The Mail on Sunday, UK,
January 23, 2005
A former member tells how a lust for power drives the secretive
Catholic organisation Opus Dei.
As a member of Opus Dei, I was expected to undertake a weekly discipline
of private selfflagellation 40 strokes with a waxed, corded whip.
We were encouraged to 'draw a little blood' and frequently told
how 'the Father' the founder of the organisation- drew so much blood
that he spattered the walls and ceiling with it.
I loathed it but my conscience gnawed
at me to take it more frequently. When I asked if I could increase
the number of times I carried out the practice I secretly hoped
that permission would be refused.
Instead, it was granted enthusiastically
and, for the next 13 years, I took this discipline three times a
It was the most physically painful
part of my dedication to Opus Dei, the Catholic movement founded
by Spanish priest Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer in 1928, with which
I spent a total of 14 years. Its aim is to 'spread throughout society
a profound awareness of the universal call to holiness... through
one's professional work'.
There are 80,000 members worldwide
but the organisation recently entered the public consciousness by
featuring in the bestselling book The Da Vinci Code.
It has also been revealed that the
new Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, is a member.
Many members are upright Christians
but the ethos of its higher levels is deeply secretive, often dishonest,
oppressive and psychologically damaging to its members and families.
There are four levels of membership:
numeraries and associates (celibates); supernumeraries (often married)
and co-operators (not formal members). I joined in 1959, aged 22,
as a numerary.
I was a deeply religious graduate
student at University College, Galway. A career as a physicist --
I am now a lecturer at Oxford University -- excited me, but I wanted
also to dedicate my life to some ideal that had both social and
I attended an Opus Dei retreat in
Galway. I had never heard of the organisation until then but I was
immediately impressed. The members I met invested religious practice
with a vitality and elegance new to me, displaying an overpowering
enthusiasm and a radiant idealism.
In the weeks that followed, they
spoke convincingly about its merits: it aimed to achieve top positions
in every sector of society so as to place Christ at the head of
all human activities; it was the only organisation in the Church
which knew how to Christianise secular society from within; it was
the greatest bulwark in the Church against Communism. I wrote to
the Father asking to be admitted, an act known as 'whistling'.
I moved in to the Opus Dei house
in Galway and was immediately caught up in hectic activity which,
apart from my professional work, included the 'norms' religious
practices that every member was expected to carry out daily. One
important task was to proselytise among my friends.
Our day began at 7am with the 'heroic
minute' jumping out of bed, kissing the floor and saying 'serviam'
(I serve), followed by a cold shower.
Then came 30 minutes of meditation
usually involving reflection on points from the Father's book of
999 aphorisms called The Way followed by Holy Mass and
Communion and ten minutes of thanksgiving.
During the afternoon one wore the
cilice, a spiked chain tied high around the upper thigh so the marks
would not be visible when playing sports. The full 15 mysteries
of the Rosary were included in the religious norms. One part was
said in common but one had to find gaps in the day for the remaining
parts. It was a constant anxiety to get the whole Rosary completed
by the end of the day.
Before bedtime, we discussed those
people about to 'whistle', reminded each other of the sheer wonder
of Opus Dei and ridiculed lazy religious orders and secular clergy.
Then came more prayers and an examination
of conscience. We were expected to be in bed three minutes later
and the lights were often switched off while I was still undressing.
The supervision of our lives was
almost total. To leave the house one had to get permission from
the director. Members were not permitted to go to the cinema, theatre
or public sports, or to sleep in their parents' house. One even
had to get permission to read any book. Innumerable other rules
from the Father concerned deportment, dress, relations with other
members, how to write letters, how to make the best use of soap
and how to close doors.
People who left were usually treated
as if dead and never spoken of again.
Their photographs were removed from
back issues of internal magazines and public display.
Opus Dei was a world very much apart
from civil society. It was selfcentred to a degree almost impossible
for anyone who has not been a member to understand.
I was soon introduced to further
'family customs', such as having my letters read, handing over my
salary and sleeping on the floor.
Mortifications began to eat more
and more into my day. I could not drink a cup of tea or watch a
film without feeling guilty if I was enjoying it.
Personal friendships were forbidden
in Opus Dei, although members were encouraged to show an indiscriminating
cheerfulness, especially to outsiders, all of whom I learned to
treat as potential recruits. High-pressure tactics were employed
to work people up to the point of 'whistling'.
During my two years in Galway, I
'worked on' more than 50 people, including lecturers, students and
relatives. We were encouraged to recruit the 'best' dynamic, handsome
people of high social status. I recruited, or was partly responsible
for recruiting, three numeraries and a supernumerary.
In 1961 I went to Kenya to run the
physics department of a sixth- form college Opus Dei was setting
up in Nairobi. Kenya was a wonderful place, but more and more I
felt a growing tension between the secular image of an ordinary
Christian layman, which we were supposed to project among our colleagues,
and the reality of my narrow life, with its vows of poverty, chastity
and obedience and its hostility to intellectual culture. The experience-in
Kenya which, in retrospect, causes me the greatest embarrassment
was my attempt to prevent a young African numerary from sending
some of his teaching earnings home.
He was the eldest of a large family
and needed to support his brothers and sisters at school, but I
tried to stop him. Only in extreme situations will Opus Dei allow
its members to help their 'blood families'. In the end, this numerary
ignored me and sent the money anyway. My superiors were very unhappy
While in Kenya I persuaded my superiors
to allow me to take a course in the history and philosophy of science
at Oxford University.
On my way to England, I spent some
time studying Spanish, the official language of Opus Dei, at their
University of Navarra in Pamplona. Secrecy there was all pervasive,
as the university tried to create the impression it was an ordinary
seat of learning. I had to pretend I did not know senior members
of the university, many of whom I had met at Opus Dei gatherings.
The extraordinary cult of the Father
was brought home to me during a weekend retreat when a Spanish member
told me the Father had received visitations from the Virgin Mary.
A senior member of Opus Dei, apparently, had inadvertently entered
the Father's study and come across him weeping in the lap of the
While at Oxford I became increasingly
critical of Opus Dei. The early Seventies were a period of growing
paranoia in the group. It was well known internally that the Pope
disliked the organisation. Censorship of newspapers and television
grew and acceptable religious texts began to narrow.
I began to raise criticisms of Opus
Dei with my director but he told me these were really criticisms
This provoked me into finding hard
evidence and I began to reread all of the documents available, such
as instructions for supernumeraries. It suddenly struck me that
the language was that of sheer totalitarianism.
In the summer of 1973, I wrote a
report about the movement and what I considered to be its abuses,
and submitted it to the Father. I was told later he had rejected
it. I was informed it was better that I resign from Opus Dei, which
I did in November 1973.
So has Opus Dei changed in the three
decades since I left? From the parents who still call me and from
the large body of literature by former members now available, it
seems clear it is as secretive as ever, still alienates many children
from their parents and society and frequently brings about a disorder
of personality in its members.
It claims to be a lay organisation
yet at all of its higher levels of authority it is run by the priests.
They maintain control by disabling
the judgment of many members and their ability to assess objectively
or criticise Opus Dei.
This is mainly achieved by undermining
the semantics of ordinary language in a remarkably Orwellian manner.
So extraordinarily successful are these techniques that lay members
will claim to be completely free. It's thought-control raised to
a fine art.
Opus Dei sees itself as a ruthless
and highly disciplined multinational corporation with its members
as units of production. Members know in their heart of hearts that
if they fail to win recruits, bring in a substantial income, make
important connections or lack absolute loyalty to the organisation
or the Founder, they may be treated as pariahs.
Over the years, I have come to believe
that virtually no trust can be placed in Opus Dei. How long will
it take before others, like Ruth Kelly, come to the same conclusion?