The Malta Independent 3 June 2020, Wednesday

The ‘Opus Dei’ Phenomenon

Malta Independent Tuesday, 13 June 2006, 00:00 Last update: about 7 years ago

It seems that cinemagoers are considered to be more gullible people than those who read novels.

Otherwise how else can one explain the almost moronic hysteria that certain local newspapers tried to create when The Da Vinci Code was about to be released as a movie, when they hardly managed a whimper when the book was sitting comfortably at the top of the fiction best-selling charts?

It seems that some of these critics were so uninformed that not only did they not bother to read the Dan Brown novel – which was hardly a highbrow affair to plough one’s way through – but one particular critic couldn’t even manage to get the name of the film/book right on TV even though he did not refrain from feeling shocked about the whole saga. Neither The Life Of Brian nor The Last Temptation Of Christ managed to create a storm, although I believe both were banned locally.

The winner of it all was the Nationalist Party as it managed to deflect attention from its mismanagement of the economy in the same way as will happen now that the World Cup has got underway.

One particular focus of attention which both the book and the novel have raised was on the actual role of the Opus Dei movement.

Books-a-plenty have been written about the subject from John L. Allen’s account to the conspiracy theory-laden What Is Opus Dei? by Noam Friedlander, who has written in the past for The London Times on religious affairs.

Some of the titles of the chapters of the latter publication speak for themselves:

• Franco Wins – and Opus Dei Expands

•The Nazis, the Pope, the Occult and Opus Dei

• Taking Over the Vatican

• The New Conquistadors of South America

• Achieving the American Dream

• God’s Banker Pays the Price

• At the Heart of the Vatican

• Murder at the Vatican – the Power Struggle Continues?

• European Unions and Opus Dei

Basically, Opus Dei is the brainchild of Josemaria Escriva who was born in Barbastro in 1902.

In 1928 while under divine inspiration on a spiritual retreat in Madrid, he founded the movement as a way of sanctification for people from all walks of life, in their daily work and the fulfilment of their ordinary duties as Christians.

The name Opus Dei was not used until the early 30s, however, from the outset, in his writings and conversations about what God was asking of him, he would talk of the “work of God”.

It was in 1950 that Pope Pius XII granted definitive approval to Opus Dei, enabling married people to join Opus Dei and secular clergy to be admitted to the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross.

A few years later Escriva was appointed a member of the Pontifical Academy of Theology and Consultor of the Congregation of Seminaries.

In 1961 Pope John XXIII named him Consultor of the Pontifical Commission for the Authentic Interpretation of the Code of Canon Law.

In 1969 a special general congress of Opus Dei met in Rome to study the change of Opus Dei’s legal status in the Church to that of a Personal Prelature, a juridical structure introduced by the Second Vatican Council and ideally suited to the pastoral characteristics of Opus Dei.

Over the years Escriva carried out a series of extensive catechetical journeys mainly in Spain and Portugal but also in six South American countries.

When he died in 1975, Opus Dei membership totalled some 60,000 people.

It was in 1981 that the cause of his canonisation opened in Rome.

Slightly more than one year later, John Paul II established Opus Dei as a Personal Prelature.

In 1990 the publication of the Decree of the Heroic Virtues of the Venerable Servant of God Josemaria Escriva took place while one year later the decree was published on a miraculous cure attributed to his intercession.

Escriva was beatified in 1992. His canonisation took place in October 2002.

In his introduction to his book on Opus Dei, Vatican correspondent John L. Allen described the most controversial force in Roman Catholicism as “the Guinness Extra Stout of the Catholic Church” in the sense that it is a strong brew, definitely an acquired taste and clearly not for everyone!

Comparing Opus Dei to a beer might seem to trivialise the issue, but as the author claims: “Precisely because it resists faddishness, it enjoys a cult following among purists who respect it because it never wavers. Of course, if you think it tastes awful, its consistency may not be its greatest selling point. Yet while Extra Stout may never dominate the market, it will always have a loyal constituency.”

While its worldwide following is undoubted, it is also bitterly opposed by a substantial sector of opinion inside and outside the Catholic Church.

The mystique and controversy surrounding Opus Dei makes careful analysis a complicated task.

One has to distinguish between its message and its institution.

The idea that a minority of its members wear a barbed chain called a cilice around their thigh for two hours a day, for example, or that it will not publicise the names of its members, are institutional practices which have nothing at all to do with what it actually stands for.

There are various categories of members ranging from supernumeraries who constitute the majority of its members. They are the least available to the activities of the movement, because generally they are married or have other family or personal commitments. They live in their homes, as opposed to a centre of Opus Dei.

On the other hand, numeraries, who constitute about 20 per cent of the total, are members who make Opus Dei their immediate family. They make commitments of celibacy and live in Opus Dei centres.

Numerary assistants are a special subset of numeraries who devote themselves full-time to the domestic care of Opus Dei centres and other facilities.

The associates are celibate members. The distinction between a numerary and an associate is the residence; beyond that, the expectations and commitments are the same.

Several critics of Opus Dei have charged that Escriva was disillusioned by the Vatican Council II because of the liberalisation it unleashed within Roman Catholicism.

The movement has often been accused of elitism over the years partly because of the emphasis it lays on excellence in secular work. Others have criticised it for being “a factory of fundamentalism”.

The controversies about the movement were not born yesterday.

In some cases dating back to the 1940s the main issues concern secrecy, women, money, power, recruiting, demands for obedience and corporal mortification.

The questions that instantly come to mind are whether it is true that men and women are segregated in this movement, and if so, why? If Opus Dei did bail out the Vatican Bank? If members whip themselves, and if so, why?

But the two most ticklish questions are whether it is a secret society as well as a right wing political force.

The answers to all these questions cannot be spelt out black on white. Often the end result is somewhat blurred.

While there were cardinals who openly supported Opus Dei, there were others like the late Cardinal Basil Hume of Westminister – who was considered one of the more progressive cardinals of his day – who publicly showed much concern about this organisation. He laid down certain guidelines in their regard even though he wrote that they “must not be seen as a criticism of the integrity of the members of Opus Dei or of their zeal in promoting their apostolate.”

Although a 1950 document of the movement cites an obligation to “speak cautiously with outsiders”, the 1982 Statutes which took the place of the 1950 “Constitutions” prohibit “secrecy or clandestine activity” and say that members are to act with naturalness but “without hiding that they belong to the prelature.’

It has been reported that although Opus Dei are associated with mortification, its members are far from the only Catholics who engage in corporate mortification. In the 20th century, famous saints have been known to have worn the cilice and use the discipline.

Some observers of this movement would extend their inquest beyond the assets of the organisation’s centres and corporate works, and point to secular enterprises with which Opus Dei members are involved as evidence of a much wider sphere of financial influence.

There is some merit in this exercise, if only to demonstrate that some Opus Dei members do have positions of importance in the worlds of commerce, international finance and banking among others.

But to be fair there have been various Opus Dei projects which are known to have had to be scrapped for lack of resources.

Even though some critics superficially dismiss Opus Dei as a “creature” of John Paul II, it has to be acknowledged that he was in a sense “the pope of the movements”, a leader who strongly encouraged a wide array of new religious orders and lay groups in the Catholic Church such as the Focolare and Comunione e Liberazione.

According to John L. Allen, Benedict XVI has had considerable interaction with Opus Dei over the years, working closely at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with a number of key Opus Dei members, and has always expressed admiration for its spirituality and apostolic activity.

In fact in March 2002, Ratzinger had participated in the presentation in Rome of a book entitled Opus Dei – The Message, The Works, The People by Italian author Giuseppe Romano. On that occasion, he delivered his most extensive public comments on Escriva.

One development which I came to know about only recently was that a certain rivalry tends to exist between Opus Dei and the Jesuits which has been described as being in a sense ironic, because Escriva himself had a great personal devotion to Ignatius.

In politics, Opus Dei has often been dismissed as having a conservative tendency, as could be confirmed by the mould of the Aznar government in Spain. In sharp contrast, there are no Opus Dei members in high positions in the Zapatero administration.

Nevertheless one cannot afford to be so categoric when classifying Opus Dei’s links with the political world. One will find Opus Dei libertarians and Opus Dei statists as much as one can find capitalists and believers in government intervention.

It is more than an open secret that Blair’s Minister for Local Government, Ruth Kelly is a self-confessed member of Opus Dei. Although she now admits her affiliation to this organisation, when her links to Opus Dei were revealed some two years ago, she had left it in the awkward position of not being able to either confirm or deny her membership since she compounded the problem by refusing for almost a month to discuss the brief flurry in the British press about her affiliation.

I personally think Opus Dei has an image problem in the sense that it allows certain myths to surround certain processes as its recruiting ways and methods.

I neither hold a brief for this organisation nor intend to set out to demonise it.

As I see it, its main message is that religious living does not even require religious life in the classic, canonical sense but is instead “infused with a sense of vocation, as it can work to transform the world from within,” consisting as it does of lay Christians with no vows and no habits. Basically being made up as it is in all external ways of people ostensibly identical to everyone else!

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Leo Brincat is the Main Opposition Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and IT.

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