Hey! Randy

God’s Work

Posted by heyrandy on July 27, 2009

Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church, John Allen, Doubleday, 2005, 403p.

There is no more controversial force in the Roman Catholic Church than Opus Dei.  Founded by Spanish priest Josemaria Escriva in the late 1920’s, the organization has spread throughout the Roman Catholic Church.  There is even an Opus Dei branch in Japan.

The organization is vilified by its detractors, praised by its supporters and misunderstood by everyone else.  Allen, a staunch Catholic but not a member of Opus Dei, tries to give a reasonable picture of the organization.  I think that he does a fairly good job.  He has engendered in me a kind of sympathy for the organization.

Allen spends a lot of time dealing with members and former members of the group.  It is always easy to find horror stories, and he does give some of those, but Allen goes beyond the superficial anecdotes to deal with the core principles of Opus Dei.

Those principles are not the least controversial.  The principles are nothing the typical Catholic priest or layperson would not recognize and agree with.  So why the controversy?  The cause is misunderstanding, ignorance, and some errors on the part of some members of Opus Dei.

The core principle of Opus Dei is “secularity”.  This is the idea that one is a Catholic in all areas of life.  One is to work in one’s profession with all one’s diligence.  One is to strive for excellence.  This not controversial, even non-Catholics can see the merit in this.

How then does this give rise to the strong feelings, the antipathy, against Opus Dei?  The charge of being a cult is usually the first one leveled at the organization.  It is not, but some of its practices for it upper lever members do cause some to question what is going on.  The members who live in Opus Dei residences are the major case in point.  The people, called numeraries, are required to live in celibacy and perform certain spiritual practices, disciplines.  In Catholic practice this is not unusual.  Many of the religious orders were founded on similar principles.  The numeraries are mere following a well attested path.

The two most controversial of the required disciplines of the numeraries are the using of a small rope whip and the wearing of he cilice.  The whip is used once a day while reciting a Hail Mary or Our Father prayer.  It is more of a reminder, a token really, of what Christ suffered rather than a serious flailing.  No bodily injury is expected, but a mortification.  It is an attempt to suppress sin.

The cilice is also not controversial in Catholic practice.  The cilice is a barbed chain worn on the thigh for two hours a day.  The barbs poke you to remind you of the suffering of Christ. Opus Dei buys the cilices from a group of Catholic nuns that are not related to Opus Dei.  The cilice Opus Dei buys is the one with only one row of barbs, not the two or three row models the nuns also sell.

Opus Dei does have legitimate status within the Catholic church.  It members include several bishops, two cardinals, and over a thousand priests.  The Pope granted the organization the status of Personal Prelature, the only one in the church.

Opus Dei members do not withdraw from the local diocese, rather they are still under the authority of the local bishop.  So are all the priests associated with Opus Dei.

Most members of Opus Dei are not numeraries.  The vast majority of members are supernumeraries.  These are Catholics who do not live in Opus Dei residences, but live on their own.  Often married, they practice the idea of secularity in their lives, trying to live out church teachings.

This is what Opus Dei says it is about.  The organization does not tell its members what to do, other than to obey official church teaching, or how to do it.  Rather, it insists that its members find their own way in life and apply their religion as they best think they can.  In matters of ethics and doctrine the organization stands ready to assist.

Allen give a detailed analysis of the organizations financial status.  The myth says that the group is wealthy, but the reality is that the U.S. branch is doing OK, but he UK branch is deeply in debt.

This financial analysis also indicates that the organizations reputation for secrecy is overblown.  Allen said that he had no trouble in getting the information for which he asked.  Organization officials were willing to talk to him on the record about all aspects of the organization and its activities.

Allen did not join the organization, but he does give the impression of respecting it.  If Allen tries to follow Escriva’s teaching of secularity, Allen’s Jewish wife may respect it as well.

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