Opus Dei Over Time

ICSA e-Newsletter, Volume 5, Number 2, 2006

Opus Dei Over Time

Alberto Moncada, Ph.D.

This paper briefly examines Opus Dei’s three stages of development, with a focus on the emergence of the sectarian characteristics that have generated much criticism of the organization. These sectarian features cause considerable mental stress to members and former members. [1]

The evolution of Opus Dei has been rather rapid and at times contradictory. Opus Dei is in the sociological sense an organization. Since all organizations have a basic need to survive, change is often necessary. This paper briefly examines how Opus Dei has changed since its inception.

The organization’s sectarian (in Europe, “sect” and “sectarian” are often used where “cult” and “cultic” might be used in the U.S.) character has its roots in the group’s origin, but that character became most evident in the last of Opus Dei’s three historical stages.

In its first stage, from its founding in 1928 up until the mid 1950’s, Josemaría Escrivá, the founder, insisted that his male followers be celibate intellectuals dedicated to the Christianizing of science and politics. In contrast, the women of Opus Dei were destined to domestic chores.

To develop his organization, Escrivá copied three institutions, one of which he was not even aware of. The most influential institution was that of the Jesuits, which served as the model to organize the life of his numeraries, although the difficulty of doing so quickly became apparent. (See my “La evolución histórica del Opus Dei.”[1]). The second institution was the “Institución Libre de Enseñanza”, to which Franco ideologists attributed all of the evils of the previous Spain, and of which Escrivá wanted to make a Catholic copy. Finally, the institution of which he was not aware was “Action Française,” the integrist movement of the French monarchists, which Charles Maurras organized at the beginning of the twentieth century and which influenced the first Opus Dei activists of the post Spanish Civil war era. Since Opus was born inside the winning party in the Spanish Civil war, it nourished itself with its ideology and especially its Catholic nationalism. One of its attributes was religious fundamentalism, as Urs Von Balthazar made evident in his well-known analysis of Opus Dei. (See “Contexto de una beatificación”.by Olegario González de Cardedal. [2])

This integrism (rigid traditionalism) in the Action Française style, the substance of the way of thinking of the Opus Dei people, makes any real intellectual task impossible and marginalizes the thinkers. The militant fundamentalism of Escrivá led him to show internally, with his typical choleric character, his violent opposition to the Second Vatican Council. This produced the first flight of intellectuals, symbolized by the departure of Raimundo Pánikkar, the only theologian worthy of such a name that Opus has had. In a parallel fashion, the internal workings and the vocational rules impeded the majority of the members from having a true professional dedication.

The second stage, which started in the mid 1950’s, was born of a triple scare. (1) That the Church did not look kindly upon them. (2) That other groups — Jesuits, Falangistas, Christian Democrats, etc. — would get in their way. (3) That they lacked the means to realize the expansionist aims of Escrivá, who was obsessed with immediately building the organization’s central offices in Rome. Pushed by the founder, some of the board members — Antonio Pérez, Alberto Ullastres, Luis Valls Taberner — organized a network of companies, called Esfina, to make profitable investments. Soon afterwards, however, the Franco government recruited Ullastres and other Opusdeistes to manage the Spanish economy and its transition from autarchy to liberalism. This generated the creation of a sort of mafia and many people got close to Opus for personal interests. The organization and some members engaged in questionable business practices, and this produced the first criticism of Opus Dei (both inside and outside of the Church), allegations of public immorality and conspiring with the Franco government. Hence was born the bad reputation of Opus in international public opinion that cannot be stopped by the vast amounts of people, money, and energy that the organization invests in countering it.

At the same time two axiomatic principles, which were clearly sectarian, were being spread in the interior of the organization — “the end justifies the means” and “intentions prevail over moral codes.” These ideas would shape the moral character of the members and especially of the directors. As Dennis Dubro, an ex-numerary from the United States with experience in the economic management practices of Opus alleged, the directors do not hesitate to conduct business that is clearly immoral or illegal or to manipulate information in the same manner. (See his “Seventeen years in Opus Dei.”[3]). This criticism was so serious that Escrivá was obliged to declare in the mid 1960’s the suppression of the businesses that were dependent on the organization. From that point on, Opus has functioned with foundations of various sorts, with which it conceals and channels its civil and commercial activities.

The third and present stage contradicts the traditional doctrine that Escrivá insisted upon, namely, that Opus would never have its own schools. Nevertheless, this has become, always for reasons of survival, the principal activity of the organization. Opus has the widest network of Catholic schools in the Spanish-speaking world in addition to a network of business schools in the purest neoliberal style. Having children close to them in their early years has contributed to allegations concerning the sectarian proselytizing of minors, which is very often a conspiracy between teachers, confessors, and the children’s parents (See my: “Niños en el Opus Dei.” [4]). The third stage, however, is also that of its ecclesiastical triumph because John Paul II, unlike Popes before him, connected perfectly with the ideology of Opus and similar groups. Without listening to other opinions, he gave Opus Dei the status of Personal Prelature, petitioned by Escrivá so that ordinary bishops could not control them. He also canonized Escrivá in a quick and criticized process.

The contention that Opus is a sect started to spread when the Belgian Parliament solicited a report on sects in 1997, in which Opus Dei was listed. Prior to that event, a discussion took place in the Italian Parliament about the secrecy of Opus Dei, and soon sociologists began to research the topic. My “Sectas Católicas: El Opus Dei” [5] was the first. Nevertheless, soon after, many others came out, notably that by Sharon Clasen, whose work lists, in parallel columns, the internal characteristics of the group compared to the description of cults by Steve Hassan: “closed groups, very disciplined, with total loyalty to the leader, of rigid ideology, without moral prejudices, and that proselytizes without scruples, etc.” (See “How Opus Dei is Cult-Like”[6]). Many journalistic accounts and many books concur in this labeling of Opus Dei as a sect.

In addition, works of fiction began to include stories of Opus Dei, the most famous of which is The Da Vinci Code, whose author Dan Brown incorporated a peculiar member of Opus into the well-known plot. Similarly, other novels with ecclesiastical themes began to include stories of Opus Dei, always with the same connotations of mystery, opacity, and sectarian manipulation. But the sectarian character of Opus began to be known in more detail when at the end of the 1990s the second mass departure of numeraries happened, many of whom have reported on their experiences, especially on the Opus Libros website[7].

The Opus Libros website was created in 2002 so that people could read books on-line that are critical of Opus Dei, since its leaders, more or less discretely, have taken these books off the market. The site soon incorporated a section that included testimonies about the experiences of the ex-numeraries. Opus has tried to block this page. Following their well-known tactic of impeding discussion and dialogue when adverse conclusions have been reached in television and other forums, Opus forced the Web designers to change their previous name of “opusdeilibros.” In this fashion, Opus has incorporated itself into the group of political, mercantile, and other entities that try to prevent, sometimes with very questionable methods, their activities from being known.

The sect-like character of Opus can be appreciated today in all of its harshness, by way of the testimonies of countless ex-members who relate real human rights violations. One of the most picturesque people of the organization, the Cardinal of Lima, Juan Luis Cipriani, collaborator of the dictator Fujimori, said not too long ago before a military audience that human rights are “una cojudez,” which in Peruvian slang could be translated as “nonsense”(Diario Liberación[8]).

The closeness of Opus Dei to the military allowed Escrivá to declare that they, by the nature of their calling, share part of the spirit of Opus Dei. Escrivá had a fervent opinion about the Spanish Civil War, which for the Spanish bishops was a religious crusade. Another numerary priest of Opus Dei, Monsignor Saenz Lacalle, is the Archbishop of San Salvador, the successor of the assassinated Monsignor Romero. Lacalle was the Army Bishop before the assassination.

To be an Opus Dei member today is a personal drama, especially for the most intelligent, the most conscientious people. Many people realize this and leave when they can. Others, however, cannot leave because the regimen of poverty in which they live prevents them from accumulating any personal savings. To find oneself in the streets at 40 or 50 years of age can be frightening, especially with the current job market. This foments an enduring sense of powerlessness or cynicism. Nevertheless, Opus prefers to keep these people rather than give them the opportunity to leave. Other organizations do not do this. For example, American Jesuits who leave the Order have the privilege of using a Visa card that is charged to the organization for two years after they leave.

In addition to the present attrition in membership, observers have noted a decrease of houses and centers around the world, as well as an increase in the cases of mental illness. As I explained in “Suicidios en el Opus Dei,” [9] the residences for numeraries are filled with mentally ill people, some of whom cannot cope anymore and take their own lives. They can only consult psychiatrists of Opus Dei, some of whom, as ex-numerary Carmen Charo alleges, are more interested in guaranteeing the membership of their assigned patients than in curing them. (See my “La cuarta planta”[10]). An example of the crassness of this attitude is the case of an ex-numerary who, after mentioning to a priest that she was going crazy, heard him say, “Crazy, yes, but at home” (Ser mujer en el Opus Dei[11]).

This sort of professional aberration is parallel to the organization’s ways of handing other things. The present directors, selected basically for their loyalty to the organization, lack the psychological preparation and maybe even the capacity to understand human rights. The majority has never worked as civilians. They barely know the real world and their primary obsession is that the number of members does not decrease.

Belonging to Opus Dei can stress the mind with contradictions in three areas. First, there is the contradiction between what was promised about one’s career — to work along with everyone else in a civil profession — and what the majority of the numeraries do, which is to take care of the business of Opus Dei as priests or employees of the organization. Second, the presumed freedom to dedicate oneself to a civil job is severely limited by the requirements of numerary life, which includes a multitude of internal obligations and rules about their dwellings, their dealings with other people, and the way they use their time and money, with a rigidity that greatly exceeds that of other religious organizations. The principal factor that causes a mental split in members, however, is the requirement that one pretend that none of this is going on and assure the public that they are regular Christians and that they have the same freedoms as everyone else. This causes some numeraries to live a lie that ends up damaging their mental health and often creates low self-esteem, even an obsession with self-denial, which is much encouraged by the directors. The result is the de-personalization of the numeraries, which comes at a great cost.

The peculiar sect-like nature of Opus Dei also affects its way of practicing religion. For example, in order to enhance the directors’ control over the conscience of their subjects, priests of Opus Dei have, according to some reports, refused to give absolution in the sacramental confession to numeraries who do not commit themselves to tell the same things to the lay directors. This is a crass violation of the secrecy of the confessional, which, like so many things, also must be at the service of the organization. Antonio Esquivias, in his day a priest of Opus, told of his discussions with the directors, including the current president, and his powerlessness to make them change this practice (See “Dirección espiritual.”[12]).

The directors have been obliged of late to increase the number of priests in the organization because the model of personal prelature approved by the church mandates that only the priests are full-fledged members; the rest are simply cooperators. For this reason, the managers have to be priests and the proportion of these, which in the past was only 5% of the numeraries, has now reached 15%, distorting the supposed lay character of Escrivá’s foundation.

Many Catholic priests and Bishops ask how an organization with this sort of profile could benefit from the confidence of the Vatican without their taking any measures to discipline them. The explanation is very simple. The papacy of John Paul II was characterized by two very notorious circumstances. In his zeal to preserve certain traditional structures and beliefs, he jettisoned the collaboration of the most prestigious organizations that were poised for change, such as the Jesuits, the Dominicans, and the Franciscans, and put other organizations at the forefront, including Opus Dei, the Legionaries of Christ, the NeoCatechumens, Communion and Liberation, and other more elementary, more fundamentalist, more obedient organizations, which also recruited more people and had more priests.

Secondly, this Pope had been obsessed, first with the eradication of Communism, and secondly, with the recuperation of the confessionalism of the State, selecting themes of sexual and familial morality to fight the governments and most progressive civil organizations. He was not able to achieve this, but his campaigns were supported by Opus Dei and similar organizations, and many insiders felt that it was very difficult to get him to listen to the criticisms that came to the Vatican. This is what happened with the accusations by ex-Legionaries of Christ with respect to the sexual abuses of Father Marciel, its founder. For these reasons, some experts believe that sectarian organizations belonging to the Catholic Church should have to face up to charges in a civil or criminal court, as has occurred with the charges against the pedophile priests in the United States (Opuslibros.org; ).

Perhaps the principal reason for the sectarian character of ecclesiastical organizations such as Opus Dei is the lack of a framework detailing members’ rights, which leaves them defenseless (see Vere[13]). The vow of the obedience pledge as the regulator of relations between directors and associates converts the latter into unprotected subjects. The obedience pledge as a part of the life of renouncing the world in the monastic tradition is inconceivable in organizations whose members one presumes to be normal people, civil citizens. But, Escrivá, with the obstinacy that characterized him, insisted that in Opus there are no rights, just obligations. His leading book, The Way[14] underscores that the alternatives are to obey or to leave. This gives the superiors the right to exercise an all-encompassing dominion over the consciences of the members, making the organization into a real cult where an unconditional rendition of the person to the group is created. “Our surrender must be complete” is the principle with which one can explain the life of the numeraries of Opus Dei. But, the doctrine of human rights, which is becoming a part of, however slowly, the discipline of the ecclesiastic organizations, in the internal activity of the Catholic Church, is incompatible with this unconditional rendition, with this act of personal submission to superiors that characterizes the numeraries of Opus. As long as numeraries accept this situation in the tradition that Escrivá exalted as a recommended “spiritual infancy,” no problems arise. But the cost of this harmony is an infantilization of behavior and a delayed crisis, in many cases, when numeraries mature and become aware of the contradictions that characterize their civil condition, moral conscience, and relations with the sectarian group.

(The websites: www.opuslibros.org in Spanish and www.odan.org, in English have bibliographies and abundant information about this subject, which can be complemented by a web search with any web search engine.)

Translated by: Tanya Golash-Boza, University of Kansas.


[1] “La Evolución Histórica del Opus Dei,” delivered at the VI Congress of the Spanish Sociological Association, A Coruña, August, 1999.

[2] “Contexto de una beatificación” (Context of a beatification), Olegario González de Cardedal, Diario May 16-17, 1992.

[3] “Seventeen years in Opus Dei,” www.odan.org.

[4] “Niños en el Opus Dei”,”El Siglo, nº 608, May 2004.

[5] “Sectas católicas: El Opus Dei”, published in Revista Internacional de Sociología, October 1992.

[6] “How Opus Dei is Cult-Like,” Sharon Clasen, www.odan.org.

[7] Opus Libros website, www.opuslibros.org.

[8] Diario Liberación, Mariella Patriau,.Lima, 13 September 2000

[9] “Suicidios en el Opus Dei,” El Siglo, nº 654, June 2005.

[10] “La Cuarta Planta”, El Siglo, nº 605, May, 2004.

[11] Ser mujer en el Opus Dei, Isabel de Armas, Foca, 2003

[12] “Dirección espiritual” (Spiritual Direction), www.opuslibros.org

[13] “Sifting the Wheat from the Tares: 20 Signs of Trouble in a New Religious Group,” Peter Vere, Cultic Studies Review, 4(2), 2002.

[14] The Way, Josemaria Escriva, Scepter Publications.

This article is based on a paper presented at the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) conference on Psychological Manipulation, Cultic Groups, and Other Alternative Movements in Madrid, Spain, July 14-16, 2005.

Alberto Moncada, Ph.D., is a sociologist who has taught at the University of Madrid, Stanford University, and the International University of Florida and Alcalá. He has been a consultant with UNESCO, OEA and the Council of Europe, especially in education and development. He has published 30 books, three on Opus Dei, one entitled Religión a la carta and another, in collaboration with Judith Blau, called, Human rights: Beyond the liberal vision (2005). Currently, he is president of Sociologists without Borders.

[1] See Langone, Michael D. (2006). Comment on “Opus Dei Over Time.” ICSA e-Newsletter, 5(2). [http://www.icsahome.com/idx_icsa.enews.htm]