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Opus Dei

The Prelature of the Holy Cross and the Work of God, commonly known as Opus Dei (Latin, "The Work of God", or "God's Work") is a Roman Catholic organization founded on October 2, 1928, by Josemaría Escrivá, a Spanish priest, who was later canonized by Pope John Paul II.



Opus Dei has approximately 85,000 members in 60 countries, and is based in Rome. It was erected as a Personal Prelature by Pope John Paul II in 1982, who also canonized its founder on October 6, 2002.

The stated aim of Opus Dei is "to contribute to [the] evangelizing mission of the Church by spreading the universal call to holiness"; it "encourages Christians of all social classes to live consistently with their faith, in the middle of the ordinary circumstances of their lives, especially through the sanctification of their work". Many people have found this teaching remarkably coherent with the vision of the Second Vatican Council, which stated that "by reason of their special vocation, it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in the affairs of the world and directing them according to God's will".

Critics have described it as a secretive authoritarian organization that borders on being a religious cult with links to right-wing organizations worldwide. The organization is also controversial for its practices of mortification of the flesh. For details of these criticisms, see below.


Opus Dei states that its activities consist of "offer[ing] spiritual formation and pastoral care to its members, as well as to many others", via religious retreats and classes in Catholic doctrine. Its members also undertake many social initiatives: Opus Dei operates several hospitals, clinics, schools, and inner-city tutoring programs. For example, in the United States, it operates one college and five secondary schools, and tutoring programs in Chicago, New York City, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. In Spain, Opus Dei founded Universidad de Navarra and many lower schools.

Membership and practices

The Vatican Yearbook indicates that Opus Dei includes about 1,800 priests. The remainder of the 85,000 members are laypersons. Approximately a quarter of Opus Dei's members are "numeraries", who have committed themselves to celibacy in order to be more available for the organization's activities. The majority of the lay members are "supernumeraries", who are involved in Opus Dei's activities but do not make a commitment of celibacy. Opus Dei additionally has many "cooperators", who assist its activities through prayer, donations, or other means.

There are three types of members in the men's branch: numeraries, associates and supernumeraries. The distinction is in their availability to direct and assist in the apostolic activities of the prelature.


Numeraries are the most available. They live in celibacy and devote all their free time and money to Opus Dei. As a general rule, they live in Opus Dei centers. They receive intense training in the philosophy and theology of the Church. Most of them hold regular secular jobs, but for some their professional work is to direct the apostolic activities of Opus Dei or to hold an internal position in the governance of the prelature. For most of those who hold internal positions, this is a temporary situation. The numeraries are the primary givers of spiritual direction to the rest of the membership. They are at the disposal of the prelature and are ready to move wherever the prelature needs them.

 In addition to the practice of celibacy, the numerary members follow practices of mortification of the flesh. This has led some to criticize the organization and led others to compare it to a religious order. Opus Dei's supporters have said that these are all traditional Catholic practices that can be suitable for the lay state as well as religious orders, and that the organization's secular mentality and emphasis on living the Christian faith in the secular world distinguish it from a religious order.

It is generally from the numeraries that the prelate calls men to the priesthood. When a man becomes a numerary, he does so with the willingness to consider becoming a priest if the prelate should ever ask him. However he always remains free to decline the invitation. A very important point is that he does not become a numerary with the intention of becoming a priest. Rather, he simply remains open to seriously considering the possibility if it is offered to him.


Associates are the next type of member, in order of availability. Associates are similar to numeraries, in that they live in celibacy, but they typically do not live in Opus Dei facilities. Their personal circumstances do not permit them to be as available to Opus Dei as a numerary, perhaps because they have an elderly parent they have to take care of, or they run a family business that would interfere with their ability to move to another city. There are a whole host of reasons they would be less available than a numerary. Associates also are involved in giving spiritual direction to other members of the prelature and to non-members, too. The prelate can also ask associate members to become priests. Like numeraries, they remain free to say no.


Supernumeraries are the third type of member. These are the least available to Opus Dei. Supernumeraries may be married or unmarried. They live wherever they want. Most of the members are supernumeraries. They assist with the apostolic aims of the prelature as their personal circumstances permit. Their vocation is the same of the associates and numeraries — it is not a second class membership. They nevertheless form the 'coal-face' of Opus Dei in that they epitomize fully the life of the Christian struggling to live sanctity in daily life be it in the family, the workplace or both. They may be less available for specific apostolic tasks but are expected to strive just as assiduously to support them through turning their work into prayer. Through their friendships with others, they strive to bring others closer to God. Sometimes this leads to people joining Opus Dei, although often it doesn't. Even so, the so-called 'apostolate of friendship' is fundamental to the charism of Opus Dei.

Supernumeraries' training, though less intensive than that of numeraries and associates, is nevertheless substantial.

Both the women's branch and the men's branch have numeraries, associates and supernumeraries, and they perform the same functions in each branch. While the women numeraries can't be ordained (as with the Roman Catholic priesthood), they receive the same philosophical and theological training as the male numeraries.

Numerary assistants

There is another type of member in the women's branch called "numerary assistant". Numerary assistants attend to the domestic needs of the centers of Opus Dei, both for the men and for the women. They run Opus Dei's conference centers, and perform other essential duties such as cooking and maintaining accommodation.


Allegations of far-right links

There have been persistent rumours of links between Opus Dei and right-wing organizations worldwide. However, it is unclear to what extent these rumours are founded in fact. Some of these rumours appear to be conspiracy theories.

Allegations that Opus Dei is a secret society

Like most religious movements, Opus Dei does not in general comment on who is or is not a member. This has tended to create suspicion that Opus Dei functions as a secret society. There are persistent rumours that some senior members of the U.S. judiciary and FBI are Opus Dei members. The trial of FBI spy Robert Hanssen caused some controversy when it was revealed that he was an Opus Dei member.

The Italian parliament investigated Opus Dei in 1986 and cleared it of being a secret society.

Allegations of ultra-conservativism

Opus Dei has been criticized, by both secular and non-Catholic religious groups, for promoting an overly orthodox vision of the Roman Catholic faith. Opus Dei has also been accused of focusing on recruiting students from prestigious universities, who can then enter professions where they could influence public policy from an Opus Dei perspective. Others object to the humanitarian and spiritual relief missions that it has undertaken, such as the one located in the Mountains of Yauyos, Peru. Critics in Ireland, including some ex-Opus Dei members, accused the organisation of 'sexist exploitation' of women, whom they claimed were restricted in Opus Dei run hostels to doing manual work such as cooking and cleaning and denied any role in leadership. In response, supporters state that men and women are equal in Opus Dei, with half the leadership positions being held by women.

Allegations that Opus Dei is a cult

Some critics accuse Opus Dei of acting as a religious cult within the Church, stating that it shows characteristic cult behavior such as "lovebombing" new recruits, encouraging members to relinquish contact with their friends and families in favour of contacts within the group, and threatening members when they try to leave. Members say this is completely false. They also point to the large number of people who have ceased to be directly involved with Opus Dei but still speak positively of the group.

Critics are often highly suspicious of practices such as mortification of the flesh, involving the use of the cilice and the discipline [1]; its founder is frequently alleged by critics to have whipped himself until there was blood on his walls (members do not imitate him in this). In his writings, he stated: "Blessed be pain. Loved be pain. Sanctified be pain. . . Glorified be pain!" (The Way, 208).

Members point to the use of these practices in other existing Catholic orders, and throughout the Church's history by other prominent saints such as Saint Thomas More and Saint Francis of Assisi, questioning why Opus Dei in particular is singled out for criticism.

Supporters of Opus Dei point out that the notion of "cult" has itself been subjected to strenuous criticism in recent decades by social scientists who argue that the label is often little more than a pejorative term for religious groups that fail to sufficiently conform to a given society's values. In support of this view, they cite CESNUR, an international organisation devoted to the study of new religious forms, which argues that:

"[Anti-"cult"] reports rely primarily on sources supplied by the international anti-cult movement, and accept uncritically the brainwashing or mind control model of conversion, a model unanimously rejected by mainline sociological and psychological science... this methodology... should be exposed as faulty."

Other criticisms

Some critics have alleged that Opus Dei was looked upon with suspicion by Pope John XXIII and Paul VI, though supporters claim that, in fact, those popes supported the organization. There is documentary evidence that both Paul VI and John Paul I looked fondly on Opus Dei.

John Paul I wrote just before the start of his brief papacy:

"Msgr. Escriva, with Gospel in hand, constantly taught: 'Christ does not want us simply to be good, he wants us to be saints through and through. However, he wants us to attain that sanctity not by doing extraordinary things, but rather, through ordinary common activities. It is the way that they are done which must be uncommon'. There, nel bel mezzo della strada (in the middle of the street), in the office, in the factory, we can be holy provided we do our job competently, for love of God, and cheerfully, so that everyday work does not become a daily tragedy, but rather a daily smile". (Article in Il Gazzettino, Venice, 25-VII-1978)

Paul VI also wrote to the founder:

"We have seen in your words the vibration of the generous and enlightened spirit of the whole Institution, born in our times as an expression of the perennial youth of the Church... We consider with paternal satisfaction all that Opus Dei has done and continues to do for the kingdom of God: the desire to do good that guides it, the ardent love for the Church and its visible head which characterizes it, the ardent zeal for souls which leads it along the difficult and arduous paths of the apostolate of presence and of witness in all sectors of contemporary life." (Handwritten letter to Msgr. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, October 1, 1964)

The late Cardinal Basil Hume , Archbishop of Westminster and head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, issued a set of "Guidelines for Opus Dei within the Diocese of Westminster" in December, 1981. Some read these as implicit criticism of Opus Dei, although others point to the fact that Cardinal Hume was the principal celebrant at Opus Dei's 70th anniversary Mass in London (October 1998) by way of evidence that the cardinal and organization enjoyed good relations.

Finally, some ultra-conservative critics focus on Opus Dei's support for the Second Vatican Council's teachings on ecumenism and the role of the laity in the Church.

Opus Dei and Catholic politics

Critics and supporters alike agree that Pope John Paul II has been a strong supporter of Opus Dei. John Paul II's press spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, is perhaps the most famous member of the organization.

In 1960s Spain, Francisco Franco appointed several members of Opus Dei as ministers. These ministers are generally acknowledged to have introduced to Franco's rule a capitalist, technocratic ideology which contrasted with previous Falangist, Carlist and military influences. Simultaneously, some other members of Opus Dei were exiled on account of their political ideas, like the founder of Diario Madrid who lived in Paris and would later have a leading role in the Spanish transition to democracy.

In present-day Spain, members of Opus Dei have been appointed as ministers by Partido Popular leader José María Aznar. In Ireland, members of Opus Dei (along with other religious or political organisations) have for decades been required to declare their membership if asked to serve in the government. In recent times, no known Opus Dei members have held cabinet posts.

In the United States, the Boston Globe reported connections between the Opus Dei priest Father C. John McCloskey and some conservative Catholic politicians.

Opus Dei states that its members are completely free in their personal, professional and political lives, and that the organization plays no role in the professional decisions made by members, including those who work in politics, and therefore cannot be held responsible for them.

Fictional portrayals

Opus Dei played a large role in Dan Brown's best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code. Many of Opus Dei's practices were inaccurately described in the book, including mortification of the flesh. The novel also erroneously characterized the organization as monastic. After the book's publication, Opus Dei published a comprehensive set of responses which can be found on their website.

Reading list

  • Josemaría Escrivá: The Way, Scepter Publications, 1992. ISBN 0933932545
  • Josemaría Escrivá: Furrow, Scepter Publications, 1992. ISBN 0933932553
  • Josemaría Escrivá: The Forge, Scepter Publications, 1992. ISBN 0933932561
  • Josemaría Escrivá: Christ Is Passing By, Scepter Publications, 1982. ISBN 0933932049
  • Josemaría Escrivá: Friends of God, Scepter Publications, 1981. ISBN 0906138027
  • Josemaría Escrivá De Balaguer: Conversations with Monsignor Josemaría Escrivá, Scepter Publications, 2003. ISBN 1889334588
  • Francis Fernandez: In Conversation with God, Scepter Publications, 1993. ISBN 0906138191 (7 volume set)
  • John Coverdale: Uncommon Faith: The Early Years of Opus Dei (1928-1943), Scepter Publications, 2002. ISBN 188933474X
  • Amadeo Fuenmayor, Valentin Gomez-Iglesias and Jose Luis Illanes: The Canonical Path of Opus Dei, Four Courts Press, 1996. ISBN 1851822216
  • Dominique Le Tourneau: What Is Opus Dei?, Gracewing, 2002. ISBN 0852441363
  • Vittorio Messori: Opus Dei, Leadership and Vision in Today’s Catholic Church, Regnery Publishing, 1997. ISBN 0895264501
  • Pedro Rodriguez, Fernando Ocariz and José Luis Illanes: Opus Dei in the Church, Four Courts Press, 1994. ISBN 1851821708
  • Giuseppe Romano: Opus Dei: Who? How? Why?, Alba House, 1995. ISBN 0818907398
  • William West: Opus Dei. Exploding a Myth, Little Hills Press, 1988. ISBN 0949773751
  • María del Carmen Tapia: Beyond the Threshold, Continuum, 1998. ISBN 0826410960
  • Michael Walsh: Opus Dei: An Investigation into the Secret Society Struggling for Power Within the Roman Catholic Church, Harper San Francisco, 1989. ISBN 0060692685

External links

Opus Dei sites, and sites supporting Opus Dei:

Sites critical of Opus Dei:


Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45