Opus Dei: The Work of God?

Kim Schiel remembers swimming with her Catholic friends during college and noticing a row of scabs on the upper thigh of one of the females. This female was a member of Opus Dei, a Catholic organization that encouraged her to wear a cilice, or spiked chain, around her thigh once a week to cultivate discipline and suffer like Christ. Kim, now a mother and a family physician, says, “God gives us a healthy body so we can respect it, not abuse it. There are plenty other ways to cultivate discipline.”

Although Kim decided not to join Opus Dei, more than 80,000 other Catholics around the world have committed themselves to this organization as a way to live out their faith in Christ.

So what is Opus Dei?
Opus Dei, Latin for “work of God,” was founded in 1928 by Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer. He believed that all people are called to sainthood and crafted an organization to help lay Catholics live out their faith. The organization’s active members now number several thousand in the United States.

Getting to know you
It was not until I began divinity school at Harvard that I came to encounter members of the 75 year-old organization. Two months ago, I received an e-mail from a Harvard Catholic Student Association member announcing that the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi was going to speak at Harvard. In response to this announcement, Dan Tapia, a Harvard undergraduate student and member of Opus Dei, wrote to the listserve:

By understanding what the Church teaches, and understanding it very well, we are able to be better Catholics…. This may be very hard to do, especially at Harvard, when it comes to matters of homosexuality….

As a fellow student at Harvard, I do not find it difficult to reconcile my Catholic identity with my acceptance of the gay community since the catechism urges Catholics to follow one’s conscience
when you disagree with Church teachings. However, some students like Dan Tapia agree with the Church teaching that homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered” and find support for this view as members of Opus Dei.

Opus Dei at Harvard
Some student members live at Elmbrook Center, a house sponsored by Opus Dei that stands about three blocks from campus. Harvard is just one of several prestigious universities where Opus Dei has a strong presence. Other schools include Brown, Columbia, Princeton, and Stanford. The organization’s active recruitment of Catholic laity from elite universities came under criticism in two articles (article 1 and article 2)published in the Harvard Crimson last April.

Kim Schiel, who was recruited during her college years but left the organization, confirms that Opus Dei utilizes aggressive recruitment practices at universities. She also said that Opus Dei “decided where my friend was going to go to college based on where they needed more recruiting power.” However, despite these criticisms, some Catholics believe that Opus Dei has a unique mission in the Church.

Your (lay ) mission…if you chose to accept it

As a member of Opus Dei, you are encouraged to live out your lay vocation as an active participant in Church and society. The organization’s mission “harnesses the great traditions of prayer and study of our Catholic faith and shows lay people how to integrate a life of prayer and study with all sorts of normal lay lifestyles and professions,” says Bornwen McShea, a student at Harvard Divinity School and a close friend of several Opus Dei members.

Similarly, Dan Tapia says he likes Opus Dei because as an ordinary lay man he believes he may “become a saint through its formation.”

Oh when the saints go marching in

So what is the harm in an organization whose members strive for sainthood?

Some Catholics who joined and later left Opus Dei believe that the organization encourages practices that may be harmful to some of its members. ODAN, the Opus Dei Awareness Network, was founded in 1991 to educate Catholics about Opus Dei and to support Opus Dei members who have left the organization. This growing group of religious and laity disagree with certain practices of Opus Dei including:

  • corporal mortification
  • aggressive recruitment,
  • undue pressure to join,
  • control of environment such as giving their entire salaries to Opus Dei, having their reading material monitored, and submitting their incoming and outgoing mail to scrutiny by Opus Dei directors,
  • and alienation from families (according to ODAN website, www.ODAN.org).

Melissa Moschella, a Harvard teaching fellow and Opus Dei member, asserts that she has not encountered many of ODAN’s concerns, such as alienation from family. In fact, she says that since entering Opus Dei her “relationship with [her] parents is much closer now.” Additionally, she says her spiritual life has deepened from the religious practices encouraged by Opus Dei. She devotes time to “mental prayer each day, as well as daily Mass, the rosary, frequent confession, spiritual direction, regular study of the Catholic faith and the Church’s teachings on morality, etc.”

As a young woman in the Church, I often wonder how I might deepen my own spiritual life. My path does not include membership in Opus Dei, but I have found faith enrichment from other Catholic organizations (see sidebar).

As Christians, we follow in the footsteps of Jesus who chose to live out his faith in a nontraditional manner to his Jewish heritage. Like Christ, we must each decide for ourselves how to live out our faith and hope that the path leads us to do the “opus dei,” the work of God. However, whether or not our faith is lived out with the actual organization “Opus Dei,” is up to each of us.