N E W Y O R K, June 18, 2001 -- Opus Dei may have been little known to most people before member and FBI agent Robert Hanssen was arrested and charged this year with spying for Russia.
Even with that arrest and the spotlight on the group, Opus Dei was considered a low-profile, conservative Roman Catholic organization.
But in a special investigation, ABCNEWS.com has found this relatively small, well-connected — some would say secretive — group appears to be quietly gaining strength within the U.S. Catholic Church.
Praised and granted a special status by the pope, Opus Dei is viewed by religious scholars as a remaining conservative holdout against a wave of liberal reforms in the church that began in the 1960s. Its conservative approach to practicing the faith includes strict adherence to church doctrine and practices largely done away with in recent decades, including self-flagellation.
Opus Dei's rise is perhaps best symbolized by the recent relocation of the group's headquarters from suburban New Rochelle, N.Y., to a new $54 million brick complex in midtown Manhattan. A chapel in the building is expected to soon be blessed by Cardinal Edward Egan, the archbishop of New York.
Opus Dei's strength can also be marked by the $17 million it says was collected last year by its largest U.S. fund-raising organ, the Woodlawn Foundation.
Members are increasingly found in prominent church positions. The pope's own spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, is a member.
Still, much remains to be known about the group, which declines to provide specifics on the composition of its membership and its sources of income.
"I think they really fly under everybody's radar screen and that they're a lot more powerful than a lot of people think," says the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and associate editor of the respected Jesuit magazine America, who has written critically of the group. "And, you know, if the cardinal's coming, that certainly would be a sign of that."
The Right Place at the Right Time
Latin for "God's work," Opus Dei was founded in 1928 by a Spanish priest, Josemaria Escriva. His message of "lay spirituality" — that ordinary people should bring their spirituality into their everyday lives — was a well-accepted and not particularly new one in the Catholic Church. But his promotion of the idea came along at a good time.
Church leaders, assembled at an important meeting in the mid-1960s, opted to emphasize "lay spirituality" in the everyday practice of the faith.
Pope John Paul II, in particular, has favored the group. In 1982, he made Opus Dei a "personal prelature," uniquely placing it somewhat outside of the church's geographical hierarchical structure. The designation is intended to help Opus Dei better spread its message worldwide. And it appears to have done so quite well.
Opus Dei currently claims more than 80,000 members in more than 80 countries.
"I think it allows them to avoid a lot of the red tape that other lay organizations and other clerical organizations have to deal with," says Martin. "I would think it would just give you a little more prestige than other groups."
A Traditionalist Appeal
But Opus Dei is hardly a mass movement within the estimated 62 million-member U.S. Catholic Church. Since it was first brought to the United States in 1949, Opus Dei has grown only to about 3,000 official members nationwide, 98 percent of them lay, according to Brian Finnerty, Opus Dei's national spokesman.
Some 4,000 nonmembers, called "cooperators," also support the group with time, prayers and money, he said.
Opus Dei is said to attract Catholics interested in a conservative practice of their faith, following the Vatican's teachings strictly and within a structured organization, according to the group. Opus Dei describes itself as "conservative," in the sense of "trying to adhere to the Church's teaching on faith and morals."
By design, membership expands gradually. New members are recruited through close friendships.
Members agree to certain obligations, including attending Mass and saying the rosary daily, praying each morning and evening, and — reflecting the group's central tenet — trying "to do their work out of love for God."
Unmarried members, called "numeraries," commit to celibacy, turn over their salaries to Opus Dei and live in group-run "centers," where men and women are segregated.
Numeraries also regularly practice acts of "corporal mortification" uncommon to most Catholics, which can include flagellating one's buttocks and wearing a spiked chain on one's thighs. Such acts are said to help bolster self-discipline and recall the suffering of Christ.
In the new headquarters, the sexes live, work and worship in separate parts of the building. They even come and go through separate entrances.
Female members are encouraged to pursue all occupations, but within Opus Dei residence facilities, certain women and not men perform the housekeeping chores.
"I suppose Opus Dei appeals to people who want to belong to a spiritually disciplined group," says Ken Woodward, religion writer for Newsweek magazine. "There always is going to be a certain number of Catholics to whom that is going to appeal."
An Increasing Presence
While U.S. Opus Dei membership may not be exploding, there are many signs of a growing strength and influence.
Most striking is the newly constructed headquarters in the heart of New York City. The 17-story building houses at least six chapels, 26 bedrooms for guests visiting on retreats, quarters for permanent residents, a gym, a cafeteria and offices.
Opus Dei also has facilities in 34 other cities, including four conference centers, three high schools, and five inner-city tutoring centers. It also operates more than 60 residence centers for members nationwide.
"It started basically with three people coming over 50 years ago with nothing," says Finnerty, the organization's spokesman. "So when you consider, from those three people, four high schools, three major conference centers, this building and the 3,000 members of Opus Dei, and other people connected, all of them trying to put the message of Opus Dei into practice, it's a significant thing."
As for influence, Opus Dei's founder and central message have been praised by many of the nation's top Catholic leaders, including the late archbishops of Chicago and New York, and the current archbishop of Washington, Cardinal James Hickey.
Hickey last September dedicated the first public chapel in the United States honoring Opus Dei's founder. The chapel is located in the Washington Archdiocese's Catholic Information Center, which is currently run by an Opus Dei priest, Father John McCloskey, just two blocks from the White House.
In March, Opus Dei reached another milestone, when the Rev. Jose H. Gomez became the first Opus Dei member to be ordained an auxiliary bishop in the United States. The pope named him to the Archdiocese of Denver in January.
And, New York's new cardinal, Egan, is expected soon to bless a chapel in the new Opus Dei headquarters.
Support in Rome
Opus Dei's most significant support, though, may be found in Rome, and particularly with the pope's 1982 designation of personal prelature.
The status made Opus Dei's leader equivalent to the head of a religious order, though the organization remains subject to a certain measure of authority of local bishops and dioceses.
"That has a huge significance. The Vatican is saying, 'you are totally unique,'" says Martin, the Jesuit priest. "It's highly unusual. It's a symbol of the high personal regard in which the pope holds Opus Dei."
In 1992, the pope also made the controversial move of beatifying Opus Dei founder Escriva just 17 years after his death, making him the "Blessed Josemaria" and bringing him just a step short of canonization. It usually takes many decades and sometimes centuries for candidates to be declared saints.
"They've got a lot of power in Rome," says Woodward. "They also have Pontifical University there. That's very important, that gives you a base in Rome."
Professor Frank K. Flinn, an expert on modern religious movements at the University of Washington in St. Louis, downplays Opus Dei's influence in the Catholic world.
"They have some power but I don't think it's significant at all," he says.
Citing its relatively low numbers in the United States, Flinn argues the group has minimized its mass appeal because members are asked to live in a sort of clerical state. Flinn calls the money spent on the new headquarters "less than a drop in the bucket," compared to, say, the nearly $2 trillion U.S. federal budget.
He also says the pope in the early 1980s had rejected a bid to make Opus Dei a prelature nullius, meaning without a diocese, which would have made it even more independent of regional bishops.
"The pope made it a personal prelature [a diocese over people], which means he in effect brought it under his control," says Flinn. "He co-opted them, and that's the last thing they wanted."
Building Influence From Within
How influential Opus Dei has become within American society is difficult to determine. The group normally does not identify prominent members or provide any detailed financial information, provoking charges by critics that it is secretive.
An Opus Dei published primer, called "On the Vocation to Opus Dei," says members don't object to people knowing they belong, but prefer not to publicly announce it. "The vocation of members of Opus Dei is quiet and unobtrusive, like Christ's hidden life."
Opus Dei leaders acknowledge the group tries to attract or influence influential members of society.
It is "most appropriate," said the organization's current head, Spanish Bishop Javier Echevarria, that the newly dedicated chapel in Washington, "be here in the center of the public life of the country where so much of what transpires has influence throughout the world."
Father McCloskey, a prominent Opus Dei member in Washington, has argued the group can bring change by influencing secular and Catholic institutions from within. But he says Opus Dei is far from having any major presence in the Washington area. "I mean, there's several hundred members of Opus Dei in a metropolitan area of a couple million. More people eat lunch at Wendy's next door than are involved in Opus Dei."
Opus Dei, which he says has been in the nation's capital for almost 50 years, has had members who work in the U.S. government, he said, but, "not any that would be recognizable to you or me."
There has been speculation outgoing FBI Director Louis Freeh is a member, but Finnerty dismissed that. He said accused spy Hanssen is Opus Dei's most well-known American lay member.
Reaching Tommorow's Leaders
Opus Dei also spreads its influence by recruiting from top U.S. colleges and universities. It has residential centers located at or near many of the country's top secular and nonsecular universities, including Princeton, Harvard, Dartmouth, the University of Chicago, Columbia, Georgetown and Notre Dame.
McCloskey, in an interview published on his Web site, stressed the importance of the church evangelizing at elite schools. "These people are going to be the leaders in the world, and also, understood correctly, in the Church — not in taking on clerical functions, but in taking leadership roles in the diocese and the parish."
Critics have charged Opus Dei is elitist. Church leaders have sought to dismiss the idea. New York's late Cardinal John O'Connor, at a June 1998 Mass, denounced as "bordering on calumny" the notion that "Opus Dei is concerned only with the wealthy and the well-educated," adding, "I wish the myth about Opus Dei would be dispelled forever."
"It's important that the spirit of Opus Dei be lived by people in all sectors of society. We're interested in trying to reach everyone," says spokesman Finnerty.
"At the same time, there is recognition of the fact that in reaching everyone there are certain people who are in a privileged position to help you do that. So we do consciously try to have activities that might appeal to intellectuals, or to people who have an ability to pass on that message."
Finnerty declines to provide any specific information on Opus Dei's finances, including exactly how much money it takes in each year.
And while he did disclose $17 million was raised by the Woodlawn Foundation in 2000, he provided only generalities on where it came from.
"There are contributions from cooperators, from members who work, from friends, from investments. That's pretty much where it comes from," he says. "In terms of a specific breakdown, I don't have a specific breakdown."
Finnerty also declines to disclose any of the major donors for Opus Dei's new headquarters: "Sorry, but that information has not been released."