A New Way for the Church?

Author: Antonio Gaspari


Antonio Gaspari

Its full title is "Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei (God's Work)," but the organization is generally referred to as Opus Dei (in Spain La Obra). Innumerable books have been written about the movement, but few can claim any real objectivity. Some texts are obvious apologias, others are vehemently critical. Don Luigi Giussani, founder and mentor of Communion and Liberation, the Italian youth movement, confided to journalists after a meeting with the former Opus Dei Prelate Archbishop Alvaro del Portillo: "We (Communion and Liberation) are the foot soldiers in the Church militant, irregulars fighting with sticks and stones... But Opus Dei is in the front lines with its armored tanks; the wheels roll forward silently, but surely. We are beginning to notice them more and more."

The encyclopedic German Historical Dictionary of Christianity by Andresen-Denzler writes as follows under the heading Opus Dei (the Latin words mean literally "The Work of God"): "Traditionalists in the religious field, the organization has from the beginning provoked polemical debates. Some parties exalt the vitality and spiritual force of this Catholic lay elite; others describe the institution as a fundamentalist 'restoration' in its insistence on faith as the only answer to individual and institutional problems, that is, the denial of autonomy to other sectors in society. Their former close ties to the Franco regime, and, in general, their sympathy for rightist political parties, give rise to various strong reactions."

The late Hans Urs von Balthasar, the Swiss Catholic thinker regarded as one of this century's greatest (and occasionally controversial) theologians, discussed Opus Dei in 1963 in the Neue Zuercher Nachrichten (the piece also appeared in the more prestigious Viennese theological journal Wort und Wahrheit). In an article entitled "Fundamentalism," he described Opus Dei as "a concentration of fundamentalist power in the Church."

Von Balthasar's negative analysis of Opus Dei was primarily based on founder Escriva's book The Way, which von Balthasar did not consider of sufficient spiritual depth for a worldwide religious organization.

But the theologian retracted his criticisms in a personal letter to the Prelature. The letter was sent also to the Neue Zuercher Zeitung (a different, much more prestigious paper than the one mentioned above) in January 1979. In that letter (never published, but preserved in Opus Dei's files), von Balthasar wrote: "Because of my lack of concrete information, I am not able to give an informed opinion about Opus Dei today. On the other hand, one thing strikes me as obvious: many of the criticisms leveled against the movement, including those of your own journal concerning the religious instruction given by Opus Dei members, seem to me to be false and anticlerical."

Debates about Opus Dei have never ceased.

The most intense polemics in recent years came in the first months of 1992, just before Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer was beatified by Pope John Paul II (May 17, 1992). Those months saw a veritable "press war," with articles launched like missiles in the pages of leading publications around the globe. It began with a Newsweek article (13 January, 1992) that depicted Escriva as domineering, intolerant and somewhat anti-Semitic, and which suggested that Opus Dei had somehow used its Vatican influence to unduly rush his beatification process. Follow-up articles appeared in many countries around the world, particularly in Spain, where former members of Opus Dei came forward in numbers to denounce the man and the spiritual path they themselves had once followed.

Even in recent months, the polemics have been intense. For example, America magazine, the weekly of the US Jesuits, recently devoted a cover story to the Prelature. The article, written by James Martin, SJ, begins this way: "Opus Dei is the most controversial group in the Catholic Church today. To its members it is nothing less than The Work of God, the inspiration of Blessed Josemaria Escriva, who advanced the work of Christ by promoting the sanctity of everyday life. To its critics it is a powerful, even dangerous, cult-like organization that uses secrecy and manipulation to advance its agenda."

And the article ends, after a somewhat broken-field run through the Prelature's trials and tribulations in the US in recent years (there are 3,000 members in the US) this way: "'They deceive people. They're not straightforward,' said former numerary Ann Schweninger at the end of our long interview. 'I can attest to that.’"

In short, on a strongly negative note.

There are, to be sure, a whole raft of Opus Dei publications, and of books written by those predisposed to be favorable to Opus Dei (Vittorio Messori's Opus Dei: An Investigation, comes to mind; the book was published in Italy by the secular Mondadori publishing house in 1994 only a few months before the same publishing house brought out Messori's best-selling interview with the Pope, Crossing the Threshold of Hope). These works tend to find few or no problems of any kind with Opus Dei. They are the "white response" to the "black accusations" of Opus Dei's critics.

In this regard, Martin is quite right when he writes in America: "Because of the dichotomy of views on the group, and perhaps because of its influence in Vatican circles, it is difficult to find balanced reporting on Opus Dei."

Confronted by bitter attacks against Opus Dei on the one hand, and fervent outpourings of support on the other, we decided to investigate the phenomenon. Why does Opus Dei arouse so much debate? Is Opus Dei the secret and dangerous power its enemies denounce, or the best hope for the future of the Church, as its supporters affirm?

Articles critical of Opus Dei regularly appear in more left-leaning Catholic publications. More "rightwing" publications tend to write glowing accounts of the Prelature and its activity. This raises the question: Is the root of the problem perhaps really political, that is, that critics disapprove of the political positions of Opus Dei's members?

The critics say no, that is not the case—or at least, not entirely. They contend there is also a theological or ecclesial problem, that is, a flaw either in the way Escriva and his followers have conceived of their Christian witness or in the way they have set about implementing that conception in the Church.

It is difficult to know what to make of allegations of improper financial dealings made against Opus Dei. There have long been rumors that shadowy Opus Dei members manage a huge patrimony of international funds. What is Opus Dei's response?

Opus Dei responds that the Prelature, as such, has certainly never been involved in improper financial dealings, and that those who have turned to the Prelature for spiritual guidance remain entirely free and independent in their professional lives.

This distinction between the actions of the Prelature and the actions of Opus Dei members is fundamental, Opus Dei leaders told Inside the Vatican.

In a sense, Opus Dei is arguing that it is taking competent lay people, some of whom have influential positions in the world of finance and business, and "forming them" spiritually to be better, more profound Christians.

The decisions those individuals then go on to make in their business or financial dealings cannot be the Prelature's responsibility, Opus Dei says.

The Prelature is also sharply faulted for its recruitment procedures. Many parents have complained that their children are slowly drawn into Opus Dei without quite knowing what it is and then are unable to get out without great emotional turmoil. This is why some Catholic parents have formed a "network," headquartered in Pittsfield Massachusetts, dedicated exclusively to combatting the influence of Opus Dei throughout the world.

However, along with such bitter attacks, Opus Dei also inspires impassioned demonstrations of esteem, support and enthusiasm.

For the May 17, 1992 beatification ceremonies for Escriva, some 300,000 persons flooded into Rome.

More than one-third of the world's 3,000 Catholic bishops worldwide had requested the beatification (by means of a written petition sent to the Pope), including 69 cardinals, 241 archbishops, 987 bishops, and 41 superior generals of religious congregations.

These Catholic leaders were joined by numerous statesmen and leaders in the fields of culture and science. The beatification, hotly contested by some sectors in the Church (one Spanish theologian described it as a "scandal" and threatened to declare a schism with Rome), had been desired and thoroughly supported by Pope John Paul II, who told Escriva biographers on October 14, 1993: "Blessed Jose Maria Escriva de Balaguer will without a doubt be numbered among the great witnesses of Christianity."

At the time of Escriva's death in June 1975, many predicted his eventual place alongside the great saints of the Church's past. Cardinal Pietro Parente declared: "Mons. Escriva's guiding principles Inspire comparison with those of St. Benedict (the ideal of work's sanctifying force) and of St. Francis (a sense of the divine in every creature's being and activity)." According to Cardinal Sergio Pignedoli (President of the former Secretariat for, Non-Christians): "He is already part of Church history and patrimony." For Cardinal John Joseph Carberry (Archbishop of St. Louis) Escriva was "one of the heroes of our time." Cardinal Maurice Michel Otunga (Archbishop of Nairobi) declared Escriva was "one of the greatest saints of all times."

Opus Dei's Spirituality: Revolutionary or Fundamentalist?

Article 2 of the Opus Dei Statutes states: "The specific objectives of Opus Dei, that is, the sanctification of the members and the salvation of souls, will be achieved by means of the sanctification of ordinary work and the accomplishment of professional duties." Laypersons need no longer limit themselves to assisting the clergy, they can themselves "be there"—as "a sea without shores" for a "great Christian catechesis."

The core of Escriva's teaching is his idea of "sanctified work" and the Christian validation of professional life. The Spanish prelate used examples from the Sacred Scriptures and from his personal life to shore up that message. He explains that Christ comes to find us in the carrying out of our daily tasks. For Escriva our work offers us the chance to participate in the world's creation. He persuasively counseled professional commitment, ethics in business dealings, and a frugal and simple lifestyle, convincing even the most tepid of the "sanctity" of ordinary life.

"Endow your normal occupations with a spiritual motivation," Escriva advised, "and thus you will sanctify your work." It was Escriva's great contribution to make a profound type of spirituality accessible to normal Christians. "I am not saying," Escriva went on to explain, "that you can become a saint in spite of being a layperson, a simple baptized Christian living and working in the everyday world. I am saying you can be a saint precisely because of that." At another point, Escriva stated that: "It is not necessary to separate ourselves from the world. As Christians we belong to the world. We are the world. And this world must be saved from within, not from without."

Regarding the risks of unethical behavior associated with certain professions, Escriva said: "Opus Dei does not need to adapt itself to the world, because its members are already in the world. We do not need to blindly run after success and progress, for the simple reason that our members are building the future every day with their work." At another point he said: "You are men and women of the world, but you are not worldly men and women. Do not let your lives become sterile. Be useful and leave traces of your work."

Revaluation of the secular life, sanctification of work, a spiritual mission carried out within the world—these ideals now form part of Catholic mentality. When Escriva proposed such "revolutionary and radical" concepts, he was considered a dreamer, utopian, a fanatic—even a heretic. Numerous "complaints" were lodged, resulting in various Church inquiries. Furthermore, the self-confidence and passion with which Escriva defended his convictions caused alarm—from quiet nuns to outspoken bishops—in the Church hierarchy.

The Opus Dei founder, for instance, always insisted: "We love and esteem the religious, but we have not chosen that vocation, and no authority in the world, not even that of the Church can force us to do so." Escriva was also known to say: "I am anti-clerical." In 1941 he wrote: "We esteem all the virtues. We are however, not interested in taking vows, although these are worthy of our greatest theological respect, and we respectfully appreciate them in others. They are, nevertheless, not the path we have chosen." To avoid controversy, he explained: "We are not opposed to the spirituality of the religious life. Ours is a sprout which has grown in a different form from the inexhaustible richness of the Gospels."

Everyone—enemies and admirers alike—agree that Opus Dei's great strength lies in this simple, yet completely revolutionary, lay spirituality rediscovered by Escriva. It has been said that Escriva's intuition of a Christian presence in the world of work, in professional life, in the saintliness of ordinary living—in other words the theology of the secular life—was a prophetic anticipation of Vatican II.In fact, Pope John Paul II recognized Escriva's innovative spirituality in a speech to Opus Dei members at Castel Gandolfo on August l9, 1979: "Your institution has as its objective the sanctification of life while remaining in the world, in your professions, and at your workposts: living the Gospel in the world, but in order to transform and redeem that world with your love of Christ. Yours are truly noble ideals, which from the very beginning anticipated that theology of the laity which later characterized the Conciliar and post-Conciliar Church."

Cardinal Franz Koenig, former Archbishop of Vienna and one of the major protagonists of Vatican II, wrote soon after Escriva's death in 1975: "Opus Dei's magnetic force probably derives from its profound lay spirituality. When Msgr. Escriva founded the movement in 1928, he anticipated that Church patrimony reinstated by the Second Vatican Council. To those who followed him, Escriva explained with great clarity that the Christian's place is to be in the world. He was opposed to any hypocritical spirituality, which he felt negated the central truth of Christianity: faith in the incarnation."

Accusations against Opus Dei, however, did not cease with the advent of Vatican II, they merely changed character.

Before the Council, Opus Dei had been censured for harboring "radical" positions; later the organization was, on the contrary, blamed for excessive conservatism, for links with rightist political groups, for exerting pressure in the socio-economic sphere.

There arose suspicions of a "personality cult" regarding the organization's founder, called "El Padre" by his followers.

The same qualities were praised as a sign of grace and as a sign of excess: loyalty and obedience to the Pope; rigorous defense of life, of morality and of canon law; reserve, austerity, and solid preparation in both the theological and professional fields.

Some theologians contend that many of the accusations leveled against Escriva after Vatican II derive from the fact that he held to the more traditional (some say anti-modern) Christocentric spirituality which had prevailed before Vatican II, rather than following the mainline anthropocentric theology of German theologian Karl Rahner, who died in Munich in 1984, which held sway in the post-Conciliar period.

Upon the occasion of Opus Dei's 50th anniversary, Cardinal Corrado Ursi (then Archbishop of Naples) wrote: "During the years of doctrinal and disciplinary confusion, the words and examples of Opus Dei always give us the firm rule: compliant attention to the words of the Holy Father; obedience to the words and to the spirit of the Vatican II; fidelity to the Magisterium. It may make us smile to remember that, many years earlier, even before the Council called all members of the Church to sainthood in virtue of their baptismal commitment, Msgr. Escriva de Balaguer had been accused of heresy because he spoke of lay sainthood in the professional life, in marriage, and in the secular life."

Escriva's orientation has evidently proven inspiring, as we can see from Opus Dei's growing membership.

During the post-Conciliar decades of Catholic identity crisis, the Church witnessed a fall in vocations and a decrease in practicing churchgoers, particularly in respect to the expanding population.

Opus Dei, on the other hand, has had a vertiginous growth, arriving at the astonishing number of 80,000 members.

Opus Dei From Within

Opus Dei, until now, is the first and only Personal Prelature in the Catholic Church. Thus it is like an international diocese without borders.

Without compromising the local bishops' authority, Opus Dei members can carry out their tasks in benefit of their respective dioceses while responding to Prelate of the organization. At the same time, the organization must inform the bishop if its members begin work in a particular diocese and must ask permission if they wish to set up centers of Opus Dei activities.

Pope John Paul II's granting of a personal Prelature to Opus Dei was a source of considerable controversy within the Church. Because of its claims to autonomy and independence, Opus Dei has been accused of trying to be a "Church within a Church."

Opus Dei members respond to this criticism by quoting from the work of their founder, who countered attacks by suggesting three key responses: pray; smile; forgive.

Escriva's ever-present concern was the necessity to preserve, at all costs, the lay nature of his organization, in both content and structure.

For that reason, Opus Dei rules and regulations are unlike those of every other Catholic institution.

In Opus Dei there are three levels, or "ranks" of membership. First are the numeraries, all lay persons with academic degrees, who dedicate their lives to the Prelature, but may also take on jobs in public administration, universities, or other professions (Article 8 of the Statutes). The numeraries live together as a family in a "center." At the age of 18, each numerary may make an act of "temporary incorporation" (membership); at the age of 23, they pledge "fidelity" or "perpetual incorporation." Numeraries remain celibate, but do not take religious vows. About 20% of Opus Dei members are numeraries.

Next come the aggregates, who occupy an intermediate position in the Opus Dei structure. They share the numeraries option for celibacy and most numerary commitments, but they can also live on their own. This category was primarily created for those who carry out similar tasks as numeraries, but who do not have academic degrees. The aggregates count for about 10% of Opus Dei members.

Supernumeraries are lay faithful (single, married, or widowed) who have received the same divine call as the numeraries and aggregates, but live their vocation in their family and work environment. The great majority of Opus Dei followers belong to this group, about 70% at the present time.

Priests in the Prelature

The Opus Dei priest is supposed to have "the soul of a priest" and "the mentality of a layperson." Escriva decided to ordain Opus Dei priests 16 years after the creation of "the Work." The founder said: "Priesthood in Opus Dei is not to be regarded as the supreme level, the prize for the very best: it is a call to serve souls, at the same time like and unlike other methods for saving souls in the organization." All Opus Dei priests come from the ranks of the numeraries or aggregates.

After a certain number of years, the Prelate will ask a specific number of numeraries or aggregates if they wish to become priests in the service of the Opus Dei. They can accept or refuse. Those who accept leave the secular life and enter Opus Dei seminaries.

Each Opus Dei priest has a lay advisor.

The number of Opus Dei priests has been set since the beginning at 2% of all Prelature members; in the future it is not expected to grow to more than 3%.

Taken from:
Inside the Vatican © 1995
June-July 1995

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