Controversy Over Opus Dei
N E W Y O R K, June 18 -- When teenage "Julie" told her spiritual director she was thinking about leaving Opus Dei, she says she was told she would never be happy and would go to the devil if she did.
Tammy DiNicola, as a college student, says she was told she would go to hell if she left Opus Dei.
The two women, now in their 30s, are among an undercurrent of critics of what they say are aggressive recruiting practices toward young people and a culture of control at Opus Dei, a small but growing conservative organization within the Roman Catholic Church.
Opus Dei's central theme is that people can be holy in every day life through prayer, discipline and generosity toward others. The group is unique in the church in that most of its members are lay persons and many of them, called "numeraries" and "associates," make commitments of lifelong chastity.
Numeraries contacted say they lead fulfilled, happy lives. Opus Dei's national spokesman, Brian Finnerty, a numerary member himself, says the group respects the freedom of its members and potential members. He says members are free to choose whether or not to join and remain in Opus Dei, and to submit to its practices, such as having their mail read by superiors and signing over their salaries.
"The whole process involves a recognition of the fact that there's a respect for the freedom of everybody who comes into contact with Opus Dei," he says.
But the group's critics say once a person begins to participate and the restrictions are in place, it can become difficult for him to exercise his free will and leave.
"I think 90 percent of the members of Opus Dei are good devout Catholics," says the Rev. James Martin, an editor of the Jesuit magazine America. "But I think 10 percent of their activities really raise serious questions about their methods, most especially their recruiting, and some of the things that go on inside their houses."
Presence on Campus
With residence centers near many major colleges and universities, Opus Dei seeks to attract young people.
"Youth is a time when people are open to great generosity, when they are trying to think about things, trying to think about the meaning of their lives and their plans for their lives," says Finnerty. "So I think youth can be a tremendous time for a person to grow in their faith, and so that's something Opus Dei tries to help people do."
Opus Dei members are said to have a calling to join the group. Joining involves making annual commitments, beginning as early as 18 years old, in the form of contracts with the group over the course of a 6 ½-year period. At the end, the member chooses whether to make a lifetime commitment. One can apply to join and start living the numerary life as young as 16 ½.
"Opus Dei is recruiting on college campuses young people who are looking for answers to questions about justice, truth, order, eternal life, and so forth, and saying, 'we have the answers, but they're not simply a set of documents, it's a way of life, it's also a commitment to this cause,'" says Professor R. Scott Appleby, an expert on new religious movements at Notre Dame.
A Description of Control
DiNicola joined as a freshman student at Boston College. She moved into the Opus Dei center near the school and began living the life of discipline of an Opus Dei numerary.
She says her daily activities were precisely mapped out, some of her incoming and outgoing mail was read, expenditures were required to be accounted for, reading and television viewing were restricted, and she had to discuss with her spiritual director anytime she wanted to walk outside the center. She says she also was discouraged from confessing her sins to non-Opus Dei priests.
"It wasn't presented as an optional thing, you were told you need to obey your directors in everything." says DiNicola.