And The Da Vinci Code
By Lee Penn
SCP JOURNAL 29:2-29:3
an Brown's best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code, has given worldwide notoriety to an influential, growing Roman Catholic religious movement: Opus Dei (which means "the work of God"). Is it true, as Brown claims, that Opus Dei is a powerful, ruthless, secret cult within the Catholic Church?
Brown begins his novel with a tantalizing promise: that his tale is solidly based on facts. The novel's first page says: "Fact: The Priory of Sion--a European secret society founded in 1099--is a real organization. ... The Vatican prelature known as Opus Dei is a deeply devout Catholic sect that has been the topic of recent controversy due to reports of brainwashing, coercion, and a dangerous practice known as 'corporal mortification.' Opus Dei has just completed construction of a $47 million National Headquarters at 243 Lexington Avenue in New York City. All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate."1
Immediately thereafter, the action begins: Silas, an albino monk from Opus Dei, attacks a Louvre curator (a member of the Priory of Sion) in order to get the secret location of the Holy Grail--a treasure that would make the head of Opus Dei "the most powerful man in Christendom."2 The monk then shoots the curator in the stomach, and says these parting words to the fatally wounded occultist: "Pain is good, monsieur."3 Having murdered four people so far that night, Silas returns to his Opus Dei dormitory to do penance for his sins.
Brown's tale highlights the hypocrisy and twisted sensuality of this fictional zealot: "When Silas hung up the phone, his skin tingled with anticipation. ... I must purge my soul of today's sins. The sins committed today had been holy in purpose. Acts of war against the enemies of God had been committed for centuries. Forgiveness was assured. Even so, Silas
knew, absolution required sacrifice. Pulling his shades, he stripped naked and knelt in the center of the room. Looking down, he examined the spiked cilice belt clamped around his thigh. All true followers of The Way wore this device--a leather strap, studded with sharp metal barbs that cut into the flesh as a perpetual reminder of Christ's suffering. The pain caused by the device also helped counteract the desires of the flesh. ... Exhaling softly, he savored the cleansing ritual of his pain. Pain is good, Silas whispered, repeating the sacred mantra of Father Josemaría Escrivá--the Teacher of all Teachers. ... Silas turned his attention now to a heavy knotted rope coiled neatly on the floor beside him. The Discipline. The knots were caked with dried blood. Eager for the purifying effects of his own agony, Silas said a quick prayer. ... He whipped it over his shoulder again, slashing at his flesh. Again and again, he lashed. Castigo corpus meum. Finally, he felt the blood begin to flow."4
After this sacrifice, Silas puts on his hooded monastic robe and heads out to his next errand, during which he will beat a liberal nun to death with a candle stand from the altar of the Church of Saint-Sulpice.5
Throughout the rest of the book, Brown sets out his allegations against Opus Dei: its wealth and global influence, the coincidence between its billion-dollar gift to the Vatican's "bank" (the Institute for Religious Works) and its recognition in 1982 by Pope John Paul II as a "personal prelature," the hasty canonization of Escrivá (the founder of Opus Dei), the cult's secretiv
eness and deceptive recruitment practices, its $47 million headquarters in New York City, its discrimination against women, its bishops with a queer taste for jewels and religious finery, and the damaging espionage by Robert Hanssen (a devout Opus Dei member) on behalf of the Soviet Union. Brown also advises readers of a real organization, the Opus Dei Awareness Network (ODAN), an anti-cult/survivor group. Brown even provides readers the ODAN web address, www.odan.org
Along with his brief against Opus Dei, Brown offers an anti-Christian revision of the last 2000 years of history. As he tells it, the early Church followed Christ as a moral leader, but did not worship him as the Son of God. Only by a vote at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD did the Church recognize the divinity of Christ. It was the Roman emperor Constantine, a pagan, who directed what was to go in the Bible, and what was to be suppressed. In came patriarchy, guilt, and oppression; out went the true (Gnostic) gospels, equality and the "divine feminine." The hidden secret of the Holy Grail, according to Brown, is that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, fathered a child, and that their descendants became the Merovingian kings of France. This royal blood line persists, in deepest secrecy, to this day.
At the end, Brown's feminist Gnostics win their battle. The novel concludes with one of its heroes worshipping on his knees at the tomb of Mary Magdalene, beneath the inverted glass pyramid at the Louvre. The book's last sentences describe the devotee's rapture: "For a moment, he thought he heard a woman's voice . . . the wisdom of the ages . . . whispering up from the chasms of the earth."7 Meanwhile, Opus Dei's murderous monk Silas is dead, and its money-loving bishop had to confess his part in the crimes to the police. Furthermore, the cult faces suppression by the Catholic Church, under the direction of a liberal Pope. It turns out that Opus Dei's death-dealing quest for the Grail secret was done under the covert direction of the Priory of Sion, itself the custodian of the treasured knowledge. With cunning, and by playing on the fear and power-lust of the head of Opus Dei, the Priory had "implicated Opus Dei in the plot that would soon bring about the demise of the entire Church."8
The Da Vinci Code is a novel for our times, a clever fantasy that appeals to those who are ignorant of (and nevertheless resent) Christian teaching. The Code's account of Jewish and Christian history contains many easily refuted errors. Jews did not believe that the male God resided with "Shekinah," his female consort, inside the Holy of Holies. Christians worshipped Jesus as the Son of God from the time of the Resurrection; this belief was not the result of a "relatively close vote" 9 in the Council of Nicaea. Jesus did not marry, have children, and begin a hidden royal dynasty. The Templars were orthodox Catholics, not covert devotees of "sacred sex" and the "divine feminine." The proto-Masonic Priory of Sion described by Brown is not a secret society dating back to 1099; it is a hoax perpetrated by a French charlatan in the mid-1950s.10
Is Brown's criticism of Opus Dei any more reliable than his comic-book version of Christian theology and Church history?
Here, the story becomes complicated. On the one hand, some of Brown's charges about the movement are correct. As this article will show, Opus Dei fully deserves its reputation as a cult within the Catholic Church. Members of the cult's inner circle, the numeraries, do indeed punish themselves with the whip and the cilice. However, Brown's truthful accusations against the movement are mixed with glaring errors. Opus Dei is not a religious order. It has no monks--especially, none who wear hooded habits. Opus Dei seeks its leaders among the social and intellectual elite; it is most unlikely that an escaped convict (such as Brown's "Silas") would be taken with open arms into the inner circle of the movement.
Brown offers his truths and falsehoods about Opus Dei within a novel that attacks the Christian faith at its roots. Therefore, most traditionally minded Christians who read The Da Vinci Code may be prone to reject all of the criticisms of Opus Dei as lies, just as they (rightly) reject Brown's false accounts of Christian history and doctrine. One axiom of marketing is, "there's no such thing as bad publicity." With the publication of The Da Vinci Code, Opus Dei is now known to more than 18 million readers worldwide.11 When the film version of Brown's book is released next year, millions more will learn of the movement. That's a lot of free advertising, and the kind of ad that may make conservative readers in all confessions say, "if that liberal idiot Brown is criticizing Opus Dei, they can't be all bad. Indeed, they might be just what the Church needs now."
Could it be that Brown has performed a service to Opus Dei, knowingly or otherwise?12 Could this explain why Brown acknowledges getting "generous assistance" from--among others--"three active"13 members of Opus Dei? Opus Dei member Bernardo Estrada, who teaches the New Testament in Rome, took a calm view of the book in an interview with the Washington Post: "Anyone with a historical and religious base can refute it. I rather liked it, it's a good thriller."14 In early 2005, the British press spokesman for Opus Dei said, "Ten million people have now heard of Opus Dei thanks to The Da Vinci Code. That can only be a good thing--2005 is going to be the year of Opus Dei."15
The Da Vinci Code's Italian publisher, Mondadori, was founded by a man who was "an admirer of Opus Dei."16 In 1994, the same publisher had released a Papal best-seller--Crossing the Threshold of Hope, an extended interview done by a pro-Opus journalist. Mondadori also has published a "big print-run edition" of Escrivá's The Way.17
Opus Dei is giving "exclusive access" 18 to Great Projects Film Company and to the distributor CABLEready to produce a TV program about the movement, "Decoding Opus Dei." It will be released in May 2006, "in conjunction with the worldwide premiere of Ron Howard's feature film based on the novel and starring Tom Hanks."19 The TV producer from Great Projects says, "Thanks to the access we've received from the group, we'll be able to provide viewers with a fair and honest account of the organization."20 Churchmen can advertise, just as businessmen can; churchmen have known about the dialectics of propaganda, mass movements, social change and political power long before these techniques were taken up by Marxists.
At this point, we can leave behind Dan Brown (and his confusing alloy of truth, exaggerations, and falsehoods about Opus Dei), and set forth the facts about this fast-growing, influential new religious movement.21
Just the facts about "The Way"
Fr. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer (1902-1975) founded Opus Dei in Madrid, Spain on October 2, 1928, in response to what his followers call a "celestial vision."22 On that day, according to the biography prepared for his beatification, Escrivá was on a religious retreat in Madrid, and "God saw fit to illuminate him; he saw Opus Dei, as God wanted it, and as it would have to be, over the course of centuries."23
The movement was initially all-male, but began admitting women in 1930. The world headquarters is in Rome; it "has no religious name, nor has it been placed under the protection of some saint or title of Mary, as is customary for Catholic orders, congregations, and institutions."24
As of 2004, Opus Dei had 84,541 members, including 1,875 priests (2.2% of the total).25 This represented an increase of 13% from the 1991 total membership of 74,710. The number of Opus Dei priests grew 35% from the 1991 level,26 during a period in which the total number of Catholic priests worldwide was virtually unchanged.27 (These priests, members of the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, are selected and trained from among the laymen in Opus Dei.) Another 2,000 diocesan priests are associated with the movement.28
More than half of all Opus Dei members, about 49,000, are in continental Europe; there are about 26,000 in Latin America, about 5,000 in Asia and the Pacific islands, and about 1,600 in Africa.29 Opus Dei is "established" now in 60 countries, and says that in the last decade, it became active in Croatia, Estonia, India, Israel, Latvia, Lebanon, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa and Uganda.30 As soon as Communism fell, Opus Dei opened its "pastoral centers" in Poland, and supplied funds and staff to "help establish an effective Roman Catholic Church" in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic.31
There are 3,000 Opus Dei members in the US.32 The movement has been in this country since 1949, and has centers in 14 states, with "activities in many other states."33 In the US, there is one Opus Dei college (Lexington College, "the only all-women's college of hospitality management in the United States"34), 5 high schools, 60 centers for retreats and spiritual formation, and many tutoring programs for high school and college students.35 Forbes magazine reports that the movement can "easily raise $49 million or so every year in this country"36--which works out to a fundraising yield of $16,000 per American Opus Dei member per year. Opus Dei in Britain has about 520 members, and a net worth of about 20 million British pounds37--in dollar terms, about $35.4 million, or $68,000 per member.
There are different levels of membership in Opus Dei. Prospective members ask to join Opus Dei, and make a mutual commitment--in writing--with the movement. This may be an annual contract, or--after at least five such renewals--a lifetime agreement, the "fidelity." An Opus Dei book says that "the Opus Dei faithful bind themselves to put into practice the ascetical, formative, and apostolic commitments specified in the Prelature's own statutes, to fulfill the disciplinary norms regulating Opus Dei's life," and to support themselves, their families, and the movement through their own profession.38
* At the top are the numeraries, lay men and women who live in separate sections of Opus Dei houses, hold jobs in the secular world, and are celibate. (As Escrivá said in The Way, "Marriage is for the rank and file, not for the officers of Christ's army."39) They turn over most of their salaries, administration of their property, and their wills to the movement.40 About 20% of Opus Dei members are numeraries. One qualification for this membership level is having, or showing the ability to obtain, a doctoral degree.41
In addition to their jobs, members have religious tasks: daily attendance at Mass, a half hour of mental prayer in the morning and again at night, daily spiritual reading (including the New Testament and other movement-approved books), daily recital of the Rosary, a nightly examination of conscience, a day per month of spiritual retreat, and an annual retreat of several days.42
* Women numerary assistants are responsible for housekeeping in Opus Dei centers.43 Of their work, Escrivá said, "the work of one of my daughters in Opus Dei who works in domestic employment is just as important as that of one who has a title. In either case all I am concerned about is that the work they do should be a means and an occasion for personal sanctification and the sanctification of their neighbor."44
Associates, about 10% of the membership, are celibate and live outside the movement's centers.
Supernumeraries, about 70% of Opus Dei members, are men and women who live on their own, pursue their own careers, and center their religious life on the movement. Most are married.
In addition, there are "tens of thousands" of cooperators who support the movement with prayer, money, and time.45 Since 1950, Opus Dei has allowed non-Catholics--and, indeed, non-Christians--to be cooperators. A pro-Opus Dei journalist says, "Opus Dei is the first institution in the Church that calls for the organized collaboration of non-Catholics, non-Christians, agnostics, and atheists."46
Since 1982, Opus Dei has been a personal prelature, the only such Catholic organization.
A personal prelature is like a global diocese, a semi-autonomous "church within the Church." Opus Dei members are under the spiritual direction of the head of the prelature, rather than of the bishop of the diocese where they live. With this structure, the movement can promote its "distinctive spirituality and more effectively deploy its priests across national and diocesan boundaries"47
--and can do so without interference from local bishops. Opus Dei is governed worldwide from Rome by its Prelate, Bishop Javier Echevarría. The head of the movement in the US, the Very Rev. Thomas Bohlin, reports to the Prelate,48
who reports to Congregation of Bishops--a Vatican department that reports to the Pope.
Opus Dei says that it aims "to help people live by the Gospel in their daily activities and make Christ present in every endeavor. Opus Dei focuses on work and daily life as an occasion for spiritual growth and an opportunity to contribute to a better world. Opus Dei also emphasizes divine filiation, unity of life, prayer and sacrifice, charity, apostolate, and fidelity to the Pope."49
(Divine filiation is confident awareness
of being a child of God.)
The movement explains, "The chief activity of people in Opus Dei is personal effort to grow in holiness, be apostolic, and improve society. In support of these efforts, Opus Dei provides spiritual direction, prayer and study circles, evenings of recollection, retreats, classes, and workshops. These activities take place in an Opus Dei center, or in a church, office or private home. People in Opus Dei also join with each other and non-members in organizing educational, charitable, and cultural activities, which frequently include spiritual formation carried out by Opus Dei. Examples in the United States include The Heights and Oakcrest schools near Washington, D.C., and the Metro and Midtown Achievement Programs for inner-city youth in Chicago."50 The movement sponsors universities in Rome, Spain (most notably, the University of Navarre), and Latin America, and enjoys "prodigious success in fund-raising for its works."51
Fr. McCloskey, an Opus Dei priest who has brought several prominent politicians and media stars into the Catholic Church, offered a 12-point program for spiritual growth for the well-off. It included these points: "Live modestly, given your wealth and position. ... Give and give generously--now--following the suggestion of Mother Teresa: 'Give until it hurts.' ... Leave very little money to your children. .... Have a big family; you can afford it! ... Throw out or give away what you don't need. ... Live order and neatness in the care of material items. ... Avoid impulse buying, whims, and caprices. ... Avoid occasions of sin, remote or proximate, in respect to buying and shopping ... Make time for at least one corporal work of mercy each week ... Follow the Way of the Cross and meditate often on our Lord's passion, death, and resurrection. ... Make poverty, detachment, and generosity a regular topic in your sacramental confession and spiritual direction."52 This advice seems to combine St. Francis with Benjamin Franklin.
When its goals and works are described thus, Opus Dei seems to be a benign organization, one that any faithful Christian could accept. However, the movement and its followers apply these principles in ways that have nothing to do with Gospel teaching. In this respect, the stated goals of Opus Dei are akin to the Charter of the United Religions Initiative--glittering generalities that can be interpreted by the movement's leaders and allies as they wish, in furtherance of their own religio-political agenda.
A Rising power in the Catholic Church
The power of Opus Dei is growing in the Vatican and in the Catholic Church worldwide.
There are now two Opus Dei cardinals: Archbishop Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne of Lima Peru (since 2001), and Julián Herranz Casado, the president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts (since 2003).53 The movement's supporters are rising in the congregations of the Curia, while opponents are marginalized or made to retire.54 As John Allen noted, "Opus Dei does seem disproportionately represented in the Roman curia" for an organization of its size.55
There are 18 active Opus Dei bishops worldwide: the movement's own prelate, 1 in Africa, 3 in Europe, and 12 in Latin America.56 The US now has one Opus Dei bishop--José H. Gómez, Archbishop of San Antonio, formerly the president of the National Association of Hispanic Priests and vicar of Opus Dei in Texas.57 Of the 18 bishops, 13 were consecrated in 1990 or later58--further evidence of a rising Opus Dei presence in the Catholic Church. Other hierarchs who are not members--Cardinal George Pell of Australia,59 among many others--approve of the movement.
The founder of Opus Dei, Josemaría Escrivá, was canonized (declared to be a saint) by John Paul II in October 2002. The Pope described him as "the saint of ordinary life,"60 and said that Escrivá's message was "to raise the world to God and transform it from within ... spread in society, without distinction of race, class, culture, or age, the awareness that we are called to holiness ... force yourselves to be saints, cultivating an evangelical style of humility and service."61 On the day after the canonization, John Paul II said Escrivá taught that "we are in the world to save it with Christ. ... This saintly priest taught that Christ must be the apex of all human activity. ... His message impels the Christian to act in places where the future of society is being shaped."62 Cardinal Harranz said that Escrivá "will be a saint who embodies the Second Vatican Council," which emphasized the role of the laity in the Church.63
Escrivá was granted sainthood only 27 years after his death, the fastest canonization in the last 500 years.64
Escrivá's supporters covered the "more than $350,000" costs for the canonization investigation.65
Critics of the beatification (which occurred in 1992, and is the step before canonization) allege that opponents were not allowed to testify to the investigators, and that the process was not halted when two of the nine judges asked for this to be done.66
It appears that the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints held that "ex-members of orders and associations always produced negative evidence in such cases but that the policy of
the Congregation was to ignore it."67
Nevertheless, one-third of the world's Catholic bishops had petitioned Rome to beatify Escrivá.68
One of these supporters--according to a pro-Opus Dei journalist--was Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was martyred in 1980 at his cathedral's altar in 1980 by right-wing assassins.69
The Vatican backs up this canonization with the claim that it is an infallible decision. A 1997 decree by Ratzinger's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says that "truths connected to revelation by historical necessity and which are to be held definitively" by Catholics include "the canonizations of saints (dogmatic facts)."70 Catholics must assent, based on "faith in the Holy Spirit's assistance to the Magisterium and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium."71 A pre-Vatican II theological manual explains that "if the Church could err in her opinion" that "a member of the Church has been assumed into eternal bliss and may be the object of general veneration," "consequences would arise which would be incompatible with the sanctity of the Church."72 So, the Vatican now says that whoever "denies these truths"--including the accuracy of canonizations--"would be in a position of rejecting a truth of Catholic doctrine and would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church."73
The leader of the cause for Escrivá's canonization claims that there have been "more than 120,000 testimonies of spiritual and material favors received through the intercession of St. Josemaría Escrivá" from his death in 1975 to his canonization in 2002, and he has placed 200 of these into a book, Favors We Ask of the Saints.74 Journalist Vittorio Messori says that the "'favors,' 'graces,' and 'prodigies' obtained through the intercession of Monsignor Escrivá" since his death are "unprecedented in the annals of the Church."75
In March 2004, the Vatican opened an investigation to determine whether Escrivá's successor as head of Opus Dei, Bishop Álvaro del Portillo, should be canonized. Cardinal Camillo Ruini "spoke of the notable cures and the thousands of other spiritual and material favors attributed to the intercession of Bishop del Portillo, which demonstrate the 'spread of private devotion to the Servant of God'."76 Additionally, Opus Dei is seeking the canonization of seven other members.77
It seems that Opus Dei is trying to earn a Guinness Book of World Records prize for cranking out "saints" and "miracles." The open question is: if so much spiritual grace and light is produced through this movement and its avatars, why is the world (including Opus Dei's home country, Spain) heading into a moral abyss?
Opus Dei was in favor under Pope Pius XII, who reigned from 1939 to 1958. During 1943, with World War II at its height, it took less than 6 months for the Vatican to approve creation of Escrivá's "Priestly Society of the Holy Cross" as an adjunct to Opus Dei.78 In 1947, less than 12 months after the founder made the request to Pius XII, the Pope made Opus Dei and its priestly affiliate a "secular pontifical institute." This gave the movement what Opus Dei historians describe as "universal juridical standing" and "convenient internal autonomy," protecting it from "incomprehension and persecution."79 In 1950, Pius XII made the "pontifical institute" status permanent, and approved the movement's charter and statutes; in 1952, he appointed Cardinal Federico Tedeschini as "Protector" of Opus Dei.80 Tad Szulc, a biographer of John Paul II, notes that "very quietly, Opus Dei was acquiring influence all over the world, at strategic points in Church establishments and ... very discreetly in political and business circles." 81
However, the movement and its founder were at arms length (at best) with Popes John XXIII (1958-1963) and Paul VI (1963-1978). As an Italian newspaper notes, "Between 1967 and 1973, when Opus Dei already numbered 40,000 Catholics, Pope Paul VI refused even to meet Escriva, wanting to draw a clear line between himself and the regime of General Franco in Spain."82 A Catholic journalist, Michael Walsh, has said, "Popes before the present one [John Paul II, at the time Walsh wrote] can hardly be said to have been enthusiastic in their endorsement of Opus, and for every bishop who welcomes Opus into his diocese it is clear that there are many who either will not accept them, or are unhappy at finding them installed in their jurisdiction when they take up their appointments."83 During his lifetime, Escrivá never became a bishop; the four Popes who reigned from 1928 to 1975 (from the establishment of Opus Dei until the founder's death) did not grant this promotion to him. Escrivá repaid these popes with public obeisance and private derision. He said of Pius XII, "Let's see if he leaves us in peace once and for all, and the Lord God in his infinite mercy takes him to heaven," and referred to John XXIII as "a hick," and called Paul VI "an old Jesuit"--which was not a compliment.84
With the election of Pope John Paul II in October 1978, Opus Dei came in from the cold.
George Weigel said, "Cardinal Karol Wojtyla had long been sympathetic to the Work and had spoken to one of its student centers in Rome during the 1970s. Opus Dei's stress on sanctifying the workplace through apostolically committed professional men and women paralleled his own understanding of one of the key themes of Vatican II."85 Opus Dei returned the favor, and began sending funds to Wojtyla's Polish archdiocese before 1978.86 They also published a collection of the speeches that the Cardinal had made when visiting Opus Dei centers.87 When Wojtyla went to Rome for the 1978 conclave that would elect him to the Papacy, he went to the Opus Dei headquarters and prayed at Escrivá's tomb.88 (This was one of numerous Roman shrines that he visited.)
* The Pope granted Opus Dei's long-stalled request for "personal prelature" status in 1982, granting global freedom of action to the movement. He was fulfilling a promise that he had made secretly to the movement on November 15, 1978--within the first month of his reign.89 The Pope made this decision in the face of negative votes by Italian and French bishops, and opposition by 55 of the 64 Spanish bishops.90
* That same year, John Paul II made Álvaro del Portillo, Escrivá's successor as head of Opus Dei, a bishop. (Portillo was head of the movement from 1975 until 1994, and had been Escrivá's closest collaborator for 40 years.91) Portillo's successor, Javier Echevarría, was raised to the episcopate in 1995, the year after he became the head of Opus Dei.
As noted above, John Paul II hastened Escrivá's canonization. By recognizing him as a saint, John Paul II stated that Escrivá is in Heaven, and that his life is a worthy example to the faithful, and that people have gained miraculous results from his intercession on their behalf. At the least, the beatification and canonization of Escrivá blunts criticism of Opus Dei within the Catholic Church.
* In 1984, John Paul II selected Joaquín Navarro-Valls (a lay Opus Dei numerary since 1960) as his press secretary. He was part of the Papal inner circle, and (along with Papal secretary Dziwisz) had day-to-day, direct access to the Pontiff.92 In April 2005, the press secretary said, "I have been fortunate to be next to him day after day, in his apartment as well as traveling with him--including during his vacations. Many of the photographs that are in circulation where he can be seen in the country, in the latter part of his life, were taken by me."93 Navarro-Valls has been an actor, a psychiatrist and a journalist. His first non-medical publication was a book, Manipulation in Advertising; this was followed by "two essays in evolutionary psychology."94
Sandro Magister--an experienced, orthodox Catholic reporter--wrote, "As an editorial promoter, Navarro thought up and in 1994 launched the most widely read and translated book by John Paul II: the interview conducted by Vittorio Messori entitled Crossing the threshold of hope."95 The book was published simultaneously in the major world languages.96 In 1997, Massimo D'Alema, the leader of the Italian Democratic Party of the Left (the current "moderate" incarnation of the Italian Communist Party) said that Crossing the Threshold of Hope was the one book on his bedside table.97 D'Alema--who would go on to become Prime Minister of Italy in 1998-2000--said that he had been impressed by the Pope's analysis of the fall of Communism and his insistence that "the society of the future" had to be built around a "quest for values."98 (In the book, John Paul said, "it would be simplistic to say that Divine Providence caused the fall of Communism. In a certain sense Communism as a system fell by itself. It fell as a consequence of its own mistakes and abuses. It proved to be a medicine more dangerous than the disease itself. It did not bring about true social reform, yet it did become a powerful threat and challenge to the entire world. But it fell by itself, because of its own inherent weakness."99)
The Papal press secretary has used his skills to manage the news from the Vatican. Journalist Stefania Rossini says that Navarro-Valls "relies upon his proficiency in conversation, his artfully crafted allure, and the mastery of communication that has allowed him to transform the murky, homespun Vatican press office into a smooth media machine."100 Anglican journalist Ruth Gledhill said of this office, "It is all about spin and control. ... It works very much like any political press office. Access is very much given to people who can be trusted to toe the line."101 Navarro-Valls gave preferential treatment to TV reporters; journalists Bernstein and Politi say, "On the TV screen, as the pope and Navarro-Valls well understood, glory would invariably overshadow problems, emotion would overwhelm insight. And uncomfortable questions from print reporters would be drowned out."102
* During the Pope's final year, Cardinal Herranz, an Opus Dei member, "emerged as one of the five or six prelates closest to John Paul."103
It's a given that that Benedict XVI will continue the prior Pope's strong support for "The Way."
* A post-Conclave report indicates that Opus Dei support was critical to Ratzinger's election this spring: "According to aides to two non-American cardinals, Ratzinger entered the conclave with significant backing: Julian Herranz of Spain, head of the Vatican's department for interpreting legislative texts; Dario Castrillon Hoyos of Colombia, head of the department in charge of the clergy; and Alfonso Lopez Trujillo of Colombia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family. All three have ties to the conservative renewal movement Opus Dei."104 Two months before the Conclave, an orthodox Catholic reporter on Vatican affairs had predicted this outcome: "the Opus Dei cardinal most active in view of the conclave is Julián Herranz ... Ratzinger's leap to the top of the list of candidates for the papacy is also due to him; it took shape at the suppers for cardinals that Herranz organized at Opus Dei's heavily guarded villa in the Roman countryside."105
Opus Dei remains prominent in the Pope's inner circle. Ratzinger's personal secretary is a Bavarian priest and expert on canon law, Georg Gänswein.106 He has been on Ratzinger's staff since 1996, and has been his personal secretary since 2003. (Gänswein also had been "a trusted confidant of the last Pope, who made him a chaplain in 2000."107) Until 2005, Gänswein "taught at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, the Rome university of Opus Dei,"108 although he is not a member of the movement.109 The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith includes three Opus Dei advisors, one of whom (Msgr. Fernando Ocáriz) is the movement's vicar-general, its second in command.110
Benedict XVI has retained Navarro-Valls as his press secretary, even though he does not have "the direct and osmotic relationship that he had with John Paul II. He can no longer permit himself to model and amplify the pope's gestures, statements, and performance."111
On September 14--the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a solemn Catholic remembrance of the Cross as the sign of Christ's victory--Benedict XVI blessed a 16-foot statue of Escrivá that has been placed in a niche on the outside wall of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.112 The statue bears coats of arms for John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and joins the 400 saints' statues that are already at the Basilica.113
Without the support of the two most recent Popes, Opus Dei would not have risen to its present influence in the Catholic Church.
Opus Dei influence in Washington DC and worldwide
Opus Dei is prominent in Republican circles in Washington DC. Opus Dei priest Fr. C. John McCloskey baptized conservative columnist Robert Novak into the Catholic Church in 1998. In 2003, he received Judge Robert Bork into the Catholic Church (but not into Opus Dei); Bork's sponsors included John O'Sullivan, the head of United Press International.114 A recent report says, "McCloskey is also believed to have brought other high-profile Washington conservatives into the group, including book publisher Alfred Regnery, Republican Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, and Novak's former CNN colleague, Larry Kudlow. No prominent Democrats are known to be members of Opus Dei."115 Among others who "have been pegged as Opus Dei sympathizers or friends" are Justice Antonin Scalia, Justice Clarence Thomas, and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa).116 One of the volunteers at the Catholic Information Center, where McCloskey has worked, is Linda Poindexter, "the wife of Iran-contra figure and Bush administration official John Poindexter."117
The neo-conservative guru George Gilder gave the movement extravagant praise in 1994: "Baring a secret sword of goodness and truth, Opus Dei is the most important spiritual movement of our time."118
In 2003, Deal Hudson, the then-publisher of Crisis (a conservative, Republican-Party oriented Catholic magazine) said of Opus Dei, "It has called people to serious spirituality and given them a deeper understanding of the Church at a time when few pe
ople have a real grasp of the faith. ... It looks radical from where we are as a culture, but from the point of view of the Church, it is a call to friendship with God."119
The movement's influence is worldwide.
In Spain, according to a late-1980s report from journalist Peggy Lernoux, "Opus Dei followers are strategically placed in the Spanish press, and Spanish sources claim that members control more than 1,500 companies and financial entities. The 'Work' also has followers in the police and the military, center-right parties, particularly the Alianza Popular, and the court of King Juan Carlos."120 Reuters describes the movement's continuing power there now: "Opus founded Spain's most prestigious business school, IESE, and executives at some of the country's top companies are said to be sympathisers. Spain's third largest bank Banco Popular donated 21 million euros [about $25 million in US dollars] ... last year to charities linked to Opus. Opus' Navarre University has been responsible for producing some of the country's highest achievers. Its respected journalism school claims to have produced more than half of the editors of Spain's national newspapers."121 Archduke Otto von Habsburg "reportedly became one of Opus Dei's most treasured Old Guard supernumeraries."122
Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of Education in the Blair government in the United Kingdom, is an Opus Dei supernumerary.123 She responded to her critics--those alarmed by her membership in the movement--by saying "I have a private spiritual life and I have a faith. It is a private spiritual life and I don't think it is relevant to my job."124 (Such a separation between work and faith is totally contrary to Opus Dei's stated aim of sanctifying all of society through members' work.)
Lech Walesa, the Solidarity union leader who had cooperated with John Paul II to weaken the Communist regime in Poland, attended the canonization of Escrivá in 2002. Walesa said, "At last we have a saint for the workers."125 This homage reflected Walesa's debt to Opus Dei. From 1980 onward, the Vatican, Opus Dei, and the CIA had cooperated to get funds, intelligence, and supplies across the Iron Curtain to Solidarity, the anti-communist union that Walesa headed.126 In 2005, Walesa told the Polish parliament that Solidarity had paved the way for globalization: "Irrespective of today's judgment and the price we had to pay in this generation, we were able to close an epoch of divisions, different blocs and borders, opening the way for an era of globalization."127 In reply, "Poland's President Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former communist, said Walesa and other Solidarity leaders deserved the gratitude of all Poles for ushering in the democracy that led to Poland becoming a NATO and European Union member."128
Opus Dei members in the Philippines include Francisco Tatad, a senator129 and former cabinet member and government press secretary during the Marcos dictatorship,130 and Jose Cuisia, the former governor of the country's central bank.131 Opus Dei is "slowly gaining influence among the Catholic clergy in India," including among the bishops in Mumbai and New Delhi.132
Opus Dei has its non-Catholic admirers, as well. Stephen Schwartz, a Jewish neoconservative convert to Sufi Islam, recently urged creation of "a Muslim equivalent of Opus Dei--reinforcing a conservative and traditional view of faith while embodying contemporary capitalist principles, modernizing education, and fostering the common good."133 Angel Kreiman, an Opus Dei cooperator who is international vice-president of the World Council of Synagogues and a member of the executive committee of the International Council of Christians and Jews, said in 2002,"Many of Josemaría Escrivá's concepts call to mind the Talmudic tradition and reveal his profound knowledge of the Jewish world, as well as his passionate love, as he openly repeated, for two Jews, Jesus and Mary. ... Moreover, that which most likens his teachings to Judaism is the vocation of man to serve God through creative work, perfecting creation every day, through perfection in work."134 Inside the Vatican reported in 2002 that "although there are few Catholics in China, Opus Dei has many co-operators ... in the country. An entire youth group made the journey from China for the canonization [of Escrivá] and not a single one was Catholic."135
to last "until the end of time"?
Escrivá expected Opus Dei to persist and grow until the end of history. In 1966, he told the New York Times, "The task that awaits us is immense. It is a sea without shores, for as long as there are men on earth, no matter how much the techniques of production may change, they will have some type of work that can be offered to God and sanctified. With God's grace, Opus Dei wants to teach them how to make their work an act of service to all men of every condition, race, and religion. Serving men in this way, they will serve God."136 In 1968, Escrivá predicted that Opus Dei "will never have any problems of adaptation to the world: it will never find itself in need of being brought up to date." 137 In the newsletter Crónica he said, "Not only will the Work never die, it will never grow old." 138
Opus Dei followers assign the same eternal significance to their movement. Escrivá's successor said in the early 1990s: "our founder's message and example are not just for a few but for millions of men and women until the end of time."139
A pro-Opus Dei journalist said that the October 2, 1928 foundation of the movement is "celebrated the world over by the me
mbers of Opus Dei, not so much as the anniversary of a foundation or revelation of a divine project, but as an 'instrument of sanctification' issuing from the unfathomable depths of eternity and destined to last as long as the Church--until the end of time when faith waits for the victorious and glorious return of Christ."140
The movement's defenders say that Opus Dei is misunderstood and slandered; they cite The Da Vinci Code as the most recent instance of this. Instead, Opus Dei supporters urge us to attend to the movement's holiness, orthodoxy, and good works. In 1966, Escrivá avowed his love for freedom: "We detest tyranny, especially in the exclusively spiritual government of Opus Dei. We love pluralism."141
For decades--in Europe, the US, Latin America, and elsewhere--a different story has emerged from former Opus Dei members. These witnesses independently testify to abusive, cultic beliefs and practices in Opus Dei--teachings and actions that have been integral to the movement since its beginning. The testimony comes from--among many others--Fr. Vladimir Felzmann, a Catholic priest in Great Britain (an Opus Dei member from 1959 to 1982 who had been a personal friend of Escrivá),142 John Roche, of Linacre College at Oxford143 (who had been an Opus Dei member for 13 years, 1959 to 1972),144 and María del Carmen Tapia (a Spanish woman who had been an Opus Dei member for 18 years, from 1948 to 1966, was head of the women's section in Venezuela for 10 years, and lived for several years at the movement's Rome headquarters).145
In a laudatory essay about Opus Dei, the author of a book about the teachings of John Paul II confirms that the movement is "recruiting membership among the professional classes, with a preponderance of upper middle class members."146 María del Carmen Tapia, who joined Opus Dei in 1948, described the appeal that the movement had for young Spaniards in the 1940s: "Father Escrivá offered the great adventure: to give up everything without getting anything in return; to conquer the world for Christ's church;" he challenged students to excel in their work "with the aim of attaining a high position in the intellectual world, and then offering it to Christ."147 In The Way, Escrivá said, "In order that he [Christ] may reign in the world, it is necessary to have people of prestige who with their eyes fixed on heaven, dedicate themselves to all human activities, and through these activities exercise quietly--and effectively--an apostolate of professional character."148
The 1950 constitution for the movement emphasized the importance of "public office" for the movement's mission: "A particular means of apostolate of the Institute are the public offices, especially those which carry the exercise of leadership."149 The 1982 canon law governing Opus Dei says that members should "have special concern for intellectuals, those of high office or status, because of the great weight they carry in civil society."150 They are practicing what Escrivá taught: "Men, like fish, have to be caught by the head. What evangelical depth there is in the intellectual apostolate!"151 Recruitment, then, is to begin with intellectuals and continue on to other groups.
As journalist Michael Walsh notes, Opus Dei's U. S. headquarters building in New York City is on "some of the most expensive real estate in the world"--and the 17-story skyscraper has separate entrances for men and women.152 Auto parking is sex-segregated, as well.153 (Opus Dei says that the separate entrances exist because the building is divided into sections--one is a residence for celibate women, and the other is a residence for celibate men.154)
Journalist Jonathan Kwitny described movement recruitment practices, tactics that seem to come from a Moonie operations manual: "Recruitment is aggressive and covert. The target is not told at first why someone is suddenly befriending him, or the nature of the 'center' where he is invited for a lecture, or what is entailed in joining."155 Opus Dei states that no one can make a "temporary commitment" to join the movement before age 18. Making a "permanent commitment" cannot be done before age 23, and requires "more than 6 years of systematic and comprehensive instruction as to what membership entails."156 Do the math: someone who joins Opus Dei on their 23rd birthday would have begun training by their 17th birthday.
"Evangelization" starts with young teenagers. A recent report from Scotland notes that "In Scotland, both the male and female centres in Glasgow operate sport and activity clubs for children. The Dunreath Club has a junior section for boys aged between ten and 12 and a senior section for those 13-16. Many of those who attend are the children of members, and those who are not require parental permission. The centre's library is available to pupils for private study, which encourages teenagers to become more involved with the group. However, the parent of one teenage boy, who was pursued to join Opus Dei, described its methods as 'spiritual grooming.'"157
For the movement, the next step is to get people to ask to join, in writing. "Saying yes is the beginning of climbing the three rungs on the ladder leading to full Opus Dei membership. First comes 'whistling'--writing a letter asking to join (at which there is much rejoicing in Opus Dei houses). Second, there is the 'admission'--a short ceremony with an Opus Dei priest and an Opus Dei lay director in which the new member agrees to 'live in the spirit of Opus Dei.' Then there is the 'oblation,' which comes a year and a half after whistling, and during which the new member commits his or her life to Opus Dei so seriously that to leave afterward would be a 'grave matter.' Finally, there is the 'fidelity,' five years after the oblation, when the initiate becomes a full member of Opus Dei and is encouraged to make out a will with Opus Dei as the beneficiary. Obviously, all of this presented at one time would not be the sort of thing to put young people in a sign-me-up-right-away frenzy. But when the right doors are opened at the right time and the revelations are gradual, all things are possible. And they're especially possible with the very young: Opus Dei permits children a mere 14 years of age to make an initial commitment. Not only that, but they're allowed to 'whistle' at a mere 16 and a half and make the oblation at 18. They can thus become a full fidelity member at a mere 23."158
An Opus Dei priest said in 1981, "when a youngster says he wants to join we do advise them not to tell their parents. This is because the parents do not understand us."159 Once recruited, young members are kept away from their families.160 These restrictions are especially stringent for women, since Opus Dei fears that should they "be exposed to family events, ties of affection would quickly be restored. Attendance at baptisms and weddings is regarded as particularly dangerous."161
In his biography of Pope John Paul II, Kwitny summarized some of the constraints upon Opus Dei numeraries: "All incoming and outgoing mail must be read by a spiritual director, who also must approve any courses members take, and even what they may read."162 Numeraries sprinkle their beds with holy water before lying down to sleep, as a means of promoting the "difficult virtue" of chastity.163 Women numerararies are to sleep on boards, to curb sexual appetite.164 Male numeraries are to sleep on the floor once a week.165 Additionally, since the late 1960s, numeraries face the "spoliation" each year on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. "On that day the director can come into a numerary's room and remove any object to which the numerary is thought to have become over-attached. 'This could be a teddy bear or a pair of gold cufflinks, but if it happens to be a watch given to you by your mother it hurts,' a former numerary explained."166
An apologist for the Legionaries of Christ (an authoritarian new religious movement in the Catholic Church that competes for the same market niche as Opus Dei) defends such practices as commonplace in "consecrated life in the Church": "The opening of mail, however, is a practice in communal religious life that dates back centuries; it is an expression of the freedom and openness of Christians in community with no secrets from one another."167
In Opus Dei education, members are expected to shun books which the movement considers heterodox or dangerous--an application of one of Escrivá's maxims in The Way: "Books. Don't buy them without advice from a Catholic who has real knowledge and discernment. It's so easy to buy something useless or harmful."168 As a result, students in the philosophy program at Navarre University, the flagship Opus Dei university in Spain, found that Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Hegel, and other philosophers were off-limits.169
On a weekly basis, all members must "talk
familiarly and in confidence with the local director" of Opus Dei.170
These are to be detailed revelations--including of "their sex lives and problems."171
As Escrivá said in The Way, "Foolish child, the day you hide some part of your soul from your director, you will have ceased to be a child, for you will have lost your simplicity."172
These mandatory disclosures occur outside the sacrament of Penance, without the secrecy that protects penitents from public exposure of their sins.173
There is no requirement that the directors hearing these revelations be clergy, or that they have received training in counseling. This practice, also known as the "manifestation of conscience," was banned by the Catholic Church under sec
tion 530 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law--the code that was in force when Escrivá made the "confidence" one of the duties of his followers in the movement's 1950 constitution.
Additionally, members must gather weekly in a circle (or "chapter of faults") to "accuse themselves of faults against religious discipline and the common life."174 In the circles, members also describe their own progress in recruiting and training new followers; insufficient zeal in proselytizing earns a reprimand. These practices are reminiscent of the "criticism/self-criticism" sessions for members of the Chinese Communist Party.
Members must confess weekly, and only to Opus Dei priests.175 Even though canon law allows Catholics to confess to any priest, if an Opus Dei member confesses to a priest outside the movement, he is accused by his superiors of lacking "good spirit."176 As Escrivá said, those who do this are "on the way to listening to the advice of bad shepherds."177 He also said, "the first sacrifice is not to forget, in our whole life ... the dirty clothes are washed at home. The first manifestation of your dedication is not being so cowardly as to go outside of the Work to wash dirty clothes. That is if you want to be saints. If not, you are not needed here."178 In a reference to the long-standing feud between the Jesuits and his own cult, the Founder said, "I would prefer a million times that a daughter of mine die without the Last Sacraments than that they be administered to her by a Jesuit."179
All of these practices--the "confidence," the circles, and the in-house confession--can be used to manipulate and control the membership.
Some people can leave Opus Dei with little trauma, but others encounter great pressure from the organization. A priest who left Opus Dei after 22 years as a member said that it was very difficult to make the break: "Opus Dei and God were identical in my mind, I was pretty screwed up inside. I was hurting. When I first said I wanted to leave, I was put under huge pressure. I was told that I was being tempted by the Devil. They took me to see the grave of a former member who was so depressed after he'd left that he stopped taking the medicine he was supposed to for his heart condition. It was a passive suicide. I was told that I should pray for his soul. It was their way of warning me. Rule by fear."180 After a 19-year career as an Opus Dei numerary, Miguel Fisac had left the movement in the 1950s, married, and had children. At the funeral for Fisac's third child, two Opus Dei priests (including his former confessor) offered condolences. However, they "made gestures of horror and let it be understood that what happened was God's punishment for having left Opus Dei;"181 Fisac showed the door to the unwelcome comforters.
As Michael Walsh reports, numeraries have "been brought up to believe that in breaking ranks they are committing the most heinous sin possible for them. Salvation is mediated through Opus. Without Opus the former numerary is damned."182 Members were taught, "you must ask God for death before failure to persevere" in the movement.183 (In the same way, members of the Legionaries of Christ are taught the slogan, "lost vocation, sure damnation.")184
In 1981, Cardinal Hume, Archbishop of Westminster in the United Kingdom, gave credence to charges against Opus Dei by directing that in his diocese, they must refrain from enlisting members under 18 years of age, that they allow young people who wish to join Opus Dei to discuss the matter with their family, that people remain free "to join or leave the organization without undue pressure being exerted," that members have the freedom to choose a spiritual director inside or outside of the movement, and that Opus Dei activities be clearly advertised as such.185 It's most unlikely that the Cardinal would have issued such directives if these practices were not common within Opus Dei.
Almost 25 years after the Cardinal spoke, Michael Walsh (a journalist who has monitored and criticized Opus Dei activities since the 1980s) said, "The letter of these 'recommendations' has no doubt been observed, but perhaps not the spirit."186 Cardinal Hume's successor accepts the movement, and has turned a British parish over to one of its priests.187
In various ways more characteristic of Masonry than of a traditional Christian religious movement, secrecy and "discretion" are standard procedure for Opus Dei. Its 1950 constitution remains in force, except where it is specifically superseded by the 1982 charter approved by John Paul II.188 The 1950 constitution was long treated as a confidential document by Opus Dei--unlike most religious orders, whose constitutions are public, and available in the vernacular. In the late 1940s, Opus Dei obtained agreement from Rome that in dioceses where it functions, the movement did not have to give the text of the entire constitution to the local bishop, that the bishop could be required to maintain the secrecy of this and other confidential Opus Dei documents, and that Opus Dei did not have to disclose all Opus Dei residences and activities to the bishop.189
Several of the 1950 constitution's provisions explicitly call for secrecy:190
§ 189: "In order for the Institute to reach its proper end more effectively, it wishes to live as hidden, therefore it abstains from collective acts and does not have a name or common denomination by which its members are called. Given the character of the Institute, which externally does not desire to appear publicly as a society, it is not appropriate that its members should engage collectively in certain manifestations of cult like processions.
§ 190: By virtue of this collective humility, which is proper of our Institute, whatever is done by the members is not attributable to itself; but rather, whatever good is attained by them is attributable to God alone. Consequently, even membership in the Institute admits no external manifestations. The number of members is kept hidden from outsiders; and indeed our people do not discuss these things with outsiders.
§ 191: This collective humility leads our people to live the life which they consecrate to God with the same discretion which is most suited to the desired fruitfulness of the apostolate. The lack of this discretion can constitute a grave obstacle to exercising apostolic work or create some difficulty in the environment of one's natural family or in the exercise of their office or profession. Thus the Numerary and Supernumerary members should know they are to live a prudent silence regarding the names of other members; and that they are never to reveal to anyone that they themselves belong to Opus Dei, not even to spread the Institute, without express permission from their local director."
Other elusive Opus Dei documents include "Praxis, a book that lays down in the most minute detail how members are to lead their lives. According to one former member it even regulated the number of handkerchiefs and pairs of underpants someone might possess."191 Crónica, a teaching journal, circulates privately within the movement;192 the Ceremonial Book193 and the Internal Rules for Administration are also treated as classified.194 The 500-question Opus Dei catechism, which members learn by rote during their indoctrination, has also been kept under wraps.195 María del Carmen Tapia notes an ironic result of her training: "as a result of his emphasis on learning the Catechism by heart, one retained it so well that years after having left Opus Dei, one is able to retrieve it literally point by point."196
Even the defenders of Opus Dei acknowledge that "certain aspects of it are secret. For example, Opus Dei publishes no membership lists and discourages members from announcing their membership. The reason, they would say,
is not because anything bad is going on, but out of a sense of humility and obedience to the Gospel. Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew (see 6:1-18) instructs his followers to live in holiness but to do so almost in secrecy."197
An Opus Dei spokesman recently said, "We have just built a 17-storey headquarters in New York. ... How can you operate a secret society from a skyscraper at 34th and Lexington?"198
Opus Dei critic Walsh agrees that "One can now study its constitution. ... it is less secretive than it was."199
Against the belief that such cultism is good for the soul, there is this warning from Christianity Today in 2003: "Jesus reminds us constantly that the life he intends for us, here and now, will utterly transcend the externals. 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' Tim Kellor of New York's Redeemer Presbyterian Church points out that the contrast Jesus draws in the Sermon on the Mount is not between the religious and the irreligious person. It's between the outwardly religious and the one whose heart has been transformed by grace. 'Blessed are the pure in heart,' Jesus promised, 'for they shall see God.' Faith-based social conformity does not produce the pure in heart. Boundary markers can't inspire steadfast love and obedience to Christ. The outcome of that approach to spiritual life--the method of the Pharisee--is always the same: It crushes the soul."200
Michael Walsh, a Catholic, issues a similar warning: "Opus, with its rules and regulations, its censorship, its control of the minutiae of members' day-to-day living, its class-related structures, its association with élites of wealth and power ... could not claim to be a force for liberation. And to the extent that it fails this test, it is not merely, as a sect, less than Catholic. It is less than Christian."201
Dan Brown got one fact right about Opus Dei. Its numeraries, the most committed members of the movement, do use the discipline, a knotted rope, to flagellate themselves on the buttocks once a week.202 A former member says that they were told to administer the 33 blows "with energy and vigor."203 They also wear the cilice, a spiked chain, around their thigh. A former Opus Dei member who had played a tennis game with Navarro-Valls said that when they took a post-game shower, he saw that the Pope's press secretary "had a brown mark around his thigh. It was the mark of the cilicio, the chain-mail band that he wore for up to two hours a day. That's a requirement for members. It's got pointed metal spikes fixed to it; they scratch the skin and make you bleed. It's supposed to be worn tight during Lent."204
Opus Dei is one of the few Catholic religious movements that retained these practices after Vatican II. In The Way, his 4-million-copy best-seller, Escrivá gave the rationale: "Deny yourself. It is so beautiful to be a victim!"205 "In our poor present life, let us drink to the last drop from the chalice of pain."206 "Give thanks, as for a very special favor, for that holy abhorrence that you feel toward yourself."207 "Blessed be pain. Loved be pain. Sanctified be pain. Glorified be pain!"208 "Treat your body with charity, but with no more charity than you would show to a treacherous enemy."209 Escrivá began using the cilice and the whip upon himself at age 16--ten years before he founded Opus Dei.210 He continued to punish himself with zeal, to the extent that "the walls of his bathroom were said have been constantly bloodstained because of his feverish self-flagellations with a meter-long whip, similar to a cat-o-nine-tails."211
Catholic writer Amy Welborn justifies such self-inflicted sufferings: "it might be useful to note that bodily mortification, as a spiritual practice, is found in every world religion in some form or another ... Bodily spiritual mortification, including the use of these particular devices, was not invented by Opus Dei, either. If you read the lives of the saints, you find that many felt called to these practices. Why? Some sought to draw closer to Christ by sharing in his
sufferings. Some used them as a means of penance for their own sins or the sins of others. Others saw them as an effective means of growing in self-discipline. ... One who has experienced spiritual growth would argue that 'no pain, no gain' applies to the spiritual life, too, at least for them."212
Opus Dei itself says that the cilice and discipline are "types of mortification that have always had a place in the Catholic tradition because of their symbolic reference to Christ's Passion," and that "anyone with experience in this matter knows that these practices do not injure one's health in any way."213
Such apologetics for Opus Dei ignore some obvious challenges. Just because a religious practice is widespread and ancient does not prove that it is spiritually healthy, or that it has Scriptural approval. It may be that self-punishment was detrimental to the saints who practiced it, and that they achieved holiness and communion with God despite, rather than by means of, these practices.
Combining sexual abstinence with bodily punishments raises the possibility that the practitioner may eroticize his sufferings and pervert his own sexuality; masochism is not a spiritual step up from normal married life and intercourse. Since masochism and sadism are complementary perversions, the zealous flagellant may feel impelled to punish others who do not meet his own standards of "holiness"--for their own good, of course. As Escrivá wrote, "To punish for the sake of Love: this is the secret that raises to a supernatural plane any punishment imposed on those who deserve it. For the love of God, who has been offended, let punishment serve as atonement. For the love of our neighbor, for the sake of God, may punishment never be revenge, but a healing medicine."214 The history of corporal punishment in religious institutions--and Opus Dei's own affinity for repressive regimes--shows this dynamic in action.
When all else fails, Opus Dei defenders say that these mortifications are "the free, voluntary choice of free adult persons."215 Ironically, this "consenting adults" defense is the same one that supporters of the Sexual Revolution use to defend their own favorite vices and indulgences.
A large Roman Catholic web site, Catholic Culture, has taken upon itself the job of rating the orthodoxy of other Catholic-related sites. It gives a green "excellent" rating to Opus Dei, while giving the anti-cult Opus Dei Awareness Network (ODAN) a yellow "caution" rating. In Catholic Culture's reply to ODAN, one can see how "The Way" and its friends respond to criticisms such as are in this article: "Both the organization and its site seem to be a misguided attempt to use personal grievances against Opus Dei or one of its members and isolated incidents to malign the organization as a whole. Many of the Prelature's best characteristics, such as its strong evangelization efforts, the total commitment of its members, and their sense of self-sacrifice and mortification, are taken out of context in an attempt to make Opus Dei look evil. However, the beauty of the great work of Opus Dei shows through, even in the writings of those who would eradicate it. In trying to malign the whole organization, this site is a prime example of Christ's assurance that those who truly follow Him will be persecuted."216
Escrivá's teachings: "another gospel"
The writings of Opus Dei's founder are central to the way his followers understand the Gospel. Escrivá's teachings quote the Scriptures and profess zeal for Christ. However, there are subtle--but grievous--divergences between The Way taught by Escrivá and the Way of Christ set forth in Scripture.
In The Way (which an Opus Dei defender describes as "Father Escrivá's first and most popular book, in which one can find the spirit of Opus Dei"217), the priest said, "When a layman sets himself up as an arbiter of morals, he frequently errs; laymen can only be disciples."218 Escrivá and his successors have put this principle into practice; although Opus Dei characterizes itself as a lay movement, it is controlled by its clergy.
And the clergy are not to be criticized: "A priest--whoever he may be--is always another Christ. Though you know it well, I want to remind you again that a Priest is 'another Christ,' and that the Holy Spirit has said, 'Nolite tangere Christos meos'--'Do not touch my Christs.'" 219 Escrivá appeared to counsel what the Catholic bishops have often done with their abuser-priests: "Like the good sons of Noah, cover the weaknesses you may see in your father, the priest, with a cloak of charity." 220
For Escrivá, holy zeal is essential. "The plane of the sanctity our Lord asks of us is determined by these three points: holy steadfastness, holy forcefulness and holy shamelessness."221 "Steadfastness is not simply intransigence: it is 'holy intransigence.' Don't forget that there also exists a 'holy forcefulness.'"222
With holy zeal comes approval of religious coercion. Escrivá said, "If, to save an earthly life, it is praiseworthy to use force to keep a man from committing suicide, are we not allowed to use the same coercion--'holy coercion'--to save the Lives (with a capital) of so many who are stupidly bent on killing their souls?"223
Strict obedience is essential for Opus Dei members. As the Founder said, "Who are you to judge the rightness of a superior's decision? Don't you see that he has more basis for judging than you? He has more experience; he has more upright, experienced, and impartial advisers; and above all, he has more grace, a special grace, the grace of his state, which is the light and powerful aid of God."224 "Obey, as an instrument obeys in the hands of the artist--not stopping to consider the why and the wherefore of what it is doing. Be sure that you'll never be directed to do anything that isn't good and for the greater glory of God."225 "You have come to the apostolate to submit, to annihilate yourself, not to impose your own personal viewpoints."226 "Obedience, the sure way. Blind obedience to your superior, the way of sanctity. Obedience in your apostolate, the only way: for, in a work of God, the spirit must be to obey or to leave."227 "Your perfection consists in living perfectly in the place, occupation, and position to which God, through those in authority, has assigned to you."228
Criticism of the movement is out of bounds. "That critical spirit--granted you mean well--should never be directed toward he apostolate in which you work nor toward your brothers." 229
With unity and discipline, there is to be strength of will: "Leaders! Strengthen your will so that God will make a leader of you."230
The soldiers in the Opus Dei crusade were to know how to keep secrets. "Be slow to reveal the intimate details of your apostolate. Don't you see that the world in its selfishness will fail to understand?"231 "There are many people, holy people, who don't understand your way. Don't strive to make them understand. It would be a waste of time and would give rise to indiscretions."232
For Escrivá, orthodoxy meant wholesale rejection of Enlightenment thought--even, it seems, the moderate forms that gave rise to the American Revolution. He said, "Come on! Ridicule him! Tell him he's behind the times: it's incredible that there are still people who insist on regarding the stagecoach as a good means of transportation. That's for those who dig up musty, old fashioned 'Voltairianisms' or discredited liberal ideas of the nineteenth century."233 The Founder wrote this in the 1930s, when "liberal ideas of the nineteenth century" were being replaced worldwide by collectivism and dictatorships.
Then, there is the Founder's pragmatic, acquisitive attitude about money. He said, "It is human nature to have little appreciation for what costs but little. That is why I recommended to you the 'apostolate of not giving.' Never fail to claim what is fairly and justly due to you from the practice of your profession, even if your profession is the instrument of your apostolate."234
The preceding items are all drawn from The Way, which friendly and hostile observers alike agree is essential to Opus Dei theory and practice. The spirit of Opus Dei and the maxims of The Way are alien to the Sermon on the Mount and to the teachings of the Apostles as recorded in the New Testament. Consider these questions:235 would Jesus call only--or primarily--the wealthy and those with worldly skills, position, or intellect? Would Jesus be dishonest, or encourage his followers to be "discreet"? Would Jesus limit his followers' free will, or demand blind obedience? Would Jesus propose that one group's viewpoint trumps the guidance of the Holy Spirit for all believers? Has Jesus kept secrets to an inner circle or did he, through Scripture and tradition, reveal all truth to all his followers? Did Jesus limit salvation to members of one sect, or did he offer it to all? Did Jesus propose that his followers engage in political maneuvers to take over the Temple or the Roman Empire?
END OF PART I
Lee Penn, a convert out of atheistic Marxism, attended Harvard university, was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in 1974 and graduated cum laude 1976. He moved to California in 1983 to get an MBA and an MPH from UC Berkeley; earned those degrees in 1986 and has worked since in health care information systems and financial analysis. Lee is one of SCP's premier allies and associate writers.