Conservative Catholic group defending itself as controversy swirls
They get together once a week in a large South Orange house where members say they talk about religion and the virtues of obedience, chastity and compassion. They say there is nothing mysterious about their organization. They say their main mission is to live a religious life, to turn ordinary daily experiences into something spiritual.
Opus Dei members have been outspoken recently because they have been trying to counter perceptions created by “The Da Vinci Code” and the movie based on that book, which is scheduled to open later this week. The book, which depicts an Opus Dei member killing people in blind obedience to superiors, is a work of fiction, yet has put the group under a spotlight.
It also has put the spotlight on those who criticize some of the group’s practices — particularly the way it recruits young people.
Members of the conservative Roman Catholic group Opus Dei, which means “Work of God” in Latin, say they are not political as a group except when it comes to issues that involve their faith, such as abortion. They say their main purpose is to find spiritual significance in ordinary living, to offer their daily work to God. They attend Mass every day and say they try to find spirituality in day-to-day activities.
“We don’t see religion as a hobby,” said Terence Joseph Gallagher, 67, a Morristown attorney who lives in Harding and is a longtime Opus Dei member.
Gallagher, like three-quarters of the group, which has more than 80,000 members worldwide and 3,000 in the United States, is called a supernumerary. That means he’s not required to be celibate. He has a family and lives a relatively ordinary life, attending weekly meetings at a regional center in South Orange and giving a portion of his earnings to the group. He said he was drawn to Opus Dei because it is composed of like-minded people who support Catholic Church doctrine “without dissent.”
A smaller group of men and women, called numeraries, devote more of their lives to Opus Dei. They pledge celibacy and live in residence halls, men separate from women, where they eat and pray together. They give most of their earnings to the group and receive weekly stipends. They sometimes wear a spiked chain, called a cilice, around one leg to get closer to the suffering of Jesus Christ.
Some church observers have compared them to a religious order of monks, but Opus Dei numeraries say that is not an accurate characterization because they work as bankers, doctors and lawyers. They do not wear robes. They are part of the world.
“That’s why we insist on saying we are not a quasi-religious order,” said John Coverdale, 65, who teaches at Seton Hall University Law School and lives as a numerary in an Opus Dei residence hall on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “Opus Dei didn’t get me my job.”
Opus Dei became a prelature in the early 1980s, a unique distinction that some experts say makes the group much like a diocese without geographical boundaries. It has its own seminary in Rome, and its own priests and bishops.
Opus Dei members point to the designation as proof that they are accepted as mainstream Catholicism. They acknowledge that they try to exert some influence in areas important to them, such as the abortion issue, and that they have established residences near major universities such as Princeton and Columbia to recruit young people.
Some claim deception
Some former members have criticized the group’s practices. They say they were tricked into believing that God had chosen them to be part of the group. They say they were not allowed to read newspapers or books without asking permission, that they turned over their entire salaries to Opus Dei, that they were required to account for every penny spent out of weekly stipends, and that they were systematically cut off from their families.
Opus Dei members say no one is forced to do anything. Some former members acknowledge that no force is used, but say they were psychologically manipulated.
Tammy DiNicola, 38, a former Opus Dei numerary, said she was told about a year after joining that she was required to be with other Opus Dei members for all major holidays. She said she made a commitment to join the group before she understood all that would entail. She wrote a letter to her parents, telling them she would not be home for Easter during her junior year at Boston College. Her parents said it was difficult to contact their daughter by phone when she lived in an Opus Dei residence near Boston College. They often were told she was “unavailable.”
DiNicola said she and other numeraries taught a class for young girls from Europe, some as young as 14, ostensibly to teach them about computers and American culture. She said the girls considered it a vacation, but Opus Dei had another purpose. It actually was a recruiting tool, she said, with Opus Dei members discussing among themselves various ways to get the young girls to join.
“It felt false and not right,” DiNicola, who lives in Massachusetts, said in a telephone interview last week.
She said she was told that not seeing her family members was a sacrifice to help them get closer to God. She was told that she was helping the young girls she taught in the same way. She said she joined Opus Dei because she believed that it was God’s will but later learned that some events that led her to that belief were orchestrated by the group.
When she was wavering about joining, she went with a numerary to confession with an Opus Dei priest. The priest told her she had a calling. DiNicola now refers to that as a “phony” experience.
“I was convinced it was a sign from God,” DiNicola said. “Now, I believe the priest was told that I was thinking of joining.”
Opus Dei members now acknowledge that some of their local directors made some mistakes when recruiting young people. They say that does not reflect on the group as a whole. Their critics maintain that those mistakes were not simply aberrations, but were part of a pattern.
David Clark, who specializes in helping people leave cults, and who participated in a family intervention for Tammy DiNicola 16 years ago, said he has helped about 20 people leave Opus Dei over the past two decades. He said he has talked to dozens more who tell the same story about the group’s practices.
“It is very cult-like, in my opinion,” Clark, based in Pennsylvania, said last week.
He said Opus Dei makes it difficult for relatives to contact members living in the group’s residence halls, that it engineers events to make recruits believe they have been chosen by God, and that members use a technique called “love-bombing” to flatter vulnerable young people into feeling accepted, which he said is similar to practices used by groups such as the Moonies and Hare Krishna. He termed Opus Dei’s claim to be an ordinary Catholic organization as “bait and switch.”
“An ordinary person doesn’t live at a center and give their whole income and have to account for each dime they spend,” Clark said.
Monsignor Robert Wister, a church historian who teaches at Seton Hall University, said some people might be confused by Opus Dei’s apparent contradiction — the mix of an ascetic lifestyle with secular jobs for numeraries. He said the group asks people to live “a heightened version of the Christian life.”
“Whenever you do that, especially in secular society, many people think you’re being coerced, manipulated or are crazy,” Wister said.
Opus Dei does have its share of supporters among local Catholic Church officials, including Newark Archbishop John Myers, who counts an Opus Dei priest as a spiritual adviser. Bishop Arthur Serratelli, head of the Paterson Diocese, said in a prepared statement last week that Opus Dei practices “a good form of spirituality within the Church.” Serratelli’s spokeswoman,Marianna Thompson, added that the bishop’s comments are about Opus Dei’s mission and “not the actions of individual members and chapters.”
Opus Dei also has had some detractors among the clergy.
The Rev. Walter Debold, a Seton Hall University religion professor and an expert on cults, praised a book years ago that warned about some of Opus Dei’s practices. He wrote that the book would help “wake up Catholic thinking” and was “so necessary.” He said last week that he did not want to get into a lengthy discussion about the group because he did not want to add to the “hype” for the movie. He did say this about Opus Dei:
“They have a great deal of support in Rome and from the American clergy. I am not one of their supporters.”
Movie raises exposure
Opus Dei members say they have been misunderstood, and that “The Da Vinci Code” movie has given them a chance to explain the group to outsiders. Gallagher has been one of the faces of the organization over the past few weeks. He said he listened to a tape of “The Da Vinci Code” from the library after he was told by an Opus Dei public relations official to prepare for media interviews with TV crews from Japan and Europe.
Gallagher said the corporal mortification practiced by the book’s killer monk, who whips himself until he’s bloody, is not at all similar to the mortification practiced by Opus Dei members. He said the only mortification he practices has to do with pushing himself to smile at people, or to listen when he wants to speak.
“I’ve had to cultivate the art of listening and trying not to dominate conversations,” Gallagher said.
He describes himself as an orthodox Catholic who for years attended Opus Dei monthly meetings, at which nonmembers are allowed, until he finally joined in 1989. He said weekly members-only meetings held in South Orange start with a designated leader, usually a lay person, giving a short commentary on Gospel. That’s followed by a recitation of what members call the plan of life — components of faith such as weekly confession, daily Mass and yearly retreats. Members pray together and discuss various religious topics. He said there never is any pressure to attend retreats, that monetary contributions are voluntary, and that there is no theological censorship.
“I can read whatever I want,” he said.
Critics such as Clark say Opus Dei often selects supernumeraries to be their spokesmen, to put on a façade of normality. But this past week Coverdale, who joined when he was 17, talked about life as a numerary. He acknowledged that Opus Dei recommends wearing a cilice, the spiked chain, around a leg for two hours a day. He said he wears the cilice but added that it is voluntary, and more “annoying” than painful. He said focusing on that kind of corporal mortification is missing the group’s point.
“It’s more important to smile at people,” he said.
He said numeraries are expected to be together for holidays because they are like a family. He said he can read what he wants, but that members are encouraged to avoid reading books that “are not very helpful.” He said he hands over most of his money to the group and keeps track of how he spends the stipend he receives, but that it would be no big deal if he didn’t keep scrupulous records. He acknowledged that members talk about recruiting because they want the group to grow. But he said they don’t want to recruit people who don’t fit into the group because that would be “a fairly serious sin.”