Widely recognized as the most controversial force within the Catholic Church, Opus Dei was founded by Spanish priest Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer on October 2, 1928. On that day, while on retreat, he supposedly saw the words “Opus Dei” in his notes and “received the vision about the whole of the Work.” The Latin phrase “Opus Dei” translates to “Work of God,” and this was interpreted by Escrivá to mean that the organization should be a means for ordinary Christians to see their lives as “a way of holiness and evangelization.” However, despite the seemingly uncontroversial nature of the personal prelature, as Opus Dei progressed and developed, so did opposition to it.
The Opus Dei Awareness Network (ODAN), for example, was founded in 1991 primarily to expose Opus Dei’s questionable practices and to provide support for those “victimized” by the organization. Some of Opus Dei’s alleged practices that ODAN opposes are the organization’s recruitment of minors and its deception of Church officials. The institution plays a significant role in Dan Brown’s widely circulated mystery-detective novel The Da Vinci Code and its 2006 film adaptation. In these highly popular literary works, Opus Dei is portrayed as a highly secretive and powerful organization responsible for aggressively — sometimes criminally — hiding several “truths” about Catholicism. Expectedly, Opus Dei dismisses the organization’s portrayal in The Da Vinci Code as being wildly inaccurate. Moreover, Opus Dei supporters have often claimed that the controversies hounding the organization are signs of contradiction — indications that Opus Dei is truly divinely inspired because genuine Christian organizations are, just as Jesus was, always criticized.
Determining whether or not the criticisms against Opus Dei are justified is a tough call, but the controversies that the religious group has faced throughout its existence are undoubtedly intriguing. The following are ten of the most shocking examples.
10. Questionable Legal Disputes
The name “Opus Dei” is trademarked in many parts of the world, and two legal disputes initiated by the organization prove that it is determined to protect the use of this name. The first case was filed in 2002 with Opus Dei demanding that a Chilean newspaper for homosexuals be forced to change its title, Opus Gay. Despite arguing that the publication’s name deliberately meant to offend the religious group, Opus Dei lost the case, the court finding that there was no reason to believe that Opus Dei and Opus Gay could be confused for one another. The second case involved the domain name of a card game called “Opus Dei: Existence After Religion.” Opus Dei claimed that the website “opus-dei.co.uk” violated the religious organization’s trademark, but on December 17, 2009, a dispute resolution resulted in the dismissal of the complaint.
9. Rivalry With the Jesuits
Among the first critics of Opus Dei were the Jesuits, themselves a congregation often considered to be part of the Church elite. Reports from Spain document how Fr. Wlodimir Ledochowski, Society of Jesus Superior-General from 1915 to 1942, saw Opus Dei as “very dangerous for the Church in Spain” because of its highly secretive and masonic nature. Furthermore, in the 1950s, Jesuits told several parents of Opus Dei members that by joining the organization, their sons were headed towards damnation. Other observers, like intellectual Richard John Neuhaus, explain the palpable animosity between these two organizations within the Church as the product of competition and jealousy in terms of their influence on the highest levels of Church hierarchy. Furthermore, it is also undeniable that while Opus Dei is highly conservative, the Jesuits are considered to be the most liberal of the Church’s orders. Nevertheless, Pope Francis, a Jesuit, seems to have doused water on the rivalry as he cited Escrivá for his instrumental role in “proposing the universal call to holiness.”
8. A Tendency Towards Elitism
Opus Dei defenders like American journalist John Allen point out that the religious group is by no means elitist as among its members are bricklayers, barbers, mechanics, and other simple members of the working class. However, it is undeniable that Escrivá especially targeted the top students of universities for membership in Opus Dei, likely contributing to the fact that among the top educational institutions in Spain today are Opus Dei universities. It is likewise said that Escrivá hoped to reach the elite to address the wave of anti-religious skepticism spreading among the bourgeoisie in the early 20th century. This approach seems to have worked; the elite were and still are attracted to Opus Dei’s goal of attaining “holiness in and by means of one’s ordinary work,” meaning members do not have to withdraw from their professional lives in order to serve God.
7. Support of Authoritarian or Rightist Governments
The governments of Spanish president Francisco Franco, Chilean government president Augusto Pinochet, and Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori are among those most criticized for their dictatorial nature and records of abuse. For this reason, it is a serious matter that critics have repeatedly claimed that Escrivá and/or Opus Dei supported these regimes. The accusations seem to be rooted in the fact that several prominent supporters and officials of these governments were likewise prominent members of Opus Dei. Eight of Franco’s ministers, for example, were known Opus Dei members. In fact, on May 23, 1958, Escrivá himself wrote Franco a letter, where he expressed admiration for the dictator and congratulated him for the union of the Spanish Church and state. Perhaps even more damning, Vladimir Felzmann, a former Opus Dei priest who later became one of its harshest critics, claimed that Escrivá once uttered, “Hitler couldn’t have been such a bad person. He couldn’t have killed six million. It couldn’t have been more than four million.”
6. Overly Aggressive Recruitment of Members
Opus Dei has often denied allegations that it explicitly recruits members. Bill Schmitt, a communications director for the organization, explained that it was not in Opus Dei’s interest to take in members who did not voluntarily accept their vocation. However, people who claim to have been targeted by Opus Dei claim otherwise. Tammy DiNicola, for example, narrated how she had been told that if she hadn’t accepted her Opus Dei vocation at that moment, the opportunity would have been lost forever. Furthermore, a male Columbia University student in the early 80s claimed that he had been befriended by an Opus Dei member who then completely cut him off for questioning the details of his membership. Perhaps even worse, Escrivá’s writings in the magazine Cronica included, “This holy coercion [recruitment] is necessary. . . . You must kill yourselves for proselytism.”
5. Excessively Controlling to Its Members
Members’ private written communications read by superiors, entire salaries surrendered to the organization, access to reading materials strictly controlled — all these are forms of control critics ascribe to Opus Dei. And surprisingly, representatives of the organization have, on several occasions, admitted to carrying out these practices. In an interview with BBC Mundo, for example, a Spanish Opus Dei priest named Jose Carlos Martin de la Hoz admitted that Opus Dei directors did read letters addressed to or written by its members; however, he explained that this was consented to by members as a manifestation of their commitment to Opus Dei. Furthermore, in 2001, in an ABC News interview, Opus Dei national spokesman Brian Finnerty admitted that members of the organization indeed turned over their salaries to Opus Dei, were segregated according to sex, allowed spiritual directors to read private emails, and were restricted in terms of the reading materials they could access. In fact, several former and current Opus Dei members claim to have been encouraged by the organization to abandon their families.
4. Overly Secretive
Opus Dei has often been accused of intense secrecy when it comes to many aspects of its operations. The organization’s 1950 constitution, for example, expressly forbids members from revealing their membership unless permission to do so has been granted by superiors. In fact, this 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 languages.
However, Opus Dei defenders like American journalist John Allen, Jr., claim that the organization’s silence is not rooted in secrecy, but rather in a profound commitment to privacy and humility.
3. Questionable Attitude Towards Women
Catholicism is often criticized for disallowing women from becoming priests and prohibiting abortion and artificial birth control. However, Opus Dei is especially denounced for additionally segregating unmarried men and women in its centers, classes, and retreats — a practice the organization justifies as a “measure of prudence.” Furthermore, several of Escrivá’s teachings on women have done little to appease critics. They include the following:
Women needn’t be scholars: it’s enough for them to be prudent.
Wives, you should ask yourselves whether you are not forgetting a little about your appearance. Remember all the sayings about women who should take care to look pretty. Your duty is, and will always be, to take as good care of your appearance as you did before you were married — and it is a duty of justice, because you belong to your husband.
2. Too Independent, Too Influential
In 1982, Pope John Paul II declared Opus Dei a personal prelature, meaning that geographical dioceses could not exercise jurisdiction over the organization’s operations in their areas. The declaration led critics to observe that Opus Dei had been transformed into “a church within a church”. Furthermore, many Catholics do not appreciate the strong influence that Opus Dei has on the Church. The most commonly cited example of this influence being used was the unusual haste with which Escrivá was canonized — just 27 years after his death. Furthermore, allegations were raised that the usual “Devil’s advocate” method of testing a candidate for sainthood’s worthiness was not employed for Escrivá. More specifically, it is pointed out that several witnesses against Escrivá’s canonization were not allowed to testify, thus setting the stage for what journalist William Montalbano called, “perhaps the most contentious beatification in modern times.”
1. Encourages Practice of Corporal Mortification
One of the most memorable images from the film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code is of Opus Dei monk Silas brutally tightening a spiked cilice around his thigh. (Opus Dei doesn’t really have monks, by the way.) Almost everyone agrees that the portrayal is a highly sensationalized one, but some Opus Dei members do actually practice corporal mortification — the offering of voluntarily imposed pain or discomfort to God. This may come in the form of fasting, sleeping on the floor or without a pillow, remaining silent for lengthy periods of time, or even more extreme acts like self-flagellation. In fact, Opus Dei does not oppose the use of a cilice, but only to the point that “there is no blood, no injury, nothing to harm a person’s health, nothing traumatic.” However, the organization is also quick to clarify that corporal mortification must be performed under the supervision of a priest.
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