Can you guess the name of the following Catholic organization?
It is said to be fabulously wealthy, opposed to the reforms of Vatican II, steeped in secrecy, cult-like and allegedly involved in murder and mayhem. Eventually, we have been told, it separates from the church with the Holy See’s blessing.
Those answering “Opus Dei” show their familiarity with at least one of the books that has graced the New York Times fiction bestseller list for quite some time: Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
They also identify themselves as Brown’s dupes; for even though he claims to have “worked very hard to give a fair and balanced picture of Opus Dei,” there hardly has been a misrepresentation as gigantic as his description of that group.
That Brown was able to deceive so many may have been facilitated by the so-called Opus Dei Awareness Network (ODAN), founded 12 years before the publication of his novel.
ODAN includes former Opus Dei members and their families; it is strongly critical of the organization.
I gather from that critique that Opus Dei likely made some mistakes in recruiting members — not surprising for an organization comprising more than 80,000. At times, its officials may not have recognized sufficiently that people expressing interest in joining were psychologically unstable, unduly looking for affirmation, rather than being able to make a free and well-considered commitment.
Most of the ODAN objections strike me as invalid, though.
Some are contradictory: The ODAN Web site faults Opus Dei people for being haughty, considering themselves as better than the rest of humanity; the very same page blames the same people for being unduly down on themselves and engaging in “confessions of nothingness.” Make up your minds; you cannot have it both ways.
Other criticisms strike me as infantile, such as taking exception to the use of Latin phrases among Opus Dei members.
Others again seem to show a misunderstanding of the Catholic Church’s monastic ideals. For although Opus Dei emphasizes its distinctness from religious orders, the Opus Dei commitment, in particular that of the core members, is firmly rooted in the three monastic vows of remaining unmarried, obedience and poverty. ODAN seems to lack understanding especially for the value of freely chosen obedience to a spiritual director; but an individual’s renouncing of personal possessions also seems to be a stumbling block. At any rate, the most severe ODAN objections against Opus Dei seem groundless if seen in the light of monasticism.
How about ODAN’s allegation that Opus Dei is a “cult?” Here, the process of becoming a member needs to be distinguished from the religious teachings of the group.
Concerning the former, one is allowed to make a lifetime commitment to Opus Dei only after a five-year probationary period. Before that, the commitment is temporary, to be renewed annually if the individual wishes and the organization consents. Five years seems sufficient for making up one’s mind.
Concerning beliefs, all articles of faith taught by Opus Dei are contained in the official 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church. True, Opus Dei differs from the pick-and-choose Catholicism so prevalent in the United States. Opus Dei people assent to everything the Church officially teaches, including items often ignored, such as the existence of guardian angels, indulgences and purgatory. The acceptance of views which, although taught by the Catholic Church, are frequently set aside because they are not fashionable does not justify pinning the cult label on an organization. The opposite seems to be the case: Many Opus Dei critics seem to be subservient to the cult of political correctness.
Thus, although ODAN’s objections to Opus Dei cannot be equated with Brown’s scurrilous depiction, they nevertheless are to be taken with more than the proverbial grain of salt.
Fritz Wenisch is a professor of philosophy at URI.