaching kitchens of Lexington College, bedecked with pots and pans, mark either a place where young people learn an employable skill in a Christian setting, or a clandestine battlefield in an intense struggle for the soul of the Catholic Church.
Lexington College, a school on Chicago's Near West Side that specializes in food-service management, is run by Opus Dei, a tiny religious movement brought to public attention by the best seller "The Da Vinci Code," a kind of ecclesiastical mystery novel featuring a Machiavellian Opus Dei operative who takes orders from a sinister, off-stage presence called "The Teacher."
Earlier, the group briefly made headlines when it was learned that Robert Hanssen, the FBI-agent-turned-Russian-spy, sent his children to a Washington-area private school run by Opus Dei - Latin for the "Work of God." Recently, the group opened a new multistory headquarters in the heart of Manhattan, a sign of its abundant financial resources. All of this has shone a spotlight on a group that has been something of a mystery, even to other U.S. Catholics. Yet it has tentacles of influence stretching all the way to the Holy See, where the pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, is a member.
Hanssen's story set off a brief but intense frenzy of speculation about who else in the nation's capital might be associated with the group that, in other countries, has been politically cozy with the far right. Speculation has it that its members have risen to the highest levels of the U.S. government, including the Supreme Court and the FBI.
Opus Dei's policy is to not disclose who is or isn't a member. But officials say that if public figures belonged to the group, surely that would be known in a culture where the lives of the famous are open secrets.
The movement's critics - and some of the most vocal are Catholics - don't buy that argument. They claim a pledge of secrecy is written into the rules of the group, which some see as an underground conspiracy aimed at capturing power in the church by stealthily boring from within.
"What possible activity could any Catholic group be engaged in that justifies secrecy?" wrote Catharine Henningsen, in SALT, a liberal Catholic journal of which she is the editor.
Opus Dei members respond that they aren't secretive but simply value privacy. "We just built a 17-story headquarters in New York," said spokesman Brian Finnerty. "How can you operate a secret society from a skyscraper at 34th and Lexington?"
Indeed, Opus Dei, whose first U.S. outpost was in Chicago, consistently produces diametrically opposite responses - depending on whether a question is being answered from inside or outside the group.
Liberal Catholics say it is theologically antediluvian and decry it for pandering to ultraconservatives unreconciled to more recent changes in the church. Opus Dei supporters say their founder, St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, was on to the need for updating Catholicism three decades before the reformist Vatican II Council of the 1960s.
Former members claim it is a cult that pressures psychologically vulnerable college students into joining. Group members say Opus Dei has provided a meaning to their lives that they lacked in a secular and materialistic society.
A tapestry of Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer is seen next to a statue of Saint Peter on a balcony display at the Vatican in October 2002, when Escriva was declared a saint.
Critics are put off because, as part of their devotional regimen, some Opus Dei members inflict pain on themselves that seems to border on masochism. Supporters respond that mortification of the flesh is an ancient and honorable Christian practice that puts them spiritually in touch with the great saints of the past.
Opus Dei members are furious about the unflattering portrayal in Dan Brown's novel, "The Da Vinci Code," where their religious regimen seems to inspire not piety but evildoing. They also point to the novel's historical inaccuracies.
Some critics alleged that Escriva's character faults made him ineligible for sainthood. An English priest, and former member, claimed that Opus Dei's founder told him Adolf Hitler had been "badly treated" because "he could never have killed 6 million Jews. It only could have been 4 million at most." Supporters say Escriva would not have said such a thing, and they note that a third of all Catholic bishops supported his candidacy for sainthood, which was proclaimed in 2002.
Critics and supporters agree on one thing: The group has stirred up a fuss way beyond its numbers. Of the estimated 1 billion or more Catholics in the world, only about 85,000 belong to Opus Dei.
There are about 3,000 members in the U.S., divided as in other countries into two principal categories: "supernumeraries" (about 70 percent), who live in the secular world and may marry, and "numeraries" (about 30 percent), who live communally in Opus Dei residences, called Centers, and are pledged to celibacy. Revolving around them is a support group, the "cooperators," who aid the movement with prayers and financial contributions.
Despite the monastic existence of the numeraries, Opus Dei members are not, for the most part, clergy. Only about 2 percent are priests and some were lay members for years before being ordained. That makes the movement unusual in the Roman Catholic Church, a hierarchical organization.
It was precisely that top-down approach to religion that inspired leaders of the Protestant Reformation to leave the Catholic Church. Indeed, when Opus Dei members stress their movement's emphasis on ordinary believers, they sound more like Martin Luther or John Calvin than like the ultraconservative Catholics their critics say they are.
"This is the era of the laity," said Sharon Hefferan, who runs Metro Achievement Center, an Opus Dei tutoring program for Chicago public-school students housed in the same building as Lexington College.
It is a busy place. Young professional women come from their Loop offices to the Center to volunteer, helping girls from Chicago's less-fortunate neighborhoods with homework. Lexington College, named after the West Side street where it began, has been training women for the hotel and restaurant industry since 1977.
"The clergy have a role, and that's fine," said Hefferan, who joined the movement in 1988. "But ultimately the church is about lay people."
Still, if there is a modernist side to Opus Dei, other aspects make its critics say that it seems a throwback to the fire-and-brimstone preachers of the Middle Ages.
Sharon Clasen, who lives in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, was introduced to the group as a Boston College freshman. The dormitories were full, so a friend recommended Bayridge, an off-campus women's residence hall run by Opus Dei. She moved in, was attracted by the warm and supportive atmosphere and eventually became a member.
"After I joined, they gave me a barbed-wire chain to wear on my leg for two hours a day and a whip to hit my buttocks with," said Clasen, who has since left the group.
The Rev. Marty Miller, chaplain at Lexington College, said Opus Dei's use of privation and pain reflects a sinner's need for physical penance. Because everyone falls into that category, members are expected to sleep on the floor or a board one night a week. The whip, he said, is called a "discipline," the leg binding is a "cilice."
"It hurts a bit, but I don't tighten it too much," Miller said. "It's said that our founder would draw it so tight, he drew blood."
Opus Dei's founder - and members always capitalize the title and speak of him with reverence - was a Spaniard who entered the priesthood on the eve of his homeland's civil war of the 1930s. Because the church was identified with the ruling class, many priests were killed, a fate Escriva narrowly escaped by going into hiding. When Gen. Francisco Franco won the war, Escriva allied his movement with Franco's authoritarian regime, with several Opus Dei members occupying key positions in his government. Opus Dei officials, however, downplay Escriva's actively supporting Franco.
During the subsequent Cold War, Opus Dei expanded to other parts of Western Europe and the Americas, attracting support by projecting itself as a bulwark against the advance of communism. Along the way, it drew to its ranks some financial whiz kids who reportedly made the movement fabulously wealthy. In his book "Their Kingdom Come," critic Robert Hutchison says Opus Dei has even bailed out a hard-pressed papacy.
Escriva's insight was to recognize that the task of maintaining a viable Christian presence in an increasingly secular world was too big for the clergy alone.
Opus Dei is based on the idea that lay people can spread the Gospel by going out from their Centers to regular jobs and making workplace contact with others. By Escriva's design, Opus Dei was to be the shock troops, or the elite corps ready and able to take on church problems wherever they may be - a position traditionally occupied by religious orders, such as the Jesuits.
Pope John Paul II gave the movement a unique status in the church, making it a "personal prelature." That exempts the group from the jurisdiction of local bishops, a move Opus Dei had long campaigned for and which previous popes resisted. Some observers think the pope, a conservative, saw the movement as a useful ally in the church's version of the culture wars - the struggles between progressives and traditionalists ongoing since Vatican II.
On the other hand, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, a noted liberal, gave Opus Dei priests control of a Chicago parish, St. Mary of the Angels, on the Near Northwest Side, a privilege the movement enjoys in few other places.
The movement's success has provoked resentment in other quarters of the church, said James Hitchcock, a history professor at St. Louis University, a Jesuit school. "In some cases, it's produced almost a paranoia," Hitchcock said. "There are Jesuits who hear you express conservative religious views and say: 'Are you a covert member of Opus Dei?' "
Escriva sought recruits at Spain's universities, judging that there was a critical mass of alienated students put off by the secular atmosphere of modern education. His movement still follows that approach, proselytizing on college campuses and operating high schools, including two in the Chicago area. Opus Dei also runs charitable programs locally and nationally.
"They appeal to the idealism of youth," said William Dinges, a professor at Washington's Catholic University.
Kristina Bucholz first made contact with Opus Dei through an after-school program the movement ran in Puerto Rico. She joined and was sent to a Center near Marquette University in Milwaukee.
"You're told, 'You are the elite guard of God,' " said Bucholz, who says she quit out of resentment for having her life tightly controlled. Ex-members report that they were isolated from their families and their reading was censored. Opus Dei officials deny using coercive methods.
Tammy DiNicola was introduced to the group when a member she met at Boston College took her to functions at the Opus Dei house. She remembers being idealistic and looking for a way to serve God.
"What I didn't realize was that I was a target for recruitment," DiNicola said. "But when I joined, they said you should have 10 to 15 friends that you're working on. You had to fill out forms each month and have meetings to develop strategies to get them to join."
Bucholz and DiNicola are bitter when they look back at their experiences, but officials of Opus Dei say others have decided that the life is not for them but remain supporters.
Peg Bruer was a numerary for almost 18 years. "I stopped being a member when I realized my vocation in life was being married," said Bruer, who lives in the Los Angeles area.
Still, there have been notable defections from the higher ranks.
Maria del Carmen Tapia was Escriva's personal secretary and a regional director of Opus Dei in South America. In a memoir, "Beyond the Threshold: A Life in Opus Dei," she recalls an Escriva far different from the movement's reverential portrait. The "Founder," by her experience, was dictatorial and threw temper tantrums.
"I gradually realized that by isolating its members Opus Dei makes them overly dependent, even childish," Tapia wrote.
Yet for former members, no less than loyal members, the experience of Opus Dei has shaped their lives for years afterward. DiNicola and her mother run a support group, the Opus Dei Awareness Network, or ODAN, that helps former members make contact and counsels current members wrestling with the issue of leaving; it also helps members' families.
Hefferan, who runs the Chicago tutoring program, said her commitment to Escriva's principles is as real a presence in her life as it was when she joined 15 years ago. Working with needy kids in Metro Achievement Center and performing Opus Dei's rituals are part of a seamless spiritual existence, she said.
"It's a quiet apostolate," she said. "Opus Dei is our humble effort to live a life in imitation of the life of Christ."