ODAN Review of The Way

The Way by Josemaria Escriva
reviewed by Joseph I. B. Gonzales, former numerary
Originally published in a series of reviews of Opus Dei-related books on amazon.com.
November 29, 2001

hardy aragonese piety but dangerously authoritarian
One of my friends asked me in consternation, “What’s wrong with The Way?” Instead of answering him directly, I decided to write this review.

In the spiritual ideal of pious and ascetic virility, intense traditional devotion, the exercise of virtues according to a neo-Thomistic schema, and the militant imperative to propagate triumphal Roman Catholicism, The Way is based on preconciliar religious spirituality, with some reflection on the Aragonese character.

This preconciliar character is especially evident if we look at the original points in The Way that have been revised. Consider point 115: “‘Minutes of silence.’ Leave silence for those whose hearts are dry. We Catholics, children of God, speak with our Father who is in heaven.” Now consider the same point in the 1939 edition: “‘Minutes of silence.’–leave this for atheists, Masons, and Protestants, who have a dry heart. We Catholics, children of God, speak with our Father who is in heaven.”

The book is also a blueprint for many essential features of the religious subculture of Opus Dei–the “heroic minute,” “spiritual childhood” before the directors, or the imperative to “win new apostles.” These features are not universal to Catholic spirituality.

The Way also reflects problematic aspects of the religious subculture of Opus Dei, such as the bias against women. However, I would single out one area as the most objectionable because it possesses the greatest potential for inflicting psychological damage: religious authoritarianism.

Read, for example, point 856: “Spiritual childhood demands submission of the mind, which is harder than submission of the will. In order to subject our mind we need not only God’s grace, but a continual exercise of our will as well, denying the intellect over and over again, just as it says ‘no’ to the flesh.”

In Opus Dei, obedience to the directors is exercised in an environment in which information is restricted and behavior is controlled by a system that continually gathers confidential information about individual members and persuades them to conform through a process of unrelenting suasion. By playing upon a mixture of guilt feelings and good intentions, the regime of obedience is very gradually imposed over many years, until the rights a lay person is normally entitled to in secular society and in the Roman Catholic Church are one by one surrendered. It is constantly hammered that obedience to the directors is identified with submission to God, inciting misplaced guilt among those who conflict in conscience with their directives. All these conditions limit the effective exercise of freedom, especially for numeraries, who are required to live under greater constraints than other types of members.

Stories of psychological harm to Maria del Carmen Tapia, Eileen Clark, or Dr. John Roche, all former numeraries, are not unique and have been repeated all around the world.

Certainly, obedience is part of the tradition of religious spirituality in Roman Catholicism. Yet there exist transcendent–universal and spiritual–values that moderate the uncritical implementation of this tradition. Among these values, I would mention at least three–truth, compassion, and discernment. In specific situations, the moderating influence of these values on obedience in Opus Dei may be seriously compromised.

Truth is subverted in the following counsel derived from my own experience: “Your director might be wrong, but you are not wrong in obeying the director.”

Compassion is lacking in this harsh rejoinder described in Maria del Carmen Tapia, Beyond the Threshold (1997): “Monsignor Escriva taught that one should be ‘intransigent with sin, but tolerant with the sinner,’ but this was not what he practiced. If he heard a numerary say she felt ‘sorry’ for someone, he would say, ‘Be sorry for the Work!'”

Discernment is ignored in this directive reported in Robert Hutchinson, Their Kingdom Come (1997): “Obey intelligently but blindly.”

The effective practice of obedience for spirituality’s sake requires some check-and-balance. Indeed, in Catholic spirituality less rigid models of obedience exist.

No doubt many points in The Way individually considered genuinely promote traditional Catholic spirituality–in this respect, they are salutary. For this reason, I give the book four stars. But insofar as The Way reinforces and even canonizes problematic features of Opus Dei spirituality with the alleged stamp of the Holy Spirit, it is potentially a harmful book.

I believe that a more appropriate title for this book is My Way.