Opus Dei: Catholic Masons?

What is Opus Dei?

Raoul Dederen, D.es-L., is professor of theology, Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, and an associate editor of THE MINISTRY.

WITH the sudden death, a few months ago, at the age of 73, of Msgr. Jose Maria Escriva de Balaguer, founder and president-general of Opus Dei, the Catholic Church lost one of her most creative figures. He leaves a record of personal achievement that must rank with that of the great founders of religious orders in the past. Extolled, derided, respected, ignored, hated, and loved, he was anything but a nonentity; yet he still remains an enigma. This is true also of the mysterious but unquestionably powerful Catholic lay order he founded, the Sacerdotal Society of the Holy Cross, more commonly known as Opus Dei ("God's Work"). Starting with a few simple ideas and against great material odds, in less than 50 years he built up an association that now numbers some 60,000 men and women, established in all countries of Western Europe and North and South America, as well as in Asia, Africa, and Australia.

Founded in 1928

Born in 1892 in Aragon, Spain, a region noted for its hardheaded people, Escriva de Balaguer took a doctorate in law at the University of Saragossa be fore studying for the priesthood. He was ordained at 33 and moved to Madrid, where he worked among university students and the urban poor. Three years later, in 1928, he founded Opus Dei with a handful of followers, and in 1930 he founded its women's branch. From 1946 on, he resided in Rome, from where he governed the work of both the men's and women's branches.

What does Opus Dei mean? What does it stand for? It has been variously called "white masonry," "the Roman Catholic Mafia," or the "Fifth Column of God," among other things. Its leaders contemptuously reject such labels.

They insist that membership in Opus Dei is a purely spiritual affair, that the organization has no political and temporal objectives. Whatever the truth is—and it probably lies somewhere between these two views—the penetration of Opus Dei members in almost every sphere of Spanish life, for in stance, cannot be denied. Men and women of every walk of life—taxi drivers, peasants, young and old, barbers, bankers, government officials, professors, journalists—can be counted among the order's membership. It operates more than 300 "apostolic works," i.e., student centers, schools, retreats, meeting houses, and universities in a number of countries, including the United States.

But beyond this, details concerning Opus Dei are extremely hard to come by. The Annuario Pontificio, a sort of directory of the Roman Catholic Church, contains a very brief list of the order's leaders, the address of its head quarters in Rome, and its stated purpose: "To diffuse in all classes of civil society, and especially among intellectuals, the search for evangelical perfection in this world." There is no list of statutes or rules, or any indication as to what members of the order actually do as members. It is precisely this silence—Opus Dei calls it "discretion"—which has led to the accusations of the order's being virtually a secret society, pursuing political and economic goals on a scale large enough to suggest that it actually runs modern Spain.

Opus Dei leaders deny such charges and call them journalistic sensational ism. They insist that members of the order are men and women who are dedicated to a deep spiritual life within their own social environment and profession. Opus Dei, it is claimed, has a single and exclusive purpose, i.e., to help persons of all conditions seek Christian perfection right where they are in the world, in the exercise of their normal daily activities. Each member, therefore, commits himself specifically to the practice of the Christian virtues proper to his condition in the world, as priest or layman, single or married, et cetera. It is frequently underlined that when they join Opus Dei people neither change their life-styles nor begin a series of new activities. Rather, they carry on, doing the same jobs they would have done even if they had not joined "the Work." The change lies in that the same everyday things acquire a new perspective, because of the commitment made to turn every situation into a meeting with God, a Christian apostolate.

In view of these indisputable principles, how does one explain the uncontested hostility that Opus Dei has aroused even among Catholics in many countries and especially in Spain, where its influence has been most obvious? Detractors of Opus Dei in that country often call it "Octopus Dei," with reference to the alleged takeover by the order of huge segments of Spanish banking, industry, public works, journalism, and university faculties. Opus Dei's hierarchy has always pro tested that the political endeavors of its membership were their own concern and did not concern the order. If some of its members choose to become active in politics, that is understood as being strictly their business. Critics, however, have been openly skeptical of this. They have been aware of the discipline and cohesion of Opus Dei members. And if it is not a cult, a ritualized society, as its detractors claim, it is surely strictly stratified, closely supervised at every level, and utterly hierarchical. If no action can be taken by any member without consultation with his superior, how can Opus Dei affirm that its members live their temporal lives independent from the order? The vehemence with which such notions are denied is not above suspicion.

Opus Dei's clandestine character has also been a major irritant. One cannot apply to join. Opus Dei seeks out the people it wants and invites their inter est and participation. Nomination by a superior is the only method of advancement. From what we know, non conformity, the merest hint of independence, even a tendency toward compromise, is enough to ensure expulsion from the association. Not infrequently this has meant virtual exile from Spain. The defense that clandestinity—or "discretion"—is in fact evidence of humility does not always convince.

Reports of expelled members make it possible to sketch the ideal Opus Dei type. He is generally well-to-do, brilliant, well-connected, dynamic, with none of the so-called "subversive" ideas that certain Catholics, laymen and priests, are now defending. He relies for his guidance on a remarkable little manual of directives, El Camino ("The Way"), written by Escriva some 50 years ago.

He will take guidance from it in preference even to the Bible. The book's theology is exceedingly banal, but he follows it at every step, from its sections on prayer, devotions, and obedience, to those on tactics, discretion, and per severance.

Spanish Catholics, even since Franco's passing, are divided about it. Many dislike it openly, and say so. Others wait for instruction from Rome, which is slow to come. Although the Vatican is not at all keen on the idea of priests and lay members working in dependently of local bishoprics, Opus Dei's teaching on the universal call to holiness or on sanctification in and through all forms of temporality has been echoed widely in solemn documents of the Magisterium.

Time will tell whether the achievement of Escriva de Balaguer is permanent. He has done something that finds its parallel only in the achievements, four hundred years earlier, of another Spaniard, Ignatius de Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. Opus Dei could very well continue to grow and become a world wide movement whereby ordinary individuals, spiritually trained, could bring about a revolution that would further the cause of the Catholic Church. Its following is of such varied competence that it can be trusted to adjust Escriva's original impetus to most new circumstances.


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Raoul Dederen, D.es-L., is professor of theology, Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, and an associate editor of THE MINISTRY.

July 1976

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