Government, Direction and Control in Opus Dei

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By Dennis Dubro, former numerary

This informational piece written by former numerary member Dennis Dubro details the levels of government within Opus Dei and the tight hierarchical control that has been established by Opus Dei's Founder. Within Opus Dei's hierarchical structure, which in many circumstances relies on verbal controls and a certain type of "osmosis," lie many of the abuses in Opus Dei. It is the structure of Opus Dei itself and its verbal expectations of members that give rise to the many problems in Opus Dei, not the individual actions of its members, as Opus Dei often cites when they are faced with accountability to the public.

Government in Opus Dei is a very complex process. It is designed to place the individual at a disadvantage in spite of the claims that people are free members of a lay organization which does not have vows. Whenever I tried to exercise my freedom to make a decision, one or more of the various formal and informal levels of "direction" were brought to bear to "help" me make my decision. In the short term, members are permitted to make "mistakes" and "commit disobedience" by doing things according to their own judgment, but they are continually monitored and told that these decisions are not in keeping with the Spirit of Opus Dei and being faithful to the Will of God. In the long run, the only freedom one has as an Opus Dei numerary is to do as he is told.

One comprehensive example is the songs sung in the get-togethers of members. The get-togethers are communal events which are held daily for members to tell stories and share "family life". They are often scripted by the director. Some are set aside to sing songs of Opus Dei or songs of the local culture. As an American living in Australia, there were a number of songs which the guitarist always selected to imbue us with Australian culture. One year, on my birthday, I was given the chance, in honor of my birthday, to select a song to sing. The Founder of Opus Dei always said in public that we should never forget or neglect our own cultural roots or professional background, and I selected a song of American background which had simple lyrics and was easy to sing. After that get-together I received a fraternal correction, that I was supposed to use my freedom to choose a song that would benefit everyone, and that I should have chosen one of the "approved" Australian songs.

Opus Dei is divided into two sections, one for men and one for women. They operate in semi-autonomous fashion subject to the constraint of connecting offices filled by priests.

The official government in Opus Dei consists of three levels. Individual centers of Opus Dei are administered by a local council under a director which is subject to a regional commission (advisory for the women’s section) under a vicar, and both are subject to a central government in Rome consisting of a General Council (Central Advisory for the women’s section) under the authority of the Prelate (who is called the “Father”). Above that, a General Congress (for men with a separate congress for women) is called regularly or when special circumstances require it to elect the major offices of government and to discuss, review and set long term policy.

Beyond this three-level structure, there exists the possibility for sub-levels, whose jurisdiction, responsibilities and directors are defined by the central government to meet their own criteria. Offices in these three levels are shown below. Government in the Women's Section is parallel to the Men's Section.

Offices in the Central Government Offices in Regional Government
Prelate (Priest) Regional Vicar
(Auxiliary Vicar, if he exists) Defender
Vicar General Secretary (Priest) Priest’s Secretary
Vicar for the Women's Section Secretary of the Commission
Vice Secretary for St. Michael Delegate to the General Council
Vice Secretary for St. Gabriel Vice Secretary for St. Michael
Vice Secretary for St. Rafael Vice Secretary for St. Gabriel
(possible other Vice Secretaries) Vice Secretary for St. Rafael
One Delegate from each Region Director of Studies
Prefect of Studies Administrator
General Administrator
Offices in Local Government
Additional Offices are -- Director
Procurator (Priest) Sub-Director
Spiritual Director (Priest) Secretary

A fuller discussion on these offices can be found in the Statutes and Constitutions of Opus Dei (still partially secret or in Latin) on the ODAN website in English (Opus Dei 1982 Statutes). The Statutes of Opus Dei, when speaking of offices of government often include a statement that a certain director has the faculties delegated to him, either habitually or on a case by case basis. This allows the Prelate (or Vicar within his region) to set up and configure his own team of directors. Special faculties are not always public knowledge and many directors have their faculties trimmed or limited for unknown reasons -- which is a key aspect in the control of people. All directors serve at the pleasure of the Prelate (or Vicar). There is a constant lip service paid to the principle that offices of government are not for personal gain or even for aspiration and everyone is supposed to show humility by conceding his personal feelings and judgments in the exercise of those offices. All government is carried out in the name of the Prelate or the Vicar. The actual operations of the respective councils are never discussed and one often does not know at what level certain decisions are made or by whom. Indications of government almost always are delivered by the local director or announced at meetings of formation. And since they are always verbal, they are subject to future denial.

I saw people who would be asked to open corporate bank accounts and act as representatives of our corporate works to the public, but they were not permitted to exercise a governing role on the daily operations of our works. I saw the indications of dissent as mismanagement of our resources occasionally erupted into public areas and these people expressed concerns of conscience. There was a case of the university professor, who at different times had a son or daughter living in the residential or housekeeping section of our corporate dormitory. He was a supernumerary member of Opus Dei and had "freely" agreed to serve on the Board of Directors. Some of the students in the dormitory were opening the fire doors and setting off the alarms. It was thought they were sneaking girls in, so the directors locked all the fire escapes of our eight-story 200-bed dormitory. We were told it was better for all of us to burn in this life than for a few to burn in hell. One director said if there was a fire his Guardian Angel would wake him and he would go out the front door and run around the dormitory unlocking the fire doors from the outside. After a few days, the locked doors were reported to the University. The University said this was an unacceptable policy and told us to unlock the fire escapes. This was done, and we made a big public statement about how thankful we were that the University had noticed this oversight and assisted us in providing a safe environment for our students. Then our director locked the doors again. This professor, Board member and father didn't believe the doors were unlocked. He decided to see for himself. Within a day, the University sent out another directive that the fire doors were to be unlocked and to remain unlocked permanently, but we heard immediately from the regional directors of Opus Dei that this supernumerary member had no authority or business doubting the word of a director of Opus Dei. We were told our directors were accountable to God alone for their actions, and members were supposed to choose to spend their time doing apostolic work rather than checking the word of our directors.

There are other systems of authority which carry out operations of government without the formality of legislation. There is a system which could be called “direction” in which a director expresses his wish that certain things be done or policies be established and under the definitions of obedience, as it is lived in Opus Dei, members are expected to put the director’s wishes into practice. As one gets experience in government and direction, one finds that superiors often require a director to put certain policies in place as if they were his own. When a new director is appointed, he often continues the policies of his predecessor, even though the “government” of the Work claims that it has set no policy on the matter.

There are chains of command in Opus Dei and when one has questions, he is only permitted to submit his questions through his assigned chain. A little recognized aspect of Opus Dei is the solemn promise of unity that all members are required to undertake, in which they give their word as a Christian person, under pain of committing mortal sin, never to speak against the directors or the organization outside of one's chain of command. The priests hold people tightly to this promise in the Sacrament of Reconciliation all the while that Opus Dei quite technically claims that there is no vow taken. And when a person does not receive an answer through his chain of command, this promise has far-reaching consequences throughout the organization.

In spite of the chains of command, regional directors and other special appointees are empowered to step in and give verbal commands to people when they see fit. The primary principle of obedience is that you always obey a verbal command of a director even if it goes against the Spirit of the Work or other official policies.

One member told me his own experience in which he was assigned care of the garden as a special "family" assignment. These assignments, though they might be considered "small" are used to teach people obedience. In this case, it was important that his center appear to be well kept, like a family residence, and he would receive clear indications from his director if he arrived home late from work one day and failed to water or keep the garden immaculate. Yet, to assist him in being detached from his work, and teach him humility, that director would occasionally pull petals from one of the flowers and leave the empty stalk standing. Many of us received similar lessons in the corruption of a bank balance we were managing, or when a director would intentionally make us late for an appointment by giving us an assignment of "critical apostolic importance" at the last minute.

There is also the system of spiritual direction in which each person has a spiritual director. One never discusses the personal goals and requirements assigned to him by his director with anyone else. People are often given arbitrary indications as tests of their willingness to obey. In my case, I was forbidden to trim my fingernails on a Saturday morning. Depending upon the circumstances and personalities involved, some indications are given to a person through the chain of government and sometimes through the system of spiritual direction.

There is also a system of tradition, called the "Spirit of the Work", and one of seniority. If there is a difference of opinion in a certain matter or a person's behavior and one member can remember and quote a story or principle from the life of the Founder or the Prelate, the tradition is supposed to be followed, unless a relevant governing council or director has decided otherwise. It is usually the senior members of the Work and the priests who have these “living” memories to quote from. Aside from that, if a senior member or a priest really goes out of his way to confront you and tell you that you are not living circumstances according to the Spirit of the Work you had better concede your behavior or opinion in his favor.

As an example, numerary members are supposed to be detached from their blood families, form family with the members of Opus Dei and put the good of the organization as the highest priority in their life. Numeraries are told to pray always for their blood family and to maintain as much contact as possible with them – most especially if a family member shows some sign of vocation. But the contact is often difficult because one has so many apostolic responsibilities placed upon him and one’s family is not supposed to interfere with the apostolate. Opus Dei faces a lot of criticism that it takes children away from their families and occasionally a numerary is told to take a few days and visit his family. The length of the visit is reviewed by his director and the local council. But then situations occur like the one in which a numerary had an arrangement, approved by his director to visit his family for a given number of days. He was driven to the airport by a very senior member in the Region, who was also a director on the Commission. As the director bid him goodbye at the boarding gate, he told the younger numerary that if he really loved God and wanted to live the Spirit of the Work, he would choose to tell his family after two days that he needed to get back to his responsibilities in his Center and come home early.

The priests play a complementary role of holding everyone in the sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) to tight standards of obedience to the lay directors. The role of the priesthood in the “lay” personal prelature is in some cases ambiguous. To help clarify the situation on a day-to-day basis, members are told that they are to obey their lay directors, and also the priests in the context of the sacrament of Reconciliation. And it happens that a person is told in the sacrament to bring matter of the confession outside of the sacramental seal and report it to his lay director.

The structure of governing and directing Opus Dei is multifaceted. One learns through a process of trial and error how the system operates. It is a system with very little flexibility available to the individual members, but allows the organization the ability to move quickly and adapt itself when faced with difficult or rapidly changing circumstances -- such as the public exposure brought about by The DaVinci Code. The structure of Opus Dei, particularly for the numeraries, is very tight. The Constitutions say that whenever there are two members of the Institute, lest they be deprived of the merit of obedience, a certain subordination is always observed, in which one is subject to the other according to the order of precedence or other principles. As a final example, there was a time when a group of numeraries went to attend their annual course of formation, which is a vacation, of sorts, in which the members study theology and philosophy in the morning and then play sports and go on excursions in the afternoon. It is supposed to be a period of formation, fellowship and recreation where people are supposed to set aside their responsibilities to a certain extent and relax. During an afternoon volleyball match, in which participation was mandatory, one young director who was very competitive, started to get upset when his team was losing and he started ordering people around like a school-yard bully. When a member tried to report this director for bad behavior and obtain permission to correct him, he was told that team captains are authorized to tell people what to do. Nothing was ever said about team captains. This mandatory game was supposed to be recreation for members from different countries and cultures and athletic abilities, but members are always supposed to give directors the benefit of the doubt and in a spirit of holy humility obey even when the directors are not exercising formal juridical authority.

In many ways, the structure of Opus Dei can be admired for its robust character which is carefully designed to ensure the operation and survival of the organization. But this is at the expense of individual conscience, because members are not fully informed of, nor are they permitted to ask about, the full extent of their activities. It is a structure in which all members outside of the highest leadership are constantly being monitored and tested for loyalty, unity, compliance and obedience. This is what some have labelled as brainwashing. Whatever it is called, it is a system which is easily subject to abuse -- with the result that people can become like robots. Directors can and do become intoxicated with the psychological power available to them and it is a frightening thing to behold.

Note: For more information about how this subtle means of absolute control and blind obedience is executed in Opus Dei, see the companion piece writtten by Dennis Dubro "Voluntaristic Obedience."