ODAN – Varsity

Inside Opus Dei

Strong Catholic tastes on campus

By Mike O’Riordan

Taken from The Varsity, University of Toronto’s Student Newspaper, July 24, 2001.
Copied to ODAN web site with permission of the online editor on May 13, 2002.

“Ernescliff College, located at 156 St. George Street, is a relatively small, harmless-looking residence amid the backdrop of downtown Toronto. Ernescliff is a self-described, Home away from Home, a student residence consisting of forty young men located near the St. George subway station. The activities of doctrinal and spiritual formation of Ernescliff College are also entrusted to Opus Dei, a prelature of the Roman Catholic faith. What may be a surprise is that Opus Dei is considered by many to be the most dangerous and controversial sect within the Roman Catholic Church.”


Opus Dei (the Work of God) was founded on October 2, 1928 by a Spanish priest, Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, in Madrid. Since its birth, Opus Dei has grown to include over 80 000 members in more than 15 countries, including Canada and the United States. The prelature has nearly 1500 priests and is represented by 15 bishops worldwide.

In 1982, under Pope John Paul II, Opus Dei was granted an extremely unique position within the Roman Catholic Church. They became the first and only religious group to be granted the status of “personal prelature,” a canonical term that covers jurisdiction over the persons in Opus Dei rather than a region. In essence, Opus Dei’s purview has no geographical boundaries, despite the existence of Opus Dei bishops, thereby demonstrating Rome’s regards for Opus Dei by Pope John Paul II and the Vatican.

According to Jean-Marc Laporte of the Toronto School of Theology, the status “provides a direct link with the Vatican, thereby making the group less dependent upon the local church.”

Juan Pineda, an Ernescliff College resident and member of Opus Dei, further elaborates: “The jurisdiction of Opus Dei pertains to the spreading of a specific message of sanctity within everyday life. Thus, regardless of where you are (geographically), one can spread the message of sanctity that is wholly coherent with the Christian values and faith.”

Ironically, it is Roman Catholics themselves who most vehemently oppose the prelature of Opus Dei. The sect has been described as a highly conservative, traditionally religious order, and their acceptance by the Vatican was due, in part, to their willingness to adhere to the strict doctrines of the Roman Catholic faith.


But the controversy surrounding Opus Dei does not necessarily centre around ecclesiastical accreditation.

Although some have questioned the status of this religious sect and the privileges bestowed upon Opus Dei (Escriva, for example, was beatified in 1992, 17 years after his death, leapfrogging such notables as Pope John XXIII), most question the practices of Opus Dei itself. Many have publicly questioned the extent of secrecy and manipulation undertaken by members to recruit others into the organization. In fact, some observers have likened Opus Dei to a modern day cult, designed to prey upon unsuspecting, idealistic individuals in order to increase the size of its apostolate.

Such perceptions have been nourished by a passage contained in Cronica, the internal magazine of Opus Dei: “We do not have any other aim than the corporate one: Proselytism.” (Cronica v. 1963)(1), and “When a person does not have the zeal to win others, he is dead…I bury cadavers. The eager desire to win souls must eat us up.” (Cronica v. 1963)(1).

Serious issues have thus been raised. Is this a bona fide prelature designed to complement educational development with spiritual growth, or a more questionable organization identified with cult-like behaviours?

“Lots of religious groups seek out new members. There is nothing wrong with the desire to spread the message in order to bring others in,” stated Jean-Marc Laporte.

Pineda agrees. “The apostolic techniques of Ernescliff are not designed to recruit the unwilling, but rather to exchange ideas and beliefs,” he said.

Pineda wants to defuse allegations that members of Opus Dei are required to seek out “apostolates of friendship,” designed to compel these new-found friends to join the order. In fact, Pineda went on to elaborate that members and directors of Opus Dei are not pushing for conversion to the organization, although it would be “fantastic if it happens.” Rather, they claim to seek spiritual direction to navigate individuals toward good citizenship based upon human and Christian ideals.

Reverend Bob Shantz of the Campus Chaplains Association explains that “to most outsiders looking inward, most religions appear cult-like. It has become increasingly difficult in the age of modern individualism to believe in the devotion to a religious cause. It is simply a matter of individual freedom and religious expression. One must ask where does ritual, ceremony and initiation end and brainwashing begin? How do we pass judgment?”

New members are obligated to surrender incoming/outgoing mail to the college director for official perusal.

Such an example of control does not surprise Karen Bach, the chaplain of Knox College. “In defining cult-like behaviour, it is the influence of others upon the individual’s ability to critique experience, to define right and wrong, and to define limits,” she explained.


Pineda is quick to come to the defense of Opus Dei and Ernescliff College by stating that it is only the numeraries-those committed to the “Plan of Life” (daily mass, devotional readings, private prayer; none of which are uncommon within any religious order) – that undergo controlling rituals. In fact, he further explains that all members, before entering into Opus Dei, are fully aware of what they will have to give up, as well as what they will endure, as members of this unique sect. He goes onto say that new members have their mail confiscated because they should be sheltered from the world until the neophytes fully absorb Opus Dei’s spiritual message.

“Most news from the outside world can contain some shocking information,” commented Pineda, “especially for those in the early stages of commitment. Thus, the director provides support in order to help convey the right message until knowledge grows. Once the right knowledge, and the right spirituality has grown, no mail is ever opened.”

But Bach argues that such a process is deliberately designed to limit a new member’s world view so that he/she may be receptive to brainwashing.

“Such support is a means of circumventing the wishes of parents and also restricting the ability of the individual to critically evaluate his/her chosen path. It numbs the critical edge of the individual, robbing him of thought,” the Knox chaplain said.

Pineda denounces such characterizations of their entrance requirements. He argues that the media has a tendency to focus on the most extreme aspects of Opus Dei-the practices engaged by those most committed to the group and devoted entirely to the prelature.

The constraints placed upon numeraries, the celibate contingent of Opus Dei, tend to generate most media scrutiny, even though they only constitute 20 per cent of membership.

“Individual freedom is never controlled within Opus Dei. Others within Opus Dei, married men and women, as well as others not as spiritually committed, do not have to adhere to the strict practices followed by most numeraries,” Pineda explained.

Despite the refutations by its members and the large increases in numbers since the 1970’s, Opus Dei has become so controversial that a Opus Dei Awareness Network (ODAN) sprouted to meet the growing demand for accurate information about the group. Most of ODAN’s members are young, idealistic Catholics who have been deceived and wounded by the personal prelature of Opus Dei. ODAN is not questioning the doctrine of the Roman Catholic church but rather the specific practices of Opus Dei, such as their recruiting tactics and alleged control over the freedom of some members. The sect has even been banned from campuses recently, including Stanford University, where Russell Roide, director of campus ministry, describes them as “subtle and deceptive.”

But before judgment may be passed on any religious community, it should be remembered that most religions have some form of recruitment and initiation. However, all maintain an adamant respect for individual freedom and choice. As Professor Laporte astutely noted, “Religious communities and cults are categorically opposed on a continuum.”

Denial of individual expression, control, and manipulation represent one set of extremes. The religious community, flourishing on freedom and choice, sit at the other end. The debate that continues to surround Opus Dei is exactly where they fit along this continuum.

One fact is certain, Opus Dei and Ernescliff College now lie in the heart of the University of Toronto.