Saint Josemaría Escrivá, Founder of Opus Dei:
"Work is the way to contribute to the progress of society; even more, it is a way to holiness."
The Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei, commonly known as Opus Dei (Latin for "Work of God") or the Work, is a personal prelature created by the Roman Catholic Church, composed of a prelate, secular priests, and ordinary lay people, whose mission is to help spread the Catholic teaching that everyone is called to become a saint and an apostle of Jesus Christ, and that ordinary life is a path to sanctity. Founded on October 2, 1928 by a Roman Catholic priest, St. Josemaría Escrivá, Opus Dei was established as a personal prelature by Pope John Paul II, making it a part of the Church's institutional structure.
Popes and many Catholic leaders strongly support what they see as Opus Dei's innovative teaching on the sanctifying value of work, its complete fidelity to the Catholic Church, and its work of enabling each Catholic lay person to take full responsibility for the mission of sanctifying society. In contrast, it has often been accused of secrecy, ultraconservative beliefs, a right-wing political agenda, and even cult-like methods. Recent studies though have done much to counter these claims, including the work of John L. Allen, Jr. (2005) who stated that some of these views are rooted in a longstanding misinterpretation of its newness. Dr. Massimo Introvigne, a prolific sociologist of religion and a conservative Catholic scholar, stated in 1994 that Opus Dei has been, for many years, the prime target of secularists who "cannot tolerate 'the return to religion'" of the secularized society. It is also stigmatized, he said, by Catholic liberals and ex-members. Seen by many Catholics as a sign of contradiction, Opus Dei is described by Allen as the most controversial force in the Catholic Church.
Mission in the Catholic Church
Escrivá said that as a teenager his "heart was longing for something great," feeling the tug of divine love.
Opus Dei was founded by a Roman Catholic priest, Josemaría Escrivá, on 2 October 1928 in Madrid, Spain. According to his personal account, the founding of Opus Dei had a "supernatural character." On that day he "saw Opus Dei."
In his own words, the mission of Opus Dei is:
"to help those Christians who… form part of the very texture of civil society to understand that their life… is a way of holiness and apostolate. The one and only mission of Opus Dei is the spreading of this message which comes from the Gospel. And to those who grasp this ideal of holiness, the Work offers the spiritual assistance and the doctrinal, ascetical and apostolic training which they need to put it into practice."
Its main activity is to "give a Christian training to its members and to other people who wish to receive it." Escrivá summarized Opus Dei's role as "a great catechesis," a Catholic teaching agency.
From its early years, Opus Dei faced criticism and opposition, but also enjoyed the strong support of Catholic officials, starting with the Bishop of Madrid, Leopoldo Eijo y Garay. Years later, Escrivá's vision of Opus Dei would be confirmed by Pope John Paul II, who stated that Escrivá had founded Opus Dei ductus divina inspiratione, led by divine inspiration, an assertion which is disputed by its opponents inside and outside the Catholic Church.
Filipino painting titled Magpakabanal sa gawain:
"Be a saint through your work."
In his Apostolic Constitution Ut Sit, John Paul II declared that Opus Dei is "an institution which has in fact striven not only to enlighten with new lights the mission of the laity in the Church and in society, but also to put it into practice. It has also striven to put into practice the teaching of the universal call to holiness, and to foster at all levels of society the sanctification of ordinary work, and these it does by means of ordinary work."
"The message of St Josemaría," says José Cardinal Saraiva Martins, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, "belongs to the perennial patrimony of the Church." The following are the main features of Escrivá's spiritual teachings, the core message of Opus Dei.
Holiness in ordinary life
Having become members of God's family through baptism, all Christians are called to a life of holiness consistent with their new nature as children of God. "The majority of Christians," Escrivá writes, "should sanctify themselves in the world, through ordinary work." Thus they follow Jesus who worked as a carpenter and lived as a son in a Jewish family in a small village for 30 years.
Whatever work Christians do is to be done with a spirit of excellence as an effective service for the needs of society, working out of love for God and all men and women. Their work then becomes a fitting offering to God. In his work of service, Jesus Christ "did all things well" (Mk 7:37).
Love for freedom
Christians should love personal freedom, both their own and that of all men and women. God the Son himself, on becoming man took on human freedom, and with his free choices he redeemed us through love: As man, he freely obeyed his Father's will throughout his whole life, even "unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:8). "Because he wants to," each person directs his life towards eternal union with God or eternal separation, the two ultimate roads of life.
Prayer and mortification
Love, the essence of sanctity, is nurtured by constant child-like prayer, assisted by norms of piety that include love for the Eucharist, frequent confession, reading Sacred Scripture, and devotion to the Virgin Mary. Mortification, "prayer of the senses," is especially done through a sporting struggle to practice all the human virtues out of love. "'Great' holiness consists in carrying out the 'little duties' of each moment." These actions are co-offered in the Holy Mass, the same redeeming sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and the centre and root of a Christian's life.
Charity and apostolate
Christians are to give the highest importance to the virtue of charity: understanding, compassion, courtesy, helping the needy, and fraternal correction.
Love is orderly and should start with one's duties. Charity entails apostolate, leading people to God, the source of peace and joy.
Girls from an Opus Dei youth club setting up a market stall to raise funds to support an African project.
Allen says that the big majority of the undertakings guided by Opus Dei are youth and social development centres.
Unity of life
A Christian who seeks God not just in church, but also in the most material things has no double life, a life of faith divorced from daily work. Instead, he has a "unity of life" — a profound union with Jesus Christ, both fully God and fully man, one person in whom divine power is fused with ordinary human activity. Thus, a Christian's work becomes God's redeeming work, opus Dei. Despite all his defects, which with God's help he humbly strives to uproot, he becomes more and more alter Christus, ipse Christus, another Christ, Christ himself.
According to Escrivá, the foundation of the Christian life is one's "divine filiation." Divine filiation is the Christians' fundamental state as "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pt 1:4), being children of God in Christ, the deep awareness of which brings about immense happiness: "Joy comes from knowing we are children of God." Opus Dei, Escrivá says, is "a smiling asceticism."
In Opus Dei in the United States, Associate Editor of America Magazine, Jesuit Fr. James Martin (1995), belittles the maxims found in Escrivá's The Way. He says these range "from traditional Christian pieties...to sayings that could easily have come out of Poor Richard's Almanack." On the other hand, Sebastiano Cardinal Baggio states that Escrivá is a "turning point in the history of Christian spirituality." Some scholars say he "is like a figure from the deepest spiritual sources," possessing "the temper of a Father of the Church." Indeed, Escrivá was a polarizing figure in the Catholic Church.
Catholic personal prelature
John Paul II ordaining the first Opus Dei prelate, Bishop Alvaro del Portillo:
On creating the prelature, John Paul II said Escrivá founded it ductus divina inspiratione, "led by divine inspiration," an assertion disputed by its critics.
John Paul II established Opus Dei as a personal prelature of the Catholic Church on 28 November 1982. This legal framework, the Pope said, is "perfectly suited" to Opus Dei's "true nature and theological characteristics": a unified, secular, international body of priests and lay people, both men and women, sharing the same vocation with no distinctions, under the governance of one head. Being a part of the Church's hierarchical structure, like a diocese, indicates that Opus Dei is an integral part of the Church itself, and not a mere product of voluntary association.
Critics, like Kenneth Woodward, the longtime religion editor and senior writer for Newsweek, say Opus Dei through its juridical status has become independent from Catholic Church authority, a "church within the Church." On the part of the Vatican, Msgr. Marcello Costalunga of the Congregation for Bishops says that there were "abundant replies" of support from the 2000 bishops who were consulted for this decision. Personal prelatures, similar to dioceses and military ordinariates, are under the governance of the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops.
These 3 types of ecclesiastical structures are composed of lay people served by their own secular clergy and prelate. Unlike dioceses which cover territories, personal prelatures —like military ordinariates— take charge of persons as regards some particular objectives regardless of where they happen to live. As to "what the law lays down for all the ordinary faithful," the lay members of Opus Dei, being no different from other Catholics, "continue to be ... under the jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop," in the words of Ut Sit. As jurisdictional circumscriptions, personal prelatures were set up by the Second Vatican Council to enable the Catholic Church to organize itself better in addressing specific pastoral objectives.
Vocation and membership
Perrottet family of Sydney.
Supernumeraries are inspired by the Catholic teaching that "large families are a sign of God's blessing and the parents' generosity" (CCC 2373).
In "Vocation to Opus Dei as Vocation in the Church," Fernando Ocariz (Opus Dei in the Church 1994) says that within the common vocation of all Christians to become holy, the faithful of Opus Dei have a specific vocation of spreading the knowledge of the universal call to holiness in the process of sanctifying their daily work.
Through their vocation, the faithful of Opus Dei are equally members of a single portion of the Catholic Church, the "People of God." Opus Dei members, Ocariz says, have "one vocation," because they are called to have the same apostolic aim, practice the same spirit and ascetical means, and receive the same training. Due to this "oneness of vocation," Ocariz says Opus Dei has the atmosphere of a Christian family, where the faithful call the prelate "the Father."
Because the vocation is the same for all the faithful, there are no degrees of membership. There are, however, different ways of living that same Christian vocation, according to the different circumstances of each one: married, single, healthy or sick, etc. Unlike religious or consecrated persons, the members of Opus Dei are incorporated into the prelature by means of private contracts and not vows. To be incorporated into the Opus Dei prelature, one must freely ask to do so, convinced that one has received a vocation.
The majority of the faithful of Opus Dei are supernumeraries, who currently account for about 70% of the total. Generally they are married men or women, for whom the sanctification of their family duties is their "most important business" and their "path to holiness," in the words of Escrivá. Supernumeraries are not as available as the other faithful in the prelature for administrative tasks, but lend assistance as their circumstances permit. According to Vittorio Messori, in Opus Dei, "supernumeraries represent the 'normal,' the most frequent vocation in statistical terms, and in them is seen most clearly the purpose of Opus Dei—to Christianize the world from the inside through people of the world who are not worldly."
The rest of the faithful of the prelature are men and women who commit themselves to celibacy for apostolic reasons. Numeraries, who comprise less than 20% of the faithful, are usually able to live in centers of Opus Dei. Their circumstances allow them to be more available to attend to the apostolic undertakings and the training of the other faithful of the prelature. Like all the rest, they carry out their professional work in the middle of the world. For a few of them, this could involve directing the apostolic activities of the prelature for a span of time. Numerary assistants are women of Opus Dei whose professional work is to look after the domestic needs of its centres. Escrivá liked to call their work "the apostolate of apostolates," since it provides the foundation of the prelature's apostolic efforts. Associates live with their families or wherever is convenient for professional and personal reasons. It is generally from the numeraries and associates that the prelate calls men to the priesthood. The Priestly Society of the Holy Cross is an association of clergy intrinsically united to Opus Dei that fosters personal sanctification, brotherhood among priests and unity with their own bishop.
Cooperators of Opus Dei are non-members who collaborate with the faithful of Opus Dei by praying, giving alms or providing assistance to the prelature.
Instruction and training
A Christian becomes a saint, according to Opus Dei's founder, through God's grace and mercy, and through the use of some principal means of sanctification, "learning to love": (1) interior life, activities turned into contemplation, which Jesus Christ calls "the one thing necessary" (Lk 10:42), and (2) doctrinal training, a well-reasoned understanding of God and his ordered work as revealed in the Catholic faith, which Benedict XVI calls the religion of the Logos (the Word: logic, intelligence, reason, meaning). Thus Escrivá says Christians should have "the piety of children and the sure doctrine of theologians."
He holds that the "paramount means of formation" is personal coaching through spiritual direction, a practice which has its roots in the early Church. According to Cornelio Fabro, eminent Italian philosopher, Opus Dei's training fosters the human virtues, habits which are developed through the repetition of free decisions in one's activities and professional work. These habits of human excellence, including love for the truth, courage, and generosity, are the "foundation," Escrivá says, of the supernatural virtues of faith and love for God. Since he always stressed the importance of "the free and responsible personal action of each member," Fabro says Escrivá "restored the true concept of Christian freedom...After centuries of Christian spiritualities based on the priority of obedience, he taught that obedience was the consequence and fruit of freedom." It is to be noted though that this Catholic-Thomistic notion of "freedom for excellence" is different from the secular notion of "free choice" as having the highest value.
Faith, novelty, and controversies
Escrivá's example and teaching lead "to overcoming the great temptation of our time: the pretence that after the 'big bang' God retired from history."
John Paul II said Opus Dei "anticipated the theology of the lay state, which is a characteristic mark of the Church of the Council and after the Council."
He described its aim as "a great ideal" and its message as both timely and timeless. The Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council states:
"All the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord, each in his own way, to that perfect holiness whereby the Father Himself is perfect (Mt 5:48)." "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."
The biblical concept that everyone is called to sanctity was already enunciated by Augustine of Hippo, Francis of Sales, and Alphonsus Liguori, but their emphasis was on prayer and liturgical devotions, basically monastic spirituality applied to lay people. "Escrivá is more radical," writes Cardinal Luciani (1977), who later became John Paul I. "For him, it is the material work itself which must be turned into prayer and sanctity," thus providing a lay spirituality for lay people to attain holiness. The "absolute novelty" of Opus Dei, says Franz Cardinal König (1975), the perceived leader of the "progressivists" in Vatican II, lies in teaching that the two separated worlds of religious life and professional life "should in fact walk together." On a deeper level, the "great originality" of Opus Dei's message, states José Cardinal Saraiva Martins (2002), is based on the teaching that all of creation has been sanctified by the God-become-flesh: movies, gardens, family outings, sports can and should lead to God. In this Christian materialism, as Escrivá calls it, Christians leading an integral life of prayer and mortification are called to "passionately love the world" and to "free creation from disorder." For other testimonies, please see Opus Dei and Catholic Church Leaders.
Jesus Christ, sign of contradiction (Lk 2:34).
In the work of spreading a message that to many seems new, Opus Dei faced challenges, misunderstandings and controversies, leading some Catholic leaders like John Cardinal Heenan to see Opus Dei as a sign of contradiction, a "sign that is spoken against" (Lk 2:34). This term, John Paul II suggests, is "a distinctive definition of Christ and of his Church."
In the 1940s, some Jesuits led by Fr. Angel Carrillo de Albornoz, who later left the Society of Jesus, denounced Opus Dei's teachings as "a new heresy." It is not orthodox, they said, to teach that the laity can be holy without public vows and distinctive clothing. Also, these critics were concerned that Opus Dei would take away vocations from the religious orders.
Based on reports from Spain, 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." This first attack against Opus Dei from within well-regarded ecclesiastical circles ("the opposition by good people," Escrivá called it) is considered the root of present-day accusations coming from the most varied quarters. This is the conclusion of a number of writers, including John L. Allen, Jr., an American journalist known for his objectivity, in his work Opus Dei: an Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church (2005).
Some time after the end of the Second Vatican Council, Opus Dei critics started to point out though that it has an ultraconservative and reactionary vision of the Roman Catholic faith. Award-winning journalist and antitheist Johann Hari even states: "The group prescribes strict hierarchy... It has established itself as the praetorian guard of hard-right Catholic doctrines."
Messori and Allen say in contrast that the Opus Dei prelature does not have any doctrine other than what the Catholic Church teaches. Catholic thinkers such as George Weigel say the use of conservative, a political category, on religious, moral, or intellectual matters is "implausible and distorting." These should be categorised, they say, as either faithful or heretical, good or evil, true or false. The "handing on" (traditio) of "living faith," writes Weigel, has the "capacity to inspire innovative thinking." Opus Dei is the perfect storm, says Allen: It has become the center of the debate in the the post-Vatican II polarization in Catholic politics.
Right is pictured Our Lady, Empress of China in Hac Sa Conference Center, China: The greatest of all saints, Escrivá taught, spent most of her days taking care of her family.
The message Opus Dei is called to proclaim, that all Christians can and should become a saint, is grounded in the following premises: Christians believe that (1) they are "poor creatures" made of nothing "whose pride leads (them) to rise up against God;" (2) Christ is the almighty God, who "has created us and maintains us in existence," and is the "only one who can satisfy the longings of the human heart;" (3) Christ is a Savior who is "madly in love" with us and who is the one most interested in that we live in communion with him in infinite bliss: "He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, to be saints and blameless in his sight" (Eph 1:4); (4) "This Christ who is alive is also a Christ who is near," says Ratzinger of Escrivá's thought, "a Christ in whom the power and majesty of God make themselves present through ordinary, simple, human things."
Always at work in the world, waiting as a Merciful Father in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and personally present in the Eucharistic bread, God makes himself "totally available" to nourish the Christian so as to become "one single thing with him." With the gift of this "divinization" in grace, "a new principle of energy," and with the support of "Christ's family," the Church, the difficult ideal of becoming a saint, another Christ, is "also easy," Escrivá states. "It is within our reach": "My yoke is easy," says Christ, "and my burden light." (Mt 11:30) Becoming a saint is shunned, according to Ratzinger (2002), when there is a "mistaken concept of holiness...as something reserved for some 'greats'...who are completely different from us ordinary sinners. But this is a wrong perception which has been corrected precisely by Josemaría Escrivá." Even if he "can be very weak, with many mistakes in his life," a saint has heroic virtue "because he has been transparent and available for the work of God. In other words, a saint is nothing other than to speak with God as a friend speaks with a friend...the Only One who can really make the world both good and happy."
Javier Echevarria, Opus Dei's Prelate
Our Father God's friendly and tender love, preached Escrivá, "is repaid with love." With Holy Spirit (Infinite Love) residing in a Christian who is willing to correspond, the human spirit which was created to love, says Escrivá, is led along an "inclined plane," which starts with the fervent repetition of short prayers and then "gives way to intimacy with God, looking at God without needing rest or feeling tired." Thus, one of his favourite teachings is the biblical injunction that all should love God with their whole heart, soul, might, and mind, a love which does not keep anything back, a kind of love which parents are supposed to transmit all day long to their children (Deut 6:4-9: Shema Yisrael), and which Christ called the "greatest commandment" (Mt 22:37-40). Escrivá also points to Jesus' "new commandment" to love one another "as I have loved you" (Jn 13:34), "greater love" than which "no man has" for he "lays down his life for his friends" (Jn 15:13). According to the Catechism, this "effective self-offering" is "our model of holiness" (no. 459). For Escrivá this is "the level of what can be demanded" of all Christians.
Affirming that the "Church's first purpose is to be the sacrament of the inner union of men with God" (CCC 775), John Paul II, in the Apostolic Letter At the Beginning of the New Millennium, placed sanctity, "this high standard of ordinary Christian living," as the single most important priority of all pastoral activities in the universal Church "for all times." And for this, Catholics are to live a "life distinguished above all in the art of prayer" and should proclaim God's word "without ever hiding the most radical demands of the Gospel message." And Benedict XVI adds, "it is not a burden to be carried by a great love and a revelation, but it is like having wings." "Having wings" is a traditional metaphor that Escrivá also used.
After one year of research among members of Opus Dei, Allen said that what impressed him most was the "quality of the people." For the most part, he wrote, despite the errors and sins they commit, he found them to be really striving to practice what they preached. The barbers and bus drivers he met are very hardworking and competent, their life of prayer and evangelization "seamlessly" combining with their work.
As for the founder, John Paul II declared: "Faithful to the charism he had received, he gave an example of heroism in the most ordinary situations." Stating that Escrivá is "counted among the great witnesses of Christianity," John Paul II canonized him on 6 October 2002, and called him "the saint of ordinary life." In his Decree of Canonization, the Pope referred to short prayers in which "one can trace the entire life story" of the new saint: Lord, that I might see! Lady, that it might be! All with Peter to Jesus through Mary. We want Christ to reign! All the glory to God!
However, Escrivá's canonization sparked controversy. Critics such as Kenneth Woodward said he was undeserving and that the process of canonization was lightning fast and marred by irregularities. Historian Eamon Duffy of Cambridge University stated: "The canonization of the founder of Opus Dei is the most striking example in modern times of the successful promotion of a cause by a pressure group." On the other hand, Fr. Rafael Perez, an Augustinian priest and an expert on canonizations, states it was the promoters' efficiency, the reforms in the canonization process, and the importance of Escrivá's figure in the Church that enabled the process to move quickly, although in terms of the number of sessions it was the longest to date. Philip Zaleski, a writer on spirituality, said the opposition to saints such as Josemaría Escrivá may even undercut efforts to enhance the role of the laity in the life of the Church.
There are other members of Opus Dei whose process of beatification has been opened: Ernesto Cofiño, a father of five children and a pioneer in pediatric research in Guatemala; Montserrat Grases, a teenage Catalan student who died of cancer, offering up her life cheerfully; Toni Zweifel, a Swiss engineer, and Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, Escrivá's successor as head of Opus Dei.
Together with these developments, there is also a good number of former members who are highly critical of the organization and have set up websites such as the Opus Dei Awareness Network (ODAN) and Opus Libros to inform people about the true practices of Opus Dei. Some even report that Opus Dei attempted to suppress information through legal pressure or slandering. Allen says on the other hand that their views are countered by many other ex-members, the present members, and the estimated 900,000 people who attend activities of Opus Dei. Allen says that the interpretation of the facts "seems to depend upon one's basic approach to spirituality, family life, and the implications of a religious vocation." Some of the most prominent sociologists like Reader Emeritus of Sociology of the University of Oxford, Bryan R. Wilson, put in doubt the testimonies of a type of critical former members. Wilson goes so far as to say, for example, that some of these adult members who are "prone to bias" sometimes "learn to rehearse an atrocity story" so as "to regain their self-esteem."
The Calling of Saint Matthew, a professional tax-collector: While parents complain of separation from their children, the Catechism 2253 states: "Parents must teach that the first calling of the Christian is to follow Jesus."
Ex-members also report of aggressive recruitment whereby members initially hide their links to Opus Dei, persuade recruits not to tell their families, and use threats of condemnation. While there were indeed mistakes committed during the early years of Opus Dei, Allen says "Opus Dei is not the voracious recruiting machine of myth." Regarding complaints on separation from parents and friends, Richard John Neuhaus writes that this is about an "intergenerational conflict that has been around from the beginning of time," a conflict that involves "innumerable young people, including recognized saints." The Catechism teaches: "Parents must remember and teach 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)"
Opus Dei is also accused of high control of members through tight schedules and internal confesors. Allen states: "The vast majority of members I met seemed healthy, well-adjusted, intelligent, running their own lives, and posing no threat to themselves or to others. I never had the impression that anyone was being subjected to this regime by coercion or 'mind control.' For the most part, members seem to experience this structure as liberating rather than confining, helping them become the kind of person they wish to be." He also reported on Opus Dei's policy of "delicate respect" for each person's freedom that Escrivá practised and preached.
Ex-members and many secular writers also cite the corporal mortification practised by the celibate members as "mediaeval." John Allen reports that this is a well-regulated, marginal practice within Opus Dei. Its practice in the Catholic Church, he reports, is both fairly widespread, having been used by modern saints such as Mother Teresa and Padre Pio, and continual throughout its history as a way of following Christ's fasting, passion, and advice: "If anyone wants to be my disciple, let him renounce himself, take up his cross daily and follow me." Unlike other issues about Opus Dei, says Allen, the issue of corporal mortification cannot be easily resolved even after long investigation and reflection, for it deliberately goes against the tide in the contemporary world. Please also see Mortification of the flesh.
Popes and many Catholic leaders see Opus Dei as one among many ecclesial charisms whose task is to enable lay Catholics to sanctify society. In Opus Dei: Leadership and Vision in Today's Catholic Church, Messori states that Opus Dei aims to improve humanity —through its members' apostolate of friendship—by "improving human beings—one by one, and profoundly." The main strategy, according to Escrivá's teaching, is that each Christian must strive to become a "canonizable saint," another Christ redeeming all men and women, and thus also a responsible citizen who works for the common good. Because if Christians are not well-ordered from within, he clarifies, if they do not put God first through a life of contemplation, they will be merely spreading their disorder to other people. "These world crises," he says, "are crises of saints."
"The easiest way to understand Opus Dei," Escrivá told Time Magazine, "is to consider the life of the early Christians. They lived their Christian vocation seriously, seeking earnestly the holiness to which they had been called by their baptism. Externally they did nothing to distinguish themselves from their fellow citizens." From the point of view of Hans Küng, in his The Catholic Church: A Short History (2002), Opus Dei is a "reactionary secret political and theological organisation." Küng is the President of the Foundation for a Global Ethic and a prolific Swiss theologian whose license as a Catholic theologian was withdrawn in 1979. Opus Dei is secretive, says Fr. James Martin S.J., in its recruitment, internal affairs, and finances.
With the abundance of information Opus Dei provides, Allen says though that Opus Dei cannot be called secretive. This allegation, he says, is a misunderstanding of Opus Dei's charism, its "avoidance of self-aggrandizement," its respect for the right to privacy and intimacy of its members, and its novel secular nature. In the same way that Catholic professionals are not official representatives of their parishes, the faithful of the prelature do not set up official Catholic institutions but rather act in their own name as private citizens. Allen claims that the "myths" regarding secrecy, conspiracies, and power-seeking are very out-dated, having been started by certain Jesuits in the 1940s who failed to grasp Opus Dei's newness. There are two Opus Deis, he says: an Opus Dei of myth and an Opus Dei of reality.
Members of Opus Dei and their friends in Condoray Centre, Peru: Opus Dei is very popular among the campesinos of Latin America.
Meanwhile, critics accuse Opus Dei of elitism. "Opus Dei has consistently sided with the powerful against the weak, theologically and politically," says Johann Hari. "Opus Dei has been a major force on the Catholic right opposing social change."  Robert Hutchinson (1999) stated that it has become very powerful and is "the Catholic Church's paramount financial power."
As a result of his research though, Allen (2005) says that while the main apostolate and social work of the members takes place through their daily relationships, they also cooperate with other people in setting up many social initiatives. According to his 2005 study, there are at least 608 such projects in different countries guided by Opus Dei laity and priests: 41% of these are primary and secondary schools, 26% vocational-technical or agricultural training schools, 27% university residences, and the remaining 6% are 17 universities, 12 business schools and 8 hospitals.
He also reports that the worldwide revenue of Opus Dei is only that of a mid-sized American diocese. He says Opus Dei has only 39 bishops out of the 4,564 in the world. And there are only 20 members working in the Vatican, out of 3920 people in total who work there. John Cardinal O'Connor said: "I believe it critical to dispel the notion which borders on calumny that Opus Dei is concerned only about the wealthy and the well educated." "The extension, number and quality of the members of Opus Dei may have led some people to imagine that a quest for power or some iron discipline binds the member together," said Cardinal Luciani (John Paul I). "Actually the opposite is the case: all there is is the desire for holiness and encouragement for others to become holy, but cheerfully, with a spirit of service and a great sense of freedom." Scott Appleby, a Catholic history expert at Notre Dame, estimates that through programs for nonmembers and the articulate piety of its members, Opus Dei informs "about a million conservative Catholics" in the US.
Participants in an International Escrivá Congress.
Writing for Catholics for a Free Choice, Gordon Urquhart, a journalist and former Catholic priest, in his report Conservative Catholic Influence in Europe, describes Opus Dei "as one of the most reactionary organisations in the Roman Catholic Church today...for its devotion to promoting, as public policy, the Vatican's inflexibly traditionalist approach to women, and reproductive health."
Critics, including some ex-Opus Dei members, accused it of "sexist exploitation" of women, who they say were restricted in Opus Dei-run hostels to doing domestic work.
Sharply differing from this view, the founding director of the Institute for Women's Studies and a convert to Catholicism in 1995, Prof. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Ph. D of Harvard University, states: "Opus Dei has an enviable record of educating the poor and supporting women, whether single or married, in any occupation they choose." Allen states that half of the leadership positions in the organization are held by women and they supervise the work of men. He also says that there are many women members who, by sanctifying their work, have proved themselves to be respected professionals in their own field: business, fashion, learning, journalism, etc. He also refers to Marta Brancatisano, a supernumerary, who wrote Approach to an Anthropology of Difference in 2004. She states that women should not enter the workforce as "one more" but as a "different one," given that "the only ontological difference among human beings is determined by the sexes," and that care for the family and the home are "eminently feminine." Nevertheless, whatever is the reality in its relationship with women, "the defects and virtues of Opus Dei tend to become wildly exaggerated," says Allen.
Antonio Fontan: Persecuted by Franco, he later became the first Senate President of Spain's democracy
John Allen observed that while Opus Dei members adhere to Catholic teachings, they have different and even contrary approaches on economic, philosophical and political questions. He told Newsweek: "There's a cardinal principle behind Opus Dei that it can never take political positions corporately. It would compromise the notion of secularity—that political thinking is something for lay people to do, not for a church organization to do. Therefore, on questions that don't deal with faith and morals, there's great pluralism.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia 2003 states that Opus Dei in Spain "gained national importance after the civil war, when it received support from the government of Francisco Franco. In the 1950s and 60s it replaced the Falange as the most important conservative political and religious force in Spain."
Messori, who investigated the claim that Opus Dei is a kind of political party in Spain, says this is a longstanding "black legend" spread by the Falange and some clerical sectors. He and Allen state that of the 116 ministers of Franco, only 8 were members. According to English historian Paul Preston, these belong to different political persuasions and Franco appointed them for their technical competence and not for their membership in Opus Dei. Another historian, Brian Crozier, states that Opus Dei "is not, as its enemies either think or want others to think, a political party; nor is it a political pressure group...Opus Dei was not a group to be conciliated by being given a share in power, as the Monarchists were, or the Falange, or the Army." German historian Peter Berglar, an Opus Dei member, says that it is a "gross slander" to connect Opus Dei with Franco's regime, since the latter prosecuted some prominent members of Opus Dei, including Rafael Calvo Serer, and Antonio Fontan who fought for press freedom and democracy, and later became the first Senate President of Spain's democracy. Although, for Allen, there is a distinct political pluralism in Opus Dei, "still there is a sociological reality that the kind of people attracted to Opus Dei tend to be conservative, theologically and politically."
St. Peter's Square on the day of St. Josemaría's canonization.
The response of society to Opus Dei has been mixed. Lech Wałęsa of Poland, Corazon Aquino of the Philippines, Thomas Murphy of General Motors, Ruth Kelly of the United Kingdom, Raymond Barre of France are some of the world leaders who see the positive influence of Opus Dei in society.
"Opus Dei," said Charles Malik, former President of the United Nations and an Eastern Orthodox Christian, "seeks to open the eyes of the whole humanity to the nature of holiness; it is precisely the spirituality needed by our times." Allen, who has travelled around the world, said that "Escrivá is reviled by some and venerated by millions." One-third of the world's bishops sent letters petitioning for the canonization of Escrivá, the Vatican stated. This number and the number of people who attended the canonization were unprecedented, says Messori. Julian Cardinal Herranz, a member of Opus Dei in the Roman Curia, says that "Opus Dei has become a victim of Christianophobia." Nevertheless, he went on to say, "more people today love Opus Dei than don't."
For its part, ODAN reports that wherever Opus Dei is, there is controversy. Opus Dei received world attention with Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. After calling Opus Dei a "Catholic sect" on the novel's "fact page," Brown spins a story in which the fanatical devotion of one its members and the self-interest of its head were used by a mysterious villain for sinister motives. Brown indicates that his portrayal of Opus Dei is based on interviews with members and ex-members, and books about Opus Dei. Examples of such writings are: (1) Opus Dei: An Investigation into the Secret Society Struggling for Power Within the Roman Catholic Church, by former Jesuit Michael Walsh, who adduces a number of conspiracy theories and scandals, (2) People of God by Penny Lernoux; and (3) "Catholic Sects: Opus Dei" by sociologist A. Moncada, an ex-numerary. There are other such writings found on the webpage of ODAN. Opus Dei is also listed on several sites of cult research organizations and cult observer groups.
Massimo Introvigne, a prolific scholar whose most reviewed work is the Enciclopedia della Religioni in Italia, says that secularists and liberals attach a social stigma on their "prime target,"
Opus Dei, since they "cannot tolerate the 'return to religion'" of the secularized society.
Another view is proffered by Dr. Massimo Introvigne, a prolific sociologist whose works appear in 12 scientific journals and is a member of the Alleanza Catolica. He said that these texts are "of very poor scientific quality." In 1994, he stated that secularists, liberal Catholics and anti-Catholics use the term "cult" in order to attach a social stigma against Opus Dei which has been their "prime target for years." Secularist groups fight Opus Dei, he says, because "they cannot tolerate 'the return to religion'" of the secularized society. Forming a strange relationship of believers and non-believers, he states in "Opus Dei and the Anti-cult Movement", liberal Catholics, ex-members, and parents of people involved with Opus Dei have joined forces with these "powerful and wealthy" groups to bolster their fight "against Opus Dei and other Catholic entities who wish to remain faithful to the Magisterium." Since secularists deny truth exists, even in religious matters, he says, mainline scientists reject the reports of anti-cult activists as "unscholarly," including their method of labelling organisations. Anti-catholicism, which Protestant scholar Philip Jenkins calls the "last acceptable prejudice" in the West, is another factor in this fight.
As they apologize for mistakes committed in their work of apostolate, members say it is not right to call a Catholic prelature a cult. Introvigne also states: As a prelature, Opus Dei is "at the very heart of the socio-administrative organisation of the Catholic Church." To label a prelature a "sect" either comes from (1) the use of "quantitative criteria" which does not examine beliefs but behavior and practices, or (2) a political desire of using a stigma against an enemy. Echoing the view of many sociologists, he says: if one uses quantitative elements or if one stigmatizes groups one does not like, one can find "sects" everywhere, including the Catholic Church as a whole. Several Catholic religious orders, Amway, Multi-level marketing, Charismatics and YWCA are also in the list of cult observer groups.
While Opus Dei spokesperson, Marc Carrogio, has issued a "declaration of peace" towards the people behind The Da Vinci Code, some Christian scholars state that "the misrepresentation of Christian beliefs in The Da Vinci Code is so aggressive and continual that we can only conclude that it is a result of willful ignorance or purposeful malice." (The Da Vinci Hoax, Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel 2003) Still, the public perception that a cult-like organization has metastasized in the Catholic Church should be cause of concern for Opus Dei and the Catholic Church, states Allen.
IESE Business School of the University of Navarra: rated one of the top business schools by The Financial Times and The Economist.
In a report of Catholics for a Free Choice, however, Opus Dei is categorised together with Neocatechumenal Way, Focolare, Legion of Christ, Community of St. John, Charismatic Renewal, and Communion and Liberation, as Catholic groups having neoconservative, extremely traditionalist and pre-enlightenment messages for society. Critics generally point out that the Catholic Church, to which Opus Dei and these groups are very much attached, has a negative influence on civilization and society.
In contrast, Benedict XVI praises the work of these lay organizations and commented on the profile of Opus Dei as "this surprising link between absolute fidelity to the great tradition of the Church and to her faith, with a disarming simplicity and unconditional openness to all the challenges of this world, in the academic world, in the world of work, in the world of economics, etc." There are also modern historians, many of whom are non-Catholics, who are revising the common perceptions of the Catholic Church. They say the Catholic Church supports reason and progress, putting it "at the center of the development of the values, ideas, science, laws, and institutions which constitute what we call Western civilization," in the words of Paul Legutko of Stanford University in his review of Thomas Woods' book How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.
The debate about Opus Dei and its role in society continues. The two diametrically opposed positions are reflected in how one interprets point 353 of Escrivá's The Way :
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?
Opus Dei's prelatic church, Our Lady of Peace, located in the central headquarters in Rome. Below the altar lie the mortal remains of St. Josemaría.
Critics say this type of counsel makes it impossible for Opus Dei members to be free in political matters, since it creates ideologies such as "National Catholicism," says Alberto Moncada, or "Catholic Totalitarianism," says Argentine author Emilio Corbiere, or "Catholofascism," as Johann Hari describes Opus Dei. Thus, Opus Dei members are placed squarely on the political right, becoming a conservative influence in world affairs, promoting the Vatican's traditionalist policies against divorce, abortion, euthanasia, gay marriages, contraception, etc., and serving as the Vatican's instrument to oppose the liberal idea that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." (Planned Parenthood vs. Casey 1992)
Supporters, on the other hand, say that without the light of the whole truth revealed by Christ, man is imprisoned in darkness. And in our "rebellion against truth, in this attempt to be our own god, creator and judge, we fall headlong and plunge into self-destruction." (Ratzinger, Way of the Cross, 2005) The "choice of error does not liberate," says Escrivá, and brings instead the "slavery of sin." His supporters say that the Catholic Church per se is beyond earthly power struggles and is engaged in a fundamental struggle for the peace and happiness of each soul: the battle between the powers of evil and the God-man Jesus Christ who, in the words of Opus Dei's founder, "never loses battles."
According to Escrivá, "face-to-face with God, there is no room for anonymity: either one decides to be his friend or his foe." He also states in a key teaching: "Many great things depend — don't forget it — on whether you and I live our lives as God wants." His supporters say that if Christians throughout the world are completely faithful to the Beauty of Truth, Jesus Christ, then "the greatest revolution of all time would take place," according to what they see as the prophetic vision of Opus Dei's founder.
Whether it is God's revolutionary Work, or a conservative political force, or something else, in the culture wars between conservatives and liberals, theists and anti-theists, pro-life and pro-choice, Catholic orthodoxy and heterodoxy, it seems clear that the committed Catholics of Opus Dei will have a part to play.
Image seen on the Official Prayer Card to St. Josemaria Escrivá upon his canonization on 6 October 2002. On that day, Pope John Paul II called Opus Dei's founder "the saint of ordinary life."
Dismantling The Da Vinci Code
The Ways of Opus Dei