Opus Dei: Doing “the Work” in Urbana

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Dan Brown’s recent bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, propelled a controversial
religious organization called Opus Dei
into the public eye. One character in the
novel, Silas, is an Opus Dei “monk” who
wears a robe and kills people who appear
to threaten his mission. Even people who
are not supporters of Opus Dei have
heavily criticized The Da Vinci Code for
its factual errors. Andrew Greeley, an
author and a priest, says, “”I am hardly a
defender of Opus Dei, but I cannot imagine
them setting a killer loose in a struggle
against a group it considers dangero
u s .” Opus Dei doe s n’t have mon k s
either, and its members wear ordinary
clothing. In Urbana, there’s an Opus Dei
center, Lincoln Green Foundation, which
houses male professionals and students.
What is Opus Dei? In short, it’s an
organization within the Catholic Church
that “encourages Christians of all social
classes to live con s i s ten t ly with thei r
faith, in the middle of the ordinary circ
u m s t a n ces of t h eir live s , e s pec i a lly
through the sanctification of their work.”
( Opus Dei web s i te) John Gu eg u en , a
retired professor who lives at Lincoln
Green , wri te s , “Soon – to – be – Saint Jo s emaria
realized what he and his followers
were up against in carrying out the apostolate
of Opus Dei. That work consists of
nothing other than getting through to
men and women, both single and married,
living and working in the normal
circumstances of life in this world, that
they will miss the whole point of their
Christian faith if they don’t devote themselves
to the pursuit of heroic sanctity
right where they are by making full use of
t h eir work and family life .”
( h t t p : / / w w w. cdop. or g / c a t h o l i c _ p o s t
/post_10_6_02 /wisi.cfm) Opus Dei is a
pers onal prel a tu re of the Ca t h o l i c
Church, in other words, a special jurisdiction
in the Church not linked to a territory.
The current prelate of Opus Dei is
Bishop Javier Echevarría.
John All en , Na ti onal Ca t h o l i c
Reporter’s Vatican correspondent, says,
“My observation is that the people of
Opus Dei are generally well meaning,
amiable conservatives,often very competent
at what they do, who harbor a rather
traditionalist vision of the church and
the culture. It’s not my cup of tea, but
there is certainly room for it under the
Catholic big tent.”When I visited Lincoln
Green Fo u n d a ti on and met wi t h
Gueguen and another Opus Dei member,
I was inclined to agree with Allen. Both
men seemed to be sincere and likeable
individuals. Opus Dei consists of members
categorized as numeraries, numera
ry assoc i a te s , su pernu m era ri e s , a n d
numerary auxiliaries (formerly known as
nu m era ry serva n t s ) . Nu m era ries are
edu c a ted profe s s i onals who com m i t
themselves to celibacy, poverty, and obedience
and usually live in an Opus Dei
center and turn over their salaries to the
group. Numerary associates are similar
to numeraries, except that they are not
able to live in the residences. Supernum
era ries are marri ed and unmarri ed
members with a lower level of availability,
and numerary auxiliaries are women,
usually less educated, whose professional
work is cleaning the centers. There are
also cooperators, who are not members,
but provide support to Opus Dei. One of
the best-known Opus Dei cooperators in
the U.S. is Anton Scalia, a Supreme Court
Why the controversy then? To understand
the organization and its critics, it
helps to know a little about the Opus
Dei’s background. Opus Dei was founded
around the time of the Spanish Civil
War in Madrid by a priest named Jose
Maria (later Josemaria) Escrivá. At the
time Escrivá decided to enter the priesthood,
this was a reasonable career path
for a bright, ambitious young man. He
decided that he did not want to be an
ordinary diocesan priest, and in 1928, he
got the idea (which he believed came
from God) to begin what is now known
as Opus Dei . Du r ing the war, s om e
Catholic cl er gy were pers ec uted and
killed. Escrivá and his followers went into
h i d i n g. These early ex peri en ces rei nforced
the fundamental idea that the
Church was under assault from enemies
and needed to be defended. In The Forge,
Escrivá writes, “”Nowadays our Mother
the Church is being attacked in the social
field and by the governments of nations.
That is why God is sending his children
— is sending you! — to struggle, and to
spread the truth in those areas.”
E s c rivá was decl a red a saint by the
Catholic Chu rch in 2002 and is revered
by Opus Dei mem bers , who of ten refer
to him as the “ Fa t h er.” E s c rivá himsel f
was a com p l ex and occ a s i on a lly paradoxical
man. For ex a m p l e , his stance on
wom en seems con trad i ctory. In an intervi
ew, he said, “All the bapti zed , m en and
wom en alike , s h a re equ a lly in the dign ity,
f reedom and re s pon s i bi l i ty of t h e
ch i l d ren of G od .” Yet , he en co u ra ges ac ademic
pursuits by sayi n g, “Th ere is no
excuse for those who could be sch o l a rs
and are not,” but later note s , “ … wom en
n eed n’t be sch o l a rs : i t’s en o u gh for them
to be pru den t .” Ad d ressing an audien ce
in Sao Pa u l o, he advi s ed wom en , “ Do
yo u rs el f u p, l ook pret ty and, as the ye a rs
go by, decora te the façade even more , a s
t h ey do with old bu i l d i n gs . He’ ll be so
gra teful to yo u .”
Maria del Carmen Tapia, a former
Opus Dei member, found Escrivá less
than charming. After spending eighteen
years as a numerary, she was forced out
and later wrote a book about her experien
ce s : Beyond the Th re s h o l d . E s c riv á
a pp a ren t ly had some difficulty wi t h
a n ger managem en t , and according to
Carmen’s account, he accused her of sexual
miscon du ct , s ayi n g, “You are a
wicked woman! A lost woman! Mary
Magdalen was a sinner, but you? You are
a seductress with all your immorality and
indecency! You are a seductress! I know
everyt h i n g. EV E RYTHING! EV E N
N E G RO! You are
a bom i n a bl e . YO U
with one and then with
the other. LEAVE MY
pe ace . Don’t med dl e
with them! Yo u’re
wicked! Wicked! Indecent!
Come on, look at
the business of t h e
Negro! And don’t ask
me for my bl e s s i n g
because I don’t intend
to give it to yo u ! ”
Opus Dei claims to
be a purely rel i gi o u s
or ga n i z a ti on , but soc i o l ogist Joa n
E s tru ch disputes this in his book Sa i n t s
and Sch em ers : “ No rel i gious insti tuti on is
ever ‘p u rely rel i gi o u s’ : f rom the mom en t
it becomes an insti tuti on and has to begi n
to ad d ress the qu e s ti on of tra n s m i t ting its
con ten t , every insti tuti on becomes a playing
field for va rious forces and intere s t s
( s oc i a l , econ om i c , and po l i ti c a l ) .”Mon ey
and ex p a n s i on were major con cerns in
Opus Dei ’s early days and mem bers
became intere s ted in business and govern
m en t . At the end of the war, E s c riv á
h ad establ i s h ed a working rel a ti on s h i p
with Fra n c i s co Fra n co, S p a i n’s caudill o,
and Opus Dei mem bers served in Fra nco’s
govern m en t . Du ring this ti m e , Op u s
Dei ex p a n ded into other co u n tri e s ,
i n cluding Chile and Ar gen ti n a .
The approach to rel i gi on is high ly
orthodox.Masses are in Latin, and members
regularly meet with a spiritual director
and confess sins to a priest. Many
American Catholics refer to this sacrament
as “reconciliation”, but Opus Dei
seems to prefer the term “penance.” One
of the most con troversial practi ces is
“corporal mortification,” a religious tradition
practiced in the past by Catholic
religious orders and numerous saints.
Corporal morti f i c a ti on gen era lly take s
the form of small sacrifices like giving up
dessert at a meal. However, numeraries
use a cilice, a small barbed chain worn
around the leg, and a discipline, a small
rope whip. According to the members I
interviewed, Silas’s grotesque self-flagellation
in The DaVinci Code does not repre
s ent re a l i ty. Al t h o u gh Escrivá was
known for whipping himself until the
b a t h room walls were spattered wi t h
blood, numeraries are discouraged from
breaking the skin. Members believe that
the practi ce purifies the soul and
reminds them of Je su s’ su f fering and
de a t h . V l adimir Fel z m a n n , a form er
numerary, disagrees. In an interview with
City of Secrets author John Follain, he
says, “…creating suffering for yourself
artificially is pointless. It doesn’t achieve
spirituality; it’s a form of arrogance.”
In Latin America, Opus Dei’s orthodoxy
conflicts with Liberation Theology,
a controversial approach to Catholic theology
that focuses on Jesus as a bringer of
ju s ti ce and bel i eves that the Gospel s
demand a preferen tial opti on for the
poor. One of the best-known proponents
of L i bera ti on Th eo l ogy was Oscar
Romero, a Salvadoran archbishop who
said in 1978, “When the Church hears the
c ry of the oppre s s ed it cannot but
denounce the social structures that give
rise to and perpetuate the misery from
which the cry arises.” In 1980, Salvadoran
police intelligence agents shot Romero
t h ro u gh the heart as he said mass.
( Decl a s s i f i ed US doc u m ents later
reve a l ed that Sa lvadoran Army Ma j or
Roberto D’Aubuisson. a graduate of the
US School of the Americas, had ordered
the assassination.) Romero, like Escrivá,
believed that his relationship with his foll
owers tra n s cen ded de a t h . However,
Romero was keenly interested in social
justice, whereas Escrivá was more concerned
with personal sanctity. Romero
said,“And if they kill me, I will rise again
in the Salvadoran people.” Escrivá wrote
to his followers: “I will pass away, and
those who come afterwards will look at
you with envy as if you were a relic.”
(Cronica, 1971)
The current Salvadoran Archbishop,
Opus Dei’s Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, has a
friendlier relationship with the Salvadoran
government and maintains that liberation
theology no longer has any place
in his country. In 1997, Sáenz Lacalle,
who also serves as military bishop, was
promoted to the rank of Brigadier General
in the Salvadoran Army. Augusto
Pinochet, former dictator of Chile had an
abysmal human rights record, and some
Opus Dei members served in his cabinet.
This cooperation may reflect the idea
that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.”
Pinochet and other Latin American dictators
were strong opponents of commun
i s m , wh i ch Opus Dei con s i dered a
m a j or threat to the Catholic Chu rch .
Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne, Archbishop
of Lima, was the first member of Opus
Dei to be named a cardinal. A Vatican
website praises him for his efforts against
the “Maoist” guerillas, but Cipriani has
also come under fire for his relationship
with form er Peruvian pre s i dent Fu j im
ori ’s aut h ori t a rian regi m e . Th e s e
a ll i a n ces have ra i s ed qu e s ti ons abo ut
whether Opus Dei members are concerned
about human rights abuses. At Cipriani’s first mass as a cardinal, protesters chanted,
“Christ is justice, not complicity.”
In the United States, much of the controversy surrounding
Opus Dei centers on its approach to recruiting.
Opus Dei creates nonprofit foundations, often with
names related to the location, and establishes centers
near top universities. For example,Opus Dei operates as
the “Lincoln Green Foundation” in Urbana and as
“Menlough Study Center” in Menlo Park, CA.Members
may be involved in Catholic or secular student organizations
which provide opportunities for interaction
with potential recruits. For example, Opus Dei members
in Urbana have been involved in the Graduate Discussion
Group, a registered student organization at the
u n ivers i ty. Opus Dei has a “tri ckle down” p a s tora l
approach and is concerned with reaching future leaders.
It also operates secondary schools, an all-women’s college
of hospitality, and supplementary education programs
in inner- c i ty are a s . Pro s elytizing is heavi ly
emphasized; numerary John Gueguen says, “No member
of Opus Dei will be welcome in heaven unless he is
well-accompanied!” Recruitment is based on an “apostolate
of friendship,” described by Escrivá as “friendship
with a divine meaning.” Escrivá claims that God’s standard
of holiness consists of three points: “holy intransigence,
holy coercion, and holy shamelessness.” Some of
the group’s critics find this alarming.
Escrivá defends this “holy coercion” in Cronica, saying,
“…If our Lord wanted to force strangers to come to
his banquet, how much more will he want you to use a
holy coercion with those who are your brothers…this
most beautiful coercion of charity far from taking away
your brother’s freedom,will delicately help him to use it
well.” However, some former members disagree, comparing
Opus Dei to a cult. Some of the most outspoken
critics are Tammy and Dianne DiNicola, who run the
Opus Dei Awareness Network (http://www.odan.org),
which was mentioned in The DaVinci Code. Some campus
priests have also become concerned. Russell Roide,
S.J, the director of Stanford’s campus ministry from
1984 – 1992, eventually banned the group from campus,
calling it “deceptive.” When I contacted Fr. Roide, he
referred me to the ODAN website. At Princeton, the
chaplain dismissed Opus Dei priest C. John McCloskey
after students circulated petitions and wrote letters
about upsetting experiences with him. The Opus Dei
members I talked with in Urbana seemed more reasonable
than the embattled Fr. McCloskey, and stated that
members were never pressured to join and were free to
leave at any time.
After leaving Princeton, Fr. McCloskey became the
director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington,
DC.His ministry appears to have a special concern
for the spiritual needs of the wealthy. In an essay, he
writes, “But the rich, powerful, and influential have a
special responsibility to try to struggle with these particular
challenges, since they run a greater risk of the loss
of their souls, in light of the gifts that have been
bestowed upon them for God’s glory and service to others.
Rodney Stark…points out that—contrary to conventional
wisdom and historical analysis—in the first
several centuries of Christianity, the Gospel was most
successfully preached not to the poor and the outcasts,
but rather to the prosperous middle classes and educated
upper classes in the cities.” (http://us.catholic.net
/ r cc / Per i o d i c a l s / Igpr e s s / 2 0 0 1 – 0 1 / e s s ay. h t m l )
McCloskey made news headlines for converting several
high profile people to Catholicism, including Kansas
Senator Sam Brownback and former Tyco lawyer Mark
Belnick.McCloskey is also a prolific author whose writi
n gs are fe a tu red on his web s i te http : / / w w w. f rm ccloskey.
com. In his essay “2030: Looking Backwards,” a
p i ece that bri n gs to mind Ma r ga ret At wood ’s Th e
Ha n d m a i d ’s Ta l e , he spec u l a tes abo ut a “rel a tively
bloodless conflict” that allowed Christians to “live in
states that recognize the natural law and divine Revelation,
the right of free practice of religion, and laws on
marriage, family, and life that reflect the primacy of our
Fa i t h .” ( h t tp:// www. c a t h o l i c i ty. com /mccl o s key / a rticles/
Author and reporter Robert Hutchison is concerned
that messages of fear and intolerance may increase
worldwide violence. In his 1997 book Their Kingdom
Com e , he de s c ri bes incre a s i n gly stra i n ed rel a ti on s
between Christianity and Islam. Some of McCloskey’s
writing dovetails with Hutchison’s thesis, and it appears
that Islam may be replacing communism as the perceived
enemy of the Catholic Church. In his 1997 review
of “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of
World Order,” McCloskey writes, “Islam has on several
occasions in past centuries almost conquered the Christian
West through a combination of aggressive and
coercive proselytism and bloody jihads. John Paul II
wants to make sure that it does not happen again. He
wants to make sure that the ‘civilization of love and
truth’ that he desires and foresees is allowed to develop
and flourish without external threat, be it from Islam,
the decadent modernWest, or China.” In 2002, after the
September 11 attacks, McCloskey addressed a graduating
class at St. Thomas Aquinas College, saying, “At the
present moment, the world’s only superpower is under
attack. We all are living in a country during a time of
war with an enemy that has been an enemy of Christendom
for centuries.At the same time, we are under attack
from within, from moral decay, from a mistaken notion
of man, and from a slide into a high-tech barbarism,
which attempts to manipulate the very origins of life.”
( h t tp : / / w w w. t h om a s a qu i n a s . edu / n ews / n ews l e t ter /
Opus Dei appears to be a group of committed, idealistic
people who sincerely believe that right is on their
side. Many organizations could also be described this
w ay – for ex a m p l e , radical activists (e.g. , We a t h er
Underground), and many others. Although the ideals
may be different, these groups also have some things in
common. Each is comprised of individuals who interact
in ways that may or may not be healthy. There is some
risk of groupthink, defined by psychologist Irving Janis
as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they
are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the
members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation
to realistically appraise alternative courses of
action.” Such groups are also capable of great good,
since members are willing to sacrifice and work hard to
bring about the social change that they believe is needed.
Opus Dei has existed for less than a century, and its
members have done both admirable and worrisome
things. Like other religious organizations, Opus Dei
continues to evolve. However, it is impossible to predict
what exactly it will become.

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