What is Opus Dei?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Opus Dei is a personal prelature, a self-governing body defined by members instead of geography, of the Roman Catholic Church. Father Josemaría Escrivá founded the organization in 1928, and believed that the prelature was divinely inspired, an argument also made by Pope John Paul II. Father Escrivá was canonized, or made a saint, in 2002. Msgr. Javier Echevarría was appointed as prelate, or leader, in 1994.

John Paul II believed that the Opus Dei is divinely inspired.
John Paul II believed that the Opus Dei is divinely inspired.

This organization has close to 90,000 members, of which about 98% are laypeople. Most members are married, but a few have dedicated themselves to chastity and are educated in Opus Dei centers. Unlike traditional nuns and priests, these unmarried members are not part of the clergy, though many dedicate their lives to chastity. Laypersons form part of the governing body and are not under the authority of local bishops. Instead, this organization answers directly to the pope and is allowed self-governance, as long as such governance is not in opposition to the religious teachings of the Holy See.

Opus Dei is significantly different from what most people think constitutes Catholicism. Beliefs are fundamental, representing a return to Catholicism that predates Vatican II. Vatican II changed much of the church’s previously held ideas in an attempt to modernize the church. It gave more power to laypeople and proposed Mass should be conducted in native tongues rather than Latin.

It tends to govern along older church law, conducting Mass in Latin and using pre-Vatican II rules for behavior during Lent. Leaders support “holiness in daily living,” inspired by Escrivá’s idea that baptism sanctifies the Catholic as a child of God. One must always act in a way that is spiritual and tends toward sainthood, not just at Mass or on Sundays.

A portion of each day is spent in meditative prayer, and each aspect of ordinary life, such as parenting or working, is an opportunity for the Catholic to strive for imitation of Christ. Ordinary deeds are sanctified when a person acts with love, dignity, sacrifice, ethics and competence. By being Christlike in all deeds, Opus Dei believes that its members make no distinction between secular life and life as a Christian. Life is unified, yet Christians seem forced to live a double life. Any secular task is sanctified by the way in which it is undertaken.

A recent example of this was the suggestion by some bishops that John Kerry should be denied communion because in his political life he was pro-choice. Kerry argued that he did not support abortion but rather supported choice and respected the rights of others to make choices. The church took no action against Kerry, but Opus Dei members find this position insupportable. One cannot live under separate belief structures. According to their beliefs, by even nominally supporting pro-choice ideology, Kerry was not acting as a Catholic should in his secular life.

Much has been made of the organization's doctrine of self-mortification. By experiencing physical pain, a member is reminded of the suffering of Christ, and thus his or her life cannot be anything but unified. Mortification is only practiced by a small percentage of members, who wear the cilice, a band around the leg that aches. The cilice is worn for two hours each day. It does not cause bleeding and frequently leaves no marks.

Additionally, Opus Dei undertakes charitable missions in poor communities and countries. However, unlike most modern Catholic thinking, those in this organization believe that a charity’s purpose is to relieve suffering and bring others to Christ. This is different from the modern Catholic thought of missionary purpose is merely to relieve suffering, and also to respect the religious beliefs or lack thereof of those being helped.

Many Catholics believe that creating Opus Dei as a personal prelature represents the relative conservatism of the Pope, and the continued support by Pope Benedict is spiraling Church beliefs backward. Some consider it fascist, elitist and secretive, though it refutes charges of elitism and secrecy. However, many organizations have sprung up to help those recover from participation in the organization, and these organizations tend to have a deprogramming spin, similar to many cult recovery organizations. There are accusations that Opus Dei practices mortification far more than they claim and separates initiates from their family members who are not participants.

For many Catholics, Opus Dei is an unfortunate organization, with some good guiding principals, yet leaning too far toward conservatism. Often, American Catholics find most teachings of Opus Dei represent extreme right thinking, something that they would like to see removed from the Church.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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