Talking Points: Obedience in Opus Dei

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by Joseph I. B. Gonzales, former numerary, six years

This selection of talking points explores the implementation of obedience in Opus Dei. Opus Dei claims that it follows the spirit of the first Christians, yet an intellectually honest investigation of the spirit of Opus Dei shows that numerary life is really an adaptation of religious spirituality and reflects many aspects of religious life in early twentieth-century Spain.

Religious obedience genuinely derives from early monasticism in the fourth century A.D. The vow of obedience does not occur among lay Christians before then.

Implementation of the tradition of religious obedience among numeraries raises the legitimate question of how such a contradiction can be understood to be consistent with the reality of lay life. It also brings up the problem of lack of informed consent among persons who join with the expectation that they will remain lay people, with all the attendant rights and obligations that are normally sacrificed only in religious life.

The absolutist character of obedience in Opus Dei, even to the denigration of reason, also casts doubt upon its authentic identification with the will of God. Moreover, the widespread habit of dissimulation in Opus Dei implies that the worthy practice of obedience may in various instances be undermined by falsehood and destructive motives, or at the very least, inadequately informed. Such questionable features of the organization have led to accusations from various quarters of deception, Machiavellianism, and fascism. Indeed, the traumatic experience of former numeraries casts doubt on the assumption that obedience implemented in such an environment truly derives from the mandate of Jesus.

"The bishops have been pastorally irresponsible in not paying more attention to the claims of parents who feel their children have been seduced into joining something that is not good for their spiritual health. That's not to say everybody, but there's enough of this sort of thing that it really bears investigation. And just as they owe an obligation in the very difficult case of someone who claims to have been molested by a priest--protecting the priest and the victim as equal members of the church--I think they have to pay pastoral attention to these people regardless of what kind of canonical status the organization has."--Kenneth Woodward, from "Opus Dei in the United States," by Father James Martin, S.J., America magazine, February 25, 1995.

"Critics contend that numerary life is anything but lay, particularly in what they see as its replication of religious life, with emphasis on "commitments" (Opus Dei does not use the term "vows"), life in common, a daily order and, at least for some of the men, eventual ordination. Many of those in authority are clerics--the director of their national headquarters in New Rochelle, N.Y., is a monsignor; their prelate was recently ordained a bishop."--Father James Martin, S. J. "Opus Dei in the United States," America magazine, February 25, 1995.

"The best sign of our filiation to the Father will be our dedication, our fidelity to our spirit…we know that there we vibrate with the Father's heart and are united to his intentions when we are very faithful to the spirit of the Work. 'What you have learned and heard and seen in me these things practice. And the God of peace will be with you.'"--Cronica (1971)

"The effect upon the organization's members trained in a singularly devout, enclosed, and tightly controlled society can be devastating when it is suggested that there is some form of symbiosis between the will of God and the will of the founder whom they are taught to venerate. It puts them under enormous psychological pressure, shielded as they are from any questioning by people outside their group."--Michael Walsh, Opus Dei: An Investigation into the Secret Society Struggling for Power within the Roman Catholic Church, Harper San Francisco (1992)

"Opus Dei spokesmen said such stories were tales of embittered failures, but there were too many former Opus Dei members with similar experiences to dismiss such charges as unfounded."--Penny Lernoux, People of God, Penguin Books (1989)

"Opus Dei silences critical minds. Monsignor Escriva used to say, 'I don't want great brains in the Work, because they turn into swelled heads. Average intelligences, if they are docile and faithful, are very effective.' An engineer, banker, or scientist tends to have fewer problems with superiors in the Work than humanists, philosophers, or theologians, who are almost always frustrated within the Work. As soon as someone--who may even be a priest--is outstanding in the field of philosophy or theology, Opus Dei will almost certainly end by silencing him…He frequently ends up by leaving the institution or becomes the patient of a psychiatrist. Opus Dei does not let you think nor engage in speculation."--Maria del Carmen Tapia, Beyond the Threshold, Continuum (1998)

"One of the troubles about citing anything by Escriva is that he was a master of double talk and dual standards. He said one thing for the outside world and another for his children. Even more telling, he said one thing for some of his children, while maintaining something else for his staff officers, the inscribed numeraries. He also had two layers of publications, one for the general public, The Way, for example, and another reserved for elect numeraries. Strict orders were issued that copies of kept under lock and key in each centre."--Robert Hutchinson, Their Kingdom Come, St. Martin's Press (1996)

"Opus Dei is a devious, antidemocratic, reactionary, semi-fascist institution, desperately hungry for absolute power in the church. It ought to be forced either to come out into the open or be suppressed."--Andrew Greeley, Priest, Author, Sociologist, in Penny Lernoux's, People of God, Penguin Books (1989)

"I wish someone would ask: and what is so original in all this? Well, frankly, not much. Of course, a reader geographically far removed from the Iberian world, culturally unfamiliar with the history of Spain in the twentieth century, or religiously disconnected from traditional Roman Catholicism, might find very original the personality, disposition, and behavior patterns of a person who doubtless appears to him as exceedingly exotic. On the other hand, to a reader who is Catholic, Spanish, and sixty years old, the figure of Msgr. Escriva would seem much less original, precisely because the context is not so exotic to him."--Joan Estruch, Saints and Schemers, Replica Books (1995)

And from Their Kingdom Come, by Robert Hutchinson, St. Martin's Press (1996):

The Way was more accurately a handbook of authoritarian clericalism.

Professor Jose Maria Castillo went even further. He claimed it lacked discernment, a serious charge, for in theological terms discernment is a loaded word. “Discernment is the expression of the true cult of Christians;…,” explained Castillo, a Jesuit professor of theology at the University of Granada.

“If a book which claims to be a programme of spiritual life says nothing about Christian discernment, one can say quite surely that it has only a superficial veneer of Evangelical spirit. One can, in fact, say that, deep down, the book is not Christian,” Castillo wrote in an article that engendered Opus Dei’s wrath.

But what exactly is discernment? It has to do with determining the authenticity of mystical experiences…Ignatius of Loyola’s concern for discernment constitutes an essential part of his Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius was so absorbed by the problem that he conceived a set of rules for the discernment of spirits that he applied to his own spiritual life. Perhaps because of his concern for discernment, Ignatius never claimed that God created the Society of Jesus.

The same concern for discernment, Castillo claimed, was not reflected in The Way. In fact, The Way tolerates neither doubt nor criticism. It affirmed that true Christians must be disciplined and obedient to a spiritual director….

Discernment denied, Escriva’s lay children would be unlikely to attain spiritual maturity. They are told that if they wish to achieve Christian perfection they must give up their inner self to a superior….In other words, there is no recourse to one’s spiritual discernment, only to one’s Spiritual Director.

What Escriva seemed to be saying is that obedience to the Father, through each member’s spiritual director, offers the keys to the gates of Heaven….But this guidance is not attributable to the Holy Spirit. It is attributable to a man, the Father, the only person who can insure that one’s sanctity will be achieved.

With the elimination of discernment, the Gospel is empty, faith alienated and the individual demeaned….Father Castillo concluded: “The Way leads inevitably to the alienation of the individual, and to an ill-conceived complicity with “the world” which Jesus rejected….