A history of 'discretion'

Excerpt from John Allen's new book looks at Opus Dei's reputation for secrecy

National Catholic Reporter/October 26, 2005
By Daniel E. Martin

The following is an excerpt from the book Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church by John L. Allen Jr., copyright © 2005, published by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.


John Hooper in The New Spaniards expresses the basic reason many people believe Opus Dei is secretive:

The Jesuits, to take the example of their most implacable enemies, are no doubt capable of exercising immense behind-the-scenes influence. But you are not likely to discover one day that the editor of, say, a financial journal for which you have been writing, or the chairman of an engineering company with which you have been negotiating, is also a member of the Society of Jesus. ... You do not expect, but you may well find, especially if you live in Spain, that someone you work alongside, or over, or under, does not go home at night to a family, or a partner, or flatmates, but to a community in which there are lengthy periods of silence; that for two hours each day he or she is wearing a cilicio, a chain with pointed links turned inward, on the upper thigh (so that neither it nor the wounds it inflicts can be seen); and that, once a week, your colleague whips his or her buttocks with a disciplina, a five-thonged lash, for as long as it takes to say the prayer Salve Regina.

Setting aside the salacious details (which apply only to Opus Dei celibates, approximately 30 percent of the organization’s membership), the broad impression Hooper provides is correct. What is disconcerting about Opus Dei for many people isn’t so much what members believe or what they do as the fact that one never quite knows who’s in and who’s out. Most Opus Dei members are laypeople in the midst of the secular world, and from an external point of view there is nothing distinguishing about them. They do not wear religious habits, they do not shave their heads or walk about barefoot soliciting alms. They don’t wear special pins in their lapels or put bumper stickers on their cars. Further, Opus Dei members generally do not list their affiliation on their curriculum vitae, considering it part of their private spiritual life. While their friends know that they’re part of the Work, colleagues and casual acquaintances may indeed be in the dark. Officially, Opus Dei takes the position that because numeraries live in Opus Dei centers and make Opus Dei their immediate family, their membership is almost definitionally “public” and hence they will usually confirm it if asked. Supernumeraries, on the other hand, who are generally married and live in private homes, are free to decide whether or not they wish to make their membership public; as an institution, Opus Dei will neither confirm nor deny someone’s status.

This reality has led to intricate theories as to how to spot an Opus Dei member. These theories tend to be especially popular in Spain, about the only country on earth where there’s a statistically significant possibility that a random person may actually be a member of Opus Dei. One popular hypothesis is that Opus Dei members wear Atkinson’s cologne, in imitation of [founder Jose maría] Escrivá. Another rumor, laughingly relayed to me in Madrid by Robert Duncan, a supernumerary who is a spokesperson for the Spanish gas company, is that Opus Dei businessmen can be spotted if a button on the sleeve of their suit jacket is missing. Yet another is that Opus Dei members smoke strong Ducados cigarettes, to project a “one of the boys” bearing. For the record, members deny that any of these things are true (without denying that some members may smoke, wear cologne, or have a button missing).

Closer to the mark, it’s said that you can spot an Opus Dei member if he or she has a small statue of a donkey, a common symbol in Opus Dei centers, representing the donkey that carried Christ into Jerusalem. Escrivá compared himself to that donkey, saying his job was to carry Christ so that people could see him, then slip away. There is also an Opus Dei shibboleth; when two members meet, one may say to the other, Pax, to which the proper response is, in aeternum. This too, however, is not foolproof, since it presumes that the two members know that both are in Opus Dei, which isn’t always the case. Moreover, they tend to be discreet, exchanging the greeting only when nonmembers aren’t around. I had to wait six months before I actually witnessed it, at a restaurant along the highway between Barbastro and Torreciudad in Spain, when an Opus Dei member happened to overhear the conversation at our table and wandered over to say hello to the Opus Dei guy sitting with us.


Given the frequent ridiculousness of the “Is he or isn’t he?” guessing game, one might ask why Opus Dei members are not more open about their affiliation, in the sense of wearing some insignia or putting it on their business cards. Why not?

For one thing, there is a history of what is known inside Opus Dei as “discretion,” meaning not advertising one’s membership too brazenly. In part this is a matter of maintaining the secular, lay character of Opus Dei. If members were to broadcast an exterior sign of their vocation, they say, it would violate this spirit of “secularity” by making them seem different. Opus Dei members are not supposed to be like members of religious orders.

An additional reason, at least in the workplace, is that “bragging” about being in Opus Dei could be interpreted as trying to take advantage of membership to gain some personal or professional edge, and that was anathema to Escrivá, who said that no one has the right to claim to represent Opus Dei in a secular matter. All members have to stand on their own two feet, not hiding behind the Opus Dei “label.”

Escrivá also insisted that Opus Dei practice what is known as “collective humility,” meaning that it should not seek self-aggrandizement. The point was written into the 1950 “Constitutions” of Opus Dei: “Opus Dei professes collective humility, and consequently ... its members will not use any distinctive insignia, and will be prudent when speaking of the Work to people not belonging to it, since their way of acting should be simple and not call attention to itself. Neither will Opus Dei participate, ordinarily, in social acts or be represented in them.” All of this was designed to ensure that Opus Dei did not become a special interest group, so that members were left free in social affairs.

Finally, a historical reason for discretion had to do with the canonical status of Opus Dei. From 1947 to 1982, Opus Dei was classified in canon law as a “secular institute,” which meant that it was treated as a development out of religious life. Among other complications, the Vatican ruled in 1950 that members of secular institutes could not be involved in business, which meant that supernumeraries who had business careers were, technically, in violation of church law. Until that sort of thing could be straightened out, Escrivá and others in Opus Dei felt, “discretion” was in order.

Today, spokespersons invoke this tendency to confuse Opus Dei with religious orders as a primary reason for what, according to them, is an undeserved reputation for secrecy. Fr. Tom Bohlin, the regional vicar (and top Opus Dei official) in the United States, put it this way in a October 2004 interview, when I asked him if there was any merit to the view that Opus Dei is secretive: “No, there’s no merit to that at all. I think it’s a question of coming to understand who we are, what we’re about, what we do. People approach us with certain preconceived ideas, which are very understandable, from a clerical milieu, of hundreds of years of history of religious orders.”

According to spokespersons for Opus Dei, however, Escrivá revised his views on “discretion” as Opus Dei became better established. At one point in the 1960s, Escrivá said that he had “erased the word ‘discretion’ from my dictionary.” In a letter to all the members of Opus Dei dated Nov. 21, 1966, Escrivá wrote: “I was amused for a while with the erroneous idea of discretion that some people have. Some, who have not grasped that we are the same as other citizens -- we are not like them, we are their equals -- think that we are living a fiction ... because we do not carry a placard on our shoulders or a Christ on a banner. Others reason the same as they did 40 years ago when discretion -- which could not be more indiscreet -- led us to bear the weight of the gestation of the Work as a mother guards in her womb the new creature: Where is the secret, if that was a secret shouted out loud? And now? I do not want to hear people speak of discretion: It is better to say and do things with naturalness.”


One can see evidence of this evolution by comparing the 1950 “Constitutions” of Opus Dei, the Vatican-approved church law regulating its internal life, with the 1982 “Statutes,” the law currently in force. The 1950 document cites an obligation to “speak cautiously with outsiders” and, in the case of both numeraries and supernumeraries, “to maintain a discreet silence with respect to the names of other members.” The document specifies that this caution applies especially to new members, and to those who have left. In perhaps the most controversial provision, it states that before revealing their membership in Opus Dei, members should receive authorization from their director. Yet the “Constitutions” also state that Opus Dei and many of its members must be well known publicly, since its activities must always unfold under the civil law, and that members are always to avoid “secrecy and clandestine activity.” The motives for discretion, it says, are “humility and apostolic effectiveness.”

The 1982 “Statutes,” which took the place of the 1950 “Constitutions,” prohibit “secrecy or clandestine activity” and say that members are to act with naturalness, but “without hiding that they belong to the prelature.” Priests of Opus Dei are “to behave always and everywhere with the greatest naturalness among their brother priests, without in any way appearing secretive, since nothing should be found in them that would need so to be hidden.” In keeping with Escrivá’s desire to “erase” the term, the word “discretion” does not appear. The requirement from 1950 that members should have a director’s authorization before revealing their membership has likewise been removed.

From my experience, I’ve asked hundreds of people over the last year whether they were members of Opus Dei, and I’ve never found anyone unwilling to answer, though occasionally members outside the Anglo-Saxon world are bit surprised by the directness of the question. This book itself is one piece of evidence for their openness, since I quote more than 100 members of Opus Dei, almost always by name, and identify what kind of member they are (numerary, supernumerary, and so on). Compare this to the fact in February 2004, when American TV journalist Tim Russert asked President George W. Bush about his alleged membership in Yale’s famous Skull and Bones society, Bush said he couldn’t answer. When a journalist put the same question to a spokesperson for Sen. John Kerry, also allegedly a Skull and Bones member, the answer was: “John Kerry has absolutely nothing to say on that subject. Sorry.”

Why not publish the list?

The reasons reviewed above may explain why individual members have been reluctant to broadcast their connections to Opus Dei. But what about corporate practice? Why doesn’t Opus Dei publish a directory of its members, so that whoever wants to can see who’s in and who’s out?

David Gallagher, a numerary and officer for Opus Dei in the United States, explains: “People who join Opus Dei do so for strictly spiritual purposes and do not expect their membership to become a news item. They naturally tell their family and friends of their membership. Opus Dei officials respect the privacy of members and their right to inform whomever they wish about their membership. They do not identify them publicly to the press or otherwise. In order for a policy of declining to confirm when someone is a member to be meaningful, it is also necessary to decline to deny it when someone is not a member.”

So much for the official answer. Another element to the story, as difficult as this may be to believe, is that Opus Dei does not have a master list of all its members in the world. Under the process for becoming a member outlined in Chapter 1, a candidate to be a numerary writes a letter to the prelate in Rome, so those letters are preserved in the archives in Villa Tevere. Letters requesting admission as a supernumerary, on the other hand, are addressed to the regional vicar. Each year Opus Dei furnishes the Vatican basic data about its membership, so Villa Tevere asks each region to give it a number of supernumeraries, but the names are not forwarded. A “master list” of members of Opus Dei thus doesn’t exist and, on the basis of the different ways that regions handle records, one probably couldn’t be compiled without some difficulty. One could argue that Opus Dei should do a better job of keeping track of its members, but the point is that it’s not that they have a list and refuse to divulge it; such a list does not exist.

To be fair, too, things have changed in the way the officials of Opus Dei handle membership questions. While Opus Dei spokespersons will not comment on the record about whether a given individual is a member, they often are willing to do so off the record, especially when it’s a high-profile person. For example, I had no trouble establishing that, media reports to the contrary, neither former FBI director Louis Freeh nor U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is a member of Opus Dei. (Freeh’s brother John was a numerary member of Opus Dei, though he later left, and his sons attended the Heights, the Opus Dei-run boys’ school in suburban Washington.) Neither, for that matter, is Clarence Thomas or Mel Gibson, other names often linked to Opus Dei in the American press, and neither is TV pundit Robert Novak. Similarly, in Peru there is a rumor that the founder of one of the country’s largest supermarket chains, E. Wong, is a member of Opus Dei, apparently because at the 1999 installation Mass of Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, who is a member of Opus Dei, some of the security workers wore E. Wong vests. I had no difficulty ascertaining that Wong is not a member.

Moreover, it is difficult to make the argument that in a democratic society, which recognizes the right of free association, Opus Dei ought to be obliged to divulge a listing of members. [Oscar Luigi] Scalfaro, who conducted the 1986 Italian parliamentary investigation, was emphatic that not publishing a list of members does not make Opus Dei a “secret society.” He noted that after the fascist period under Mussolini, Italian law was changed so that the state no longer had the power to compel organizations to divulge their membership lists, and this was seen as a step forward for democracy and human rights. “Neither according to the [Italian] constitution, nor to the law now in force, can it be demanded that an association, in order to be licit and non-secret, should be compelled to publicize externally the identity of its own members,” Scalfaro said. “The prohibition of secrecy does not signify an obligation to make everything public.”

Penetration in tough markets

The indistinguishability of Opus Dei members can create problems in Western societies that have high expectations for transparency, but it can also be an asset in cultures where traditional religious operatives have a hard time getting a foothold. As laypeople and ordinary citizens, Opus Dei members can set up shop in places such as China, North Korea, or Saudi Arabia, where Christian proselytism is either forbidden or heavily discouraged. They have the capacity to “penetrate tough markets” for the Catholic church.

This point was made in an April 23, 1979, letter from then-Fr.Alvaro del Portillo and Fr. Javier Echevarría of Opus Dei to Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio, at the time the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, summarizing the arguments for transforming Opus Dei into a personal prelature. After reviewing some of the canonical fine points, Portillo and Echevarría wrote: “This is all without taking account of the apostolate of penetration which, through occasions created by normal professional activity (specialized courses and cultural exchanges, international meetings and congresses, invitations for economic experts, technicians, teachers, etc.), can be developed in nations under totalitarian regimes of an anti-Christian or atheist character, or in any event marked by a strong nationalism, that renders difficult and often impossible, de jure or de facto, the activity of religious and missionaries, and even the organized presence of the church as an institution.”

This capacity of Opus Dei to penetrate places where traditional religious personnel aren’t welcome has applications also in the secularized West. “The transformation of Opus Dei from a secular institute into a personal prelature ... would offer the Holy See the possibility of utilizing with greater efficiency a mobile corps of priests and laity (accurately prepared) who could be present anyplace, with a spiritual and apostolic ferment for Christian living, above all in social contexts and professional activities where it’s often not easy for the normal means the church has at its disposal to be effective,” Portillo and Echevarría wrote in April 1979.

Carl Schmidt, a longtime Opus Dei numerary in the United States, said he was invited to speak at a Jesuit residence in the early 1960s, and one Jesuit there recognized this potential.

“I can remember giving that talk, and there were two reactions in the question period afterward. One was from an older Jesuit who said something like, ‘I’ve worked for 35 years in Jesuit sodalities, and our constant question is, what is a lay spirituality? It seems to me here’s the answer. ...’ The other was a younger Jesuit who said, ‘Let’s face it, fellows. What we don’t like about Opus Dei is that these guys are out there where we can’t go. For 400 years we’ve been on the forefront, but now these guys have opened up a front where we can’t go.’ ”

Schmidt, knowing the long history of tensions between the Jesuits and Opus Dei, smiled as he recounted his response. “I answered, ‘Well, you said it, Father, not me,’ ” he laughed.

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