Muscular Catholicism

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By Annabel Miller

In England at least, many Catholics are nervous of Opus Dei. That is often because of the accounts of their experiences given by ex-members. Take Mary (not her real name), for instance. She was a sixth-form student in a convent in the north of England at the end of the 1950s. She was a pious girl, who was often seen in the chapel at lunchtime. She loved French. When her French teacher invited her to help at an Opus Dei summer school, saying it would be a chance to improve her language skills, she agreed. But when she arrived, there were no French speakers there.

The teacher tried to interest her in joining Opus Dei. The following Christmas, she became a supernumerary member. My headmistress had tried to persuade me to be a nun. But the idea of joining an organisation like Opus while remaining in the world and following a career really appealed.

Mary was in love with a young man who was also a supernumerary member. When he decided to become a numerary (a member who makes a promise of celibacy), she followed suit. I was very happy, she told me. I went up the ladder quickly. I was sent to London to work at the women?s headquarters there.

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During that time, she took cold showers and slept on boards as women members of Opus Dei were required to do. She also used the cilice ? a scratchy band worn round the thigh ? and the discipline, a small whip. Between the ages of 18, when she first became involved in the organisation, and 21, she was told not to tell her parents about her involvement in Opus Dei.

While in London, her health began to collapse. All the time I was convinced that I still had a vocation, she remembered. She now describes the experience as having been brainwashed. She saw doctors and psychiatrists who were members of Opus Dei and was put on a cocktail of tranquillisers. She eventually became a subeditor on the Guardian, but her continuing depressions led her superiors in Opus Dei to recognise that she needed to leave. It was 1971. We were struggling and striving for perfection in every detail and that is why I cracked, she told me. Married with three daughters, she is now a Christian with an ecumenical outlook who attends Quaker meetings.

As another ex-member told me: When I left, I found I could love God out of love, not out of fear.

One of the best-known former members of Opus Dei is Fr Vladimir Felzmann of the Westminster archdiocese. Fr Vladimir was a well-known figure in Opus Dei and a personal favourite of its founder, the Blessed Josemar?a Escriv?, who, he says, treated him like a son. He had been chaplain at Netherhall House in London, a student hostel run by Opus Dei. But, as Fr Vladimir told me a few months ago: On 15 August 1981, I realised that Opus Dei was not God, and that by saying ?no? to Opus Dei, I would be saying ?yes? to God.

The falling-out of love with the organisation happened when a heavy ? as he puts it ? was sent from Rome to tell him off because he had not been tough enough with a female numerary who had a drink problem. When he said he wanted to leave, Fr Vladimir was called to Rome where, he says, he was given the hard man/soft man treatment by Opus Dei priests who tried to persuade him to stay. On his return to London, he was taken for a walk in Richmond Park by the regional spiritual director of Opus, who told him he was not mature enough to leave. But, with the support of the late Cardinal Hume, he did leave and was incardinated to Westminster diocese in 1982. He now runs the diocesan youth ministry.

Cardinal Hume, while not an opponent of Opus Dei, had his own reservations. In 1981 he published four recommendations for the activities of Opus Dei in his archdiocese: that no one under the age of 18 should be allowed to take any vow with Opus Dei or make any long-term commitment to it; that young people who wished to join should discuss the matter with their parents or guardians, or failing that with the local bishop or his delegate; that people should be free to join or leave the organisation without undue pressure, and should be able to choose their own spiritual directors who might or might not be members of Opus Dei; and that the initiatives and activities of Opus Dei in Westminster should carry a clear indication of their sponsorship and management. Cardinal Hume did, however, say a Mass for Opus Dei members in 1998 to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the organisation.

Despite what many in Opus Dei think, Fr Vladimir Felzmann is not bitter about his time in the organisation. They mean well, he told me. But he believes that Opus Dei members set out to be an elite and that that is pharisaical. He thinks that the spirituality of Opus Dei is essentially anti-world and that the organisation keeps male and female numeraries apart because it sees them as a threat to each other.

He remembers Josemar?a Escriv? as an attractive person, with a great capacity for affection, but also a hot temper. He knew how to laugh and he knew how to shout. As for Escriv??s alleged sympathies with fascism, he said Escriv? was a child of his time. He does not think Escriv? should be canonised. It would look terrible, he declared.

Another well-known ex-member of Opus Dei is Professor Denys Turner who lectures in theology at Cambridge University. He joined Opus Dei in 1961. He now believes that the organisation traded on the instinct which Catholics then had for obedience, exercised a kind of mind control and cultivated a psychology of dependence on the organisation. He left in 1969, as suddenly as he had joined. He describes leaving as a catastrophic experience for him and was told he would lose his soul over it. He became a Catholic Marxist close to the radical Slant group which included the aca-demics Adrian Cunningham and Terry Eagleton, and the late Dominican Laurence Bright. Denys Turner is still a practising Catholic. He acknowledges that the organisation may well have changed since his time.

It is true that when looking for ex-members to speak to, I had no trouble in finding people who had left in the 1960s and 1970s. But none of my contacts could suggest anyone who had left the organisation in England recently. There must be a steady stream of departures, but they do not seem to go public in the way they used to. Maybe things are not so bad these days.

One former member who did not seem to suffer an enormous trauma in the process is Christopher Howse, who now edits the Comment page of the Daily Telegraph. He left in 1988. He became involved in the organisation at school, then at Oxford University lived in the Opus Dei hostel at Grandpont. He became a numerary. He remembers his fellow members as very peaceable people who were lacking in rancour, rivalry and ambition. A lot of them were very good indeed, he thinks, and he misses the intellectual discussions over breakfast.

When asked why he decided to leave, he said: I found I was not suited to the way of life of a numerary in Opus Dei. They have to take on a teaching role, and almost a pastoral role ? helping other people with their prayer life. I was not really cut out for it.

He was upset by his decision, but said that Opus Dei put no pressure on him to stay. He remains grateful to the organisation for giving him insights into the lay vocation in the Catholic Church. He denies that the organisation?s spirituality is masochistic. Asceticism would be a fairer assessment. If you have a vocation to Opus Dei, it is self-fulfilling and life-enhancing. If you aim at happiness, you miss it. The ascetical struggle is to do with the denial of self. This can make you become more honest, more yourself.

No one of course can be forced to become a member. A young man who lived in Opus Dei?s student residence at Netherhall House in the 1990s recalled how he resisted efforts to recruit him. At his initial interview for Netherhall, he was not told anything about Opus Dei. They have one person befriend you and try to work on you, he told me. But it was not aggressive. I laughed it off. But if people are weak or susceptible, they could be sucked in.

He does not disregard Opus Dei members, however. On the contrary, he described them as very intelligent, intense, a bit unusual. While at Netherhall, he was invited on trips to Paris and Seville. He thought they were just holiday weekends, but in retrospect he sees that they were recruitment efforts by Opus. But, he said, no pressure was put on him. He recalled how, in Netherhall, steps were taken to keep young male residents out of sight of the women who cooked their food and cleaned their rooms. It was hilarious, really.

After all my conversations with members and ex-members of Opus Dei, I was left with several clear conclusions about the organisation?s work in England. First, that it must have changed over the past few years. The very fact that Jack Valero and the Opus Dei regional vicar for Britain, Mgr Nicholas Morrish, were so willing to talk to The Tablet proves that. Fr Felzmann told me that would not have happened a few years ago.

My second strong impression is that the members of Opus Dei whom I met seemed balanced and fulfilled ? if somewhat intense. They were open and friendly to me, despite knowing that my own approach to Catholicism was likely to be very different from theirs. As indeed it is. I admire the emphasis which Opus Dei places on the little things in life, such as small acts of patience and kindness. But overall, the spirituality of Opus Dei would not suit me. It is too intense, too demanding and not sensual enough. There is something self-punishing about it which could so easily lead to obsession. And I would be overwhelmed by the temptation to criticise Escriv?, just because no one in Opus Dei ever, ever seems to.

Having said that, my encounters with Opus Dei members in London over the past few months left me with the conviction that there is more to the organisation than those horror stories. For some people, apparently good and happy people, it is a helpful way to be a better Christian. Who am I to quarrel with that?