Opus Dei as a Political Force

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American Political Science Association - Washington DC
Panel: "Comparative Political Manifestations of the Roman Catholic Church"
in Post Cold War Latin America: Civil Society, Associationalism, and Democracy
29 August 1997

Paul Rich
University of the Americas-Puebla, Mexico and Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Guillermo De Los Reyes
University of the Americas-Puebla, Mexico and University of Pennsylvania

The end of the Cold War is generally and properly given credit for sparking an increased discussion about ways of supporting the cultural environment which nurtures democracy. The surprisingly quick dissolution of the Communist system meant there was a receptive audience for any suggestions about which directions political science would or should take. The number of "customers" , i.e. embryo democracies, seemingly in need of advice was dramatically increased. Marxist scholarship seemed at a dead end. The former Soviet bloc states as well as other states interpreted the emergence of the United States as the lone superpower as virtually a command to learn the mores of a Western lifestyle, whose signs and tokens were not only MacDonalds's but Rotary and Kiwansis.

Civil society in consequence has become popular as a term, defined as "that set of diverse non-governmental institutions which is strong enough to counterbalance the state, and while not preventing the state from fulfilling its role of keeper of the peace and arbitration between major interests, can nevertheless prevent it from dominating and atomizing the rest of society."

This attention to volunteerism is in fact the rediscovery of the part it has played in the political process over centuries.

What of religious groups? The conspicuous part played in left-wing politics in Latin America by liberation theology in Latin America has received so much attention that it is possible to neglect a long intellectual tradition supporting an alliance between the Roman Catholic Church and the strong state. Support of the status quo and of the state has been not only by sacralization of authority, but by providing an intellectual framework. For example, an apologetics for the notion that Catholicism in Mexico is to be welcomed for its inherently conservative conributions dates at least to General José María Tornel (1794-1853), many times Minister of War (1833. 1835-37. 1838-39, 1841-44, 1846, 1853), and variously minister to the United States, governor of Mexico City, and senator. In contrast with anti-clerics of hi s day, Tornel consistently, regardless of whether the prevailing political mood was iturbidista or santanista, advocated alliance with the church as an ally of discipline, order, and a strong central government - a position summarized in his essay El sentimiento religioso, principio conservador de las sociedades (1843). The contribution of Catholic voluntary societies to democratization is supported, for example, by the research of Paulo J. Krischke into Comunidades Eclesiasia de Base (CEBs) in Brazil.

The impact of "base ecclesial communities" has received impressive attention from Christian Smith, who found that the CEBs challenged what Smith calls the monistic corporatism of religious communities that encourage "authoritarianism, elitism, clientelism, patriomialism, familism, hierarchcy, caudillismo, machismo, minimal socioecnomic mobility, double standards of sexual morals, reverence for military and political authority, and an aristocrtic ethos of disdain for manual labor and high regrd for formal etiquette." How to determine which groups are helpful CEBs and which are harmful disseminators of monistic corporatism is something which might give difficultis to readers of Smith. It is an important distincion, as the monistic corporatism of some communities has resulted in their being likened to marginal terrorist groups. Friend or foe, the supporter of democratization might ask.

Fears About the Latin American Situation

By no means is the current increase in the number of countries espousing democracy being regarded as a permanent change. Fears are constantly expressed that there will be a regression. Much of the debate about the political future of Latin America, (particularly Mexico, which will be used as one major example) concerns whether the region's revived democratic institutions have staying power. A commonly stated reservation is that the legacies of oligarchy and dictatorship are not going to be quickly overcome: "Mexico has been an authoritarian-corporate system for the past 70 years. It represents institutionalized authoritarianism - like the former Soviet Union or South Africa's apartheid regime - and thus its transition to democracy (if it can be made) will be much harder and require a longer time than other, more short-lived recent Latin American military regimes. Fifty to 75 years is a good bet for the time it will take Russia to democratize; we should not be much more optimistic for Mexico."

The forces that nurture democracy are seen as a mixed blessing. While in any discussion about democratization south of the Rio Grande the encouragement of volunteerism and the activities of NGOs or Non-Governmental Organizations is seen as being crucial, reservations are expressed about a resulting destabilizing influence of decentralization and pluralism, a pluralism including the proliferation of religious sects. At issue is the quality of the pluralism. The belief that pluralism per se, as represented in the growth of associationalism, is essential has produced sweeping endorsements of the benefits derived from the private sector, fulsome accolades which need reconciling with the political role of powerful secret and ritualistic organizations that are widespread in Latin America, including (but hardly limited to) Opus Dei.

In other words, praise for NGOS sometimes fails to consider that not all NGOs are unambiguously committed to democracy. Often they believe so firmly in their own viewpoint that they would welcome the chance to impose it if they could on everyone. Treating voluntary groups as if they were unexceptionally a benign influence is simplistic. While Seymour Martin Lipset has argued covincingly that an organization can be internally undemocratic but as a challenge to state power can perform a democratizing function, that tradeoff has limits. No one would claim that the Ku Klux Klan ends up on the positive side of the ledger.

The discussion of Opus Dei will underline that more discrimination and categorization is needed when it comes to the elements of civil society. It is not, of course, the only group whose demcoratic motives are suspect. Indeed, in Latin America it has forged alliances with other movements related to the Roman Catholic Church that deserve study, such as Sodalitium Vitae, and has been officially represented at conferences called by a number of movements rallying conservative opposition to liberalizing tendencies in the Church and society.

The favors shown to Opus Dei, including the rapid progress of its founder's cause for sainthood and the probably election to altar honors of two more members, indicates how the Vatican feels about the importance of its contributions. Bishops in Latin America who are members have taken a tough line against community organizing and against reformists, which is hardly an endorsement of the unqualified role of associations in democratization.

Thus Opus Dei is an illustrative case in calling for more careful weighing of the contributions of Laitn American volunteerism. If it is described as "an organization of clergy and lay people whose primary charge is the spiritual direction of its members" that is true as far as it goes, but hardly an adequate explanation of the consternation that has greeted some of its activities. Despite a good press for activities such as tutoring inner-city children, a widespread view has been that is is one of the "dangerous closed societies" that have "totalitarian tendencies".

Origins of Opus Dei

Opus Dei was founded in Spain by Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer on October 2nd, 1928. He conceived it as a Christian lay association, exclusively for men, which would pursue its members' moral development - Opus Dei meaning The work of God. Escrivá de Balaguer wrote: "An honest job, either intellectual or manufactured has to be done by Christians with all perfection as possible: human perfection and Christian perfection...and with that, the work.becomes God's product, operatio Dei, opus Dei." His announced goal was to have an organization that would atrract men from all social classes - beginning with intellectuals - who would respond to a specific vocation: to get holiness into their jobs without changing their lifestyle. They would not have to withdraw from the world or even give up worldy things. In actual fact, the new society was never to be inclusive of all social classes.

In February 1930, he decided that this Christian vocationalism could be experienced by women,and he created a women's section totally independent from the male section and despite often coming from upper and upper middle class backgrounds giving members lowly domestic duties which were to become controversial. Women were subordinated at a time that the Catholic Church in general was giving them an increased role.

The expansion was carried out at first by the Spanish members (the so- called numerarios) who traveled with the express purpose of extending the influence of Escrivá. However, it was not until after World War II that real growth began, with branches established in Portugal (1945); England and Italy (1946); France and Ireland (1947); United States, Chile and Argentina (1950); Colombia and Venezuela (1951); Germany (1952); Peru and Guatemala (1953); Uruguay and Switzerland (1956); Brazil, Austria, and Canada (1957); El Salvador, Kenya, and Japan (1958); Costa Rica (1959); Holland (1960), Paraguay (1962); Australia (1963); Philippines (1964); Nigeria and Belgium (1965); Puerto Rico (1969). The Mexican branch was established in 1949 and visited by Escrivá himself in 1970. The early activities were centered at the Residencia Uniersitaria Panamericana in Mexico City. Today the movement worldwide boasts over 70,000 members..

Considering the thesis that an injection of the fabled Protestant work ethic into predominantly Catholic societies might promote democracization, the argument might be made that the value system of Opus Dei was helpful even if its hierarchy was no one to emulate. In so far as it is independent of clerical authority, it could be evidence of the post Vatican II Church and the opening of doors to the laity. In the debate over whether Catholicism has helped or hindered democratization, these would be significant positive signs.

Such assumptions however would be precarious, as the passions aroused over the organization show. Supporting a virtuous hard-working life style or empowering laity would not account for the controversy over Opus Dei. Other Catholic movements involving the laity such as the Third Order Franciscans or the Catholic Daughters have no such notoriety. Opus Dei is different.


For one thing, its leadership is not characterized by plain living, let alone poverty. The literature of Opus Dei does not emphasize its meeting facilities or the quality of its meals, but an attention to such things does appear to be one of the ingredients of its success; the founder allegedly had a love of 'grandeza'. Centers often resemble clubs and have earned the society the title "the Rotary of God" Those who attend are uniformly characterized as prosperous and well-connected.

Local parish facilities are not used. Opus Dei has its own priests and holds services in its private buildings, which often are elaborate structures that were once estates of the wealthy (and, in a sense, still are). There is a an effort to make its religious practices distinctive. Members receive instructions about meditating upon a plain wooden cross and imagining oneself upon it, erecting a black cross without a crucified figure and adorning it with crowns of flowers on feast days, commemoration of the finding by St Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, of the true cross, and the supplication of guardian angels. Having obtained Vatican permission, members now wear the Carmelite scapular although they are not members of the Carmelite confraternity. Chastisement of the body is provided for by the wearing of a cilice or hairshirt and sleeping on the ground, as well sometimes of more extreme practices. And the attitude towards apostates is coolly unwavering: "Opus Dei claims the right to silence those members who waver in their vocation, taking their freedom away, isolating them, forcing them to submit as slaves for whatever period the superiors deem 'medicinal'."

Escrivá de Balaguer remarked that "God wants a handful of men 'of his own' in every human activity." In any event, members are not uncomfortable with the idea that they are an elite, and one suspects that the aura of secrecy adds to the pleasure of membership. A university professor active in Opus Dei told the authors that it was important that promising and ambitious young adults meet politically successful and powerful Catholics and realize that religion was not all deprivation and frugality. "Not all of us are Mother Teresas, nor need to be," he remarked. A member describes the aspirations for the mission of Opus Dei to women (as opposed to its use of women employees in servile position: "Our apostolate was with married women of the upper levels of society, where wealth and power come together, women whose husbands or families were known and respected throughout the country [Venezuela]. Our friendship with such persons separated us from the people, from the poor. I believed what Opus Dei told me: that apostolate with the poor was not our task...".

The willingness to recruit non-Catholics may suggest that the agenda of Opus Dei is more than bringing the Catholic faith into daily living or supporting conservative Catholic theological views. This is not an other-worldly group. In its spread throughout the world it has achieved remarkable economic success,and the way in which it has acquired enemies as well as friends suggests that 'something is afoot'.

Authors such as Jean Saunier and Jaime Luna Reye assert that Monsignor Escrivá became as important as the Pope, virtually a second Pontiff. Yet his writings as far as their profundity is concerned scarcely support such influence. He wrote a small book, Camino, which is essentially an old-fashioned commonplace book with aphorisms and maxims. Enthusiasts call this the Bible of the Opus Dei, or, like Jean Saunier, the New Kempis. It has enjoyed more than one hundred and eighty editions in 38 languages. Easy to read, it cultivates a comfortable dialogue with the reader. The author becomes a "personal conscience adviser":

No. 16- "¿Adocenarte? ¿¡Tú...del montón!? ¡Si has nacido para caudillo! Entre nosotros no caben los tibios. Humíllate y Cristo te volverá a encender con fuegos de Amor?"

If one is looking for the genius of Opus Dei in its founder's spiritual writings, the quest is frustrating. They seem unexceptional, and even platitudinous. Could it be then that the importance of the movement rests elsewhere? Jean Saunier emphasizes the date when Camino was published (1939), because the book echos in his judgement the rhetoric of the Franco's crusade. As an example he singles out the way the word caudillo is used, recalling Franco's theory of caudillaje. Ironically, Opus Dei has a similarity with the Freemasonry, and Franco had a violent dislike against such secret societies.

Another theme of Escrivá´s book, at least for some readers, is the virtue of "elitism", which is one of the attributes most attributed to Opus Dei. Joseph Dalmau in Contrapuntos al 'camino' del Opus Dei insists about Camino, "It is a political book ...the same ideology that is the vertebra of the dominant class in the western society; the bourgeoisie, as is vulgarly called." Dalmau argues that Camino does not includes any thought for the poor, or any consideration for their situation. There is no space in the Opus Dei world for those with leftish ideas. Further, the suggestion is that Opus Dei actively seeks to promote its members into high office. Yvon Vaillant in Sainte Maffia, claims that the organization is one of the most effective political instrumentss in contemporary history.

Secrecy or Obscurity?

Opus Dei requires from those joining a solemn declaration of loyalty in addition to the obligations that are required from a communicant Catholic, required according to its statutes in response to a "divine vocation": "...the term 'agreement' or 'contract' by itself cannot express all the ecclesiological meaning of that 'formal declaration', which Opus Dei's founder from the early days used to call a 'commitment of love and service'. This obligation of obedience seems to be interpreted to include not just discretion but a silence about the organization's affairs which has fostered its image of secrecy, a secrecy which contributes to the comparisons made between it and Freemasonry.

A dividing line between secrecy and discretion is hard to fix. Opus Dei is certainly discrete. At least some of its buildings have vaults in the floor for burning papers, with bottles of gasoline kept to facilitate destruction of papers; a code book sent out from Rome is used to encrypt critical communications. Due to its cultivation of obscurity, Opus Dei has been described derisively as the the church inside the Church, nueva heregía (the new heretic group), and the Holy Mafia.. Norberto Bobbio in an article published in the Mexican magazine Nexos discusses the speculations about Opus Dei and quotes the Italian socialist scholar Craxi: "It's enough to look around, ...they are everywhere. I have the desired to say that: they [Opus Dei] are the real power, not the political parties."

Bobbio compares Opus Dei with the Masons. While acknowledging that Opus Dei and the Freemasons are very different, he concludes that they have surprisingly many features in common. They are both have a reputation for clandestine activities. They do not permit non-members to attend their meetings. They shun publicity about many of their activities. In Franco's Spain, Opus Dei was accused of being a "Jewish sect with links with the Freemasons".

Part of the reputation of Opus Dei may be the creation of the tabloid press, but it is also based on the fact that for a considerable time the society did not publically acknowledge links with a number of organizations which were entirely controlled by it..An example is the Instituto Panamericano de la Alta Dirección de Empresa (IPADE); which itself is linked to the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Barcelona and financed by the Spanish Popular Bank, which is controlled by Opus Dei. A director of IPADE, Dr. Carlos Flat Cifuentes, disarmingly claims that "the IPADE is property of a civil association, the Pan-American Society of Entrepreneurial Studies, that is constituted by a numerous group of entrepreneurs very well-known in the country, and the activities of the Institute have an exclusively academic and scientific interest." The complex organizational structure which in effect conceals Opus Dei involvement in various institutions has caused uneasiness.

Mexico as an Example

Opus Dei has around 7,000 members in Mexico. They are mostly professionals, coming from the commercial and banking sectors. The historical roots of the present membership go back to the 70's when a strong promotion campaign for Opus Dei was financed by Miguel Azcárraga, who was at that time Manager of the Chrysler Corporation in Mexico. Several of the most important business-men in Mexico are members of the Opus Dei.

Opus Dei has emerged as one of the few really successful Catholic movements in Mexico in terms of conscripting a significant lay representation from the haut bourgeoisie. Previous efforts to establish politically important religious organizations drawing on the upper and upper middle class laity - the Knights of Columbus being a prominent example - have not succeeded. Catholic Action, for example, was hoi polli, and today is moribund. Opus Dei holds out, in a nation where "the myth of the right connection" is implicitly believed, the promise of, at long last, an effective pro-clerical establishment-oriented rightly-connected society drawing on the business establishment.

Perhaps with such an interest in having friends of influence it is not surprising that the movement's economic resources are huge in comparison to other voluntary groups. The Opus Dei Constitution encourages property acquisition and involvement in secular enterprises. Most members are expected to hold a secular job. In Article 9, active participation in cultural, artistic, and financial centers that are linked with the Opus Dei and ultimately controlled by it is sanctioned. Opus Dei is recognized by its attitude towards wealth. Camino singles out the moral value of wealth, It supports wealth and economic prosperity, and for some this explains the great success of the Institution, especially with the upper and middle class. They like the idea of "Holy Poverty".

One of the most important objectives for the Opus Dei has emerged as the education of its members and the recruitment of new members through offering excellent educational facilities. In Mexico it has a number of educational centers, but the Mexican Constitution, in its third article, requires that education has to be secular and independent of any religious affiliation: Technically then, the Opus Dei educational system is contrary to the law. Walter Beller Taboada contends that it openly flounts on occasion the curriculuum established by the Education Ministry. He argues that "To educate without God, is for them, an aberration, it is a perversion that they combat every moment...They are personal enemies of Darwin, not for scientific reason, but for theological reasons. They don't like Freud because of his 'obscene pansexualism'. They criticize Hidalgo and Morelos (they are bad examples for young people); they accept only the interpretations by Lucas Alamán. They are strongly anti-Juárez... they would like to have a strong government that punish all rebelled that cost the chaos."

Does Opus Dei Support Democratization?

Opus Dei worldwide functions as a nonprofit cultural association: "Opus Dei launches all its apostolic projects from these platforms. They allow Opus Dei to operate more or less unnoticed, give it nontaxable status, and are useful in seeking economic assistance." The names of it corporations include such non-sectarian sounding titles as Association for Educational Development, Woodlawn Foundation, Association for Cultural Development, and Clover Foundation. Whether this use of what in the secular world would be considered "fronts" encourages a healthy climate of volunteerism and associationalism, and hence the civil society, is questionable. With the renewed interested in the contriubitons of NGOs to democracy, Opus Dei must expect to be much more closely scrutinized than it has in the past. Religious-cultural issues are part of that expanded view - one which sees the relationship between politics and religion as ontonomous.

Certainly the argument has authority that not having durable intermediate associations that stand between the family and state is a threat to democratization. The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, where civil society was so long non-existent, provide a prime example, but are not the only one: "Many Latin Catholic countries like France, Spain, Italy and a number of nations in Latin America exhibit a saddle-shaped distribution of organizations, with strong families, a strong state, and relatively little in between. These societies are utterly different from socialist ones in any number of important ways, particularly with regard to their greater respect for the family. But, like socialist societies, there has been in certain Latin Catholic countries a relative deficit of intermediate social groups in the area between the family and large, centralized organizations like the church or the state."

The growth of volunteerism is desirable as Latin America attempts to democratize. There is concern that the odds are against it. Given the previous intellectual pursuit by the continent's intellectuals of Marxist answers, recent concern about civil society has an element of irony, because, "...the central intuition of Marxism can be summed up as the claim that Civil Society is a fraud. Its partnership with the state was a fraud, or so it was claimed: they were in collusion, the state was a covert agent of a dominant sub-part of Civil Society, and not at all a neutral peace-keeper and arbitrator."

Although associations promote democracy, and even do so when they are not themselves particularly democratic but nevertheless contribute only as a counter-weight to the state, there are perameters. That, "The rise of relgious competition increases pluralism," and that, "The religious stalemate that it reflects - the impossiblity for any one side or point of view to attain a monoploy position - can be a great support for democratic freedoms and the tolerant, democrtic politics of compromise," will have few challengers. But such groups as Opus Dei are hard to credit with a substantial contribution to democratization. Its members are adamant in asserting its positive values, but at the least it has a mammoth public relations problem that even prospective elevation to the honors of the altar for its late now-beatified founder will not assuage.