Its full title is "Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei (God's
Work)," but the organization is generally referred to as Opus
Dei (in Spain La Obra). Innumerable books have been written
about the movement, but few can claim any real objectivity. Some texts
are obvious apologias, others are vehemently critical. Don Luigi
Giussani, founder and mentor of Communion and Liberation, the Italian
youth movement, confided to journalists after a meeting with the former
Opus Dei Prelate Archbishop Alvaro del Portillo: "We (Communion and
Liberation) are the foot soldiers in the Church militant, irregulars
fighting with sticks and stones... But Opus Dei is in the front lines
with its armored tanks; the wheels roll forward silently, but surely. We
are beginning to notice them more and more."
The encyclopedic German Historical Dictionary of Christianity
by Andresen-Denzler writes as follows under the heading Opus Dei
(the Latin words mean literally "The Work of God"):
"Traditionalists in the religious field, the organization has from
the beginning provoked polemical debates. Some parties exalt the
vitality and spiritual force of this Catholic lay elite; others describe
the institution as a fundamentalist 'restoration' in its insistence on
faith as the only answer to individual and institutional problems, that
is, the denial of autonomy to other sectors in society. Their former
close ties to the Franco regime, and, in general, their sympathy for
rightist political parties, give rise to various strong reactions."
The late Hans Urs von Balthasar, the Swiss Catholic thinker regarded
as one of this century's greatest (and occasionally controversial)
theologians, discussed Opus Dei in 1963 in the Neue Zuercher
Nachrichten (the piece also appeared in the more prestigious
Viennese theological journal Wort und Wahrheit). In an article
entitled "Fundamentalism," he described Opus Dei as "a
concentration of fundamentalist power in the Church."
Von Balthasar's negative analysis of Opus Dei was primarily based on
founder Escriva's book The Way, which von Balthasar did not
consider of sufficient spiritual depth for a worldwide religious
But the theologian retracted his criticisms in a personal letter to
the Prelature. The letter was sent also to the Neue Zuercher Zeitung (a
different, much more prestigious paper than the one mentioned above) in
January 1979. In that letter (never published, but preserved in Opus
Dei's files), von Balthasar wrote: "Because of my lack of concrete
information, I am not able to give an informed opinion about Opus Dei
today. On the other hand, one thing strikes me as obvious: many of the
criticisms leveled against the movement, including those of your own
journal concerning the religious instruction given by Opus Dei members,
seem to me to be false and anticlerical."
Debates about Opus Dei have never ceased.
The most intense polemics in recent years came in the first months of
1992, just before Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer was
beatified by Pope John Paul II (May 17, 1992). Those months saw a
veritable "press war," with articles launched like missiles in
the pages of leading publications around the globe. It began with a Newsweek
article (13 January, 1992) that depicted Escriva as domineering,
intolerant and somewhat anti-Semitic, and which suggested that Opus Dei
had somehow used its Vatican influence to unduly rush his beatification
process. Follow-up articles appeared in many countries around the world,
particularly in Spain, where former members of Opus Dei came forward in
numbers to denounce the man and the spiritual path they themselves had
Even in recent months, the polemics have been intense. For example, America
magazine, the weekly of the US Jesuits, recently devoted a cover story
to the Prelature. The article, written by James Martin, SJ, begins this
way: "Opus Dei is the most controversial group in the Catholic
Church today. To its members it is nothing less than The Work of God,
the inspiration of Blessed Josemaria Escriva, who advanced the work of
Christ by promoting the sanctity of everyday life. To its critics it is
a powerful, even dangerous, cult-like organization that uses secrecy and
manipulation to advance its agenda."
And the article ends, after a somewhat broken-field run through the
Prelature's trials and tribulations in the US in recent years (there are
3,000 members in the US) this way: "'They deceive people. They're
not straightforward,' said former numerary Ann Schweninger at the end of
our long interview. 'I can attest to that.’"
In short, on a strongly negative note.
There are, to be sure, a whole raft of Opus Dei publications, and of
books written by those predisposed to be favorable to Opus Dei (Vittorio
Messori's Opus Dei: An Investigation, comes to mind; the book was
published in Italy by the secular Mondadori publishing house in 1994
only a few months before the same publishing house brought out Messori's
best-selling interview with the Pope, Crossing the Threshold of Hope).
These works tend to find few or no problems of any kind with Opus Dei.
They are the "white response" to the "black
accusations" of Opus Dei's critics.
In this regard, Martin is quite right when he writes in America:
"Because of the dichotomy of views on the group, and perhaps
because of its influence in Vatican circles, it is difficult to find
balanced reporting on Opus Dei."
Confronted by bitter attacks against Opus Dei on the one hand, and
fervent outpourings of support on the other, we decided to investigate
the phenomenon. Why does Opus Dei arouse so much debate? Is Opus Dei the
secret and dangerous power its enemies denounce, or the best hope for
the future of the Church, as its supporters affirm?
Articles critical of Opus Dei regularly appear in more left-leaning
Catholic publications. More "rightwing" publications tend to
write glowing accounts of the Prelature and its activity. This raises
the question: Is the root of the problem perhaps really political,
that is, that critics disapprove of the political positions of
Opus Dei's members?
The critics say no, that is not the case—or at least, not entirely.
They contend there is also a theological or ecclesial
problem, that is, a flaw either in the way Escriva and his followers
have conceived of their Christian witness or in the way they have set
about implementing that conception in the Church.
It is difficult to know what to make of allegations of improper
financial dealings made against Opus Dei. There have long been rumors
that shadowy Opus Dei members manage a huge patrimony of international
funds. What is Opus Dei's response?
Opus Dei responds that the Prelature, as such, has certainly never
been involved in improper financial dealings, and that those who have
turned to the Prelature for spiritual guidance remain entirely free and
independent in their professional lives.
This distinction between the actions of the Prelature and the
actions of Opus Dei members is fundamental, Opus Dei leaders told Inside
In a sense, Opus Dei is arguing that it is taking competent lay
people, some of whom have influential positions in the world of finance
and business, and "forming them" spiritually to be better,
more profound Christians.
The decisions those individuals then go on to make in their business
or financial dealings cannot be the Prelature's responsibility, Opus Dei
The Prelature is also sharply faulted for its recruitment procedures.
Many parents have complained that their children are slowly drawn into
Opus Dei without quite knowing what it is and then are unable to get out
without great emotional turmoil. This is why some Catholic parents have
formed a "network," headquartered in Pittsfield Massachusetts,
dedicated exclusively to combatting the influence of Opus Dei throughout
However, along with such bitter attacks, Opus Dei also inspires
impassioned demonstrations of esteem, support and enthusiasm.
For the May 17, 1992 beatification ceremonies for Escriva, some
300,000 persons flooded into Rome.
More than one-third of the world's 3,000 Catholic bishops worldwide
had requested the beatification (by means of a written petition sent to
the Pope), including 69 cardinals, 241 archbishops, 987 bishops, and 41
superior generals of religious congregations.
These Catholic leaders were joined by numerous statesmen and leaders
in the fields of culture and science. The beatification, hotly contested
by some sectors in the Church (one Spanish theologian described it as a
"scandal" and threatened to declare a schism with Rome), had
been desired and thoroughly supported by Pope John Paul II, who told
Escriva biographers on October 14, 1993: "Blessed Jose Maria
Escriva de Balaguer will without a doubt be numbered among the great
witnesses of Christianity."
At the time of Escriva's death in June 1975, many predicted his
eventual place alongside the great saints of the Church's past. Cardinal
Pietro Parente declared: "Mons. Escriva's guiding principles
Inspire comparison with those of St. Benedict (the ideal of work's
sanctifying force) and of St. Francis (a sense of the divine in every
creature's being and activity)." According to Cardinal Sergio
Pignedoli (President of the former Secretariat for, Non-Christians):
"He is already part of Church history and patrimony." For
Cardinal John Joseph Carberry (Archbishop of St. Louis) Escriva was
"one of the heroes of our time." Cardinal Maurice Michel
Otunga (Archbishop of Nairobi) declared Escriva was "one of the
greatest saints of all times."
Opus Dei's Spirituality: Revolutionary or Fundamentalist?
Article 2 of the Opus Dei Statutes states: "The specific
objectives of Opus Dei, that is, the sanctification of the members and
the salvation of souls, will be achieved by means of the sanctification
of ordinary work and the accomplishment of professional duties."
Laypersons need no longer limit themselves to assisting the clergy, they
can themselves "be there"—as "a sea without
shores" for a "great Christian catechesis."
The core of Escriva's teaching is his idea of "sanctified
work" and the Christian validation of professional life. The
Spanish prelate used examples from the Sacred Scriptures and from his
personal life to shore up that message. He explains that Christ comes to
find us in the carrying out of our daily tasks. For Escriva our work
offers us the chance to participate in the world's creation. He
persuasively counseled professional commitment, ethics in business
dealings, and a frugal and simple lifestyle, convincing even the most
tepid of the "sanctity" of ordinary life.
"Endow your normal occupations with a spiritual
motivation," Escriva advised, "and thus you will sanctify your
work." It was Escriva's great contribution to make a profound type
of spirituality accessible to normal Christians. "I am not
saying," Escriva went on to explain, "that you can become a
saint in spite of being a layperson, a simple baptized Christian living
and working in the everyday world. I am saying you can be a saint
precisely because of that." At another point, Escriva stated that:
"It is not necessary to separate ourselves from the world. As
Christians we belong to the world. We are the world. And this world must
be saved from within, not from without."
Regarding the risks of unethical behavior associated with certain
professions, Escriva said: "Opus Dei does not need to adapt itself
to the world, because its members are already in the world. We do not
need to blindly run after success and progress, for the simple reason
that our members are building the future every day with their
work." At another point he said: "You are men and women of the
world, but you are not worldly men and women. Do not let your lives
become sterile. Be useful and leave traces of your work."
Revaluation of the secular life, sanctification of work, a spiritual
mission carried out within the world—these ideals now form part of
Catholic mentality. When Escriva proposed such "revolutionary and
radical" concepts, he was considered a dreamer, utopian, a fanatic—even
a heretic. Numerous "complaints" were lodged, resulting in
various Church inquiries. Furthermore, the self-confidence and passion
with which Escriva defended his convictions caused alarm—from quiet
nuns to outspoken bishops—in the Church hierarchy.
The Opus Dei founder, for instance, always insisted: "We love
and esteem the religious, but we have not chosen that vocation, and no
authority in the world, not even that of the Church can force us to do
so." Escriva was also known to say: "I am anti-clerical."
In 1941 he wrote: "We esteem all the virtues. We are however, not
interested in taking vows, although these are worthy of our greatest
theological respect, and we respectfully appreciate them in others. They
are, nevertheless, not the path we have chosen." To avoid
controversy, he explained: "We are not opposed to the spirituality
of the religious life. Ours is a sprout which has grown in a different
form from the inexhaustible richness of the Gospels."
Everyone—enemies and admirers alike—agree that Opus Dei's great
strength lies in this simple, yet completely revolutionary, lay
spirituality rediscovered by Escriva. It has been said that Escriva's
intuition of a Christian presence in the world of work, in professional
life, in the saintliness of ordinary living—in other words the
theology of the secular life—was a prophetic anticipation of Vatican
II.In fact, Pope John Paul II recognized Escriva's innovative
spirituality in a speech to Opus Dei members at Castel Gandolfo on
August l9, 1979: "Your institution has as its objective the
sanctification of life while remaining in the world, in your
professions, and at your workposts: living the Gospel in the world, but
in order to transform and redeem that world with your love of Christ.
Yours are truly noble ideals, which from the very beginning anticipated
that theology of the laity which later characterized the Conciliar and
Cardinal Franz Koenig, former Archbishop of Vienna and one of the
major protagonists of Vatican II, wrote soon after Escriva's death in
1975: "Opus Dei's magnetic force probably derives from its profound
lay spirituality. When Msgr. Escriva founded the movement in 1928, he
anticipated that Church patrimony reinstated by the Second Vatican
Council. To those who followed him, Escriva explained with great clarity
that the Christian's place is to be in the world. He was opposed to any
hypocritical spirituality, which he felt negated the central truth of
Christianity: faith in the incarnation."
Accusations against Opus Dei, however, did not cease with the advent
of Vatican II, they merely changed character.
Before the Council, Opus Dei had been censured for harboring
"radical" positions; later the organization was, on the
contrary, blamed for excessive conservatism, for links with rightist
political groups, for exerting pressure in the socio-economic sphere.
There arose suspicions of a "personality cult" regarding
the organization's founder, called "El Padre" by his
The same qualities were praised as a sign of grace and as a sign of
excess: loyalty and obedience to the Pope; rigorous defense of life, of
morality and of canon law; reserve, austerity, and solid preparation in
both the theological and professional fields.
Some theologians contend that many of the accusations leveled against
Escriva after Vatican II derive from the fact that he held to the more
traditional (some say anti-modern) Christocentric spirituality which had
prevailed before Vatican II, rather than following the mainline
anthropocentric theology of German theologian Karl Rahner, who died in
Munich in 1984, which held sway in the post-Conciliar period.
Upon the occasion of Opus Dei's 50th anniversary, Cardinal Corrado
Ursi (then Archbishop of Naples) wrote: "During the years of
doctrinal and disciplinary confusion, the words and examples of Opus Dei
always give us the firm rule: compliant attention to the words of the
Holy Father; obedience to the words and to the spirit of the Vatican II;
fidelity to the Magisterium. It may make us smile to remember that, many
years earlier, even before the Council called all members of the Church
to sainthood in virtue of their baptismal commitment, Msgr. Escriva de
Balaguer had been accused of heresy because he spoke of lay sainthood in
the professional life, in marriage, and in the secular life."
Escriva's orientation has evidently proven inspiring, as we can see
from Opus Dei's growing membership.
During the post-Conciliar decades of Catholic identity crisis, the
Church witnessed a fall in vocations and a decrease in practicing
churchgoers, particularly in respect to the expanding population.
Opus Dei, on the other hand, has had a vertiginous growth, arriving
at the astonishing number of 80,000 members.
Opus Dei From Within
Opus Dei, until now, is the first and only Personal Prelature in the
Catholic Church. Thus it is like an international diocese without
Without compromising the local bishops' authority, Opus Dei members
can carry out their tasks in benefit of their respective dioceses while
responding to Prelate of the organization. At the same time, the
organization must inform the bishop if its members begin work in a
particular diocese and must ask permission if they wish to set up
centers of Opus Dei activities.
Pope John Paul II's granting of a personal Prelature to Opus Dei was
a source of considerable controversy within the Church. Because of its
claims to autonomy and independence, Opus Dei has been accused of trying
to be a "Church within a Church."
Opus Dei members respond to this criticism by quoting from the work
of their founder, who countered attacks by suggesting three key
responses: pray; smile; forgive.
Escriva's ever-present concern was the necessity to preserve, at all
costs, the lay nature of his organization, in both content and
For that reason, Opus Dei rules and regulations are unlike those of
every other Catholic institution.
In Opus Dei there are three levels, or "ranks" of
membership. First are the numeraries, all lay persons with academic
degrees, who dedicate their lives to the Prelature, but may also take on
jobs in public administration, universities, or other professions
(Article 8 of the Statutes). The numeraries live together as a family in
a "center." At the age of 18, each numerary may make an act of
"temporary incorporation" (membership); at the age of 23, they
pledge "fidelity" or "perpetual incorporation."
Numeraries remain celibate, but do not take religious vows. About 20% of
Opus Dei members are numeraries.
Next come the aggregates, who occupy an intermediate position in the
Opus Dei structure. They share the numeraries option for celibacy and
most numerary commitments, but they can also live on their own. This
category was primarily created for those who carry out similar tasks as
numeraries, but who do not have academic degrees. The aggregates count
for about 10% of Opus Dei members.
Supernumeraries are lay faithful (single, married, or widowed) who
have received the same divine call as the numeraries and aggregates, but
live their vocation in their family and work environment. The great
majority of Opus Dei followers belong to this group, about 70% at the
Priests in the Prelature
The Opus Dei priest is supposed to have "the soul of a
priest" and "the mentality of a layperson." Escriva
decided to ordain Opus Dei priests 16 years after the creation of
"the Work." The founder said: "Priesthood in Opus Dei is
not to be regarded as the supreme level, the prize for the very best: it
is a call to serve souls, at the same time like and unlike other methods
for saving souls in the organization." All Opus Dei priests come
from the ranks of the numeraries or aggregates.
After a certain number of years, the Prelate will ask a specific
number of numeraries or aggregates if they wish to become priests in the
service of the Opus Dei. They can accept or refuse. Those who accept
leave the secular life and enter Opus Dei seminaries.
Each Opus Dei priest has a lay advisor.
The number of Opus Dei priests has been set since the beginning at 2%
of all Prelature members; in the future it is not expected to grow to
more than 3%.