Controversies about Opus Dei

Opus Dei is a personal prelature within the Roman Church that has been the subject of numerous controversies.

Throughout its history, Opus Dei has been criticized from many parts, prompting journalists to describe it as "the most controversial force in the Catholic Church" and its founder Saint Josemaría Escrivá as a "polarizing" figure.[1][2][3] Criticism of Opus Dei has centered on allegations of secretiveness,[4] controversial and aggressive recruiting methods, strict rules governing members, elitism and misogyny, and support of or participation in authoritarian or right-wing governments, including the fascist Franco regime which governed in Spain until 1978.[5] The mortification of the flesh practiced by some of its members is also criticized. Opus Dei has also been criticized for allegedly seeking independence and more influence within the Catholic Church.[6]

On the other hand, according to several journalists who have researched Opus Dei separately, many criticisms against Opus Dei are based on fabrications by opponents.[1][7][2][8][9] Several popes and other Catholic leaders have endorsed what they see as its innovative teaching on the sanctifying value of work, and its fidelity to Catholic beliefs.[10][11]

History of oppositionEdit

From its earliest days, Opus Dei has attracted opposition. The Superior-General of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Wlodimir Ledochowski (1866–1942), told the Vatican he considered Opus Dei "very dangerous for the Church in Spain." He described it as having a "secretive character" and saw "signs in it of a covert inclination to dominate the world with a form of Christian Masonry."[12] These allegations against Opus Dei from within well-regarded ecclesiastical circles ("the opposition by good people," as Escrivá called it), which happened time and again in its history, are considered to be some of the roots of present-day accusations coming from the most varied quarters.[1]

According to John L. Allen, Jr., one of the original sources of criticism of Opus Dei were members of the Society of Jesus who did not understand the difference between Opus Dei and religious orders. Opus Dei is composed of ordinary lay Christians who are taking their baptism-based calling to become holy, as the first Christians did, without in any way being externally distinguished from other citizens of the Roman Church, as Escriva explained.

There were other attacks from Jesuits in the 1950s who told some Italian parents of members of Opus Dei that their sons were being led to damnation.

Messori also claims Jesuits and other sectors of the Church perceived as 'liberal' spread the "myth" that Opus Dei supported fascism. From its early association with the far-right Franco regime in Spain, Opus Dei has been associated with ultra-right wing regimes, but also claims members from left-wing parties such as the UK Labour Party (see Opus Dei and politics).[13]

Corporal mortificationEdit

Closeup of a cilice—a small metal chain with inwardly pointing spikes

Much public attention has focused on Opus Dei's encouragement of the practice of mortification, especially after descriptions of the practice appeared in the popular novel The Da Vinci Code.[14]

According to some critics who accuse Opus Dei of promoting "Corporal Mortification", Opus Dei numeraries, numerary assistants, and associates practice several forms of mortification.[who?] [15][16] One of the more-controversial forms of mortification involves the use of a cilice — a small metal chain with inwardly pointing spikes that is worn around the upper thigh. The cilice's spikes cause pain and may leave small marks, but typically do not cause bleeding.[17] According to them, numeraries in Opus Dei generally wear a cilice for two hours each day.[citation needed]

However, according to a statement released by the Prelature of Opus Dei, members of Opus Dei have never been required to practice corporal mortification, stating that "Opus Dei members do not do this (corporal mortification)".[18] Opus Dei encourages all faithful Catholics to practice one area of mortification, beneficence to the needy, instead of corporal mortification.[19]

Mortification has had a long history within the Catholic Church in many different areas, e.g. being beneficent to the poor, fasting on certain days with prayers, etc. Corporal mortification, however, is a rare practice for modern Catholics. Opponents have tried to amalgamate the concepts of "mortification" as a collective term and corporal mortification, accusing Opus Dei of promoting corporal mortification. Opus Dei points out mortification was practiced by many highly revered individuals such as Mother Teresa, Óscar Romero and Padre Pio.[20] Opus Dei members accuse the secularised world of accepting physical pain and sacrifice in other domains (such as athletics, business, and personal beautification), but objecting to beneficent acts when done for a religious purpose.

The Church and Opus Dei both make it clear that mortification of the flesh must only be performed under the permission and supervision of a priest and generally is in the form of a woolen cilice which does not cause physical pain but rather a constant discomfort which is then supposed to be offered to God.

Allegations of aggressive recruitingEdit

Opponents allege Opus Dei uses cult-like practices in recruitment. For instance, Jesuit priest and writer James Martin wrote that Opus Dei puts great emphasis on recruiting, and pointed to Escriva's writings which say "You must kill yourselves for proselytism."[21] David Clark, a consultant who specialises in helping people leave cults, claimed in 2006 that Opus Dei used a cult-like recruitment technique called "love bombing", in which potential members are showered with flattery and admiration by members of the organization in order to entice them into joining.[22] Former member Dimitri Knobbe wrote of such an experience he had with the group in 1993.[23] The mother of a member at Harvard University claimed the group separated her daughter from her family, and in 1991 founded Opus Dei Awareness Network, a group that aims to provide information and critique on the group's practices.[24]

Allegations of being highly controllingEdit

Critics accuse the organization of maintaining an extremely high degree of control over its members. Ex-members claim that Opus Dei directors[25] read letters of the members. According to a 2006 [3] report by BBC Mundo Jose Carlos Martin de la Hoz, priest of the prelature in Spain, said this practice exists, but clarified it is a manifestation of opening and confidence of the faithfuls of the Opus Dei.[26] In 2001, an Opus Dei spokesman said the practice of reading the mail of numeraries was abandoned years ago,[27] since written letters are now rarely used for correspondence. As an additional means of guidance, it was deemed fitting for numeraries to first show to or tell the Directors about the contents of the letter, especially when the letter would need to touch on vocation.

About 20% of Opus Dei are celibate. They live in special residential centers where they lead extremely structured lives— critics say this practice isolates its members from the rest of society and allows Opus Dei to have nearly total control over its members' environments. Critics note that numeraries in Opus Dei generally submit all their incoming and outgoing mail to their superiors to read.[28] They also point to a "Forbidden Books List" that details which books members are not allowed to read without the express permission of their superiors.[28] For some books, a numerary's direct supervisor can provide permission, but for other books, permission can only be given by the prelate in Rome. According to some critics, Opus Dei pressures numeraries to cut off social contact with non-members, including their own families.[22] Numeraries in Opus Dei generally hand over their entire salaries to the organization, and critics say this makes numeraries extremely dependent upon the organization.

Opus Dei denies exerting any undue control over its members, and supporters[citation needed] say Opus Dei places an extraordinary emphasis on the personal freedom of its members. They[citation needed] quote Escrivá who said "Respect for its members' freedom is an essential condition for Opus Dei's very existence."

Supporters[citation needed] defend Opus Dei's list of inappropriate books by pointing out the Vatican itself maintained a similar list until the 1960s. To explain the celibate lifestyle of numeraries and their relationships with their families, supporters quote Jesus's comment that "He who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me."[29]

Allegations of secrecyEdit

Critics have often accused Opus Dei of intense secrecy. Due to its secrecy critics such as the Jesuit Wladimir Ledóchowski sometimes refer to Opus Dei as a "Catholic", "christian", or "white" form of Freemasonry.[30][31][32][33][34] Opus Dei does not publish memberships lists, and members generally do not publicly reveal they are part of the organization. .[35] According to its 1950 constitution, members are forbidden to reveal their membership without the express permission of their superiors.[36] This practice has led to rampant speculation about who may or may not be a member of Opus Dei. The 1950 constitution similarly prohibited even revealing how many people were members of Opus Dei.[37][38] Opus Dei claims as an open and apartitical organization, having a hierarchy with four degrees of membership.[39]

Additionally, critics claim Opus Dei is secretive about its activities. Opponents cite the fact Opus Dei often will not directly reveal its relationship to many of its institutions.[35] According to critics, Opus Dei does not allow many of its own rules to be made public. For example, the 1950 Constitution states, "These Constitutions, published instructions, and those which in the future may be published, and the other things pertaining to the government of the Institute are never to be made public. Indeed, without the permission of the Father [Escrivá] those documents which are written in the Latin language may not be translated into [other] languages." Similarly, Opus Dei does not reveal details about its finances.[40]

Allen says, "Opus Dei cannot be called secretive." Accusations of secrecy, he says, stem from mistakenly equating its members with monks and expecting members to behave as clerics. Instead, its lay members, like normal professionals, are ultimately responsible for their personal actions, and do not externally represent the prelature which provides them spiritual training. Opus Dei itself, he says, provides abundant information.[41] Supporters claim Opus Dei's relative silence stems not from a secretive nature, but rather is the result of a deep commitment to privacy, humility, and "avoidance of self-aggrandizement."[41] Supporters argue Opus Dei "has the obligation to respect its members' privacy"[42] They say members of Opus Dei do generally reveal their membership status to their family and closest friends. The historical opposition to Opus Dei may also have contributed to the need for privacy— as one author speculates, "I think part of it, too, is that, historically, because a lot of people didn't like Opus Dei, there was just a sense that it would be better not to be too upfront because you're just inviting hostility."[43]

Legal disputesEdit

Recently, Opus Dei has twice been engaged in legal disputes in connection with their trademark (CTM Registration No. 844.860 OPUS DEI (word)),[44] as they claimed infringement firstly in 2002 regarding the magazine "Opus Gay" and lost,[45] and secondly regarding the currently ongoing case of the philosophy-themed atheist card game "Opus-Dei: Existence After Religion".


The role of women in Opus Dei is another source of criticism. Women are treated as equal in Opus Dei but are separated from men in their personal spiritual training. In many male Opus Dei centres, women visit every evening to cook for the men and then leave without social interaction, as Escrivá recognised that despite the equality of men and women, centres for men may need a female influence to function.

Alleged independence and influence within the Roman Catholic ChurchEdit

Critics have argued that Opus Dei's unique status as a personal prelature within the Church gives it too much independence. According to critics, elevating Opus Dei to the status of a personal prelature allows its members to "go about their business almost untouched by criticism or oversight by bishops".[46] According to critics, Opus Dei has such autonomy it has become essentially a "church within a church".[47]

Catholic officials say church authorities have even greater control of Opus Dei now its head is a prelate appointed by the Pope, and they argue members are "even more conscious of belonging to the Church".[48] They point to canon law which states that Opus Dei members remain under "jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop in what the law lays down for all the ordinary [Catholics]". Similarly, they point out that Opus Dei must obtain permission from the local bishop before establishing an Opus Dei center within the diocese.

Some critics claim Opus Dei exerts a disproportionately large influence within the Church itself. They point to the unusually hasty (and otherwise irregular) process in which Escriva was canonized.[49] Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have been vocal supporters of Opus Dei, and the former head of the Vatican press office was a member of Opus Dei. An Opus Dei spokesman says "the influence of Opus Dei in the [Vatican] has been exaggerated."[50] Of the nearly 200 cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church, only two are known to be members of Opus Dei.[51][52] Similarly, of the nearly 4000 bishops, only 20 are known to be members of Opus Dei.[52][53]

John L. Allen, Jr. said that Escriva's relatively quick canonization does not have anything to do with power but with improvements in procedures and John Paul II's decision to make Escriva's sanctity and message known.[1] (see Opus Dei and politics)

Objections to criticsEdit

Supporters of Opus Dei say criticisms of it are often motivated by bad faith, jealousy, vengefulness, or other biases on the part of the critics.[54] In some cases, supporters accuse critics of merely misunderstanding Opus Dei, its mission, or its novelty.

Reliability of ex-membersEdit

Many criticisms come from former members of Opus Dei.[citation needed] Their status was studied by Bryan R. Wilson, who studied the phenomenon of new religious movements in general. In one paper, Wilson discussed the unreliability of the testimony of former members of religious movements. Wilson said some "apostates" themselves "have been first a victim" then "a redeemed crusader" and that their "personal history predisposes [them] to bias." According to Wilson, such people may have "a personal motivation to vindicate himself and to regain his self-esteem" after having quit a religious organization.[citation needed] Supporters[who?] also point to sociological research which suggests apostates create atrocity stories, tales that present events in such a context that the narrator evokes or tries to evoke moral condemnation or horror among the audience. According to Wilson, "Neither the objective sociological researcher nor the court of law can readily regard the apostate as a creditable or reliable source of evidence,".[citation needed]


Opus Dei's supporters often see criticism as motivated by a religious bias or political agenda. Many supporters say criticisms of Opus Dei stem from a generalized disapproval of spirituality, Christianity, or Catholicism.[55] Some supporters see criticisms of Opus Dei as one facet of a larger prejudice against Catholics.[56]

Jesuits and liberal CatholicsEdit

Many supporters of Opus Dei believe the Jesuits hold a grudge against Opus Dei borne of jealousy and ideological differences. Richard John Neuhaus said: "The opposition to Opus Dei cannot be explained without at least some reference to jealousy. Competition and jealousy among religious movements in the Catholic Church is nothing new, and some Opus Dei members are not hesitant to suggest that theirs is now the role in the Church once played by the Jesuits. The Jesuits, who were once viewed as the elite corps of the papacy, have in recent decades had a sharply attenuated relationship to the hierarchical leadership of the Church. The famous "fourth vow" of allegiance to the pope is now frequently understood by Jesuits as a vow to the papacy in general---meaning the papacy as they think it ought to be."

"Nothing attracts criticism like success," says author Robert Royal, "In the seventy years since its founding, the Work has grown to almost eighty thousand members, over half in Europe, another third in the Americas, and the rest scattered throughout the world. As Vittorio Messori notes, this movement, which was once thought of as a pre-Vatican II fossil by progressives, has not only survived the heyday of progressive Catholic movements, but continues growing while the left in general, religious and lay, is shrinking."

According to Time magazine, "church liberals, once riding high, have understood for decades that Rome does not incline their way. They feel abandoned, says Allen, 'and whenever you feel that way, there's a natural desire to find someone to blame.'"

The animosity from within the Church derives from the conflicting views of the role of the Church following Vatican II. At the time, the superior of the Jesuits, Pedro Arrupe, "symbolised the new post-Vatican II ethos, calling his Jesuits to be 'men for others', which in practice sometimes meant joining movements for peace and justice," while "Escrivá walked another path, insisting on the primacy of traditional forms of prayer, devotion, and the sacramental life." Making Opus Dei a "personal prelature" and Escrivá a saint "seemed like a clampdown on the Jesuits---almost as if a torch was being passed." As Allen points out, some of Opus Dei's harshest critics were once Jesuit priests."[57]

According to Vittorio Messori, a major source of hostility towards Opus Dei is the application of political categories to a religious phenomenon such as Opus Dei. These groups against Opus Dei, he says, see everything happening in the world only through the prism of power-seeking, that is, of political spectrums of people in the left versus people on the right. Since Opus Dei is one of the major religious groups, the application of politically motivated campaigns against it is even stronger.

According to Allen, Opus Dei became the lightning rod for the attacks of liberals in the culture wars when John Paul II, perceived as a conservative by the liberals, granted several favorable things to Opus Dei such as beatification, canonization of the founder, and personal prelature status.

Controversy as a sign of contradictionEdit

Christ crucified. Jesus Christ who was spoken against, attacked and killed is a sign of contradiction. According to Cardinal Heenan, Opus Dei is a sign of contradiction. On the other hand, liberal Catholics and theologians, like Hans Küng or Juan José Tamayo deny this argument, and says that Opus Dei has a cult-like style

Some supporters of Opus Dei have viewed the controversy surrounding the organization as a "Sign of contradiction." Proponents of this view hold that blessed, divinely inspired Christian organizations will always be criticized, just as Jesus was criticized by his contemporaries. Accordingly, they see the very existence of critics as further proof of the organization's sanctity.[58][59] A theological explanation is given by John Carmel Heenan, Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. He commented in 1975: "One of the proofs of God's favour is to be a sign of contradiction. Almost all founders of societies in the Church have suffered. Monsignor Escrivá de Balaguer is no exception. Opus Dei has been attacked and its motives misunderstood. In this country and elsewhere an inquiry has always vindicated Opus Dei."[60]

According to Catholic tradition, a sign of contradiction points to the presence of Christ or the presence of the divine due to the union of that person or reality with God. In his book, Sign of Contradiction, John Paul II says that "sign of contradiction" might be "a distinctive definition of Christ and of his Church."

John Paul II stated, in his decree on the heroic virtues of Opus Dei's founder, Josemaría Escrivá: "God allowed him to suffer public attacks. He responded invariably with pardon, to the point of considering his detractors as benefactors. But this Cross was such a source of blessings from heaven that the Servant of God's apostolate [or evangelizing work] spread with astonishing speed."

See alsoEdit


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  6. ^ Michael Walsh (2004). Opus Dei: An Investigation into the Powerful Secretive Society within the Catholic Church. Harper San Francisco. ISBN 0-06-075068-5.
  7. ^ Maggy Whitehouse (2006). Opus Dei: The Truth Behind the Myth. Hermes House. ISBN 0-681-35584-0.
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  14. ^ of best-selling 'Da Vinci Code' comes under fire
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  30. ^ "Beyond the Threshold". Retrieved 2018-03-30.
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  37. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2006-06-13. Retrieved 2006-06-07.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
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  40. ^
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  43. ^ "MSN - Outlook, Office, Skype, Bing, Breaking News, and Latest Videos". Archived from the original on 2005-03-26.
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  54. ^ Discussed by Cardinal Josef Höffner in an interview to the Catholic News Service KNA in Germany on 24 August 1984.
  55. ^ Julian Herranz, quoted in Javier Espinoza. "Opus Dei is not a Sect". OhmyNews. Archived from the original on 2006-05-13. Retrieved 2006-11-27.
  56. ^ "Christians have bad days, too. But let's track a c..."
  57. ^ Telegraph (UK): You can trust them to sell you a car, October 23, 2005
  58. ^ John Carmel Heenan
  59. ^ Read, Piers Paul (2005-10-23). "You can trust them to sell you a car". The Telegraph. London. Retrieved 2006-11-27.
  60. ^ Other examples are: Piers Paul Read [1], Messori 1997, Richard Gordon [2] Archived 2006-11-11 at the Wayback Machine

Books and notesEdit

External linksEdit