Opus Dei

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Religious disputes; Religious movements, traditions and organizations

Josemaria Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei
Josemaria Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei

Opus Dei, formally known as The Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei, is an international organization which is part of the Roman Catholic Church. "Opus Dei" is Latin for "The Work of God", and the organization is sometimes known simply as "the Work".

Opus Dei was founded in Spain in 1928 by Roman Catholic priest Josemaría Escrivá. In 1930, Escrivá allowed women to join Opus Dei. In 1950, Opus Dei was given final and complete approval by Pope Pius XII. In 1982, Opus Dei was made into a personal prelature—meaning that members of Opus Dei fall under the direct jurisdiction of the Prelate of Opus Dei, rather than under the jurisdiction of their local dioceses. Opus Dei is the currently the only organization to have ever been made into a personal prelature.

Opus Dei is made up of four different types of members: "Supernumeraries", "Numeraries", "Associates", and "Numerary-assistants". One type, the Supernumeraries, are non-celibate, typically married, and make up the bulk of the membership. The other three types are required to be celibate, and often live in special centers run by Opus Dei. Currently, Opus Dei has approximately 85,000 members worldwide.

Opus Dei's central teachings emphasize the Catholic beliefs that "everyone is 'called' to become a saint" and that "ordinary life is a path to sanctity". This is reflected in the fact that only a small minority of Opus Dei's members are part of the priesthood; most members lead traditional family lives and have secular careers.

Various Popes and other Catholic Church leaders have strongly supported Opus Dei and its teachings. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have singled it out for high praise, and in 2002, Escrivá was canonized as a saint. In contrast, critics of Opus Dei have argued that the organization is cult-like, secretive, and highly-controlling.

History of Opus Dei

Opus Dei was founded by a Roman Catholic priest, Josemaría Escrivá, on 2 October 1928 in Madrid, Spain. According to Escrivá, on that day he experienced a "vision" in which he "saw Opus Dei". Throughout his life, Escrivá maintained that the founding of Opus Dei had a supernatural character.

Leaders of Opus Dei describe the organization as a Catholic teaching entity. Escrivá's summarized the Opus Dei's mission by writing:

"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."

Escrivá gave the organization the name "Opus Dei", which in Latin means "The Work of God". Escrivá felt the name underscored the belief that the organization was not his (Escivá's) work, but was rather "God's work" (Opus Dei). Opus Dei is sometimes referred to simply as "The Work".

Initially, Opus Dei was open only to men, but in 1930, Escrivá created the women's branch of Opus Dei, thereby allowing both sexes to participate in the organization. In 1936, Opus Dei suffered a temporary setback when the events of the Spanish Civil War forced Escrivá to go into hiding. After the civil war was won by General Francisco Franco's Nationalists, Escrivá was able to return to Madrid. Opus Dei flourished during the years of Franco's rule, spreading first throughout Spain, and after 1945, expanding internationally.

In 1939, Escrivá published The Way, a collection of 999 maxims concerning spirituality. In 1946, Escrivá moved the organization's headquarters to Rome. In 1950, Pope Pius XII granted the definitive approval to Opus Dei, thereby allowing married people to join the organization. In 1982, Opus Dei was made into a personal prelature-- meaning that members of Opus Dei fall under the direct jurisdiction of the Prelate of Opus Dei, rather than under the jurisdiction of their local dioceses. In 2002, Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escrivá was canonized as a saint.


Opus Dei is a organization within the Roman Catholic church. As such, Opus Dei ultimately shares the overall theology of Catholic Church. Opus Dei does however place special emphasis on certain aspects of Catholic doctrine.

One central feature of Opus Dei's theology is its focus on the lives of average Catholics (known as "the laity" or the "lay people"). Opus Dei emphasizes a " universal call to holiness": the idea that everyone should aspire to be saint-like, not just a few special individuals. Unlike most Catholic orders which usually focus on the clergy, the vast majority of Opus Dei's members are lay persons. Opus Dei does not have monks or nuns, and only a minority of its members are part of the priesthood.

Closely related to this is Opus Dei's emphasis on the uniting the world of spiritual life with the ordinary world of professional, social, and family life. Whereas the members of some religious orders might live in monasteries and devote their lives exclusively to prayer and study, most members of Opus Dei lead ordinary lives, with traditional families and conventional careers. Members of Opus Dei strive to infuse spirituality into ordinary life, to "sanctify ordinary life". Indeed, Pope John Paul II called Escrivá "the saint of ordinary life".

Similarly, Opus Dei stresses the importance of work. Opus Dei places a great value on industriousness, diligence, and hard work. Where some religious orders might encourage their members to withdraw from the material world, Opus Dei's members take an active role in careers or charitable works. Opus Dei teaches that work is "a path to holiness" , and its founder famously advised members to "Sanctify your work. Sanctify yourself in your work. Sanctify others through your work."

Structure and activities

The present Bishop-Prelate of Opus Dei, Msgr. Javier Echevarria
The present Bishop-Prelate of Opus Dei, Msgr. Javier Echevarria

Opus Dei is an international personal prelature-- meaning that members of Opus Dei fall under the direct jurisdiction of the Prelate of Opus Dei, rather than under the jurisdiction of their local dioceses. So, for example, a typical member of the Catholic church who moves from Berlin to New York would move from the jurisdiction of one diocese to the jurisdiction of another. In contrast, a member of Opus Dei making the same move would remain under the jurisdiction of the Opus Dei prelature.

In Pope John Paul II's 1982 decree known as the Apostolic constitution Ut Sit, Opus Dei was established as a personal prelature. In addition to being governed by Ut Sit and by cannon law, Opus Dei also has its own set of statutes that are specifically applicable to the prelature.

The head of the Opus Dei prelature is known as the Prelate. The Prelate is the primary governing authority for Opus Dei. The Prelate is assisted by two councils-- the General Council (made up of men) and the Central Advisory (made up of women).

Opus Dei's highest assembled body are the General Congresses, which are usually convened once every eight years. There are separate congresses for the men and women's branch of Opus Dei. The General Congresses are made up members who are appointed by the Prelate. The General Congresses are responsible for studying and advising the Prelate about the proposed future direction of the prelature. The men's General Congress is also responsible for the election of the Prelate.

The Prelate holds his position for life. After the death of a Prelate, a special elective General Congress is convened. They elect from their ranks one individual to become the next Prelate-- an appointment that must be confirmed by the Pope.

The current prelate of Opus Dei is Monsignor Javier Echevarria, who became the second Prelate of Opus Dei in 1994. The first Prelate of Opus Dei was Msgr. Alvaro del Portillo, who held the position from 1982 until his death in 1994.

Opus Dei has about 85,000 members in more than 80 different countries. About 60% of Opus Dei members reside in Europe, and 35% reside in the Americas. The organization's assets total at least $2.8 billion. Two members of Opus Dei, Juan Luis Cipriani and Julián Herranz, have achieved the rank of Cardinal.

Opus Dei runs special residential centers throughout the world. For example, the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain is a corporate work of Opus Dei which has been rated as one of the top private universities in the country.

Types of membership

Opus Dei's United States Headquarters in New York City
Opus Dei's United States Headquarters in New York City

Currently, Opus Dei is made up of several different types of membership:

Supernumeraries, the largest type, currently account for about 70% of the total membership. Typically, supernumeraries are married men and women who have conventional careers and lead traditional family lives. Supernumeraries often devote a portion of their day to prayer, in addition to attending regular meetings and taking part in activities such as retreats. Due to their career and family obligations, supernumeraries are not as available to the organization as the other types of members, but they typically contribute financially to Opus Dei, and they lend other types of assistance as their circumstances permit. Unlike other types of members, supernumeraries are not required to be celibate, and they typically do not practice mortification.

Numeraries, the second largest type of members of Opus Dei, comprise about 20% of total membership. Numeraries are celibate members who usually live in special centers run by Opus Dei. Both men and women may become numeraries, although the centers are gender-segregated, with very only minimal contact between male and female numeraries. Numeraries are required to be celibate, and are encouraged to practice mortification. Numeraries generally have conventional careers and devote the bulk of their income to the organization.

Numerary assistants are unmarried, female members of Opus Dei. Like the numeraries, they live in special centers run by Opus Dei. Unlike numeraries, the numerary assistants do not have conventional jobs outside of the centers-- instead, their professional life is dedicated to looking after the domestic needs of the centers. Numerary assistants are required to be celibate, and they generally practice mortification.

Associates are unmarried, celibate members who typically have family or professional obligations. Unlike numeraries and numerary assistants, the associates do not live inside the special Opus Dei centers.

The Clergy of the Opus Dei Prelature are priests who are members of Opus Dei and are under the jurisdiction of the Prelate of Opus Dei. Only about 2% of Opus Dei members are part of the clergy. Typically, they are numeraries or associates who ultimately joined the priesthood.

The Priestly Society of the Holy Cross is the association of priests associated with Opus Dei. Part of the society is made up of the clergy of the Opus Dei prelature-- members of the priesthood who fall under the jurisdiction of the Opus Dei prelature are automatically members of the Priestly Society. Other members in the society are traditional diocesan priests--- clergymen who remain under the jurisdiction of a geographically-defined diocese. Technically speaking, such diocesan priests have not "joined" Opus Dei membership, although they have joined a society that is closely affiliated with Opus Dei.

The Cooperators of Opus Dei are those who, despite not being members of Opus Dei, collaborate in some way with Opus Dei-- usually through praying, charitable contributions, or by providing some other assistance. Cooperators are not required to be celibate or to adhere to any other special requirements. Indeed, cooperators are not even required to be Christian.

Mortification in Opus Dei

Closeup of a cilice-- a small metal chain with inwardly-pointing spikes
Closeup of a cilice-- a small metal chain with inwardly-pointing spikes

Much public attention has focused on Opus Dei's encouragement of the practice of mortification-- the voluntary infliction of pain or discomfort. Mortification has a long history in many world religions including the Catholic Church, but the practice has become rare among most modern christians.

Numeraries in Opus Dei practice several forms of mortification. Many are small acts of discomfort or sacrifice such as taking a cold shower, sleeping without a pillow or sleeping on the floor, fasting, or remaining silent for certain hours during the day. Some forms are more extreme, for example, once a week, numeraries briefly flail themselves with a small rope whip called a "discipline".

One of the most-discussed forms of mortification involves the use of a cilice-- a small metal chain with inwardly-pointing spikes that is worn around their upper thigh. The cilice's spikes cause pain and may leave small marks, but typically do not cause bleeding. Numeraries in Opus Dei generally wear a cilice for two hours each day.

Members of Opus Dei feel that the mortification practices help to remind them of Jesus's suffering on the cross and have a varety of positive psychological and spiritual benefits. Supporters of the practice point out that mortification has had a long history within the Catholic Church, that various popes have endorsed the practice, and that mortification has been used by numerous saints throughout history. Critics have cited mortification as one of the reasons for their opposition to Opus Dei.

Responses to Opus Dei

Despite some initial opposition from some sectors of the Catholic Church, Opus Dei ultimately rose to prominence within the Church. Pope John Paul II was a vocal supporter of the organization, as is Pope Benedict XVI. Contemporary supporters of Opus Dei see the organization as a "Christ-centered" movement whose members "seamlessly" integrate religion and spirituality into their ordinary lives. Critics claim Opus Dei is a " cult" or describe its practices as "cult-like".

Historical responses to Opus Dei

Pope John Paul II, who made Opus Dei the first and only personal prelature.
Pope John Paul II, who made Opus Dei the first and only personal prelature.

In the 1940s, some Jesuits criticized Opus Dei. The Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Wlodimir Ledochowski 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." Supporters suggest that these critics may also have been motivated by a concern that Opus Dei would take away vocations from the religious orders.

Reknown Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar also criticized Opus Dei in an article entitled "Fundamentalism," describing it as "a concentration of fundamentalist power in the Church." He also remarked that Escriva's main book, The Way, was not of sufficient spiritual depth for its worldwide goals. At least one scholar has reported, however, that von Balthasar later privately retracted his criticisms.

Despite these initial oppositions, Opus Dei gradually gained recognition and approval within the Roman Catholic church. In 1950, Pope Piux XII granted final approval to Opus Dei, and allowed married persons to join the organization. In 1960, Pope John XXIII commented that Opus Dei opens up "unsuspected horizons of apostolate". After the Second Vatican Counsel, Pope Paul VI denied Opus Dei's petition to become a personal prelature and the relationship between Paul VI and Opus Dei has been described by one author as "stormy". Nonetheless in 1964, Paul VI praised the organization in a handwritten letter to Escriva, saying,"Your words resonate with the burning and generous spirit of the whole Institution, born in this time of ours as a vigorous expression of the perennial youth of the Church, fully open to the demands of a modern apostolate, ever more active, flowing and organized. We look with paternal satisfaction on all that Opus Dei has achieved and is achieving for the kingdom of God, the desire of doing good that guides it, the burning love for the Church and its visible head that distinguishes it, and the ardent zeal for souls that impels it along the arduous and difficult paths of the apostolate of presence and witness in every sector of contemporary life."

With the 1978 election of Pope John Paul II, Opus Dei gained on of its greatest supporters. John Paul II enthusaistically praised Opus Dei and it's founder Josemaria Escrivá, and John Paul II granted the organization its status as the church's only personal prelature. John Paul II also decreed that Escrivá founding of the Opus Dei was indeed ductus divina inspiratione,-- led by divine inspiration.. Stating that Escrivá is "counted among the great witnesses of Christianity," John Paul II canonized him in 2002, and called him "the saint of ordinary life." Of the organization, John Paul II said:

"[Opus Dei] has as its aim the sanctification of one’s life, while remaining within the world at one’s place of work and profession: to live the Gospel in the world, while living immersed in the world, but in order to transform it, and to redeem it with one’s personal love for Christ. This is truly a great ideal, which right from the beginning has anticipated the theology of the lay state"

Opus Dei in popular culture

Since 2003, Opus Dei has received world attention as a result of Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code. In the novel, Opus Dei is portrayed as a villainous organization that is involved in a sinister international conspiracy. The depiction of Opus Dei in the 2006 Da Vinci Code movie is scaled back and significantly less ominous than its depiction in the novel.

Brown says that his portrayal of Opus Dei was based on interviews with members and ex-members, and books about Opus Dei. However, many academics haved pointed out a number of inaccuracies in the novel. For example, the major villain in The Da Vinci Code is a monk who is member of Opus Dei-- but there are no monks in Opus Dei. The Da Vinci Code implies that Opus Dei is the Pope's personal prelature-- in truth, the term "personal prelature" does not refer to a special relationship to the Pope; it means an institution in which the jurisdiction of the prelate is not linked to a geographic territory but over persons, wherever they be. In general, few scholars give much credence to The Da Vinci Code's allegations of a global conspiracy involving Opus Dei.

Contemporary responses to Opus Dei

Modernly, Opus Dei is the source of both enthusiastic support as well as vehement criticism. Opus Dei has been called "the most controversial force in the Catholic Church", and Escrivá is often seen as a very "polarizing" figure.

Criticism and 'cult' allegations

In the English-speaking world, the most vocal critic of Opus Dei is a group called the Opus Dei Awareness Network (ODAN), a non-profit organization that exists "to provide education, outreach and support to people who have been adversely affected by Opus Dei." Other critics include former members of Opus Dei, members of other religious groups (such as the Jesuits), liberal catholic theologians, supporters of Liberation theology, and various "cult-watch" organizations.

A variety of criticisms and allegations have been leveled at Opus Dei. Various critics have claimed:

  • That Opus Dei maintains an extremely high amount of control over its members. Critics note that numeraries in Opus Dei generally submit all their incoming and outgoing mail to their superiors to read. Critics also point to an alleged "Forbidden Books List" that details which books members are not allowed to read without the express permission of their superiors.
  • That Opus Dei engages in deceptive or extremely aggressive recruitment practices. For example, critics claim that Opus Dei uses a cult-like recruitment technique called " Love bombing", in which potential members are showered with flattery and admiration by members of the organization in order to entice them into joining.
  • That Opus Dei pressures numeraries to cut off social contact with non-members, including even their own families.
  • That Opus Dei's use of mortification is a "startling" and "questionable" practice.
  • That Opus Dei is intensely secretive. Unlike most other religious groups, Opus Dei does not publish its memberships lists, and members generally do not publically reveal that they are part of the organization. This practice has led to rampant speculation about who may or may not be a member of Opus Dei.
  • That Opus Dei's unique status as a personal prelature gives the organization too much independence from the rest of the Catholic Church, making it a "church within a church".
  • That Opus Dei exerts a disproportionately large influence within the Catholic Church. For example, critics claim that Escrivá was canonized as a saint after an unusually short period of time following his death and that there were other irregularities in the canonization process. (See Josemaría Escrivá: Canonisation)
  • That Opus Dei has ties to Far-Right politics and Fascism. Critics accuse Escrivá and Opus Dei of supporting the regimes of Francisco Franco, Augusto Pinochet, and to a lesser extent, Adolf Hitler. (see Opus Dei and politics)

Opus Dei, as a part of the Roman Catholic Church, also shares any criticisms of Catholicism in general. For example, some criticize the Vatican's prohibition of birth control or its patriarchal governance. (See Controversial Catholic teachings)

Support and rebuttals

Pope Benedict XVI is a vocal supporter of Opus Dei and Escrivá
Pope Benedict XVI is a vocal supporter of Opus Dei and Escrivá

In addition to its 80,000 members, Opus Dei has no shortage of supporters. According to one author, "Escrivá is ... venerated by millions". One-third of the world's bishops sent letters petitioning for the canonization of Escrivá. Approximately 300,000 people gathered in St. Peter's Square on the day of Pope John II canonized Josemaria Escrivá.

The current pope, Benedict XVI, is also a particularly strong supporter of Opus Dei and of Escrivá. In 2002, Benedict XVI (then-named Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger), wrote that Escrivá was "an instrument with which God had acted" and spoke of Opus Dei's "surprising union of absolute fidelity to the Church’s great tradition, to its faith, and unconditional openness to all the challenges of this world, whether in the academic world, in the field of work, or in matters of the economy, etc." He further explained:

"the theocentrism of Escrivá...means this confidence in the fact that God is working now and we ought only to put ourselves at his disposal...This, for me, is a message of greatest importance. It is a message that leads to overcoming what could be considered the great temptation of our times: the pretense that after the 'big bang' God retired from history."

Supporters of Opus Dei praise what they see as Opus Dei's educational and humanitarian achievements, such as the organization's schools, universities, and hospitals. They often liken Opus Dei to a family, and many claim members of Opus Dei resemble the members of the early Christian church.

Supporters have a variety of responses to the charges made by critics. Many supporters of Opus Dei often argue that Opus Dei is merely misunderstood. One author explained this view by saying "There are two Opus Deis: an Opus Dei of myth and an Opus Dei of reality." For example, supporters claim Opus Dei's relative silence stems not from a secretive nature, but rather is the result of a deep commitment to privacy, humility, and "avoidance of self-aggrandizement".

In some cases, supporters deny the accusations outright. For example, supporters say that Opus Dei's relationship with the Franco government has been overstated. Similarly Alvaro del Portillo, the former Prelate of Opus Dei, said that any claims that Escrivá supported Hitler were "a patent falsehood," that was part of "a slanderous campaign". In other cases, supporters cite religious justifications for the practices of Opus Dei. For example, supporters defend the practice of mortification within Opus Dei by citing Jesus's biblical command to "take up the cross", and by pointing out that many revered modern individuals, including Mother Theresa and Padre Pio, have also practiced mortification. Some claim that a certain estrangement from family is appropriate, quoting Jesus's biblical comment that "He who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me".

Supporters of Opus Dei have also questioned the motives and reliability of the critics. They point out that former members of any religious group may have psychological or emotional motivations to criticize their former groups. Many supporters of Opus Dei have expressed the belief that the criticisms of Opus Dei stem from a generalized disapproval of spirituality, Christianity, or Catholicism. Expressing this sentiment, one Opus Dei member claimed "Opus Dei has become a victim of Christianophobia." Another author argues that critics oppose Opus Dei because "they cannot tolerate 'the return to religion' of the secularized society".

Lastly, some supporters of Opus Dei have viewed the controversy surrounding the organization as a " Sign of contradiction". Proponents of this view hold that blessed, divinely-inspired Christian organizations will always be criticized, just as Jesus was criticized by his contemporaries. Accordingly, they see the very existence of critics as further proof of the organization's sanctity.

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