The work of God isn’t really a secret

02 November 2006

The Da Vinci Code portrays the Roman Catholic religious order Opus Dei as a clandestine sect prepared to go to any lengths to protect its secrets. In the run-up to a TV documentary next week, John Allen separates truth from myth

 NO FORCE in Roman Catholic life acts as a magnet for conspiracy theories quite like Opus Dei, a lay organisation founded in 1928 by a Spanish priest, Josemaría Escrivá, who was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 2002.

Who secretly bailed out the Vatican Bank in the late 1970s, when it teetered on the verge of financial ruin? Enter Opus Dei. Who funnelled money to the Solidarity movement in Poland, in effect buying the favour of young Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow? Once again, Opus Dei. And a new novel, The Last Pope, soon to appear in Portugal, never exactly names Opus Dei, but it hints that a powerful right-wing RC movement was responsible for the sudden death of John Paul I, the pope of 33 days, because he was planning to liberalise the Church.

Evidence for these theories is notoriously lacking, but that hasn’t stopped them from circulating. In some ways, it’s surprising that Opus Dei has not yet been linked to Stonehenge or alien abductions.

Then, of course, there’s The Da Vinci Code, where Opus Dei lurks as a shadowy, sinister force setting albino monk assassins loose on the world. Thanks to Dan Brown’s potboiler, Opus Dei has entered the stratosphere of legendary secret societies, alongside Skull and Bones and the Rosicrucians.

Is Opus Dei really as wealthy, as vastly influential, as exciting and mysterious, as all this suggests?

The sober journalistic answer is, "Basically not." At the risk of a sort of inverse iconoclasm, Opus Dei is a case in which there’s less rather than more than usually meets the eye.


Opus Dei numbers 85,000 members worldwide: roughly the population of the diocese of Tasmania, off the Australian coast. Despite a reputation for ruthless recruiting, it adds only about 650 new members a year around the world. Opus Dei counts just two cardinals out of 181, 40 bishops out of more than 4500, and 20 employees in the papal bureaucracy out of some 2500. For every church battle Opus Dei has won, there’s at least one it has lost. Opus Dei’s worldwide wealth is $2.8 billion, roughly the same as the Archdiocese of Chicago. (Total Opus Dei assets in the United Kingdom come to £41 million.) There are a few Opus Dei members at senior levels in politics, finance, and communications, but most have humdrum occupations that never make the news.

It’s true that a minority of members of Opus Dei engage in "corporal mortification", meaning the occasional use of small whips and chains for spiritual growth. But they’re not the only Catholics to have done so — consider 20th-century saints such as Padre Pio and Mother Teresa — and they insist it’s carried out with moderation. It’s also true that there’s a strong separation between men and women, and that a small number of women serve as full-time domestic workers, cooking and cleaning for other members. But these women insist that they are not oppressed, and see their role as analogous to the mother of a large family.

It’s also true that there’s a fairly uniform conservative political line inside Opus Dei where the faith and morals of the Roman Catholic Church are involved. It would be a rare Opus Dei legislator who votes for gay marriage, for example, or to liberalise abortion laws. That uniformity unravels, however, on virtually any other subject: Spanish Opus Dei members differed bitterly over the war in Iraq, for example, and British Opus Dei members can be found in both the Tory and Labour parties: Ruth Kelly, the education minister, is the most prominent example among Labour.

Some aspects of Opus Dei may thus be hard for a 21st-century mind to appreciate, but at worst it comes off as traditionalist and fussy. So, why all the controversy?


First, Opus Dei fought exceptionally bitter turf wars in the 1930s with Spanish Jesuits, and effectively all the standard accusations — secrecy, cult-like behaviour, heavy-handed recruiting tactics — took shape in this early period. And much public discussion of Opus Dei in subsequent decades, including today, amounts to variations on a theme. Given the Jesuits’ worldwide network, this whispering campaign has followed Opus Dei wherever it has gone.

Second, after Vatican II, RC politics made Opus Dei a lightning rod. Outside the Mediterranean world, Opus Dei came to prominence in the years after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), when the Church became polarised between a liberal, reforming wing and a more conservative wing. Trends need symbols, and Opus Dei became a marker for these deeper cultural wars. Often when people discuss Opus Dei, what they’re really talking about is conservative Catholicism.

Third, Opus Dei has made its own bad luck. Over the years, a significant number of former Opus Dei members have reported negative experiences, asserting that they were manipulated into joining, that crucial information about the expectations for members was withheld, that their consciences were invaded, that their lives were subjected to excessive control, and that when they tried to leave they were shunned and threatened with damnation. Claims of this sort have to be examined on their merits, but it is a fact that several dozen ex-members in various countries have made them. In addition, Opus Dei has often had a hard time explaining itself: one example is in its refusal to identify its members on the grounds that doing so would compromise their "secularity", meaning their status as ordinary lay people in the world.

The principal risk in conflating the Opus Dei of reality with the myth is that the truly daring insights of the former never quite see the light of day.

The founding vision of Opus Dei was what Escrivá called the "sanctification of work", which means that lay men and women are to see the details of their daily activity — law, medicine, stay-at-home mothering, or collecting the rubbish — as the pathway not only to their own holiness, but to the redemption of the world. (Opus dei is, of course, Latin for "the work of God".)

Escrivá’s vision, part of a ferment within early-20th-century Christianity about the divorce between religion and secular modernity, was a double challenge to the ultra-hierarchical European Catholicism of the day. It posited that laity rather than priests were the proper people to figure out what a Christian approach to politics or economics, or to any other secular endeavour, looked like; and it asserted that the modern street was just as "religious" an environment as the sacred precincts of a church building.

Paradoxically, in the 1930s and 1940s Opus Dei was regarded as the progressive avant-garde wing of the Spanish Church, a profile that would shock most devotees of Opus Dei mythology today.

Such myths have surrounded new forces in the Roman Catholic Church before: the Jesuits offer the clearest historical parallel. Perhaps with time, and with continuing maturation on the part of Opus Dei itself, its founding impulse — rather than whips and chains, or the spectre of unseen influence — will emerge as the real heart of the Opus Dei story.

John L. Allen is author of Opus Dei: Secrets and power inside the Catholic Church (Allen Lane, £20 (CT Bookshop £18); 0-713-99901-2), and Vatican correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter.

Opus Dei and The Da Vinci Code, Channel 4, 12 December at 8 p.m.

To place an order for the books mentioned in this feature, email CT


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