Aside from the theological distinctions that set Roman Catholicism apart from Protestant Christianity (and because of which many Protestants consider Roman Catholicism to be, theologically, a heretical form of Christianity), the conservatice Opus Dei movement is controversial due to what some consider to be cult-like tendencies.
In Dan Brown’s best-selling fiction thriller, “The DaVinci Code,” two of the book’s characters are members of Opus Dei, a Catholic lay organization.
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.”
– Does Opus Dei help or hinder Catholicism? The Repository, USA
At the Opus Dei Awareness Network web site, Opus Dei is described as follows:
Opus Dei is made up of lay members and priests; Opus Dei laity continue to work in the secular world, but remain under the strict spiritual direction of Opus Dei. All Opus Dei members follow “the plan of life,” made up of spiritual practices such as daily Mass, rosary, spiritual reading, and mental prayer, as well as Opus Dei prayers and customs.
There are different classes of membership in Opus Dei:Numerary members pledge to remain celibate and generally live in Opus Dei houses. They commit their entire salaries to Opus Dei, submit incoming and outgoing mail to their directors, and practice various forms of corporal mortification, including use of the cilice, a spiked chain worn around the thigh, and use of the discipline, a knotted rope for whipping.
Supernumerary members may be married, and live with their families. They follow the same “plan of life” as the numeraries, but generally do not know about many of the details of numerary life. They contribute large portions of their income to Opus Dei, often at the expense of their local parishes.
Numerary priests join Opus Dei as lay members, but are then hand-picked by Opus Dei superiors to become priests of Opus Dei. Numerary priests hold the top government positions in Opus Dei. Many hold important positions in the Vatican. Each Opus Dei house is assigned a numerary priest, whose responsibilities include saying Mass, hearing confessions and giving spiritual direction to the Opus Dei members.
Associate Opus Dei members also pledge celibacy, but they generally do not live in Opus Dei houses. They include people who have not acquired university degrees, or who must remain with their families for personal reasons.
Numerary assistants are women who pledge celibacy, and are responsible for the care and cleaning of all Opus Dei residences.
Cooperators of Opus Dei provide financial support, but are not considered members of Opus Dei. Unlike Opus Dei members, cooperators do not have to be Catholic.
Despite its seemingly noble intentions, Opus Dei has stirred up controversy in countries all over the world. Families of Opus Dei members are almost never involved in the vocation process, (in fact Opus Dei itself often discourages its new members from even telling their families about their decision!) Also questionable are Opus Dei’s recruiting tactics, which are comparable to the tactics used by cultic groups.
– What is Opus Dei?, Opus Dei Awareness Network