Opus Dei Grows in U.S.

ByABC News
May 9, 2001, 2:51 PM

N E W  Y O R K, June 18 -- 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.