Opus Dei Over Time
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.
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
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.”). 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. )
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
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.”). 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
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.” ). 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”  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”). 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.
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
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,”  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”). 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).
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
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
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). 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 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.
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
Translated by: Tanya
Golash-Boza, University of Kansas.
 “La Evolución Histórica del Opus
Dei,” delivered at the VI Congress of the Spanish Sociological Association, A Coruña, August, 1999.
 “Contexto de una beatificación” (Context
of a beatification), Olegario González de Cardedal, Diario May 16-17,
 “Seventeen years in Opus Dei,”
 “Niños en el Opus Dei”,”El Siglo,
nº 608, May 2004.
católicas: El Opus Dei”, published in
Revista Internacional de Sociología,
 “How Opus Dei is Cult-Like,”
 Opus Libros
 Diario Liberación, Mariella Patriau,.Lima,
13 September, 2000
 “Suicidios en el Opus Dei,” El Siglo,
nº 654, June 2005.
 “La Cuarta Planta”, El Siglo,
nº 605, May, 2004.
 Ser mujer en el Opus Dei, Isabel de
Armas, Foca, 2003
 “Dirección espiritual” (Spiritual
 “Sifting the Wheat from the Tares: 20 Signs of Trouble
in a New Religious Group,” Peter Vere, Cultic Studies Review, 4(2), 2002.
 The Way, Josemaría Escrivá,
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.
 See comment on this article by ICSA
e-Newsletter Editor, Michael Langone