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James Martin, S.J.February 25, 1995
Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, the successor to Opus Dei founder St. Jose Maria Escriva, was beatified Sept. 27 2014 in Madrid. CNS photo/courtesy of Opus Dei Information Office)

Opus Dei is the most controversial group in the Catholic Church today. To its members it is nothing less than The Work of God, the inspiration of Blessed Josemaría Escrivá, who advanced the work of Christ by promoting the sanctity of everyday life. To its critics it is a powerful, even dangerous, cult-like organization that uses secrecy and manipulation to advance its agenda. At the same time, many Catholics admit knowing little about this influential group. Moreover, because of the dichotomy of views on the group, and perhaps because of its influence in Vatican circles, it is difficult to find balanced reporting on Opus Dei.

This article is a look at Opus Dei’s activities in the United States. It is based on material written by Opus Dei and its critics, as well as on interviews with current and former Opus Dei members and with priests, religious, laypersons, campus ministers, scholars and journalists who have encountered Opus Dei in the United States.

Some Basics

Any look at Opus Dei must begin with Msgr. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, the Spanish priest who founded the group on Oct. 2, 1928. On that day, according to Opus Dei’s literature, while on a retreat in Madrid, “suddenly, while bells pealed in a nearby church, it became clear: God made him see Opus Dei.” Monsignor Escrivá, invariably referred to as The Founder by members, envisioned Opus Dei as a way of encouraging lay people to aspire to sanctity without changing their state of life or occupation. Today Opus Dei sees itself as very much in line with the Second Vatican Council and its renewed emphasis on the laity.

Some of the group’s spirituality can be gleaned from Escrivá’s numerous writings, most notably his 1939 book, The Way. The book is a collection of 999 maxims, ranging from traditional Christian pieties (“The prayer of a Christian is never a monologue”) to sayings that could easily have come out of Poor Richard’s Almanack (“Don’t put off your work until tomorrow”).

His group grew rapidly, spreading from Spain to other European countries, and in 1950 received recognition by the Holy See as the first “secular institute.” Over the next two decades The Work, as members call it, moved into Latin America and the United States.

In 1982 Pope John Paul II granted Opus Dei the status of “personal prelature,” a canonical term meaning that jurisdiction covers the persons in Opus Dei rather than a particular region. In other words, it operates juridically much as religious orders do, without regard for geographical boundaries. This unique recognition—it is the only personal prelature in the church—demonstrated the high regard in which it is held by John Paul II as well as Opus Dei’s standing in Vatican circles. But it also prompted critics to ask why a professedly lay organization would need such a status. Today Opus Dei counts 77,000 members (including 1,500 priests and 15 bishops) in over 80 countries.

Further evidence of Vatican favor—and added legitimacy—came in 1992 when Escrivá was beatified in a ceremony attended by 300,000 supporters in St. Peter’s Square. But coming only a few years after Escrivá’s death in 1975 and leapfrogging over figures like Pope John XXIII, the beatification was, to say the least, controversial. “Is Sainthood Coming Too Quickly for Founder of Influential Catholic Group?” read a January 1992 New York Times headline, echoing other critical articles appearing around the same time. An article in The London Spectator, for example, included allegations by former close associates about Escrivá’s less than saintly behavior. “He had a filthy temper,” said one, “and pro-Nazi tendencies, but they never mention that.”

Kenneth Woodward, religion editor of Newsweek and author of the book Making Saints, also pointed out irregularities in Escrivá’s beatification in a 1992 article. One of Mr. Woodward’s more serious charges was that Opus Dei prevented critics of Escrivá from testifying at the church tribunals deliberating on his life. In a recent intervˆew, Mr. Woodward said: “It seemed as if the whole thing was rigged. They were given priority, and the whole thing was rushed through.”

Countering these claims, Opus Dei’s director of communications in the United States, Mr. William Schmitt, defended the speed of the beatification by pointing to streamlined Vatican procedures and the exemplary life of Monsignor Escrivá. “Just look at the facts,” he said.

But even with Escrivá’s beatification, controversy dogs the group. In 1992 Michael Walsh’s book, Opus Dei: An Investigation into the Secret Society Struggling for Power Within the Roman Catholic Church, engendered such a negative reaction from Opus Dei that they published their own book, Opus Dei: An Open Book, to rebut Walsh’s claims.

Opus Dei in the United States

There are over 3,000 Opus Dei members in the United States, with 64 centers, or residences for members, in 17 cities: Boston; Providence, R.I.; New York; South Orange, N.J.; Princeton, N.J.; Pittsburgh; Washington; Delray Beach, Fla.; South Bend, Ind.; Chicago; Milwaukee; Urbana, Ill.; St. Louis; Houston; Dallas; Los Angeles and San Francisco. This is up from eight cities in 1975. Many of the centers are located near large college campuses, where Opus Dei attracts new members. (For example, the Leighton Studies Center for men and the Petawa Center for women are located in Milwaukee near Marquette University.) Each center typically houses 10 to 15 members, with separate centers for women and men. Opus Dei also sponsors other programs, such as retreat houses, programs for married Catholics and outreach programs to the poor, like its education program for children in the South Bronx. Other activities are run in Syracuse, Philadelphia, Miami, San Antonio, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Denver and Phoenix.

Opus Dei operates five high schools in the United States: The Heights (for boys) and Oak Crest (girls) in Washington, D.C., the Montrose School (girls) in Boston, and Northridge Prep (boys) and The Willows (girls) in Chicago. Their retreat houses include Arnold Hall in Pembroke, Mass., the Fetherock Conference Center near Houston and Trumbull Manor near San Francisco.

In light of their growing presence in this country, I contacted each of the seven U.S. cardinals and one archbishop requesting comments on Opus Dei for this article. I had hoped in this way to gauge the opinions of the U.S. Catholic leadership. None would comment—either positively or negatively. The majority said they had either no substantial knowledge or no contact with them, though Opus Dei is active in nearly every large archdiocese in the country.

Secrecy and Privacy

It is difficult to read anything about Opus Dei without running across accounts of its alleged secrecy. (“Pope Beatifies Founder of Secretive, Conservative Group” ran a New York Times headline in 1992.) Indeed, while a few members of Opus Dei are well known, like the Vatican press officer Joaquín Navarro-Valls, M.D., most are not. Critics also point out that most of Opus Dei’s organizations are not clearly identified as being affiliated with Opus Dei.

Opus Dei denies all this. “It’s not secret,” says communications director Bill Schmitt, “it’s private. Big difference.” Mr. Schmitt describes the vocation to Opus Dei as a private matter, a personal relationship with God. The members are known by their friends, their families, their neighbors, their colleagues at work. Even Escrivá in a 1967 interview said, “The members detest secrecy.”

But most critics are not concerned about whether members publicly announce their affiliation with Opus Dei. After all, many members of other lay organizations work without broadcasting their affiliations. When critics speak of “secrecy,” they refer instead to frustration in their efforts to get answers about the basic corporate activities and practices of Opus Dei.

Two priests I interviewed (who asked to remain anonymous) came into contact with Opus Dei while studying at Princeton in the mid-1980’s. In the course of their work with campus ministry, a divisive conflict arose between an Opus Dei priest and other members of the team. “Opus Dei was rather defensive about being secretive,” said one. “They’d say, ‘No, we tell it like it is.’ And, yes, they’d answer your questions, but it was like peeling away an onion. But if you didn’t ask the right question to peel away the next layer you simply weren’t told. You just never had the full picture. And I suppose it wouldn’t have been so annoying if they hadn’t been saying all the time how open they were.”

I encountered perhaps one example of this difficulty in the course of my research. Early on, I asked Bill Schmitt for a copy of Opus Dei’s constitutions. I thought that by reading them I could better understand Opus Dei and lay to rest some misconceptions. He gave me a copy of the 1982 statutes. But they were in Latin, and a technical “church” Latin at that. Could I have a copy of the English translation? There was none, he said. Why not? First he said that Opus Dei had not had sufficient time to translate them. I replied that this seemed odd, given that the statutes had been around for 12 years and that The Way had already been translated into 38 languages.

When I pressed him, he provided a second explanation, and I was reminded of the comment about peeling an onion. “It’s a church document,” he said. “We don’t own them. The Holy See wants them in Latin.” Perhaps, he added, the Vatican wants to prevent other groups from applying for the status of personal prelature. But how could English-speaking members study their own statutes? The members study them in depth, he explained. “All of it should be clear to them in their formation.”

Opus Dei member James Gabriel seconded this, explaining that the statutes were also available in Spanish. “I can look things up in a Spanish dictionary if I want to. But you receive so much formation that I don’t have any questions that I would want to go over.”

Nevertheless, it still seemed odd, so I asked Mr. Schmitt again. I received the same answer: “The document belongs to the Holy See and the Holy See does not want it translated. I’m sure there’s a reason.”

I asked three experts in canon law what that reason might be. One canon lawyer said, “Property of the Holy See? I’ve never heard of such a thing.” Another, John Martin, S.J., professor of canon law at Regis College in Toronto, noted that religious orders and lay associations as a matter of course publish their statutes in local languages, and as far as he knew, “there is no general ecclesiastic prohibition against the translation of documents of religious orders.” Or of personal prelatures, for that matter. Richard Hill, S.J., of the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., agreed, saying “there is no canonical reason” why Opus Dei should not be allowed to translate their own statutes. So it appears to be Opus Dei, not the Holy See, that is keeping the statutes from being translated.

Ann Schweninger is a 24-year-old former Opus Dei member now living in Columbus, Ohio, where she works with the Diocese of Columbus. She was not surprised when I told her of my difficulty in making sense of all this. “Opus Dei plays by its own rules,” she said. “If they don’t want to have something out in the open, they won’t make it accessible.” Referring to her own time in Opus Dei, she said: “The statutes were never shown to me nor were they available. They are mentioned but not discussed.” According to Ms. Schweninger, the only official document available is the catechism of Opus Dei, which even members can read only with the permission of the house director. “It’s kept under lock and key.” She also mentioned that during classes on the catechism, she was encouraged to take notes “in code” in case non-members should read them.

Opus Dei members frequently mention that they feel unfairly maligned. I asked Bill Schmitt if this might be partially a result of misunderstanding about the privacy they insist on. “Well, we’re in the phone book. I don’t understand your question.” I suggested, for example, more publicly identifying a school as a work of Opus Dei. “That’s not our charism. We have an institutional barrier to that. There’s no dissimulation going on. We’re not trying to hide.” But how, I asked, is such public identification against Opus Dei’s basic charism of spirituality of the laity? “Other people do that. We don’t. We don’t advertise. It’s not our way,” he said. “Our way is a personal way of friendship. People think we’re secret and we’re not. We’re trying to make ourselves as open as we can.”

A Lay Institution

To encounter Opus Dei is to encounter dedicated, energetic Catholics engaged in a variety of occupations. It is also to encounter a sometimes bewildering array of priests, numeraries, supernumeraries, cooperators, associates, directors and administrators. Opus Dei describes the various types of membership as different levels of availability for their mission. Critics maintain that Opus Dei, with its emphasis on hierarchy as well as celibacy and obedience, merely replicates religious life while professing lay spirituality. “And they’re really priest-ridden.” claims Newsweek’s Kenneth Woodward.

A few basic terms: Numeraries are single members who pledge a “commitment” of celibacy and normally live in “centers.” Numeraries turn over their income and receive a stipend for personal expenses. Numeraries (accounting for roughly 20 percent of the membership) follow the “plan of life,” a daily order that includes Mass, devotional reading, private prayer and, depending on the person, physical mortification. Numeraries also attend summer classes on Opus Dei. Every year an oral commitment to Opus Dei is made, and after five years the “fidelity” is made, a lifetime commitment. There are separate centers for men and women, each with a director. Male numeraries are encouraged to consider ordination to the priesthood. After 10 years of training, those who feel called are sent to Opus Dei’s seminary in Rome, the Roman College of the Holy Cross.

Most members are supernumeraries, married persons who contribute financially and sometimes serve in corporate works like schools. Associates are single people who are “less available,” remaining at home because of other commitments, such as responsibilities toward aging parents. Cooperators, strictly speaking, are not members because “they do not yet have the divine vocation.” They cooperate through work, financial help and prayers. Opus Dei also includes the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, an association of diocesan priests who receive the spiritual help that Opus Dei provides. They remain incardinated in their own dioceses. Numeraries or associates who are ordained priests also become members of this society. The head of Opus Dei, or “prelate,” is currently Bishop Javier Echevarría, who works out of its headquarters in Rome.

Critics contend that numerary life is anything but lay, particularly in what they see as its replication of religious life, with emphasis on “commitments” (Opus Dei does not use the term “vows”), life in common, a daily order and, at least for some of the men, eventual ordination. Many of those in authority are clerics—the director of their national headquarters in New Rochelle, N.Y., is a monsignor; their prelate was recently ordained a bishop. “If this is
a lay organization, I’d hate to see a clerical one,” said one of the priests from Princeton.

Another common criticism is that men and women numeraries are separated not only in housing but even in work. Numerary Jim Gabriel, who lives in Opus Dei’s Riverside Study Center in Manhattan explained: “There is pretty much no interaction. They do things that they have to do and we do what we have to do.”

According to two former numeraries, women numeraries are required to clean the men’s centers and cook for them. When the women arrive to clean, they explained, the men vacate so as not to come in contact with the women. I asked Bill Schmitt if women had a problem with this. “No. Not at all.” It is a paid work of the “family” of Opus Dei and is seen as an apostolate. The women more often than not hire others to do the cooking and cleaning. “They like doing it. It’s not forced on them. It’s one thing that’s open to them if they want to do it. They don’t have to do it.”

“That’s totally wrong,” said Ann Schweninger when she heard that last statement. “I had no choice. When in Opus Dei you’re asked, you’re being told.” According to Ms. Schweninger, it is “bad spirit” to refuse. Women are told that it is important to have a love for things of the home and domestic duties. “And since that’s part of the spirit of Opus Dei, to refuse to do that when you’re asked is bad spirit. So nobody refuses.”

For numeraries living in the centers, mail—incoming and outgoing—is read by the director. But for most numeraries this is not a problem. “If you’re in an organization and part of the group, where you go to the priest in confession and tell him everything that’s on your mind, what could you possibly receive in a letter that would matter?” said one. But he also admitted that he wasn’t sure if his friends knew their mail was being read. “But they never say anything that couldn’t be read by other people.”

Casting a Wide Net

But it is Opus Dei’s way of attracting new members that comes under the most vigorous attack by its critics. Opus Dei contends that their distinct brand of spirituality fills a need in society and that, as a result, Americans are naturally attracted to it. Others disagree, speaking of overly aggressive recruiting tactics. “I call them the Catholic Mormons,” says Kenneth Woodward.

One man who attended Columbia University in the early 1980’s, who asked not to be named, described the process of being recruited by Opus Dei. “They had someone become my friend,” he said bluntly. After Mass one day he was approached by another student, with whom he soon became good friends. Eventually he was invited to the Riverside Study Center near Columbia’s campus. He was not certain exactly what it was. “I thought it was a group of students that were a think tank or something.” After dinner a priest gave a short talk. He was later invited to join a “circle,” which he described as a sort of an informal prayer group. Soon afterwards Opus Dei suggested that he take one of the priests at the center as his spiritual director.

After becoming more involved—at this point meeting with the group frequently—he decided to investigate on his own. He spoke with a few priests and professors at Columbia and was surprised at how little he really knew: “I didn’t know anything about the secrecy, the numeraries, supernumeraries, any of that. And I didn’t know there were people taking vows of celibacy. I felt kind of upset that I didn’t know much about them. I didn’t think they were honest or straightforward about who they were. I felt very indignant.”

At the next circle meeting he raised some questions about issues that troubled him—for example, women and minority presence in Opus Dei. “They really didn’t have any answers and asked me not to return.” And more disturbing for him: “I never heard from my friend again. I was totally cut off.”

According to two former numeraries, if this man had stayed in the circle Opus Dei would have confronted him with a decision to join. Tammy DiNicola talked about her experience. “They staged a vocation crisis for me,” she said. “At the time, I didn’t realize they had staged it. But it’s standard practice. The person that’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.”

Why is it a crisis? “Well, they make it a crisis for you!” said Ann Schweninger. “And 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.” Tammy DiNicola was told that it was her only chance for a vocation. “Basically it’s a one-shot deal—if you don’t take it, you’re not going to have God’s grace for the remainder of your life.”

I asked if they were surprised at hearing that the man at Columbia had been cut off by his friend. “No,” said Tammy recalling her own recruiting days. “They use friendships to get people to join. They call it an apostolate of friendship and confidence, but it’s certainly not confidence—because everything that you talk about with your recruit is discussed with your director.” Even personal matters? “Especially personal matters, because those are the things that you can use so that a person would think about joining Opus Dei.” She was also advised to recruit only “select” people—intelligent and physically attractive—since they would be more likely to attract others once they were members.

Opus Dei looks at it differently, stressing the fact that any relationships are entered into freely. “There is no recruitment to Opus Dei,” said Bill Schmitt. It is not in Opus Dei’s interest, he explained, to have anyone as a member who does not freely understand and embrace their vocation. Jim Gabriel agreed. “The word recruiting sounds so bad,” he said. “Like we peg people and then try to get people to join The Work.” He spoke of helping people to come to know Opus Dei through friendship, and had had no experience of coercion.

Still, even Escrivá’s writings emphasize at least the idea of recruiting. In the internal magazine, Cronica, he wrote in 1971: “This holy coercion is necessary, compelle intrare the Lord tells us.” And, “You must kill yourselves for proselytism.”

Ann Schweninger finds this closer to her experience: “Whenever you’re in Opus Dei, you’re recruiting.”

On Campus

Opus Dei is an increasingly strong presence on U.S. college campuses. Traditionally, their efforts to attract new members has led them to colleges and universities. And it has sometimes led them into conflict with other groups.

Donald R. McCrabb is executive director of the Catholic Campus Ministry Association (C.C.M.A.), an organization of 1,000 of the 1,800 Catholic chaplains in the United States. What was he hearing about Opus Dei from his members? “We are aware that Opus Dei is present at a number of campuses across the country. I’m also aware that some campus ministers find their activities on campus to be counterproductive.” One of his concerns was Opus Dei’s emphasis on recruiting, supported by an apparently large base of funding. “They are not taking on the broader responsibility that a campus minister has.” He had other concerns as well. “I have heard through campus ministers that there’s a spiritual director that’s assigned to the candidate who basically has to approve every action taken by that person, including reading mail, what classes they take or don’t take, what they read or don’t read.”

The former Columbia student echoed this: “They recommended I not read some books, particularly the Marxist stuff, and instead use their boiled-down versions. I thought this was odd—I was required to do it for class!”

Susan Mountin, associate director of Marquette University’s campus ministry, saw two sides of the issue. “My own sense is that there probably is a need for many people to experience some sort of devotion in their lives. So the quest for spirituality is a very important thing—that part I’m fine with. What I worry about is the cult-like behavior, isolation from friends—and students talk about it. One student, in fact just this week, described being invited to a dinner and felt that she was being badgered by the individual to accept some sort of commitment to Opus Dei that she wasn’t willing to accept.”

The director of campus ministry at Stanford University from 1984 through 1992, Russell J. Roide, S.J., initially approached Opus Dei with an open mind. However, students began coming to him complaining about Opus Dei’s recruiting. “They just didn’t let the students alone. Students would come to me and say, ‘Please get them off our backs.’” He felt his only recourse was to pass out information to these students about Opus Dei, including critical articles. This prompted Opus Dei numeraries to visit Father Roide to tell him that he was “interfering with their agenda.” Eventually, because of continued student complaints about their recruiting, “I decided not to let them anywhere near the campus.” He now describes them as “subtle and deceptive.”

The two priests mentioned earlier, who studied at Princeton University and worked with campus ministry, described Opus Dei’s involvement there in the 1980’s. According to both men, an Opus Dei priest, the Rev. C. John McCloskey 3d, presented himself to the campus ministry group, which welcomed his offer to assist with chaplaincy duties. Soon after beginning his work, Father McCloskey presented to the other chaplains a list of the number of communions he had distributed and the number of confessions he had heard—as an objective way of measuring whether a priest was doing his job. Said one of the ex-chaplains, “He came to the rest of us and said, ‘I don’t think the chaplaincy program is doing this work. You should be doing what I’m doing’.”

Later, Father McCloskey began interviewing all entering Catholic freshmen, over the objections of some of the staff. It was at this time that the problems began. According to both sources, Father McCloskey asked questions about students’ sexual practices, among other things, and about their parents’ religious activities. In addition: “Some of the students claimed he coerced them into having the sacrament of reconciliation, or confession, as he called it. He would say, ‘You really need to go to confession. The chapel’s right around the corner and I’m available now.’ Now I can’t cite you a line in canon law, but one is never coerced into a sacrament. I found it outrageous, and a lot of other people did, too.”

C.C.M.A.’s Mr. McCrabb added, “It is my understanding that one of the most controversial aspects is their insistence that their members go to confession only to Opus Dei priests. I think that campus ministers have seen it as a way of controlling, manipulating or coercing a student. That’s the worst interpretation. The best is that it is discounting the ministry performed by other priests.”

After students were recruited, said one former chaplain, they would disappear from the regular campus chaplaincy functions at Princeton, “because it was seen as not being truly Catholic.” Father McCloskey also wrote a letter instructing students to avoid certain professors: “If [a course] is given by an anti-Christian its impact is counter-productive.” This led some students to circulate a petition claiming that Father McCloskey’s work was detrimental to the welfare of the university.

Father McCloskey denied coercing students into the sacrament of reconciliation but added, “I might have told people they need to go to confession—that’s the duty of the priest at times.” He denied asking about sexual activities. Nor, he said, had he ever recruited for Opus Dei. “I rarely if ever talked about Opus Dei with students.” As for presenting the other chaplains with the list of objective measures, he termed it a “lie.” He also noted that his list of courses were only “recommendations” to Catholic students.

In 1990 a new chaplain took over and dismissed Father McCloskey. Opus Dei has since opened a center in Princeton called Mercer House, three blocks from the campus ministry office.

At an Opus Dei Center

A visit to the Riverside Study Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side provided an opportunity to meet a few numeraries. The center houses 17 men, some studying at nearby Columbia University and other schools, some working in Manhattan. Two Opus Dei priests also reside there. It is a very large but not lavish house, with an ornate chapel, comfortable living areas and medium-sized bedrooms. Dinner was served family style, with much conversation.

After dinner I met with the center’s director and three numeraries, along with communications director Bill Schmitt. The men seemed genuinely content with life at the center. Their descriptions of how they were drawn to Opus Dei sounded like any vocation story, and none mentioned any coercion. One, in fact, said that any coercion would have turned him off to Opus Dei and made him less likely to join.

After a while, I brought up some of the criticisms I had heard. One young man studying at Cooper Union in Manhattan laughed at the accusation that Opus Dei isolates one. Going to classes all the time, he said, he regularly socializes with his classmates. “How could I be isolated?”

What about their recruiting? “Recruitment is the farthest thing from reality,” said one. “People are looking for something. It’s very easy to misunderstand, of course. People who are critics just won’t make the effort.”

Is there a lack of freedom in the life of a numerary? “They have to form us. You can’t become a saint alone.” As far as work goes, “You’re free to go in and say, I’d like to work here.” Why the need for priests in a lay organization? “You need priests for practical matters, with women and men working separately, you need someone to coordinate that. That’s just the way it is.”

I asked one man about going to confession to non-Opus Dei priests. “I must admit it would seem strange. The spirituality of The Work is pretty specific. If a priest doesn’t know what you’re going through in the context of your vocation…it could make it real difficult. And it could lead to misunderstanding, plus, they can give you totally different advice. And it’s really frustrating. I think it would be strange, not bad. No one’s going to say don’t go.”

They all felt that Opus Dei is unfairly maligned. Part of the reason, they said, has to do with their “unique” charism—the spirituality of everyday life. Though lay spirituality has long been a Catholic tradition (St. Francis de Sales wrote his Introduction to the Devout Life [1608] with laypersons in mind), members say there are still many who do not understand their charism. “Opus Dei represents a new concept in the church,” said Bill Schmitt, “and this has given rise to misunderstanding, even, in some instances…slanders.” But he added, “A lot of it comes from bad will.”

Are there problems with Opus Dei? “We’re not holy enough,” said one member. And what would they change if they could? “The spirit has been given to us and there’s nothing for us to change,” said another. “We are good sons and a faithful son is not an innovator. The essentials will not change.”

Opus Dei Awareness Network

Dianne DiNicola, Tammy DiNicola’s mother, knows some things about Opus Dei that she would like to change. In 1991 she started the Opus Dei Awareness Network, a self-described support group concerned with outreach to families with children in Opus Dei.

A few years ago Mrs. DiNicola noticed that Tammy, then an undergraduate at Boston College, “seemed to be going through a personality change.” According to Mrs. DiNicola, she became “cold and secretive,” not wanting to spend time with the family—which had not been the case before. “I just had the feeling something was wrong.”

When Tammy wrote a letter saying that she would no longer return home, Mrs. DiNicola grew more worried. She eventually found out that Tammy had joined Opus Dei as a numerary, living in one of their centers in Boston. “Our daughter,” she recalls, “became totally estranged from us. I can’t tell you the turmoil that our family went through. We tried to keep in touch with her, but it was like she was a completely different person.”

Initially trying to accept her daughter’s decision, she met with Opus Dei officials and diocesan officials to obtain more information. “I was just trying to feel good about Opus Dei. I love my religion. I mean, you’re not talking about the Moonies. This is something within the Catholic Church.” But the situation deteriorated, and Mrs. DiNicola felt that the church either was not in a position to help or did not want to do so.

Finally, Mr. and Mrs. DiNicola enlisted the help of an “exit counsellor” and asked Tammy to come home for her graduation in 1990. They later discovered that this would have been the last time she would have come home, since she had already been told to sever contacts with her family. According to both Mrs. DiNicola and Tammy, the counselling enabled Tammy to think about Opus Dei critically for the first time.

After the 24-hour counselling session Tammy decided to leave. Mrs. DiNicola described the scene: “My husband is a very, very good man, and throughout all the turmoil, I would cry and my other daughter would cry. We were losing our daughter—it was like she had died. For 24 hours we talked to her, without a break. When we did break early in the morning, my husband was over in the corner of our bedroom weeping softly. There was only one other time I saw him weep—that was when his father died.”

“It was pretty tumultuous,” recalled Tammy, now 26. She said that since Opus Dei “shut down” all of her emotions, she experienced a flood of emotions after she left. Now Mrs. DiNicola runs the Opus Dei Awareness Network (ODAN), which she says enables her to help to spare others the pain that her family went through.

Ann Schweninger was a numerary living at the same center with Tammy and remembered the day of Tammy’s departure. “The whole house was so upset, with everyone crying. The directors were hysterical, too. They told us that we had to pray hard for Tammy since this was her soul at stake and that we would really have to mortify ourselves.” Ann eventually decided to leave on her own, over the opposition of the center’s director, who said that her doubts would blow over.

Ann’s own departure was equally painful. After she left, Opus Dei persisted in trying to re-establish contact, calling her at work, sending plaintive letters, notes and Christmas packages. At one point, Opus Dei members—thinking that Ann was staying at a friend’s house—began driving by the house looking for Ann. “It was ridiculous,” said Ann. Eventually, she had a lawyer write to Opus Dei threatening a court order to cease contact with her.

“The suffering I went through when I left,” says Ann, “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

If ODAN is alarmed by Opus Dei, Opus Dei is alarmed by ODAN. “Let me stress that no one is ever counselled not to speak to their parents.” said Bill Schmitt. “Please keep in mind that some parents do not accept the faith or have had ‘other’ plans for their son or daughter. I do not need to point out to you that the methods these people use are highly objectionable. But we have not pressed this.”

Mrs. DiNicola responded that she would have been powerless had her daughter decided to stay in Opus Dei: “We certainly weren’t going to hold her physically.”

At Riverside one numerary said his blood boils when he hears about ODAN, “We are approved by the Holy See! We are not cult-like. Those people [who were counselled] were just violated. We do pray for them, of course. But there is a lot of misunderstanding, and parents become irrational.”

“It was very difficult for me,” recalled Mrs. DiNicola. “I mean, here I am trying to justify all of this. How could this happen in the Catholic Church? Here’s this organization with the approval of the Pope, Escrivá beatified, and there’s such destruction that’s happening to families because of this organization. So how to come to peace with that is so difficult.”

Newsweek’s Kenneth Woodward agrees, “The bishops have been pastorally irresponsible in not paying more attention to the claims of parents who feel their children have been seduced into joining something that is not good for their spiritual health…. That’s not to say everybody, but there’s enough of this sort of thing that it really bears investigation. And just as they owe an obligation in the very difficult case of someone who claims to have been molested by a priest—protecting the priest and the victim as equal members of the church—I think they have to pay pastoral attention to these people regardless of what kind of canonical status the organization has.”

Outside the United States, some bishops have already reacted. In December 1981, after a highly critical feature about Opus Dei appeared in The London Times, Cardinal Basil Hume, O.S.B., issued public guidelines for Opus Dei in his diocese. He instructed Opus Dei not to recruit anyone under 18, to ensure that parents were informed, not to exert pressure on people to join, to respect the freedom of members to leave and to allow members to freely choose spiritual directors. He also required Opus Dei’s activities to carry a “clear indication of their sponsorship and management.” 

The Future of Opus Dei

Whether Opus Dei will continue to grow in the United States is difficult to predict. Its critics, including ODAN, are gaining a voice. But Opus Dei’s widely acknowledged Vatican influence seems to provide a degree of protection, and its attraction for some, especially among college students, is a reminder of the desire for spirituality among Americans.

David J. O’Brien is Loyola Professor of Roman Catholic Studies at Holy Cross and author of the recent book From the Heart of the American Church: Catholic Higher Education and American Culture. He is of two minds about Opus Dei in the United States. While he admires their approach—drawing idealistic people together in a concerted manner—he thinks their appeal might be self-limiting. “They are so negative toward American culture that they can’t understand how deeply our notions of freedom and individualism can go.”

Members are completely devoted to The Work. “I think it’s wonderful,” says numerary Jim Gabriel. “Belonging to Opus Dei is living the Catholic faith to its fullest,” said one supernumerary.

“Opus Dei has been approved and repeatedly encouraged to expand its apostolic outreach,” said communications director Bill Schmitt, “precisely because it has practices that have proven to be sound.”

But their critics are equally adamant. “I think they’re very surreptitious, very ill,” said the man from Columbia University. “They don’t really believe in the world,” said Kenneth Woodward.

“They deceive people. They’re not straightforward,” said former numerary Ann Schweninger at the end of our long interview. “I can attest to that.”

This article appeared in the Feb. 25, 1995 issue of America.

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