It’s an unflattering portrait.
It’s also a wildly inaccurate one, the group’s supporters say.
Opus Dei critics aren’t so sure, calling it an extreme, power-hungry and manipulative group that could have a say in picking the next pope.
What is Opus Dei, and why has it generated such controversy?
For its estimated 85,000 members worldwide, including 3,000 in the United States, Opus Dei offers a path to holiness through retreats, religious-education classes and spiritual direction for daily life. It embraces a conservative Catholicism, and has the blessing and support of the equally conservative Pope John Paul II.
“It’s like having a personal trainer for your spiritual life,” said Brian McGinnis, U.S. communications director for the Opus Dei Prelature. “It offers help and encouragement to help people grow closer to God in their work and daily life. It’s an integral part of the Catholic Church. The work has been blessed by the popes since its beginning. It stresses that everything you can do can be a path towards God, from the work you do at your desk, to the time you spend with your friends.”
But Dianne DiNicola, president of OPAN, the Opus Dei Awareness Network in Pittsfield, Mass., said the group engages in mind control, isolation, aggressive recruitment and self-discipline known as “corporal mortification.”
DiNicola’s own daughter, Tammy, joined Opus Dei at 19.“Our concerns are, what you see on the surface isn’t what Opus Dei is,” DiNicola said. “The organization has an underside that tears families apart. I don’t like to call it a cult, but it certainly has cultlike tendencies. Members are in a controlled environment. They don’t make decisions.”
Sheila Pruni, an Opus Dei member who lives in Dover with her husband, Steve, and their five children, said she’s never encountered what DiNicola describes.
“I’ve been going to activities of Opus Dei for 18 years, and I’ve been a member for six years,” she said. “I’ve never experienced that. A cult means people force you to do things. I’ve never been forced to do anything and nobody I know ever has. People misconstrue things.
“There’s nothing unusual about us. We’re just everyday people.”
Pruni, who attends monthly Opus Dei meetings in Akron, said she learned about the group through her husband while they were dating in her native Chicago. He was a member of Opus Dei and she was a nonpracticing Catholic.
“I kind of knew deep down, I wasn’t really living right,” she said.
Pruni said she learned about the depth of her husband’s commitment to Opus Dei after he became upset when she received Communion without first going to confession.
“I went to a mini retreat Opus Dei offers, and it really turned my life around,” she said. “I realized that in all the years of my life, God had been so good to me and I wasn’t giving anything back in return.
“Opus Dei has helped me to live my life in a way that is pleasing to God. I do what he wants me to do, in every day of my life. Opus Dei has been my spiritual trainer.” Opus Dei, Latin for “God’s work,” was founded in 1928 by the late Rev. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer of Spain. Escriva, who died in 1975, was elevated to sainthood in 2002.
“Opus Dei is very powerful in the Vatican,” DiNicola said. “One of its members (Julian Herranz of Spain) was recently made a cardinal. He’s the president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Text. Put another way, he’s the attorney general of the church. That is a very powerful position.”
“It is very much debated about how much power they do have,” said Joseph Kelly, head of the department of religious studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland. “The pope was a great admirer of their founder … I’m not big on sinister applications.”
Kelly said Opus Dei has found favor within the church power structure because of its orthodoxy and unflinching obedience to the pope.
“When the pope issues teachings, ideally, Catholics are supposed to accept them,” he said. “That has always not been the case, particularly in the Western churches in the 20th and 21st centuries, where there’s been a lot of dissent.”
Opus Dei is the only church organization designated as a “personal prelature,” meaning it is defined by persons rather than a geographical area. Because it has no bishop, it answers only to the pope.
“Opus Dei 100 percent completely follows teaching of the church and is in union with the pope,” Pruni said. “There’s nothing in it that teaches or encourages people to go against teachings of the church.”
DiNicola said her daughter joined Opus Dei while attending Boston College. She was befriended by another student who was a member.
“My daughter had a change in personality, she was becoming alienated,” DiNicola said. “She’d come home less and less, and when she did, she didn’t want to be here. Opus Dei had her mind. We didn’t understand what was happening. They get a person who is idealistic, who wants to be a good Catholic, and they work on them. I don’t think it’s from the Holy Spirit.”
DiNicola said her daughter practiced corporal mortification, which can include wearing a barbed chain around the thigh known as a “cilice”; beating oneself with a whip called a “discipline”; sleeping on a board; and taking cold showers.
On its Web site, Opus Dei states that it does encourage such personal sacrifices as fasting and/or abstinence from meat on special days. It also points out that although the cilice and the discipline have been used by saints throughout the centuries, “The DaVinci Code” greatly distorts and exaggerates the practice.
Pruni said she knows of no one who engages in corporal mortification.
Tammy DiNicola quit Opus Dei in 1990 after a family intervention.
“She’s still Catholic,” her mother said. “I admire her faith greatly.”
DiNicola said that because of her criticism of Opus Dei, she’s been accused of “Catholic bashing.”
“It was hard to hear that because it wasn’t the truth,” she said. “I did pray a lot about it. I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to base my faith on man. I had to base it on a higher authority.”
“Even though you may hear some people criticizing Opus Dei, it has been praised and supported by the bishops,” McGinnis said, pointing out that more than 300,000 people — including 500 bishops — attended Escriva’s canonization.
In that audience was the Pruni family, including their youngest child, “Joseph Maria,” named in honor of Escriva.
“It was an awesome experience,” Pruni said. “When the Mass started, you could have heard a pin drop. They were there for this person, Josemaria. Those people were so serious about attending that Mass. It was just so moving to me.”Kelly, who’s in sudden demand as a speaker as a result of the “DaVinci Code,” said he sometimes encounters people who accuse him of defending Opus Dei.
“I’m not defending them,” he said. “I’m trying to be fair.”
Kelly said he believes that the book, which has been read by 60 million people, has done Opus Dei more harm than good.
“I do think the book has gotten people interested in early Christianity in ways they never have before,” he said. “I’ve been teaching this stuff for decades. It’s been rather astonishing.”
McGinnis said “The DaVinci Code” is grossly inaccurate, and could mislead people who have little or no knowledge of Opus Dei or Christianity.
“Opus Dei is completely unlike the ‘DaVinci Code,’” McGinnis said. “It’s about finding God in ordinary life. It’s about as far removed from the portrayal as you can get. The worst thing about the ‘DaVinci Code’ is not what it says about Opus Dei, but it is an attack on the Christian faith. It makes claims about Christianity that are absolutely and historically ludicrous.
“What people don’t know is, the book is like the Oliver Stone guide to theology.”