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The Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei, commonly known as Opus Dei (Latin "The Work of God"), is a Roman Catholic organization founded on October 2, 1928, by Josemaría Escrivá, a Spanish priest who was later canonized by Pope John Paul II.


Opus Dei has approximately 85,000 members in sixty countries, with central offices in Rome. In 1982 it was erected as a Personal Prelature by Pope John Paul II, who also canonized its founder on October 6, 2002.

The aim of Opus Dei is "to contribute to [the] evangelizing mission of the Church" by spreading the universal call to holiness and apostolate"; it "encourages Christians of all social classes to live consistently with their faith, in the middle of the ordinary circumstances of their lives, especially through the sanctification of their work." [1] This message is coherent with the vision of the Second Vatican Council, which stated that "by reason of their special vocation, it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in the affairs of the world and directing them according to God's will." [2]

Critics have described Opus Dei as a secretive, authoritarian organization or even a cult and have highlighted its links to right-wing and fascistic organizations worldwide. It is also controversial for its practices of mortification of the flesh.

Mission, spirit and message[edit]

Mission: a great catechesis[edit]

The mission of Opus Dei, in the words of the founder, "is to give a Christian formation to its members and to other people who wish to receive it." [3] Escrivá summarized the organization's role as "a great catechesis."

In his constitutional document Ut sit establishing Opus Dei as a personal prelature, Pope John Paul II said that Opus Dei was founded through Escrivá in 1928 "by divine inspiration." The prelature was given a double purpose: (1) to form and assist its members to respond to their vocation and personal commitment to practice a demanding Christian life, and (2) to spread God's specific message that all Christians are called to holiness and apostolate in the middle of the world by virtue of their baptism [4] (Fuenmayor et al 1996, Rodriguez et al 1994)

Spirit and message: finding God in work and daily life[edit]

The teachings of Opus Dei are essentially the doctrines of Roman Catholic Christianity transmitted and imbibed by ordinary working people. These teachings form a lay spirituality, [5] and help build the spirit or culture which is practiced in the Work. Here are the main features of Escrivá's spiritual teachings, the basis of Opus Dei's spirit and the core of the message it was told to spread. (Holiness and the World1997; Berglar 1994)

Divine filiation: sharers of Christ's life[edit]

This is the foundation of the lives of Christians: they are children of God. By baptism, they are "made sharers in the life of Christ," the Son of God. They then have a deep trust in God their Father who loves and sanctifies them, a sense of fraternity with all people made in His image, and a passion for the world which came from God's hands. St. Josemaria taught that God "is a loving Father. He loves each one of us more than all the mothers in the world can love their children...We've got to be filled, to be imbued with the idea that our Father and very much our Father, is God who is both near us and in heaven." [6]

Ordinary life: something divine[edit]

Christians are called to find God in work and daily life and stay close to Him, following Jesus, who worked as a carpenter and lived as a son of a Jewish family in a small village for 30 years. "There is something holy, something divine, hidden in the most ordinary situations, and it is up to each of you to discover it." [7])

Sanctifying work: he did all things well[edit]

Whatever work they do is to be done with a spirit of excellence as an effective service for the needs of society. Their work then becomes a fitting offering to God. In his work of service, it is known that Jesus Christ "did all things well." (Mk 7:37) By allowing God to transform them into "other Christs," Christians can become saints and apostles right there where they work and live.

Love of freedom: because he wanted to[edit]

God the Son became man, taking on human freedom. He sanctified mankind through love: by freely giving himself, "obeying" his Father's will throughout his ordinary life, "until death on the cross." (Phil 2,8) "He gave himself, because he wanted to." (Is 53,7) Through his freedom, each man controls and shapes his life, being responsible for cooperating or not with God's loving plan of holiness. Recognizing such great dignity, Christians should delicately respect the freedom of others, be open to a pluralism of opinions, and give themselves, with full freedom, to God and neighbor. [8]

Prayer and sacrifice: great holiness in little things[edit]

Love, the essence of sanctity and apostolate, is nurtured by constant child-like prayer which is supported by norms of piety involving the Eucharist, the Bible, and the Virgin Mary. Mortification, "prayer of the senses," is especially done by striving to practice all the human virtues, like being kind, hardworking, sincere and cheerful despite difficulties and failures. "Do everything for Love. Thus there will be no little things: everything will be big...[9]'Great' holiness consists in carrying out the 'little duties' of each moment." [10]) These actions are co-offered in the Holy Mass, the same redeeming sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Sanctifying grace flows down especially through communion and confession.

Charity and apostolate: giving the best to people[edit]

Christians give the highest importance to the virtue of charity: being understanding and caring for each person. "A new commandment I give you: That you love one another as I have loved you." (Jn 13:34) Included in charity is service towards the needy in society and the practice of human courtesy, refinement, warmth and affection. [11] Love, which should be orderly, starts by performing one's duties well and is first directed towards Christ's Vicar on earth. And it overflows when one generously gives the best to people, bringing them closer to their Father God, source of peace and joy.

Unity of life: God and man[edit]

This term, which Escrivá frequently used, describes the happy result in each person who practices these teachings: no double life--prayer divorced from daily work. Instead a life in the world consistent with the beauty of the Christian faith -- the life of "Christ himself," God and man. "Any honorable work can be prayer and all prayerful work is apostolate. In this way the soul develops a unity of life, which is both simple and strong." [12]

For another exposition of these main teachings, see the Opus Dei website [13]. See also Holiness and the World: Studies in the Teachings of Blessed Josemariá, 1997), specially the article of moral theologian Prof. William May [14]).

Structure: personal prelature of the Catholic Church[edit]

Essential characteristics[edit]

Opus Dei's spirituality commits lay people to sanctify themselves in the same place where they were before they met Opus Dei. Even more, their place in the world is the means for their sanctification. (Rodriguez et al 1994) "Our cell is the street," Escriva used to say. The spiritual family of people who receive the vocation to spread God's specific message will have to receive pastoral care within an organization and collaborate with its apostolic work. (Fuenmayor et al 1996; Berglar 1994, p. 301-326)

This organizational and legal structure has to be consistent with the essential characteristics of Opus Dei as established "by divine inspiration": (1) international in scope, (2) under one head, (3) for both clergy and laity who work as one (no class distinctions between the two), (4) for men and women, (5) focused on formation, (6) the secularity of its faithful, (7) having priests of its own for the pastoral care of the members, and lastly but very importantly (8) a part of the Church's own formal, hierarchical structure which can incorporate people with the special vocation, establishing with this that Opus Dei, as a portion of the Church itself, is a work of God and not a mere product of voluntary association. (Fuenmayor et al 1996, p. 34-41)

Personal prelature: fitting juridical suit for its life[edit]

Given the novelty of this living organization within the Church and the specific structures current in Church law at the time of its foundation, it took many years of twists and turns (1928-1982) before Opus Dei was granted the legal framework that would fit its foundational grace. Thus, on November 28, 1982, Catholic Church established Opus Dei as personal prelature, a framework envisioned in Vatican II, saying that it is "perfectly suited to Opus Dei." [15] See also [16]. This is what Escriva called the "right suit" or clothing that should fit life and not the other way around.

Like dioceses: laity-clergy-prelate[edit]

Like dioceses and military ordinariates, personal prelatures are under the governance of the Congregation for Bishops, for they take charge of lay people with its own secular clergy and prelate, unlike the religious orders which are under the Congregation for the Religious, because they take charge of nuns, monks, friars, religious priests, and lay orders which follow religious practices.

Like military ordinariates: for persons not territories[edit]

Like the military ordinariates, personal prelatures take care of persons with some particular objectives, wherever these persons might be, unlike the diocese which are in charge of territories of Catholic faithful.

Under the diocesan bishops: harmony of purpose[edit]

As Catholic faithful whose vocation is to sanctify their ordinary situation both civil and ecclesial, the lay members of Opus Dei "continue to be faithful of the dioceses...and are, therefore, under the jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop in what the law lays down for all the ordinary faithful," in the words of the Apostolic Constitution Ut Sit. [17] The authority of the Opus Dei prelate over them is restricted to all their spiritual and apostolic commitments in pursuit of the mission of the prelature. The mission of holiness is not only in harmony with the diocese's structure, but will benefit its spiritual life--the purpose of the Catholic Church.

Doctrinal formation and apostolic work[edit]

Support of the Popes and other Church leaders[edit]

Throughout Opus Dei's adventurous history, the Church authorities have been supportive of its work of formation and its mission to spread the universal call to holiness, aware that the Catholic Church's "first purpose is to be the sacrament of the inner union of men with God" and that her "structure is totally ordered to the holiness of Christ's members." (Catechism of the Catholic Church 775, 773) [18]

Blessed John XXIII lauded Opus Dei and said on 5 March 1960 that it opens up "unsuspected horizons of apostolate." Paul VI said that the Work is "an expression of the perennial youth of the Church." (Handwritten letter to Msgr. Josemaria Escrivá de Balaguer, October 1, 1964)

John Paul I said just before the start of his brief papacy that Escrivá's teachings are "radical; he goes as far as talking about "materializing" --in a good sense-- the quest for holiness. For him, it is the material work itself which must be turned into prayer and sanctity." [19]

John Paul II was a strong supporter of Opus Dei and said that "Opus Dei anticipated the theology of the laity of the Second Vatican Council." [20] He established Opus Dei as a Personal Prelature in 1982 and the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in 1990, and canonized its founder in 2002. During the canonization, there were 42 cardinals and 470 bishops from around the world, general superiors of many orders and religious congregations, and representatives of various Catholic groups. One-third of the world's bishops (an unprecedented number) petitioned for the canonization of Escriva. (Messori 1997)

Doctrine: catching people by the head[edit]

Opus Dei gives a lot of importance to doctrinal formation, the transmission of revealed truth, because, as Escriva taught: "Men, like fish, are caught by head." And this doctrine has to be faithful, united as an unbroken branch to the teaching of the Church for it to bear fruit. The Vatican's Code of Particular Law for Opus Dei, or what is known as its Statutes, states: "the instruction of the members is presented in a way that is in complete conformity with the Magisterium of the Church." (See Fuenmayor 1994; Messori 1997, p. 157)

Formation, training, then 'off you go'[edit]

Same cooking pot. Since all the members have received only one vocation, "being contemplatives in the middle of the world," they receive essentially the same doctrinal, theological formation, spiritual and ascetical formation (Escriva referred to having the "same cooking pot" for his children) whether they are men or women, young or old, university graduates or not, well-to-do or needy, laymen or priests. Their theological and philosophical formation include courses on the History of the Church, Christology, Sacraments, Liturgy, Metaphysics, and Anthropology. Numerary members receive a more intense formation due to their formational duties.

No dogmas in temporal matters. Spiritual and ascetical training develops the member's life of piety and fosters their struggle to practice the human virtues. (See Romano 1995; Le Tourneau 2002) All their formation is geared towards teaching them to walk along the broad, expansive road of Catholicism, with maximum pluralism ("There are no dogmas in temporal matters" says Escriva), but always being consistent with their faith: "Nonsectarianism. Neutrality. Those old myths that always try to seem new. Have you ever bothered to think how absurd it is to leave one's Catholicism aside on entering a university, or a professional association, or a scholarly meeting, or Congress, as if you were checking your hat at the door?" [21]

Personal responsibility: off you go. After providing this formation to its members, Escriva says: "Off you go." Opus Dei "has done its has nothing else to do...Here begins the free and responsible personal actions of each member." [22]

Innovative doctrine. Allegations of ultra-conservatism[edit]

A number of historians of theology and Church officials have said that Opus Dei has an innovative and revolutionary theological doctrine and anthropology, teachings which will have a decisive influence in the future of the Church and the world. (Berglar 1994, p. 189) These have provided ordinary people, the great bulk of the world-wide Church, a "truly lay spirituality" which can take them to heights of sanctity, and not just a religious spirituality applied to lay people. Its teaching on the universal call to sanctity, a doctrine which was half-forgotten for most of Christian history, has become a leitmotif of contemporary Christianity. (Illanes 1982) Cardinals and Vatican observers have called Escrivá a "precursor of Vatican II," an Ecumenical Council which made this teaching one of its centerpieces. (Berglar 1994, Orlandis 1993, Rodriguez et al 1994; see also article written by Cardinal Luciani aka John Paul I: [23])

Controversial: sign of contradiction. In the work of spreading this message marked by novelty, Opus Dei faced challenges, misunderstandings and controversies, leading some observers of religious phenomena to see Opus Dei as a "sign of contradiction." (See[24]; O'Connor 1991, p. 1993)

Opus Dei has been criticized, by both secular and non-Catholic religious groups, for promoting an overly orthodox vision of the Roman Catholic faith, or what is called as ultraconservatism.

Secularist misapplication. Messori says that if by conservatism they refer to Opus Dei's fidelity to Church doctrine, then that is true: it is precisely Opus Dei's fidelity to the Church's origins --Escriva compared Opus Dei to the life of the early Christians who were ordinary folk-- that makes it original, new. (Messori 1997) Some analysts of the contemporary world also say that conservative is mainly and originally a political category which is misapplied by modern secularist ideologies to religious, moral and intellectual matters. These should be categorized as either faithful or heretical, good or evil, true or false. (Messori 1997, Weigel 1999)

Feminist criticism. Critics in Ireland, including some ex-Opus Dei members, accused the organisation of 'sexist exploitation' of women, whom they claimed were restricted in Opus Dei run hostels to doing manual work such as cooking and cleaning and denied any role in leadership.

Women, leadership, service. In response, supporters say that men and women are equal in Opus Dei, with half the leadership positions being held by women. In response to the opposition of the feminists to domestic and homemaking work, John Paul II stressed Vatican II's teaching that "man does not find fulfillment except in the sincere gift of self," saying that this refers to both man and woman: to serve is the reign. Equality is not uniformity nor an inferior imitation; it does imply the full development of her "feminine genius" and personality. And this includes, in the words of Escriva, the "noble profession" of "creating a warm and formative atmosphere" in the home, where she also achieves "personal perfection," "aware of the beauty of this contribution," "a social contribution, which can most easily be the most effective." [25] [26] (See Messori 1997, Berglar 1994)

Apostolate: an overflow of the spiritual life[edit]

Radical demands[edit]

It is difficult to understand Opus Dei and its practices if one resists, according to German historian Peter Berglar, "a simple, direct, uncompromising approach to Christianity," (1994, p. 177) or what John Paul II referred to as the "radical nature" of the gospel.(See John Paul II's Novo Millennio Ineunte[27])

Free, total self-giving. One of Escriva's favorite teachings is the biblical injunction on loving God with one's whole heart, soul and might, a love which does not keep back anything, a kind of love which parents are supposed to transmit all day long to their children (Deut 6:4-9), and which Christ said is the "greatest commandment." (Mt 22:37-40) [28] "Christian faith and calling affect our whole existence, not just a part of it," he said in one of his published homilies. "Our relations with God necessarily demand giving ourselves, giving ourselves completely." [29] This, for Escriva is the "good use of freedom, when it finds its true meaning...put in the service of the truth which redeems" [[30]

Saving souls: like breathing. "When one tastes the love of God, one feels burdened with the weight of souls... The Word chose to become flesh in order to save men...For a Christian, apostolate is something breathing." [31] (See also Rodriguez 1994, Ocariz 1995) And to win people to God means: "First prayer; then atonement; and in the third place, very much in the third place, action." [32] Atonement refers to a spirit of sacrifice in ordinary life and also through extraordinary means called "corporal mortification," bringing about a self-identification with the Son of God who redeemed mankind through the cross. Apostolate, according to Escriva, is but an overflow of the spiritual life (See Holiness and the World 1997}

Criticisms: allegations of being a cult[edit]

Due to these radical demands, some critics accuse Opus Dei of acting as a religious cult within the Church.

Characteristic cult behavior. They say that Opus Dei shows characteristic cult behavior such as:

  • unfair and aggressive recruitment methods, which include lack of informed consent on the part of the new recruit, love bombing techniques and undue pressure to join
  • encouraging members to relinquish contact with their friends and families in favour of contacts within the group
  • controlling the environment of the member; loss of freedom of the members
  • threatening members when they try to leave. The strongest form of threat is the threat of condemnation. ie it is not a physical but psychological threat.
  • making members focus on efforts in favor of the growth of the group. The most important job for an Opus Dei member is to attract other people to become members too. His social life, the circles that he frequents, the kinds of people he tries to become a friend of, is always geared towards proselytism.
  • requiring numerary members to perform what critics view as highly suspicious practices such as mortification of the flesh, involving the use of the cilice and the discipline [33]; its founder is frequently alleged by critics to have whipped himself until there was blood on the walls. In his writings, he stated: "Blessed be pain. Loved be pain. Sanctified be pain. . . Glorified be pain!" [34]

(See Opus Dei Awareness Network, Inc. an organization "founded in 1991 to meet the growing demand for accurate information about Opus Dei and to provide education, outreach and support to people who have been adversely affected by Opus Dei." "ODAN has been in contact with countless individuals, families, the secular and religious press, clergy, religious, cult awareness organizations, campus ministers, home-schooling parents and more." ODAN has the support of former members of Opus Dei and their parents. It provides a venue for people who left Opus Dei to discuss their views. [35])

Intraeclesial sect. A sociologist and doctor in law, Alberto Moncada, a former member of Opus Dei who was Pro-Rector of an Opus Dei related university in Latin America, says that Opus Dei is an "intraeclesial" sect, because for the Vatican "radical rightist groups and fundamentalisms are tolerated." (See "Catholic Sects: Opus Dei" in Revista Internacional de Sociologia, Madrid 1992)

Responses: theological and sociological assessment[edit]

There are basically two ways of looking at the accusation of cult status: One from the point of view of the Church and the other from the point of view of social scientists.

Theological and ecclesiastical assessment. Church officials, like Cardinal Schönborn, editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, say that: "Nobody needs to have studied theology to recognize the basic contradiction in the slogan 'sects within the Church'; ...From a theological and ecclesiastical point of view, a group is considered a sect when it is not recognized by the relevant Church authority." L'Osservatore Romano, 13/20 August 1997.

  • Aggressively proselytizing young people and their lack of informed consent. Berglar says that he cannot understand "why parents will allow a teenager the decision to drop out of religion class, but not the decision to serve God and the Church. The time-tested experience of the Church is,indeed, that a young person can generally recognize the signs of a divine vocation and at least begin to pursue it." He referred to many famous figures who lived in a saintly way and were canonized. (Berglar 1993, p 164) According to Opus Dei rules, new members must be aged 18 or over. Before people are admitted, they are taught about the teachings of Escriva on free, total self-giving, obedience and mortification. They are also asked if they understand the demands and if they are deciding with full freedom. (Berglar 1994, Messori 1997)
  • Celibacy: Leaving parents behind. Opus Dei teaches what the Church teaches: Parents "must be convinced that the first vocation of the Christian is to follow Jesus: 'He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.' (Mt 10:37)" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2232) At the same time Opus Dei teaches that the fourth commandment is the "the most sweet precept" which should be compatible with the priorities set by the first commandment.
  • Mortification of the flesh. Many experts in the history of Christianity affirm that these practices exist in other Catholic organizations and even other religions, and have been taken up throughout the Church's history by many prominent saints, Saint Thomas More perhaps being the nearest example, due to his being a lay Christian and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, one of our contemporaries. Certain philosophers and theologians say that the modern-day perplexity over mortification of the flesh is rooted in secularism, a skepticism towards God, religion and supernatural realities. Secularists find it difficult to understand what John Paul II calls "the need for suffering" out of supernatural reasons. He explains in his Apostolic Letter on the Salvific Meaning of Suffering that "suffering, more than anything else, makes the powers of the redemption present." And understanding this is "a source of joy." [36]. Escriva said that he was moved by God to be generous in mortification due to his responsibilities as founder. He laid out rules on corporal mortification, so that this is not abused: mortifications in little things which nurture the virtue of humility is preferred. (See Wikipedia article for a historical and theological study on mortification of the flesh; see also Gomez Perez 1992 and [37])

Sociological assessment.

  • Notion of cult. The term has been subjected to strenuous criticism in recent decades by some social scientists who argue that the label is often little more than a pejorative term for religious groups that fail to sufficiently conform to a given society's values. Some cite the analysis of CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions, an international organization of scholars from leading universities devoted to the study of new religious forms: "the category of 'cults' used by these [anti-cult activists's] documents is unscholarly and not acceptable. Methodologically, it is clear that these [anti-cult] reports rely primarily on sources supplied by the international anti-cult movement, and accept uncritically the brainwashing or mind control model of conversion, a model unanimously rejected by mainline sociological and psychological science." [38] (See also the investigation done by Vittorio Messori (1997) and the study done by Massimo Introvigne of CESNUR on Opus Dei and the anti-cult movement. Introvigne refers to the laicist roots of the anti-cult activists who cannot tolerate "il ritorno del religioso," the return of the religious.[39])
  • Anti-Catholic bias. Some contemporary observers of social trends have suggested that many of the criticisms and allegations against Opus Dei are connected to an anti-Catholic bias, whereby the Catholic Church itself is tagged as a cult. According to these authors, anti-catholicism is the "last acceptable prejudice" in the western world. This approach assumes that western civilization finds other prejudices less acceptable, such as discrimination against women, Jews, African-Americans and gays. (See Jenkins 2003 and Massa 2003; also [40])

Other criticisms and portrayals[edit]

Aside from the criticisms on Opus Dei's doctrine and its perceived cult-like behavior, there are other objections, suspicions, rumours and negative fictional portrayals of its practices and beliefs.

Other criticisms.

  • The late Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster and head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, issued a set of "Guidelines for Opus Dei within the Diocese of Westminster" in December, 1981. Some read these as implicit criticism of Opus Dei's apostolic work, although others point to the fact that Cardinal Hume was the principal celebrant at Opus Dei's 70th anniversary Mass in London (October 1998) by way of evidence that the cardinal and the organization enjoyed good relations. The latter also refer to his homily. [41]
  • Some traditionalists or ultraconservatives criticize Opus Dei's support for the Second Vatican Council's teachings on ecumenism and the role of the laity in the Church.
  • Others object to the humanitarian and spiritual relief missions that it has undertaken, such as the one located in the Mountains of Yauyos, Peru.

Da Vinci Code. Opus Dei played a large role in Dan Brown's best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code. Although not wholly inaccurate, some of Opus Dei's practices were misleadingly described in the book, including mortification of the flesh. The novel also erroneously characterized the organization as a monastic order. After the book's publication, Opus Dei published a comprehensive set of responses, which says that the book is "a work of fiction, and it is not a reliable source of information" on Christian history and theology. [42].

Activities: at the grassroots and through institutions[edit]

The largest part of the apostolic activity of the prelature is what the individual members do with their friends and colleagues in their respective communities and places of work or what people nowadays call the grassroots. Collective formative activities consist of religious retreats and classes in Catholic doctrine.

Its members also undertake many social initiatives: Opus Dei operates several hospitals, clinics, schools, and inner-city tutoring programs. For example, in the United States, members operate one college and five secondary schools, and tutoring programs in Chicago, New York City, St. Louis and Washington, D.C.. The U.S. National Headquarters is in 243 Lexington Avenue (Lexington Avenue & E. 34th Street) New York.

For more information regarding corporate works of Opus Dei and apostolic initiatives of members of Opus Dei all over the world, please see [43].

Vocation and membership[edit]

The Vatican Yearbook indicates that Opus Dei has 85,000 members about 1,800 of whom are priests.

One vocation, many circumstances and a contract[edit]

Having only one vocation of total dedication to sanctity and apostolate, members are differentiated based on their personal circumstances and availability to work directly for the prelature. Opus Dei additionally has many "cooperators," who assist its activities through prayer, donations, or other means.

As they are not religious nor consecrated persons like the clergy, the lay members of Opus Dei are incorporated into the prelature by means of a private contractual bond. No vows.

Membership and practices[edit]

Numeraries: most available to the prelature[edit]

Numeraries, who comprise less than 20% of the membership, live in celibacy so as to be totally available to the formational tasks of the prelature.

The term "numerary" is taken from worlds of Spanish and Latin American academies and government, although it is also used in France, Italy, England and the US. It is a designation which refers to professors, officials and professionals like doctors who are incorporated to an institution of a civil character in a fixed way. (See Wikipedia article on numerary for examples of prominent people with this title) By not using terms like brother, novice, etc., Opus Dei emphasizes its lay character.

Numeraries in Opus Dei consider Opus Dei as their family, to which they devote all their earnings. As a general rule, they live in Opus Dei centers. Most of them hold regular secular jobs, but for some their professional work is to direct the apostolic activities of Opus Dei. The numeraries are the primary givers of spiritual direction to the rest of the membership.

Cilice - Mortification Belt used by many Catholic organizations

In addition to the practice of celibacy, the numerary members follow practices of mortification of the flesh. (See 4.3.2 and 4.3.3 of this article for more information on these practices)

It is generally from the numeraries that the prelate calls men to the priesthood. When a man becomes a numerary, he does so with the willingness to consider becoming a priest if the prelate should ever ask him. However he always remains free to decline, since one does not become a numerary with the intention of becoming a priest. One simply remains open to seriously considering the possibility if it is offered to him.

Associates: celibates as well[edit]

Associates are next in order of availability. They also live in celibacy, but they typically do not live in Opus Dei facilities. Their personal circumstances do not permit them to be as available to the prelature's work as a numerary is, perhaps because they have an elderly parent they have to take care of, or they run a family business that would interfere with their ability to move to another city. Associates are also involved in giving spiritual direction to other members of the prelature and to non-members, too. The prelate can also ask them to become priests, but they remain free to decline.

Supernumeraries: the coal-face of Opus Dei[edit]

Most of the members are supernumeraries. They are the least available for the formational tasks but assist in them as their circumstances permit. Married or unmarried, they live wherever they want. Having the same vocation as the celibate members, supernumeraries also give themselves totally to Christ in Opus Dei; theirs is not a second class membership. They nevertheless form the 'coal-face' of Opus Dei in that they epitomize fully the life of the Christian struggling to live sanctity in daily life be it in the family, the workplace or both.

Numerary assistants: apostolate of apostolates[edit]

There is another type of member among the women of Opus Dei called "numerary assistant". They practice celibacy and attend to the domestic needs of the centers of Opus Dei, both for the men and for the women. Since there is only one vocation, they are equal to the rest of the membership. And because of the importance of material things in transmitting the "incarnate" Christianity of Opus Dei, Escriva used to call their work as "the apostolate of apostolates."

Opus Dei, society and politics[edit]

Opus Dei's role in society: out of a hundred, one hundred[edit]

Members of Opus Dei know that the Catholic Church, through the laity, has a mission of Christianizing society and the whole temporal order. Responding to the Christian vocation, they strive to put the Christian imprint of love, justice and professional excellence in their workplace and in the society where they live. (Le Tourneau 2002)

"Out of a hundred souls, we are interested in one hundred," said Escriva, for indeed people, whether they are poor or rich, continue to be people. Since the Work started among the friends of Escriva in the university and realizing the immense impact of the intellectuals on people's mode of behavior, one of Opus Dei's priority apostolate for the evangelization of society is the apostolate of culture. (Fuenmayor 1994, Messori 1997, p.110-111)

Sanctification of work: an epigrammatic trinity[edit]

P. Berglar, a German, said that Escriva's advice, "Sanctify your work, sanctify yourself in your work, and sanctify others through your work," is "the shortest and most popular definition of Opus Dei's spirit." Berglar calls this "an epigrammatic trinity." (1994, p. 265)

So that this sanctification can take place, the Opus Dei prelature provides "professional formation" for its faithful. This formation stresses the following: hardwork, study, cultural and professional development, human warmth and refinement in interpersonal relations, ethical behavior, prudence, honesty, social responsibility, respect for freedom and pluralism, not making use of the Church for one's gain, and the priority of prayer. (Le Tourneau 2002, Romano 1995)

Privacy and naturalness. Allegations of secrecy[edit]

Suspicions and rumors. It is said that there are suspicions that Opus Dei functions as a secret society. There are rumours that some senior members of the U.S. judiciary and FBI are Opus Dei members. Contrary to Catholic organizations in which all the teachings and writings of the founder are public, in Opus Dei there is a whole body of teachings, norms, writings that are restricted to its members and are not public; even between members, there are different levels of the literature that they have access to. For example, the teachings and instructions for numeraries would not be available to supernumeraries, et cetera, much less to the general public. (See Walsh 1989)

Ethics of private contracts and information. Like other Catholic organizations, dioceses and private groups, Opus Dei does not in general comment on who is or is not a member, out of respect for their privacy. The prelature "has no right to communicate the fact of membership if the person in question does not permit it. To confuse this with 'secrecy' is to be unwilling to recognize the standard practice of any organization with voluntary contracts," since Opus Dei members are incorporated by private bilateral contracts and not by public vows. (Gomez Perez 1992) Also Opus Dei does not publicize sensitive and confidential information, like any ethical professional group. (Messori 1997)

Like members of private health clubs, the faithful of Opus Dei's membership status is known by their relatives and close friends. Membership status of public personalities can be known by the person's own public declaration of his private links. See list of publicly known Opus Dei members in Opus Dei: Prominent Members.

Maximum pluralism. Allegations of far-right links[edit]

"Respect for its members' freedom is an essential condition for Opus Dei's very existence," said Escriva. "If Opus Dei had been involved in politics, even for an instant," he once wrote, "in that moment of error I would have left Opus Dei." (Le Tourneau 1989, p. 49)

Inviolable rule: pluralism in temporal matters. Among the inviolable and perpetual rules he set up to ensure that the essential condition of the organization's life is fulfilled is this: "Each faithful of the Prelature enjoys the same liberties as other Catholic citizens in what concerns professional activity, social, political doctrines, etc. The authorities of the Prelature, however, must abstain from giving any counsel in matters of this nature. Therefore this full liberty can be diminished only by the norms that apply to all Catholics and are established by the bishop or Bishop's Conference." (Statutes 88.3) After investigating into the actual implementation of these rules and spirit, Messori concludes that (1) the members of Opus Dei do not receive nothing else but spiritual advice, (2) they do not operate as a herd in political affairs, but (3) consider respect for pluralism in matters of faith one way of obeying a central conviction of the founder. (See Messori 1997, p. 175)

Far-right links. Critics, however, say that there are links between Opus Dei and right-wing organizations, particulary a letter from Escrivá to Francisco Franco, dictator of Spain who was assisted by Nazi Germany into power. Several Opus Dei members were appointed ministers in Franco's government, and the organization had relations with the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Alien to any political activity. On the other hand, members of Opus Dei say that the letter of Escrivá shows exemplary virtues as a citizen and a Catholic priest, as he says: "Although alien to any political activity, I cannot help but rejoice as a priest and Spaniard" that Spain, through its Head of State, has officially accepted the law of God in line with the Catholic faith. And Catholicism's law and faith stands for human rights, human dignity and freedom.

Gross slander and myths. The ministers who served in Franco’s government are usually cited as proof of the link between fascism and Opus Dei. According to Berglar, this is a gross calumny and shows a "naïve" view of the dictator as a "fascist bogeyman." The Spanish government under the Generalissimo is more of "an authoritarian, clerical-minded technocracy." (Berglar 1994, p. 186) Messori says further that there were only 8 members of Opus Dei (5 of whom served for only one term or but a few months) of the 116 ministers under Franco's regime, and they started serving only after 1956. There was no Opus Dei member in his last cabinet. They were never a majority: "The myth of an Opus Dei dominated Franco government is just that--a myth" (Messori 1997, p. 30)

Franco government's attacks on Opus Dei members. A number of historians say that there were members who were sentenced to prison or left Spain under Franco because they didn't agree with the politics of Franco and his regime. (See Opus Dei: Prominent Members) Falangists, Franco's political organization suspected Escrivá of "internationalism, anti-Spainism and freemasonry," according to Berglar, and that during "the first decade of Franco's regime, Opus Dei and Escrivá were attacked with perseverance bordering on fanaticism, not by enemies but by supporters of the new Spanish state. Escrivá was even reported to the 'Tribunal for the Fight against Freemasonry.'" (Berglar 1994, p.180-181; see also Vasquez de Prada 1997)

Political pluralism: members on both wings. Moreover, aside from those working on the right side of the political spectrum, there are numerous Opus Dei members in many others parts of the world, e.g. Latin America, Europe, Asia, who are involved in left-wing politics and organizations: labor unions, left-of-center political parties, organizations working for the marginalized, poverty alleviation and reduction programs, etc. It is impossible for all of them to be herded into one political agenda.

The secret of Opus Dei's work in society[edit]

Order from within. For those who keep on talking about the secrets of the Work, Escriva has this answer: "The secret of Opus Dei is prayer, and also work turned into prayer." If Christians are not men and women of deep interior life, souls of prayer and sacrifice, he warned the church officials who visited him during the Second Vatican Council, then instead of putting society and the family in order, they will just add their own disorder to the disorder that is already there. (Berglar 1994, p. 248) This is the same teaching indicated by John Paul II in Novo Millennio Ineunte as regards how to reach the goal of holiness: "a training in the art of prayer."

Overcoming the greatest temptation. This in turn is echoed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, when he reflected on the importance of Opus Dei and Escriva: "This, for me, is a message of greatest importance. It is a message which leads to overcoming what could be considered the great temptation of our times: the pretense, that is, that after the "big bang" God retired from history. God's action did not stop at the moment of the "big bang", but continues throughout time in the world of nature and the world of man...."

What holiness is. "Holiness is this profound contact with God, becoming a friend of God: it is letting the Other work, the Only One who can really make the world both good and happy. And if, then, Josemaría Escrivá speaks of the calling of all to be saints, I think that he is actually referring to this personal experience of his of not having done incredible things by himself, but of having let God work..."

Uninterrupted conversation. "From all this I have better understood the inner character of Opus Dei, this surprising union of absolute fidelity to the Church's great tradition, to its faith, and unconditional openness to all the challenges of this world, whether in the academic world, in the field of work, or in matters of the economy, etc. The person who is bound to God, who has this uninterrupted conversation, can dare to respond to these challenges, and no longer has fear. For the person who stands in God's hands always falls into God's hands. And so fear vanishes, and in its place is born the courage to respond to today's world." [44]

Historical highlights[edit]

  • 1902: January 9. Birth of the founder, Josemaria Escriva, in Basbastro Spain
  • 1917: Escriva received "inklings" of a special call, after seeing "footprints in the snow," sign of the generosity of a monk who walked barefooted in winter
  • 1925: March 28. Escriva is ordained as a priest
  • 1928: October 2. Founding of Opus Dei. Having "no plans nor project" of his own, Escriva "saw Opus Dei." "On this day," he wrote, "our Lord started his Work. He founded Opus Dei"
  • 1930: February 14. Founding of the Women's branch of Opus Dei. Against his personal opinion, Escriva was shown that women belong to Opus Dei
  • 1939: The Way, Escriva's best-selling spiritual considerations, was first published
  • 1941: Opus Dei is granted recognition as pious union by the Bishop of Madrid, who told its detractors that the Opus (the Work) is truly Dei (of God)
  • 1943: February 14. Founding of the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, an organization for the sanctification of secular priests through their pastoral work.
  • 1946: Beginning of Opus Dei in Portugal, Italy, and England. Escriva moves to Rome to establish the headquarters of Opus Dei there ("All with Peter to Jesus through Mary") and prepare for final recognition
  • 1949: Opus Dei spreads overseas. It starts in Mexico and the United States
  • 1950: June 16. Opus Dei is given final and complete approval by Pius XII
  • 1958: October 28. John XXIII is elected Pope
  • 1962: Start of the Second Vatican Council, which proclaimed the universal call to holiness and initiates the legal framework called the personal prelature
  • 1963: June 21. Paul VI is made Pope.
  • 1972: Start of international catechetical trips of Escriva
  • 1975: June 26. Death of the founder. Alvaro del Portillo, his closest associate, was elected as his successor. At the end of Escriva's life, there were 60,000 members of Opus Dei from 80 nationalities.
  • 1978: October 16. John Paul II is elected Pope
  • 1982: November 28. Establishment of Opus Dei as personal prelature
  • 1992: May 17. Beatification of the founder. One third of the world's bishops asked for the beatification. Many referred to the biblical logic: "by their fruits you shall know them." The Pope said during the Beatification Mass: "With supernatural intuition, Bl. Josemaria preached untiringly the universal call to holiness and apostolate"
  • 1994: Msgr. Javier Echevarria is appointed by John Paul II as the second successor of Escriva after the death of del Portillo
  • 2002: October 6. Canonization of the founder. John Paul II calls him "the saint of the ordinary"

(See Berglar 1994, p. 202, 327-330, passim; Coverdale 2002, Vasquez de Prada 1999 and other biographies)

References and readings[edit]

Writings of the founder[edit]

  • Josemaría Escrivá: The Way, Scepter Publications, 1992. ISBN 0933932545
  • Josemaría Escrivá: Furrow, Scepter Publications, 1992. ISBN 0933932553
  • Josemaría Escrivá: The Forge, Scepter Publications, 1992. ISBN 0933932561
  • Josemaría Escrivá: Christ Is Passing By, Scepter Publications, 1982. ISBN 0933932049
  • Josemaría Escrivá: Friends of God, Scepter Publications, 1981. ISBN 0906138027
  • Josemaría Escrivá De Balaguer: Conversations with Monsignor Josemaría Escrivá, Scepter Publications, 2003. ISBN 1889334588

Studies about Opus Dei: monographs[edit]

  • Peter Berglar: Opus Dei. Life and Work of its Founder, Scepter 1994. ISBN 0933932650 -- a thorough study of Opus Dei based on the life story and work of its founder written by Dr. Berglar, a professor of history at the University of Cologne
  • Dominique Le Tourneau: What Is Opus Dei?, Gracewing, 2002. ISBN 0852441363 -- a French scholar's authoritative synthesis
  • Vittorio Messori: Opus Dei, Leadership and Vision in Today’s Catholic Church, Regnery Publishing, 1997. ISBN 0895264501 -- an investigation (Una indagine, the original Italian title) done by a famous journalist who interviewed John Paul II in Crossing the Threshold of Hope
  • Giuseppe Romano: Opus Dei: Who? How? Why?, Alba House, 1995. ISBN 0818907398 -- a study of an Italian essayist
  • Rafael Gomez Perez,Opus Dei: Una Explicacion, Ediciones Rialp 1992. ISBN 8432128929 -- University Professor of Anthropology explains various aspects of Opus Dei
  • William West: Opus Dei. Exploding a Myth, Little Hills Press, 1987. ISBN 0949773751 -- a 5-year research in 10 countries conducted by a senior journalist and deputy editor of the Australian
  • Peter Bristow: Opus Dei: Christians in the Midst of the World, Catholic Truth Society, London, 2001.

Theological and juridical studies[edit]

  • Amadeo Fuenmayor, Valentin Gomez-Iglesias and Jose Luis Illanes: The Canonical Path of Opus Dei, Four Courts Press, 1996. ISBN 1851822216 -- two canonists and a theologian study the juridical nature and history of Opus Dei
  • Pedro Rodriguez, Fernando Ocariz and José Luis Illanes: Opus Dei in the Church, Four Courts Press, 1994. ISBN 1851821708 -- an ecclesiological and theological study of Opus Dei
  • Holiness and the World: Studies in the Teachings of Blessed Josemariá Escrivá, ed. M.Belda et al, Scepter Publications, 1997. -- collection of contributions to a theological symposium; contributors include Ratzinger, del Portillo, Cottier, dalla Torre, Ocariz, Illanes, Aranda, Burggharf and an address by John Paul II
  • José Luis Illanes: On the Theology of Work: Aspects of the Teaching of the Founder of Opus Dei, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 1982.
  • Fernando Ocariz, God as Father in the Message of Blessed Josemaria, Scepter, 1995.
  • Ernest Caparros: The Juridical Mind of Blessed Josemaría Escrivá. Midwest Theological Forum, Chicago 2001.

History and biography[edit]

  • Jose Orlandis, History of the Catholic Church, Four Courts Press, 1993. ISBN 1-85182-125-2 -- highlights of Church history
  • George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, Harpercollins, 1999. ISBN 006018793X
  • Andres Vasquez de Prada: The Founder of Opus Dei. The Life of Josemaria Escrivá, Scepter Publishers 1997.
  • John Coverdale: Uncommon Faith: The Early Years of Opus Dei (1928-1943), Scepter Publications, 2002. ISBN 188933474X


  • Francis Fernandez: In Conversation with God, Scepter Publications, 1993. ISBN 0906138191 (7 volume set)
  • María del Carmen Tapia: Beyond the Threshold, Continuum, 1998. ISBN 0826410960
  • Michael Walsh: Opus Dei: An Investigation into the Secret Society Struggling for Power Within the Roman Catholic Church, Harper San Francisco, 1989. ISBN 0060692685
  • O'Connor, William: Opus Dei: An Open Book. A Reply to the Secret World of Opus Dei by Michael Walsh, Mercier 1991
  • Elaine Shannon and Ann Blackman, The Spy Next Door : The Extraordinary Secret Life of Robert Philip Hanssen, The Most Damaging FBI Agent in US History, Liittle Brown, 2002 ISBN 0-316-71821-1

External links[edit]

Catholic Church sites and sites supporting Opus Dei:[edit]

Sites critical of Opus Dei:[edit]


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Category:Catholic Lay Societies Category:Roman Catholic Prelatures