Opus Dei (Latin for ‘Work of God’) is an international association of lay members and priest of the Catholic Church. The conservative movement was founded in Spain in 1928, by St. Josemaría Escrivá. Escrivá (1902-1975) was canonized in 2002.
According to the Encyclopedia of Associations, the stated aim of Opus Dei is to “spread throughout society a profound awareness of the universal call to holiness and apostolate through one’s professional work carried out with freedom and personal responsibility.”
Long flying under the radar, in recent years the name Opus Dei has become known to millions of readers of the Da Vinci Code, in which two members of the group are portrayed unflatteringly. Before that, the group made the news in 2001 after it became known that FBI agent Robert Hanssen – charged and convicted with spying for Russia – was a member of Opus Dei.
Opus Dei may have been little known to most people before member and FBI agent Robert Hanssen was arrested and charged this year with spying for Russia.
Even with that arrest and the spotlight on the group, Opus Dei was considered a low-profile, conservative Roman Catholic organization.
But in a special investigation, ABCNEWS.com has found this relatively small, well-connected — some would say secretive — group appears to be quietly gaining strength within the U.S. Catholic Church.
Praised and granted a special status by the pope, Opus Dei is viewed by religious scholars as a remaining conservative holdout against a wave of liberal reforms in the church that began in the 1960s. Its conservative approach to practicing the faith includes strict adherence to church doctrine and practices largely done away with in recent decades, including self-flagellation.
Opus Dei is said to attract Catholics interested in a conservative practice of their faith, following the Vatican’s teachings strictly and within a structured organization, according to the group. Opus Dei describes itself as “conservative,” in the sense of “trying to adhere to the Church’s teaching on faith and morals.”
By design, membership expands gradually. New members are recruited through close friendships.
Members agree to certain obligations, including attending Mass and saying the rosary daily, praying each morning and evening, and — reflecting the group’s central tenet — trying “to do their work out of love for God.”
Unmarried members, called “numeraries,” commit to celibacy, turn over their salaries to Opus Dei and live in group-run “centers,” where men and women are segregated.
Numeraries also regularly practice acts of “corporal mortification” uncommon to most Catholics, which can include flagellating one’s buttocks and wearing a spiked chain on one’s thighs. Such acts are said to help bolster self-discipline and recall the suffering of Christ.
Opus Dei’s most significant support, though, may be found in Rome, and particularly with the pope’s 1982 designation of personal prelature.
The status made Opus Dei’s leader equivalent to the head of a religious order, though the organization remains subject to a certain measure of authority of local bishops and dioceses.
“That has a huge significance. The Vatican is saying, ‘you are totally unique,'” says Martin, the Jesuit priest. “It’s highly unusual. It’s a symbol of the high personal regard in which the pope holds Opus Dei.”
– Opus Dei on the Rise: Conservative Catholic Group Grows Quietly, ABC News, June 18, 2001
Next page: Opus Dei – Foundation and Purpose