Leopards in the Temple: Opus Dei, Escriva, and John Paul’s Rome
by John Martin, The Remnant Newspaper, June 30, 2002.
Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial chalices dry. This happens again and again, repeatedly. Finally it can be counted on beforehand and becomes part of the ceremony.
–Franz Kafka, Parables
In a packed St. Peter’s Square on October 6, barring fire, flood, crocodiles in the Tiber, or the remake of Ben-Hur, the late Monsignor Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, the controversial founder and guiding spirit of Opus Dei, will be declared a saint — a certified, bona fide, and prayer-answering citizen of Heaven. While this swift and improbable canonization will no doubt exhilarate Escriva’s followers, it will just as certainly exasperate his foes, set a vexing precedent, and raise fresh questions about papal infallibility. With apologies to Shakespeare, even if the graves don’t stand tenantless while the sheeted dead squeak and gibber in the Roman streets, the shock waves will be felt from Michelangelo’s dome to the crypt of Athanasius.
It’s not simply that Escriva and Opus Dei have a legion of critics and a history of dubious practices, it’s the startling pace John Paul II has followed in exalting this mysterious shepherd and his multinational flock through a series of breathtakingly honorific 10-year milestones — granting Opus Dei personal prelature status (1982), beatifying Escriva (1992), and now (2002) declaring this dynamic but disturbing son of Spain worthy to rub elbows with such giants as John the Baptist, Peter and Paul, Joan of Arc, Thomas More, Therese of Lisieux, and Christina the Astonishing. And truly, if there’s anything more astonishing than St. Christina, who climbed trees, hid in ovens, and even flew into the rafters of a church to avoid sinful human contamination, it’s the record speed with which Escriva (1902-1975) will have won his heavenly spurs: a mere 27 years from coffin to choir. But there it is — Roma locuta est and no angry letters, please. Advocates of the old-fashioned wait and see, devil’s advocate school of saint-anointing may stage massive protests and submit petitions swarming with signatures, but nothing short of divine intervention is likely to head off what promises to be the most audacious canonization of modern times.
In reality it will be two canonizations — embracing not only Escriva but also his mirror image, the coolly efficient, mystery-cloaked, relentlessly proselytizing, internationally powerful, Vatican-savvy, and thumpingly wealthy organization called Opus Dei (“the work of God”). With the possible exception of the early Franciscans, never in the history of Catholic zealotry has a new movement gotten so far so fast. But whereas St. Francis and his brave little band did it through wild faith and a jubilant poverty, Opus Dei has done it with Harvard Business School efficiency — spartan organization, a discipline that draws blood, connections in high places, a healthy amount of mammon, and a demanding patriarch who still seems to hover over all things Opus Dei with the watchful eye of Banquo’s ghost.
The present elevated status of Escriva and Opus Dei is of course only one of many astonishments in the brave new Rome of 2002 — this increasingly vulnerable “temple” that a number of very human “leopards” have been breaking into ever since the Second Vatican Council opened the windows and let in the so-called fresh air of dialogue, collegiality, and ecumenism. If the leopards have not yet drunk the sacrificial chalices dry, they have at the very least left their paw prints all over the altar with their liturgical novelties and Bob Dylan Eucharistic Conferences, their Assisi brotherhood fests, their shell-game antics in the matter of Fatima, and their brazen disregard for the rights and rituals of classic Catholicism.
To be sure, Escriva and Opus Dei represent a leopard with a very different pattern of spots and manner of operating. Whereas the others have generally been diluters of the sacrificial chalices — adding the pale water of liberalism to the good wine of orthodoxy — Escriva and Opus Dei have brought an additive of unmistakable potency: Serviam, the spirit of true believers. Here are people who look, act, and sound like the solid old Catholics of yesteryear — in fact, more so. And that’s just the problem: in their scrupulous adherence to the fierce and narrow demands of their humorless and superorthodox prelature, Opus Dei members inevitably become more “Catholic” than Catholicism — especially in the respective matters of self-discipline, spiritual direction, and reverence for authority. And nowhere is that reverence more evident than in the unthinking, uncritical, and virtually Maoist way they praise and quote the man variously called “the Father,” “Our Father,” and “the Founder.”
Now, it seems, they’ll also be calling him “the Saint.” And whether they’ll be calling him that in truth or misbelief is a matter of the gravest concern, notwithstanding the dictum of Thomas Aquinas that infallibility is not involved in a papal pronouncement based on noninfallible “fact.” It remains that heresies are temporary and canonizations are permanent, and if Rome is wrong about Escriva, the error will forever taint the whole idea of sainthood, to say nothing of destroying trust in the keys of Peter. Meanwhile, there are the keys of Opus Dei, and they continue to open doors both inside and outside the Vatican with enviable efficiency.
In fact, with or without Escriva interceding in the high heavens, Opus Dei is thriving — some 80,000 members worldwide and a network of residences, secondary schools, publishing houses, and universities that make it seem more like an example of enlightened corporate globalism than what it purports to be — an apostolate for lay Catholics resolved to sanctify themselves in both their daily work and their devotional practices. This they do within the framework of a “personal prelature,” the first and only such secular institute in Catholic history. Overriding the opposition of a large majority of Spain’s bishops, most of them uncertain as to whether Opus Dei was fish, flesh, or good red paella, John Paul conferred prelature status on Opus Dei in 1982 — a kind of organizational beatification recognizing a jurisdiction that is “personal” (individual members, wherever they may happen to live) rather than territorial (a diocese). While those individual members theoretically remain ordinary faithful Catholics in their home dioceses, in effect they belong to a superdiocese presided over by an all-powerful prelate (presently Monsignor Javier Echevarria, who took over in 1994 following the death of Escriva’s first successor, Bishop Alvaro del Portillo). At the command level, Echevarria is supported by some 2,000 Opus Dei priests, an army of spiritual directors, and a growing number of bishops who know where to find a sympathetic ear in Rome.
Yet papally blessed or not, both Escriva and Opus Dei continue to attract bristling criticism from journalists, disenchanted former members, and the often embittered parents of children “lost” to an organization they see as a Catholic version of a mind control sect as cultic in its way as Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, or the Falun Gong. Their unhappy stories fill the pages of such works as Maria Carmen del Tapia’s Crossing the Threshold, J.J.M. Garvey’s Parents’ Guide to Opus Dei, the Newsletter of the Opus Dei Awareness Network, and Michael Walsh’s Opus Dei: An Investigation Into the Secret Society Struggling for Power Within the Roman Catholic Church.
Whatever their different experiences, a common thread runs through every tale told of life in Opus Dei — an emphasis on recruiting so intense as to be compared only to the round-the-clock efforts of the coaches at America’s big-time football factories. According to author Jean-Jacques Thierry, all Opus Dei schools, clubs, cultural centers, residences, universities, publishing houses, and special events have as their principal goal just one thing — more members. And one of the reasons Opus Dei is so successful on the recruiting trail is its talent for making its elaborate courtship ritual seem as casual and spur of the moment as finding a fourth for bridge. For one thing, its attractive meeting places are rarely openly identified with Opus Dei. As Thierry writes: “It just so happens that they are financed, staffed and run by members, but not ‘legally’ owned by Opus Dei the organization.”  For another thing, it’s a case of best foot forward at all times — clothes freshly pressed, smile in place, and good cheer in abundance, almost as if everyone had been taking lessons from Meg in Little Women.
The inspiration for this single-minded, go-get-’em attitude is directly traceable to the example and exhortation of Escriva. His writings include such lay-it-on-the-line comments as, “This holy coercion is necessary; compelle intrare (compel them to come in) the Lord tells us”  ”We do not have any aim other than the corporate one: proselytism, winning vocations”  and “When a person does not have zeal to win others, he is dead I bury cadavers.”  Needless to say, there are very few cadavers in the Opus Dei ranks, buried or otherwise.
From all accounts, the most efficient recruiting takes place at the Opus Dei residences, which are normally located on attractive streets in prosperous urban and suburban areas, usually near universities in such cities as Boston, New York, San Francisco, Dallas, South Bend, and Princeton, among many others. College campuses are fields white to harvest, and Opus Dei harvesters are ready and eager to bring in the sheaves. And there are always suitable occasions for attracting the unwary — as, for example, an open house following a Sunday meditation and benediction, at which the visitors, over lemonade and hors d’oeuvres, get acquainted with a lot of ostensibly happy, well-dressed, and well-adjusted young people laughing it up and having a great time and oh yes, just incidentally, sizing up the visitors as prospective members. The ones they most covet — young, attractive, agreeable, organized, and not sexually active — they will later pursue with all the tools of organizational courtship: friendship, weekly “chats,” regular telephone calls, letters, birthday cards, and “love-bombing.”
Above all, Opus Dei wants young people, and it wants them most of all as “numeraries” — full, celibate members who live the full, ascetic, sexually segregated Opus Dei life in comfortable group residences and who’ll do their best to induce others to join them in this same ultracontrolled environment. Tammy DiNicola, a onetime numerary who, with the help of an exit counselor provided by her concerned parents, made it back to life on the outside, recalls a kind of pep-rally recruiting song she and her sister recruiters used to sing (in Spanish, fittingly, that being the Founder’s language and a language numeraries therefore study), a song called “La Pesca Submarina.” No, that’s not the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”; it’s “Underwater Fishing,”  and here’s a sample verse:
Cuando ves un pez te pones a su altura
(When you see a fish, position yourself at the same level)
Con soltura, con listura
(With maneuverability, with cleverness)
Le disparas el harpon con punteria,
(You hurl the harpoon with aim)
Lo agarras luego y se acebo!
(Then you grab it (the fish) and that’s it!)
This may not compare with the rousing sea chanteys Ahab’s men sang when they were hunting Moby Dick, but it does give some idea of how serious these young recruiters are about not letting the “big one” get away. Besides, singing must come as a welcome relief to anyone living the numerary life day in and day out — a day that begins with the declaration Serviam (“I will serve”) following a night sleeping on a board (women numeraries only) and that usually includes, in addition to one’s job or schoolwork, early Mass, substantial periods of morning and evening prayer, 15 decades of the rosary, and two hours of wearing the cilice (a spiked chain) around the upper thigh. For a refreshing change of pace, there’s the once-a-week flagellation with the “discipline” (a corded whip that members apply vigorously to back or buttocks).  Not surprisingly, a full account of this sobering routine, with colorful illustrations depicting members pulling on the spiked chain or loosening up the whip, is not usually found in Opus Dei handouts. Nor is it made known to prospective members that they’ll not only be doing that very un-American thing and renouncing their credit cards, but they’ll also be turning over their full salaries to their new “parents,” who in turn will provide them, as parents will, with an allowance — and by the way, strict accounting required. All of this is information that can wait, and it normally waits until the prospective member is psychologically ready for it, having taken the first big step — joining. And that big step generally isn’t taken until someone launches a well-thrown harpoon.
As Tammy DiNicola explains, the process of joining has everything to do with Opus Dei strategy and timing: “They staged a vocation crisis for me, although at the time I didn’t realize they had staged it. But it’s standard practice. The person who’s working on you is consulting with the director, and the two of them decide when is the best time to propose the question of vocation to the recruit.” Her comments are ringingly endorsed by Ann Schweninger, who left Opus Dei forever one night with her few possessions stuffed in a black plastic garbage bag (she had long since, as required by Opus Dei’s what’s-yours-is-ours policy, turned over her suitcases). “They make it a crisis for you,” she comments. “It’s totally orchestrated. They tell you it’s a decision you have to make now, that God is knocking on the door, and that you have to have the strength and fortitude to say yes.” 
Saying yes is the beginning of climbing the three rungs on the ladder leading to full Opus Dei membership. First comes “whistling” — writing a letter asking to join (at which there is much rejoicing in Opus Dei houses). Second, there is the “admission” — a short ceremony with an Opus Dei priest and an Opus Dei lay director in which the new member agrees to “live in the spirit of Opus Dei.” Then there is the “oblation,” which comes a year and a half after whistling, and during which the new member commits his or her life to Opus Dei so seriously that to leave afterward would be a “grave matter.” Finally, there is the “fidelity,” five years after the oblation, when the initiate becomes a full member of Opus Dei and is encouraged to make out a will with Opus Dei as the beneficiary. 
Obviously, all of this presented at one time would not be the sort of thing to put young people in a sign-me-up-right-away frenzy. But when the right doors are opened at the right time and the revelations are gradual, all things are possible. And they’re especially possible with the very young: Opus Dei permits children a mere 14 years of age to make an initial commitment. Not only that, but they’re allowed to “whistle” at a mere 16 and a half and make the oblation at 18. They can thus become a full fidelity member at a mere 23.  “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life,” says the worldly wise private academy schoolteacher (played by Maggie Smith) in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie — and if anyone knows that better than Miss Jean Brodie, it’s Opus Dei.
In any case, numeraries account for only 20 percent or so of Opus Dei membership. The majority are supernumeraries, usually married persons who contribute financially, attend Opus Dei functions, but who are spared (and often don’t even know about) such numerary practices as the spiked chain and the whip. Then there are the assistant numeraries, who do the housekeeping; associates — single people who live at home, often because of having to take care of aging parents; and cooperators, who are not in fact members and frequently not Catholics, but who choose to assist Opus Dei both with their pocketbooks and their prayers.
This, then, is some idea of how Opus Dei operates at the grass roots level. But whether the level is grass roots or the international stage, the stamp of Escriva is on it all, a living confirmation of Emerson’s dictum that an institution is simply the lengthened shadow of one man. So indelibly did Escriva impress both his personality and his philosophy on this organizational child of his that even in his absence it continues to speak with his voice and build from his blueprint — as, for example, in its new 17-story, $42 million, ziggurat-style American headquarters in midtown Manhattan. Success is always hard to argue with and Opus Dei has been enjoying the sweet smell of it for most of the 70-plus years that have passed since that October day in 1928 when the 26-year-old Escriva, in the process of making a retreat, heard the bells ringing in Madrid’s Church of the Angels and experienced a divine summons, as he thought of it, to create an organization for those “in every condition of life,” who could “love and serve God without giving up their ordinary work.”
In fact, such an organization already existed, and it was right there in Spain. This was the Parochial Cooperators of Christ the King, founded in 1922 by a zealous Spanish Jesuit with the French name of Francois de Paule Vallet. Having discovered the remarkable faith-regenerating power of the 30-day Ignatian exercises, Father Vallet (1883-1947) condensed them into a five-day format that proved so popular and powerful it spread to France as well, giving birth to “La Cite Catholique,” a network of lay cells that studied Catholic doctrine and attempted to restore Christ as King over society. And from the evidence, members were prepared to pursue that restoration all the way to blood witness. According to the SSPX report, “Opus Dei: A Strange Pastoral Phenomenon,”  some 5,000 former retreatants died battling for a Catholic Spain against the Socialist-Communist-Anarchist troika of the Republic during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). While Father Vallet had long since been banished from Spain, his influence had not. Curiously, in any case, his banishment took place in the very year — 1928 — that Escriva’s work began. Coincidence or not, two Hannibals have seldom been comfortable on one Alp, and it would seem the powers of crook and miter preferred Escriva. As an Opus Dei publication puts it, “Fully aware of the Opus’ spirit, aims, means, and ends, the Bishop of Madrid had encouraged the Founder from the beginning, and had blessed his work.”
Whether the Bishop of Madrid was banishing Father Vallet with the left hand while he was blessing Father Escriva with the right, or whether it was some other hierarchical figure or figures who opposed the Ignatian priest, is a matter for historical research that has not yet been undertaken. In any case, after Father Vallet’s departure, Opus Dei’s magnetic leader had the lay spirituality field to himself. Soon he was recruiting like-minded individuals, usually either university students or young urban professionals, and little by little his band of spiritual soldiers grew from squad to platoon to company, passing through the perils of Spain’s civil war and into the peace of 1940 to find itself more than 300 strong. Nor did a little thing like the Second World War get in the way. While bombs whistled and torpedos hissed, the “Work” took root in Portugal, Ireland, and Italy. And it really caught fire during the economic boom years of the postwar world, spreading not only to Mexico and Latin America but also to western Europe, the U.S., and Canada. Today, it’s everywhere from Scandinavia to Singapore and shows no signs of slowing down.
Meanwhile, in the very middle of World War II, Escriva set into place another of the building blocks he saw as necessary to the success of his organization. Lay-centered Opus Dei might be, but it would need priests for the purposes of direction and authority, and thus was born the Sacerdotal Society of the Holy Cross, “a new pastoral and juridical phenomenon, the ordination of men with university degrees and engaged in a profession.” The first three representatives of this new phenomenon, all of whom had been lay members of Opus Dei, were ordained in June 1944 by the same Bishop of Madrid who “had encouraged the Founder from the beginning.” Two years later, the Sacerdotal Society had a dozen priests and was well on its way.
Escriva’s next major step was to move his operations to Rome. This he did in 1947 through the efforts of an Italian duchess right out of the pages of Henry James — Virginia Sforza Cesarini. Largely through her efforts, Opus Dei was able to acquire a building in the Viale Bruno Buozzi that had once housed the Hungarian Embassy to the Holy See. Escriva renamed it the Villa Tevere (Tiber), refurbished it, and, with his position secure at the center of things Catholic, pushed forward on other fronts. By 1950, a golden year in Opus history, the men’s branch had some 2,400 members; the women’s branch, another 550. Things were humming. And on June 16, Pope Pius XII formally approved Opus Dei as a secular institute along with its new constitution — a constitution, not surprisingly, of stringent demands.
From that point on, it was pretty much clear sailing. The vexed question of a lay institute with priestly leadership would continue, but for the most part Escriva and Opus Dei saw their little Spanish stream widen into a veritable Guadalquivir river. By 1979, when John Paul II asked for the background information required before he could formally initiate the process necessary to recognize Opus Dei as a prelature, he got an impressive answer. Among other things, the relevant document stated that there were 72,375 members in 87 different countries, forming a kind of “mobile corps” ready, like the U.S. Marines, to go wherever they were needed. And what a corps it was. Opus Dei was already at work running a total of 479 universities and high schools on five continents, and also busying itself with 604 publications, 52 broadcasting stations (radio and TV), 38 press and publicity agencies, and 12 film production and distribution organizations. Even without personal prelature status, Opus was evidently getting by.
It was also getting by without Escriva, who had died abruptly in the Villa Tevere in the middle of an otherwise ordinary summer day — June 26, 1975. In truth, however, Opus Dei was Escriva, and not only did his memory linger on, so did his style, stamp, maxims, and especially his likeness — to be found in portraits and reliefs in every Opus Dei residence and chapel as immovably as in the hearts of his adoring followers. And they’re not alone in admiring him. Even some of his fiercest critics have good things to say about this man with a dream and the zeal to go after it. Vladimir Felzmann, an Englishman with Czech roots and also an Opus Dei priest who ultimately rejected the organization, spoke of Escriva as having “outstanding qualities of leadership,” adding: “Like any great leader, he was hard and he was soft. He attracted by his strength and sense of direction — his faith — as much as by his vulnerability and warmth Impetuous, emotional, passionate, he counterbalanced these natural qualities with the abstract strength of ideals, discipline, will power, order, dogma, and performance.” Indeed, anyone who has seen an Opus Dei video of the Founder handling a full-house audience with the wit, charm, and ease of a popular motivational lecturer would know how truly Felzmann spoke.
Yet, as a number of Escriva intimates have testified, there was a much less attractive side. Miguel Fisac, a leading Spanish architect and one of the early Opus Dei numeraries (he remained one from 1936 to 1955), remembers an Escriva who “spoke well of no one,” had so exalted a view of his mission that he was “completely convinced that he had been chosen by God to reform the Church,” and who was not above insisting on a considerable degree of splendor in his surroundings, and especially in the mother house in Rome: “Millions and millions of pesetas were invested in luxuries of low artistic quality, but in the Renaissance manner, because all of these frivolous details were of the greatest importance to him.” 
Nor did Escriva belong to that tribe of Catholic pathfinders who take a special interest in those at poverty level. “During the time I knew him,” Fisac comments, “I never saw him with any poor people.” As a postscript, he tells the story of a former high school companion who came to him (Fisac) to ask for money to help with his family’s desperate financial situation: “I told him to come back the next morning as I could not make that decision myself. I consulted my director and he absolutely forbade me to give him anything. He himself was forbidden to consent by the spirit of Opus Dei.”
For these and similar reasons, Fisac felt “morally obligated” to testify before the beatification tribunal. To his surprise, he found his testimony wasn’t wanted. He is convinced the tribunal eliminated him from consideration simply because “they knew my appraisal was going to be first hand and completely objective, and I was not going to stop to think whether what I said favored or hindered the case.” Fisac’s charge is echoed by Kenneth Woodward, religion editor of Newsweek and a persistent Opus Dei critic who refers to its members as the “Mormons” of Catholicism. In a 1992 article, he asserted that Opus Dei had sufficient influence on the tribunal to prevent critics of Escriva from testifying. Woodward was later to say: “It seemed as if the whole thing was rigged. They (Escriva’s supporters) were given priority, and the whole thing was rushed through.” 
Another Escriva intimate whose testimony didn’t make it beyond the security guards, so to speak, was Spain’s Maria Carmen del Tapia, head of Opus Dei’s female section in Venezuela and at one time Escriva’s secretary. She was summoned to Rome in 1965 for such breaches of discipline as allowing the women under her to go to the Opus Dei priest of their choice and for complaining about the amount of direction coming from Rome. Ultimately, Escriva obliged her to resign, but before that final answer, she reported feeling the full wrath of outraged authority: for eight months she was kept under what amounted to house arrest in Rome, allowed no contact with the outside world by telephone or mail, and refused permission to return to her family in Spain. Escriva, she reports, had concluded for his own mysterious reasons that she’d had physical relations with not one but two Opus Dei priests. At her tumultuous expulsion hearing, she quotes him thus: “You are a wicked woman! A lost woman! Mary Magdalene was a sinner, but you? You are a seductress! Leave my priests alone! Hear me well! Whore! Sow!”  A number of years later, in an account that appeared in the National Catholic Reporter, she commented, “My astonishment is infinite when I hear now that Monsignor Escriva is in the process of beatification.” 
A third whose testimony was zealously ignored was the eloquent John Roche who, as a graduate student at Oxford in 1972 (he’d then been an Opus Dei member for 13 years), concluded that “the ethos of Opus Dei was entirely self-centered, sectarian, and totalitarian, and that it was misleading the Church about important aspects of its character.”  Following his resignation in 1973, he became one of its most articulate critics and in 1979 persuaded the august London Times to take a reportorial interest. The Times subsequently printed a profile of the organization and called for an investigation into its practices. The most impressive result was that England’s Cardinal Hume, for one of the few times any Church figure has ever been bold enough to look at Opus Dei without fear and trembling, actually did something. In 1981, he published guidelines that obliged Opus (in England only, of course) to discontinue its practice of the secret recruitment “of children under 18, to allow its members to receive outside spiritual direction, and to allow them to leave if they wanted to.” If those guidelines are still followed in England, it’s probably still the only place on earth where Opus Dei has to deal with any authority except its own.
In any case, just before calling it quits at Opus Dei, Roche photocopied some 140 editorials from Cronica, Opus Dei’s chief internal magazine. They leave little doubt about how serious and single-minded Escriva was in pursuing his dream of an ever-expanding prelature. Here are a few samples:
Go out to the highways and byways and push those whom you find to come and fill my house, force them to come in; push them we must be a little crazy you must kill yourselves for proselytism. 
There is not a single man on earth, a single soul to whom God has not sent us our inheritance is the whole world all the seas belong to us 
As Jesus received his doctrine from the Father, so my doctrine is not mine but comes from God and so not a jot or title shall ever be changed. 
If this is not outright Napoleonic megalomania, it’s certainly a novel form of humility — especially in someone supposedly giving off the rose-scented odor of sanctity. Humanum est errare — but if your doctrine comes pure and entire from God Himself? Is even hubris a strong enough word?
Another awkward item for those who choose to look at Escriva through saint-colored glasses is the curious business of his having sought and gained a title of nobility. Nor was this some youthful indiscretion. Escriva was a full 66 years old in 1968, when he petitioned for and was granted the title of Marques de Peralta.  Though he insisted it was only a form of belated recompense to his family for their sacrifices in preparing him for the ministry, it seemed all too consistent with some earlier behavior in the department of status-seeking: in 1940, he had upgraded the family name in tone and texture by adding the four euphonious syllables of “de Balaguer” (the Catalan town where his family may have originated) to the rather plain Es-cree-VAH.  In any event, as Michael Walsh writes in his book on the society, this concern with name and rank “would seem to be untypical of someone whose fundamental humility is among the virtues his supporters list as his case proceeds for canonization particularly in the light of his spiritual treatise Camino (The Way): ‘Honors, distinctions, titles, things of air, puffs of pride, lies, nothingness.'”
Of course the honor, distinction, and title of “saint” is quite a different matter, and while Escriva himself may not have sought it, his followers have shown no trepidation at all in seeking it on his behalf. Which is one more reason Opus has so many critics. In his book, The Helpers of God: How the Catholic Church Makes Its Saints, Newsweek’s Woodward not only appealed to John Paul to stop Escriva’s beatification, he claimed that the Pope had not been informed that (a) two negative votes out of the nine cast by the Vatican court handling the beatification process were never presented to him, and that (b) while 1,300 bishops and cardinals from all over the world had written to the Vatican with positive statements about Escriva, only 128 of them had actually met him in person. Woodward further reported that Opus Dei members had put hundreds of bishops under financial pressure, threatening a cutoff of Opus Dei funds, unless they submitted positive testimony.
Opus Dei funds have of course long been a source of fascination to Opus Dei watchers — almost as great a source of fascination, in fact, as Opus Dei’s alleged involvement in right-wing politics. To be sure, Opus Dei flatly denies any official participation in, or support for, any particular ideology or regime, right-wing or otherwise, and while it has been accused of aiding and abetting dictatorships not only in Spain but in Latin America, the suspicions have generally been stronger than the proof. In his book The Church and Politics in Chile, Professor Brian Smith of MIT claims that Opus Dei members were among the first chief administrators of General Pinochet’s repressive regime, but even if they were, it doesn’t follow that they themselves were repressive or deliberately sought out a government that would let them crack the whip.
In Spain, however, Opus Dei has been more than a little politically active — if, of course, when you say Opus Dei you mean not the organization itself but Opus Dei members. All that began with the Franco government, in whose departments it placed a number of its more talented individuals. And to their credit, Opus members helped bring about a modernization of the Spanish government, along with its financial and industrial institutions, that, according to Michael Walsh, “was all to the good and long overdue.” And why not? No one ever accused Opus Dei members of being shy or unmotivated.
Still, it’s Opus Dei’s financial situation that gets most of the journalistic ink and paper. In the absence of an annual report, of course, one can only speculate about what reserves of treasure are to be found in the organization’s well-hidden coffers. Two brief illustrations may help with the bean-counting.
The first involves one of Opus Dei’s most successful breadwinners ever, one Jose Maria Ruiz-Mateos, the founder of Rumasa, one of Spain’s largest conglomerates, whose corporate umbrella sheltered some 245 companies, including 18 banks and a number of major chain stores. Though it enjoyed more than two decades of high-flying prosperity, unfortunately for Ruiz-Mateos, the sounds of Mas! Mas! and Ole! ceased to be heard in 1983, when Rumasa collapsed like a bull that’s just been finished off with the estocada. A billion dollars in the red, it was taken over by the Spanish government even as Ruiz-Mateos was fleeing the country. Meanwhile, by his own admission — and this is the interesting part — Ruiz-Mateos had contributed to Opus some $30 million (in today’s US currency) during Rumasa’s 23 years of existence.  A few contributors like that — and Opus Dei has many more than a few — and pretty soon you don’t have to worry about the monthly bill for flan and gazpacho.
A second Opus Dei almsgiver of note was Larrain Crusat, a Chilean corporation that Michael Walsh reports was turning over to Opus Dei 10 million pesos a month when the Chilean peso was stable at 40 cents to the dollar.  That works out to about $250,000 per month, or $3 million per year — and in the 1970s, mind you, when a dollar was still a dollar. A few more contributors like that and it’s arroz con pollo every Sunday. Indeed, one can see why bishops and other human beings like to stay on Opus’s good side.
And it’s not simply the men with expensive cigars and pockets deeper than the Mindanao trench, it’s all 80,000 of these partisans of spiritual perfection coughing up all of their income (numeraries) or a heroic part of it (supernumeraries and cooperators) month after month, year after year, in saecula saeculorum. Oh yes, it adds up, especially when, as is the Opus Dei practice, you have local residences sending 10 percent of their income to the regional administrations and the regional administrations sending 10 percent of their income to headquarters in Rome. 
And of course with its peculiar capacity to make glad the heart of man and open doors impenetrable to those who lack it, money has made Opus Dei a popular presence in the Eternal City — every bit as popular in its own way, in fact, as the smiling Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican press officer, who, yes, just happens to be a member of Opus Dei. As the central character in Paul Claudel’s great play, The Death of Judas, says so emphatically concerning his responsibility for watching over the apostolic purse: “Obviously, it’s more noble not to touch money, but someone has to do it, and he’d better not be one-armed.” There’s no limb shortage in Opus Dei, and for those in need, well, Opus may just be able to help out.
Anyone who was following the Vatican’s financial misadventures in the years following Vatican II will recall that somewhere in the middle of it all was the Vatican’s bank, the Institute for the Works of Religion. It suffered calamitous losses (some $200 million) in 1974, presumably through its problematic connections with the disgraced Sicilian banker, Michele Sindona. While Opus Dei was in no way involved with this colossal exercise in mismanagement, it was only too willing to help right the capsized ship. Tiempo magazine reported that during the 1974 panic, Escriva offered to provide 30 percent of the Vatican’s annual costs — presumably in return for Vatican recognition.  While it seems that kindly offer was declined, its scope gives some idea of just how well-endowed Opus Dei is and what favors it can do when the timing is right.
But while Opus money, with its labyrinthine travels, its eager suitors, and its inevitable influence, may open doors for the organization and positively cries out for an investigation by any financially competent and personally uncompromised clerics who may still exist in today’s Rome, it’s the closing of doors that needs to be looked at even more earnestly. For it’s behind those elegant doors in those glistening numerary residences, and in some family ones as well, that the deeper mischief is going on — the control, the conditioning, the cultifying.
And as it happens, the necessary understanding of the problem, if not the will to do something about it, is right there in Rome. Yes, curiously enough, in that modern Vatican that so often seems to see, as Mark Twain said of James Fenimore Cooper, through a glass eye darkly, there has been a surprising clear-sightedness about the ever growing problem of cultic manipulation disguised as religious vocation. Indeed, to speak to the threat, the Vatican issued a pastoral letter on May 7, 1986, in which it issued guidelines intended to provide Catholic parents and their children with a basis on which to evaluate any group that the youngsters may be invited to join.
One who took the guidelines to heart was J.J.M. Garvey, a founder of an organization called “Our Lady and St. Joseph in Search of the Lost Child, an Ad Hoc Alliance to Defend the Fourth Commandment,” a support group for families “who have been deeply hurt by clandestine Opus Dei training and recruitment.” In fact, so much did he take the guidelines to heart that he issued a detailed and extremely well-written 58-page commentary on them entitled Parents’ Guide to Opus Dei.  In it, he lays out, in a kind of syllabus of errors format, a treatment wherein each general Vatican guideline is followed by his own specific commentary. For example:
Vatican: Those most often attracted by such measures are those who, firstly, do not know that the approach is staged, and secondly, who are unaware of the nature of the contrived conversion and training methods for social and psychological manipulation to which they are subjected. The sects often impose their own norms of thinking, feeling, and behaving. This is in contrast to the Church’s approach, which implies full-capacity informed consent.
Garvey: At first, most [Opus Dei] recruits do not even suspect that they are being recruited .Today, unfortunately, common sense must dictate that all persons beware a sudden flattering interest by “friends.”
In any case, the Guide is most compelling when it comments on what the Vatican defines as the eleven classic characteristics of sect behavior in the area of recruiting and training. Here are a handful of examples:
Vatican: Characteristic One. a subtle process of introduction gradual discovery of the real host, along with THE GENERAL APPROACH: “deception and affection.”
Garvey: Articles 190 and 191 of the concealed Opus Dei Constitutions require members NOT to reveal their membership or the membership of others to “outsiders.” Silence about the Work is strongly urged upon all members, and is termed “discretion” .
Vatican: Characteristic Three. ready-made answers and decisions almost being forced upon the recruits
Garvey: At the same time as Catholic doctrine is taught, the “spirit of Opus Dei” is inculcated and extolled, the unchanging way to sanctity as laid down by the Founder. In this teaching, tried and true ways of being Roman Catholic are not presented .Maxims in the Founder’s book The Way are driven home, especially those directing silence with outsiders (Maxims 639-656) and obedience (Maxim 936: “You have come to submit, to annihilate yourself”; Maxim 941: “Obedience the sure way. Blind obedience the way of sanctity”). Yet in public forums Opus Dei spokesmen say the opposite: “Our Founder was most insistent on the fact that we all exercise personal freedom — with responsibility, of course. And so we do. We love freedom. We live a life of freedom.”
Vatican: Characteristic Ten. keeping recruits constantly busy and never alone; continued exhortation and training in order to arrive at an exalted spiritual status, altered consciousness, automatic submission to directive
Garvey: Gradually all free moments are filled, particularly those times normally reserved for fundamentally Catholic family gatherings: Christmas, Easter, birthdays, weddings, siblings’ First Communions .The purpose is to prepare the way, surreptitiously, for eventual total separation from the natural family .The fear of actually losing one’s immortal soul is preyed upon as well: “If one of my children abandons the fight let him know that he betrays us all, Jesus Christ, the Church, his brothers and sisters in the Work It would be treason to consent to the tiniest act of unfaithfulness.”
Vatican: Characteristic Eleven. the insistence on a strong focus on the leader; some groups may even downgrade the role of Christ in favor of the Founder.
Garvey: While there is little evidence that Opus Dei downgrades Christ, there is ample and striking evidence of intense focus upon the Founder (now called “Our Father” within Opus Dei), and evidence of the downgrading of the rest of the Church .Since “the Work,” complete and whole “was inspired by God in the Founder on October 2, 1928, it therefore cannot be changed .” Carrying this to an extreme, members are encouraged to abandon previous habits of prayer for intercession by many saints, and to concentrate on praying for the intercession of the Founder .Doing the will of “the Father” is a common phrase, and a common desire in Opus Dei.
This is, of course, only the barest sample of Garvey’s richly detailed and cogently argued dissent from Opus Dei-style Catholicism. Perhaps because he writes from personal and painful experience, he draws the damning conclusions that so many others, from the power elite in Rome to our see-no-evil bishops in America, are reluctant to look in the face.
“It is fundamental,” he writes, “that conniving to breach the Fourth Commandment by subtly usurping parental roles and rights is deeply wrong. The spiritual formation of children is a parent’s duty and right. Others perform it in loco parentis, and only with parental permission. When Opus Dei priests advise underage youth not to tell their parents of their choice to join Opus Dei, the false assumption they perpetuate is that children are somehow autonomous, and legitimate targets for adult proselytizers. Not to let their parents object (know) violates the parents’ God-given duty-rights. It breaches the Fourth Commandment, and, by teaching children to give a false witness to legitimate authority, violates the Eighth Commandment.”
These are grievous charges and grievous realities, and no amount of rhetorical fast-stepping by Opus Dei spokesmen protesting how free and open everything is in the great land of Oz with its wonderful Wizard can make them go away. Those conscientiously able to deny them, except out of a truly invincible ignorance, can only be those who, in Chesterton’s immortal phrase, are capable of being satisfied with something less terrible than the truth.
Nor do the problems begin and end with the underaged. Grover and Mary Corcoran of Waterford, Virginia know at first hand what a trial it can be to have a voting-age daughter married to a true-believer Opus Dei supernumerary. What seemed to them at first a benign and trustworthy organization took on a different aspect as time passed and connubiality gave way to calamity.
“Our son-in-law,” Corcoran writes, “would spend his vacation time at an Opus Dei workshop instead of with his family. Opus Dei also had him attending other spiritual sessions with them a minimum of three times a week. The rest of the time he only had recruitment on his mind. In fact, the only guests invited to his home for dinner were potential recruits.
“Opus Dei seemed to feel perfectly comfortable with the power they had over our son-in-law, and our daughter was constantly pressured to submit to Opus Dei spiritual direction. This became particularly oppressive when she needed hip replacement surgery and was insisting on Natural Family Planning. At the time she could barely walk, let alone cope or carry another pregnancy. [She had already borne two children.] According to Opus Dei, the ordinary teaching Magisterium of the Church, which approves Natural Family Planning, wasn’t good enough.
“There were many other intrusions on the marriage .Finally, when our daughter asked her husband if he wanted to save the marriage by leaving Opus Dei, he said, ‘Do you want me to leave the Catholic Church?’ Members seem unable to differentiate between Opus Dei and the Church.” In any case, Corcoran’s son-in-law chose not to: “The marriage was annulled on the grounds of Lack of Due Discretion.”
In his zeal to alert others to the dangers of Opus Dei, Corcoran has created an extensive news-clipping file. It includes numerous stories detailing some of the more troubling aspects of the Opus Dei experience.
“THIS IS WHY THE HOLY FATHER RECEIVES NO NEGATIVE INFORMATION” he headlines a piece by Paddy Agnew in the Irish Times pointing out that Monsignor Celso Morga Iruzubeita (Congregation for the Clergy), Monsignor Juliano Herranz (Secretary for the Council for the Authentic Interpretation of Legal Texts), Monsignor Fernando Ocriz (Consultor with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), Monsignor Cormac Burke (Sacra Rota), and the Vatican’s senior spokesman, Dr. Joaquin Navarro Valls, are all Opus Dei members.
“IF IT’S TRUE THAT THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE HAS BEEN ELIMINATED, WE WILL SEE A PROLIFERATION OF ‘SAINTS’ WHO ARE NO MORE THAN SOCIAL JUSTICE ICONS” he blazons above a Newsweek article about Escriva and the Vatican’s new and simplified canonization process, an article that reports the disturbing fact that there is “ no longer a devil’s advocate to systematically challenge a candidate’s claim to holiness.”
“THE DAMAGE HE CAUSED CAN’T BE MEASURED” describes an excruciatingly embarrassing (for Opus Dei) and very recent New York Times article about FBI agent and accused spy Robert Hanssen, who just happened to be a member of Opus Dei. In the story, Hanssen’s wife is said to have reported that Hanssen confessed to an Opus Dei priest as long ago as 1980 that he had begun a money-for-secrets relationship with the Soviet KGB. The stunning part of her testimony was that while the priest initially urged Hanssen to turn himself in, he soon reversed himself and persuaded Hanssen to donate the $20,000 he’d received from the Soviets to charity — not exactly an acceptable alternative, let alone a saintly one.
In a letter to New Oxford Review, Corcoran said something that Opus Dei’s supporters and apologists would do well to ponder: “Opus Dei is not a conservative organization, it is a chameleon organization. Opus Dei people are conservative when they are among conservatives, but liberal when among liberals — whatever serves Opus Dei’s purpose of garnering influence, favorable publicity, money and power.”
An interesting word, “chameleon.” And if there’s a chameleon in the world of the big cats and the mighty hunters before the Lord, it’s the leopard, a feline notoriously swift to adjust to whatever environment it finds itself in. African tribesmen still sing songs written in tribute to its hunting prowess, and one knowledgeable student of the wild describes it as “the most secretive and elusive of the large carnivores, and also the shrewdest.”
Secretive, elusive, shrewd — whether outside the temple hunting, or inside it eyeing the chalices, the leopard called Opus Dei has made its presence known and feared. Now, even as the unsuspecting John Paul prepares for it a crown of glory, it more than ever threatens to become part of the ceremony — this dangerous and relentless predator that comes in, like the fog, on little cat feet.
Posted to website July 26, 2002
1. Thierry, J.J. Opus Dei, A Close-Up. New York: Cortland, Press, 1975.
2. Cronica, internal Opus Dei publication, iv, 1971.
3. Cronica, v, 1963.
5. ODAN (Opus Dei Awareness Network) Newsletter, March 19, 1994.
6. Catholic Pictorial, Liverpool, 29 November 1981, p. 14.
7. ODAN Newsletter, December 1, 1998.
10. Dehan, Nicolas. Le Sel de la Terre. English translation by Suzanne Rini. Reprinted by Angelus Press under the title, “Opus Dei: A Strange Pastoral Phenomenon,” 1993.
11. Walsh, Michael. Opus Dei: An Investigation into the Secret Society Struggling for Power Within the Roman Catholic Church. San Francisco: Harper, 1991, p. 73.
12. An Interview with Miguel Fisac, Opus Dei Awareness Network, Inc., 2000, p. 27.
13. Ibid, p. 30.
14. Martin, James. “Opus Dei in the United States,” America, 25 February 1995, p. 9.
15. del Tapia, Maria Carmen. Beyond the Threshold: A Life in Opus Dei. New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1997, p. 277.
16. Walsh, op. cit., p. 155.
17. Roche, John J. “The Inner World of Opus Dei: Evidence from Internal Documents of Opus Dei and testimony.” Linacre College, Oxford. 15 June 1982.
18. Cronica, iv, 1971.
19. Cronica, iv 1964.
21. Walsh, op. cit., pp. 14-15.
22. Fisac, op. cit., p. 12.
23. Walsh, op. cit., p. 155.
24. Walsh, op. cit., p. 155.
25. Walsh, op. cit., p. 155.
26. Jose Maria Bernaldez, Tiempo, 1 August 1983.
27. Garvey, J.J.M. Parents’ Guide to Opus Dei. New York: Sicut Dixit Press, 1989.