Spotted history aside, Opus Dei forges close campus links
‘Work of God’ at Princeton
The Daily Princetonian March 22, 2005
By Neir Eshel
Growing up in the small port city of Alton, Ill., Tom Haine ’08 never expected to attend an Ivy League school. A lifelong Catholic, he considered the University of Notre Dame, St. Louis University and various state schools – but Princeton was far from his mind.
That changed one day junior year when he received a flier promoting a Plato seminar at Princeton. The event was hosted by a chapter of the international Catholic group Opus Dei. A week of events at the group’s home on Mercer Street convinced Haine to apply to the University – “the only reason I even thought about it,” he said.
It was another successful effort by Opus Dei members to forge closer spiritual and intellectual ties with University students and faculty. Today, Haine attends prayer sessions and Friday dinners at Mercer House, the Opus Dei residence, and uses its chapel and study room.
Haine is also a junior fellow in the University’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. The group, which studies constitutional law and political thought, has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from organizations linked to Opus Dei.
Some of those multi-million dollar organizations, which until recently were housed in an office building across the street from the University, were created explicitly to support Opus Dei. Others have given to a range of academic programs at the University and around the world, from Princeton’s Council of the Humanities to schools in Latin America. But they are all tied together by Luis Tellez, who sits on the boards of many of those organizations and serves as the director of Opus Dei in Princeton.
Critics, including some former members, charge that these organizations represent veiled attempts by Opus Dei to spread its influence in elite academic circles. They say the group – which was depicted in Dan Brown’s bestseller, “The Da Vinci Code,” as a murderous cult – relies on secretive and aggressive recruiting techniques.
Indeed, Opus Dei’s Princeton chapter, which is not officially recognized by the University, has a spotted history. Fifteen years ago, an Opus Dei priest affiliated with the University was dismissed because of concerns about his recruiting tactics and overbearing relations with students.
Interviews with more than 20 students, faculty and individuals close to the group at Princeton and elsewhere suggest that over the past six to eight years, relations between the University and Opus Dei have improved.
Members say they have put their troubled history behind them and seek only to support the faith of willing students.
“People try to create this dark aura of conspiracy,” Tellez says. “And it’s just not true.”
That view is bolstered by former critics of the group. And despite the financial links, University officials say the donations to Princeton programs come with no strings attached and have nothing to do with spreading Opus Dei’s influence.
The money path
Founded in 1928, Opus Dei – a Latin phrase meaning “Work of God” – has 85,000 members worldwide and 3,000 in the United States. In Princeton, about a dozen students attend events at Mercer House, a white clapboard building behind the U-Store’s parking lot that has been home to Opus Dei for 15 years.
It is also home to Tellez, a priest, two graduate students and several others. The house is a hub for Opus Dei activities in the area, from morning mass to circles on Christian doctrine and dinners with University professors.
The group is distinguished by its emphasis on rigidly following Catholic doctrine – including good deeds, prayer and self-denial – in everyday life.
This approach appeals to Haine’s basic beliefs. Opus Dei leaders “don’t tell you what to believe,” he says. “They help you see why their beliefs are correct – why the truth is the truth.”
Like many of the students who attend activities at Mercer House, Haine participates as a junior fellow in dinners and lectures sponsored by the James Madison Program, created in 2000 by politics professor Robert George.
The program’s recent activities included a conference on “Bridging the Racial Divide: Evangelical Christians in Contemporary Politics” and lectures titled: “Lawrence v. Texas: The Worse Supreme Court Opinion in History?” and “Religious Liberty: The Political Claim.” The program has invited to campus such prominent conservatives as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Haines said that he participates in the Madison Program and other Princeton groups – such as Princeton Pro-Life and Aquinas – to “bolster my faith and provide a support and basis group of people who feel the same way.”
“But Princeton’s students overall also make me feel comfortable, because they are all open to new ideas, knowledgeable, and fun to discuss such things as God and life with,” he continued.
During the past five years, the organizations affiliated with Tellez and Opus Dei have contributed more than $500,000 to University professors and programs, according to a review of tax records. The bulk of the money has gone to the Madison Program. Tellez is also on the program’s advisory council.
The money has sometimes taken a circuitous route.
In 2002, a nonprofit with $50 million in assets called the Association for Cultural Interchange (ACI), which Tellez leads, received $40,000 in contributions from a Harvard alumnus and a Princeton alumnus. That money was then transferred, Tellez said, to another nonprofit called the Higher Education Initiatives Fund (HEIF), which in its turn gave the money to the Madison Program.
ACI mainly – though not exclusively – supports Opus Dei initiatives, Tellez said, adding that HEIF was created to support all kinds of scholarship and will close soon.
Tellez said he asked the donors, whom he and the University declined to identify, to give to ACI with the understanding that the money would shift to HEIF. This would secure HEIF’s status as a public charity for tax purposes because the money was coming from ACI, an established charity. This is a common practice among nonprofits known as fiscal sponsorship.
From 2000 to 2002, HEIF gave more than $330,000 to the James Madison Program. But other foundations Tellez has run also have supported University programs.
The Clover Foundation, a $25 million foundation that sponsors Opus Dei programs, gave $180,000 to the University’s Humanities Council to support its yearlong sequence tracing Western civilization from ancient Greece to the present.
In 2000, Clover gave $30,000 to George to help launch the Madison Program. Two years later, Clover gave another $30,000 to HEIF to support the program.
Other major donors to the program include the John Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, publisher Steve Forbes ’70 and Donald Drakeman GS ’88, president of Medarex Inc. and chair of the program’s advisory council. In its first two years, the Madison program raised $8 million.
Tellez said he raised all the money from his friends – some but not all of whom are in Opus Dei – and that the Clover board authorized the grants as a “gesture of gratitude for my work” instead of an interest in specific Princeton programs.
A group of outside observers, long critical of Opus Dei, is wary of such donations. They charge that Opus Dei tries to recruit members and spread its intellectual conservativism by creating clusters of foundations around prestigious colleges, including Harvard, Columbia and the University of California at Berkeley.
“Opus Dei is not what it seems to be,” says Dianne DiNicola, who co-founded a watchdog group called the Opus Dei Awareness Network after her daughter reported having a harrowing experience with Opus Dei in college. “Underneath, there’s a whole web of activity that they don’t reveal. Everything they do is to increase their own power.”
ODAN’s website lists dozens of foundations like Clover and ACI that DiNicola maintains support academic programs at universities to furtively expand the influence of Opus Dei.
But Tellez suggested links between his scholarly contributions and Opus Dei is a “bunch of baloney.” The foundations he’s affiliated with, which total about $75 million in assets, are structurally independent from Opus Dei, he said. They give money to the University and other academic programs because, he says, it’s the right thing to do.
“We help people who are not even Catholic,” Tellez said. “We support scholarship that has a specific thelos and that is honest about the pursuit of truth. That will narrow the scope of what we support.”
“I’m trying to be a good member of Opus Dei and the Catholic Church,” said Tellez, who recently founded a new initiative, the Witherspoon Institute [link to website], to support scholars nationwide. “That doesn’t make me a peon of Rome. That doesn’t make it a conspiracy.”
Program officials, too, say that Tellez’s involvement is unrelated to Opus Dei.
“With respect to fundraising, Luis Tellez has helped the Madison Program, just as, I understand, he has helped other university programs,” program associate director Bradford Wilson said in an email. “He is not on the board to represent any religious view or organization, nor is his religion counted for or against him in any way.”
At the Humanities Council, chair and history professor Anthony Grafton says the program takes no money that has strings attached.
“We’re always delighted to receive donations,” he said. “There’s never enough money.”
Regarding Opus Dei’s efforts to support scholarship, Grafton said that “there’s an old connection there. Princeton was always humanistic, but who founded it? The church.”
Since coming to the United States in 1949, Opus Dei has faced scathing criticism nationwide. That criticism tends to raise suspicion, at ODAN and elsewhere, about what Opus Dei is trying to do with its affiliated foundations.
Some former members have accused the group of being a secretive sect with sometimes violent practices. Critics also say Opus Dei harbors a political agenda, with ties to former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet.
At the University, the group was involved in the stormy, publicized departure of the associate chaplain of Princeton’s official Catholic group, Aquinas Institute, in 1990. Students and faculty accused Father C. John McCloskey, an Opus Dei priest who arrived in town in 1985, of being overly aggressive in recruiting and impinging on academic freedom by warning against anti-Christian books and classes. [See “Princeton Catholics Divided.”]
“Put simply, McCloskey was a very controversial, very polarizing man. He rubbed everyone the wrong way,” said politics professor Paul Sigmund, who petitioned Aquinas to dissociate from Opus Dei at the time.
Though McCloskey denied the charges, Father Vincent Keane, then Aquinas director, dismissed him as associate chaplain in 1990. McCloskey has since become a high-powered figure in Washington, D.C., converting syndicated columnist Robert Novak, Senator Sam Brownback, Judge Robert Bork and others to Catholicism.
The pattern of concern about Opus Dei activities is echoed at college campuses around the country. In the early 1990s, for example, student complaints at Stanford University led the director of ministry to ban all Opus Dei activities on campus.
DiNicola’s daughter, Tammy, said she joined Opus Dei as a sophomore at Boston College in 1988. During her two years with the group, she said she was required to keep a list of 12 to 15 friends who were thinking of joining and report monthly on her progress in persuading them. If the friends seemed unlikely to join, she said she was required to drop the friendships.
She also had to hand over her salary to Opus Dei, sleep on boards in a nearby Opus Dei residence and refrain from leaving without permission, she said. She decided to quit the group in 1990, and then spent two weeks attending a treatment facility in Ohio for people who believe they have been abused by cults.
“The bottom line is that Opus Dei has these houses near Universities so that they can find idealistic young recruits,” Tammy said. “Anything that’s a good thing they’re doing is a way to find and recruit the people they want.”
Since founding ODAN, Dianne DiNicola said she has received hundreds of calls from parents who have run into trouble with Opus Dei. The ODAN website includes testimonies by dozens of former members criticizing Opus Dei’s approach.
While Tellez acknowledged problems in the past, he said Opus Dei is now more careful.
“I can’t think of a single incident since 1998 [when McCloskey officially left the area] when any student has felt we’re not trying to help them,” he said. “In no way am I saying that everything Opus Dei members do is right. But in a generalization, I think Opus Dei members are more honest, thoughtful and careful about avoiding mistakes. We’re only interested in helping students.”
For Tellez, lingering criticism of Opus Dei stems from objections to the Catholic Church.
“Opus Dei is morally conservative, and we live in a secular culture,” he said. “We follow the same line as a church, and therefore we are a threat to those who are more secular.”
Tellez accused critics of distorting the truth by focusing excessively on the mistakes – the “human frailties” – of Opus Dei members.
“Of course members of Opus Dei can do wrong. Of course I have made mistakes. But they only apply this kind of scrutiny to Opus Dei, not themselves, not other institutions. It’s hypocritical,” he said.
As for recruiting, Tellez said, the situation at Princeton is different.
“Nothing I do is a recruiting tool,” he said. “None of that happens on my watch. I’m interested in people joining Opus Dei, but I know that the only way that’s going to happen is if God wants it and if they want it. So there’s no pressure.”
“The process starts with the person,” Tellez added. “People make up their minds on their own; I’m simply a facilitator.”
Close observers seem to agree on Opus Dei’s helpful role on campus.
“Relations between Aquinas and Opus Dei have been very positive,” Aquinas chaplain Father Tom Mullelly said. “I’ve been impressed by their hard work, their commitment. I’ve seen them as being helpful to Catholics in the community.”
Sigmund, the professor, said: “Opus Dei wasn’t operating quite by the rules [in McCloskey’s era], but now it is.”
Indeed, Juan Velez, who has been the Opus Dei priest in Princeton since 2001, said he is aware of the group’s history and takes care not to repeat it.
“Once I learned that there had been some conflict, some heated debate, I made a mental note to avoid that,” he said. “I’m always trying to avoid confrontations, and that’s very much in keeping with the spirit of Opus Dei. Our approach is not to push something on people.”
Students affiliated with Opus Dei say their experience with the group is positive and powerful.
Nic Teh ’05, an astrophysics major, said he began visiting Mercer House in his freshman year. Since then, he has regularly attended masses, circles and the Friday night dinner discussions.
“I see Opus Dei as a great aid to the church,” Teh said. “Anything that helps promote holiness, the message of the Gospel, I see it as a good thing.”
Teh sees Opus Dei as analogous to other organizations in the church – such as the Franciscans or Jesuits – but with greater emphasis on “holiness in the world and workplace.”
“We learn the most human of things – how to be a good friend, how to be virtuous,” he said. “Opus Dei helps people understand their faith better, helps people become better Catholics. It’s a matter of education.”
Posted April 14, 2005