Opus Dei: A Return to Tradition

ByDavid Ruppe

N E W  Y O R K, June 18, 2001 -- On a typical morning before class, says former Boston College student Tammy DiNicola, she would wake to a loud knock, kiss the floor and silently say "Serviam," Latin for "I will serve."

Then, she says, she would: take a cold shower while praying; whip her buttocks privately while reciting a prayer (once a week); attend a Mass in Latin; wear a spiked chain, called a cilice, around her thighs for two hours; vacuum two rooms in her residence; and perhaps meet with her spiritual director.

DiNicola was once a member of Opus Dei, where lay members strive for holiness in everyday life through strict adherence to the Roman Catholic Church's teachings, at work and at home.

With special ties to the pope, Opus Dei takes a traditionalist approach and has been portrayed as an important counterforce to liberal reforms in the church since the 1960s and to concerns such as declining attendance.

But some Catholics express concern about Opus Dei's recruitment practices and what they say is Opus Dei's growing conservative influence in the church.

"Like many Catholics, I'm concerned about the apparent growth of Opus Dei in the Vatican, here, and among Latin American cardinals and bishops," says David O'Brien, a professor of Roman Catholic studies at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass.

"I'm one in general who thinks, both pastorally and historically, that we've not gone anywhere near far enough in allowing a kind of freedom of expression and a flourishing of diverse forms of Catholicism around the world."

Living a Holy Life, Opus Dei Style

Founded in 1928 by the Spanish priest Josemaria Escriva, Opus Dei seeks to put church teachings strictly into practice in everyday life.

Opus Dei has its own, unique ways of realizing that aim. Members make commitments including regularly attending Mass and confession, saying the rosary daily, praying twice a day, and — reflecting one of the group's central tenets — trying "to do their work out of love for God."

Members perform regular acts of self-denial of comforts, such as taking cold showers every morning and sleeping on a board, on the floor, or without a pillow once a week.

"It's sort of a reminder that the mind and the soul needs to assert itself over the body," says the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest who has written about the group. "It's a way to sacrifice a little bit to remind yourself of your reliance on God."

Members plan their activities each day and regularly meet outside of Mass to hear a lecture, have a discussion, read the Scripture together or have a prayer service.

"The things that everybody is struggling with and focusing on is the same, trying to do your work well, have love for God, trying to bring your friends closer to God, trying to lead a planned life with regular Mass, prayer," says Opus Dei national spokesman Brian Finnerty.

Numerary Life

About 70 percent of the organization's estimated 3,000-plus U.S. members are married, according to Finnerty. Less than 2 percent are priests.

Most of the rest, called "numeraries," commit to a life of celibacy, turning over their salaries to Opus Dei and living in one of at least 60 group-run "centers" nationwide, where the work and home lives of male and female members are segregated.

Numeraries practice regular acts of "corporal mortification," which can include self-flagellation on the buttocks or back with a cord or strap called a "discipline" or wearing a spiked chain around their thighs. Such practices, more common among Catholics in earlier ages, are said to bolster self-discipline and are seen as a way to imitate the life of Jesus.

Some numeraries continue in their chosen careers. Others leave to help run Opus Dei. Some of the women become "numerary assistants," full numeraries who are responsible for cleaning, decorating and otherwise maintaining the living conditions of the residential centers.

Opus Dei's practices are said to be approved by the Vatican. (Click here for some explanations of Opus Dei practices.)

Christian Attitude

Describing Opus Dei's daily practices tells only part of the story. Opus Dei also seeks to affect the world through the workplace.

"I think it impacts in two ways, in the quality of work you do, you don't want to offer things up to God that are sloppy or poorly done," says Father John McCloskey, a prominent member in Washington. The second way, he says, is in relations with colleagues.

"If you are a serious Christian, a Catholic in this case, you would be dealing with your colleagues in a way that recognizes that there definitely is something beyond this life, not seeing them as stepping stones or obstacles, but seeing them as children of God and should be dealt with in that way," he says.

Even a Wall Street trader can lead a holy life, says McCloskey, a former banker and stockbroker.

Community Service

Opus Dei also seeks to make change through the high schools it runs in Boston and Washington, and through its inner-city tutoring programs in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Boston and New York.

"They tend to start their own schools … where they teach Latin and Greek, are strong on religion and theology, but also a very good professional education. They want people who are very smart and very successful," says Michael Novak, a scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

At the Rosedale Achievement Center, a tutoring center for girls in the South Bronx funded mostly by corporate donations, Opus Dei and non-Opus Dei women provide tutoring, musical instruction and "character-building" for neighborhood girls and job training for young women.

The children, of various religious denominations, are encouraged to pray, and the church's values are reflected in what's taught at the center, according to Irene Dorgan, the numerary director of the center. "They are taught to abstain from sex, drugs and alcohol."

"They are doing a lot of good things, and I think that gets over looked," says Martin.

Direction of the Church

Still, some Catholics are concerned Opus Dei may drive the church toward more conservative ways.

"In recent years, they've sort of become identified, justly or unjustly, with a certain kind of restoration of central authority and discipline in the Catholic community as over and against what might be perceived to be a loosening of the strings with Vatican II," says O'Brien, the Holy Cross professor.

The Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, was a rare conference of Roman Catholic leaders, which recommended significant changes to how the faith is practiced. Following Vatican II, some Catholic ethicists and priests moved away from the traditional approach and some priests began exercising their discretion when advising on moral issues.

"Vatican II gave a lot of attention to individual conscience and not the authority of the church," says Professor R. Scott Appleby, an expert on new religious movements at Notre Dame University. "The Opus Dei folks think that was a big mistake, that you need authority in the church, you need coercion, you need the threat of hell, frankly."

McCloskey has criticized the American Catholic Church for embracing too closely America's culture of freedom and tolerance toward different values and individuality.

American clergy, he argued in a 1993 essay posted on his Web site, have precipitated a "crisis in authority and belief marked by the unwillingness of some to clearly preach and lead and of others to obediently listen and follow."

The consequences, he wrote, could be seen in greater American Catholic divorce and abortion rates, dwindling church attendance, and a lower average of children per family.

Lay groups such as Opus Dei, McCloskey argued, will spearhead a reversal.

"We can watch their steady progress, rooted in loyal love for the Church, deep piety, strong doctrinal formation, and apostolic zeal, slowly transform the Catholic ethos," he wrote. "Over time they will deeply influence individuals who in their turn will influence institutions, both secular and ecclesial, including perhaps most importantly our parishes."

There are other small conservative groups or movements similar to Opus Dei within the Catholic Church, says Appleby. "Opus Dei is certainly the most prominent."

Feminism and the Sexual Revolution

McCloskey, who heads the Catholic Information Center of the Washington Archdiocese, notes he is not an Opus Dei spokesman, just a member expressing his views. He is not the only prominent member, though, who has taken issue with liberal elements of modern American culture.

Speaking before a recent Opus Dei gathering in New York, attended by ABCNEWS.com, the Rev. Malcolm Kennedy, an Opus Dei priest for more than 30 years, criticized feminism as being against the spirit of the Virgin Mary. He also said "the sexual revolution" helped contribute to a decline in purity and innocence in American culture.

Afterward, Opus Dei spokesman Finnerty was quick to highlight comments by the group's current leader in Rome, Bishop Javier Echevarria, in favor of what he called "true feminism" and the "equal dignity of men and women."

"At the heart of true feminism there has to be, as is obvious, an increasing awareness of women's dignity," said Echeverria. "This is very different from those other, usually aggressive, types of feminism, that try to claim that a person's sex is a purely physical thing, with no deeper human or social relevance."

Woman should be given the same opportunities as men, the prelate said, and noted women in Opus Dei pursue all types of careers. With equal opportunities, he said, "a woman can retain her identity and not fall into the trap of thinking she will find her true identity by aping men or imitating their ways and gestures."

Women, Echevarria said, should rebel against pornography as well as against "the sorry, misguided claim that abortion should be a right, and against divorce, which can only be described as a social disaster, quite apart from being an offense against God."

Practical Benefit?

Opus Dei's growth comes amidst a debate over whether the Catholic Church needs to become more liberal or stricter and more traditional, in order to increase attendance and attract new priests.

"Many Catholic media and many Catholic bishops are persuaded that the church will gain members if it becomes more liberal, like ordaining women or being tolerant of different sexual ethics," says Italian scholar Massimo Introvigne, who runs the Center for Studies on New Religions in Torino.

While attendance at Mass has been down, church membership is on the rise, and Gallup polling in 1999 suggested a majority of American Roman Catholics believe the church should not have the final say on issues like birth control and abortion.

But at the same time, some scholars say, there has been a resurgent interest in parts of the Catholic community, particularly among some young Catholics, in greater unity within the Catholic faith, a greater sense of commitment, and a stricter adherence to the church's teachings. Some argue that trend has practical benefits.

"I think the novelty in Opus Dei and some other movements is what they are advocating going back to, what in sociological terms would be called strictness, may also be rewarding," says Introvigne.

"And I think they … have answered criticisms by pointing out the thesis … that in Protestantism conservative groups are growing and the liberal groups are losing members. So they would say that the same process would apply in Catholicism," he says.

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