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Opus Dei on the Rise
Conservative Catholic Group Grows Quietly
ABC News, June 18, 2001
N E W Y O R K, June 18 — 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's rise is perhaps best symbolized by the recent relocation of the group's headquarters from suburban New Rochelle, N.Y., to a new $54 million brick complex in midtown Manhattan. A chapel in the building is expected to soon be blessed by Cardinal Edward Egan, the archbishop of New York.
Opus Dei's strength can also be marked by the $17 million it says was collected last year by its largest U.S. fund-raising organ, the Woodlawn Foundation.
Members are increasingly found in prominent church positions. The pope's own spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, is a member.
Still, much remains to be known about the group, which declines to provide specifics on the composition of its membership and its sources of income.
"I think they really fly under everybody's radar screen and that they're a lot more powerful than a lot of people think," says the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and associate editor of the respected Jesuit magazine America, who has written critically of the group. "And, you know, if the cardinal's coming, that certainly would be a sign of that."
The Right Place at the Right Time
Latin for "God's work," Opus Dei was founded in 1928 by a Spanish priest, Josemaria Escriva. His message of "lay spirituality" — that ordinary people should bring their spirituality into their everyday lives — was a well-accepted and not particularly new one in the Catholic Church. But his promotion of the idea came along at a good time.
Church leaders, assembled at an important meeting in the mid-1960s, opted to emphasize "lay spirituality" in the everyday practice of the faith.
Pope John Paul II, in particular, has favored the group. In 1982, he made Opus Dei a "personal prelature," uniquely placing it somewhat outside of the church's geographical hierarchical structure. The designation is intended to help Opus Dei better spread its message worldwide. And it appears to have done so quite well.
Opus Dei currently claims more than 80,000 members in more than 80 countries.
But Opus Dei is hardly a mass movement within the estimated 62 million-member U.S. Catholic Church. Since it was first brought to the United States in 1949, Opus Dei has grown only to about 3,000 official members nationwide, 98 percent of them lay, according to Brian Finnerty, Opus Dei's national spokesman.
Some 4,000 nonmembers, called "cooperators," also support the group with time, prayers and money, he said.
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.
"I suppose Opus Dei appeals to people who want to belong to a spiritually disciplined group," says Ken Woodward, religion writer for Newsweek magazine. "There always is going to be a certain number of Catholics to whom that is going to appeal."
As for influence, Opus Dei's founder and central message have been praised by many of the nation's top Catholic leaders, including the late archbishops of Chicago and New York, and the current archbishop of Washington, Cardinal James Hickey.
In March, Opus Dei reached another milestone, when the Rev. Jose H. Gomez became the first Opus Dei member to be ordained an auxiliary bishop in the United States. The pope named him to the Archdiocese of Denver in January.
And, New York's new cardinal, Egan, is expected soon to bless a chapel in the new Opus Dei headquarters.
Support in Rome
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."
"They've got a lot of power in Rome," says Woodward. "They also have Pontifical University there. That's very important, that gives you a base in Rome."
Professor Frank K. Flinn, an expert on modern religious movements at the University of Washington in St. Louis, downplays Opus Dei's influence in the Catholic world.
"They have some power but I don't think it's significant at all," he says.
Citing its relatively low numbers in the United States, Flinn argues the group has minimized its mass appeal because members are asked to live in a sort of clerical state. Flinn calls the money spent on the new headquarters "less than a drop in the bucket," compared to, say, the nearly $2 trillion U.S. federal budget.
He also says the pope in the early 1980s had rejected a bid to make Opus Dei a prelature nullius, meaning without a diocese, which would have made it even more independent of regional bishops.
"The pope made it a personal prelature [a diocese over people], which means he in effect brought it under his control," says Flinn. "He co-opted them, and that's the last thing they wanted."
Building Influence From Within
How influential Opus Dei has become within American society is difficult to determine. The group normally does not identify prominent members or provide any detailed financial information, provoking charges by critics that it is secretive.
An Opus Dei published primer, called "On the Vocation to Opus Dei," says members don't object to people knowing they belong, but prefer not to publicly announce it. "The vocation of members of Opus Dei is quiet and unobtrusive, like Christ's hidden life."
Opus Dei leaders acknowledge the group tries to attract or influence influential members of society.
Opus Dei also spreads its influence by recruiting from top U.S. colleges and universities. It has residential centers located at or near many of the country's top secular and nonsecular universities, including Princeton, Harvard, Dartmouth, the University of Chicago, Columbia, Georgetown and Notre Dame.
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