The Evolution of Opus Dei

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by Alberto Moncada

This article was originally published in Spanish as La evolución del Opus Dei en España (Ponencia al VI Congreso Español de Sociología, A Coruña, 1999) and is available on the opus libros website.

Opus Dei is a Catholic institution comprised of both priests and laymen, very close to the Pope, who praises its doctrinal integrity and committment to his policies. Juan Paul II even appointed one of its members, Rafael Navarro Valls, as Vatican spokesman.

Early Opus Dei flourished in the atmosphere of religious fervor within the winning side of the Spanish Civil War. Its founder, Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, was a strong supporter of the "Crusade" as the Spanish bishops labeled the war. He wrote his main book -- Camino (The Way) -- during the war, in Burgos, close to the Franco headquarters, where he made well-connected friends. Camino sums up Escriva´s "national catholicism", the Trento doctrine which canonized the union between Church and State. Escriva conceived Opus Dei as a sort of Catholic answer to the liberal, secularist Institución Libre de Enseñanza which was blamed by the Spanish Church for the growing secularization of Republican Spain in the thirties and he enrolled young intellectuals to devote their lives entirely to the cause. Two members of Opus Dei affirm the originality of Escriva`s idea [1]. Many other analysts describe Opus Dei as a typical example of Spanish Catholicism [2]. From 1928, the year Escrivá claimed he received the divine inspiration, until 1936, the year the Spanish war started, he had no more than a handful -- seven or eight -- followers. After the war, the membership slowly grew and by 1945 about ten houses of numeraries, or celibate members, had been opened in Spain. Escrivá enjoyed the favor of a sympathetic Minister of Education José Ibañez Martín and, as a consequence, Opus Dei university professors obtained the control of the newly created research organism, the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC). Soon they moved to doctrinal action and, without fully realizing it, tried to establish a Spanish version of Action Francaise. To this end, they created Ediciones Rialp, a publishing house named for a forest in the Catalonian Pyrenees. Escrivá trekked through the Rialp forest in his flight from the Republican zone during the Spanish Civil War, with some of the first members. Opus Dei's internal tradition recounts that the Virgin Mary confirmed him in his mission during the passage through the forest. Ediciones Rialp published Opus Dei member Rafael Calvo Serer's España sin problema [3] in response to Pedro Laín Entralgo's doubts in España como problema [4]. University teacher Florentino Pérez Embid and other members proclaimed themselves disciples of the Catholic scholar Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo and set out to translate European conservative thought into Spanish.

A result of the effort was the incorporation of Pérez Embid and others into the cultural arm of the Franco administration, first in the Ministry of Propaganda and subsequently in the leadership and control of the Athenaeum. A particularly close association developed between member Laureano López Rodó, who organized the CSIC administratively, and Franco's longtime collaborator Admiral Carrero Blanco. These relationships set the stage for a second more exuberant period of Opus Dei's public impact. During the 1950s and 1960s, Franco entrusted the helm of the faltering Spanish economy to a handful of Opus Dei members, Alberto Ullastres, Mariano Navarro, Gregorio López Bravo, and López Rodó. In the wake of these major players, a vigorous lobby of members and friends of the institution sprang up which created innumerable business ventures.

The 1950s and 1960s also saw the expansion of Opus Dei outside Spain, especially in the Latin American dictatorships of Chile and Argentina. Opus Dei penetrated those Catholic groups which felt most alienated by the Second Vatican Council. For the moment Rome looked on Escrivá's movement with suspicion and Christian progressives accused it of supporting the Spanish dictator. Pope Paul VI, who as Archbishop of Milan, had been a militant opponent of Franco, was especially critical and blocked Escrivá's petition to transform Opus Dei´s canonical designation from a Secular Institute to a prelature. I remember listening to an angry Escriva denouncing how Montini dared to join the European clamor against the death penalties signed by Franco. Montini was not his kind of Pope neither was Roncalli before.

The context in which the above group of Opus Dei members operated in politics was a correction of the Spanish economy mandated by international financial organisms and directed at ending the previous model of self-sufficiency or autarchy. The adjustments took place in a regime where public criticism or opposition by organized labor was not allowed. Things did not go well for the network of interests and enterprises woven around the "Work", as they internally called the institution. Mostly led by people without experience, the group ventures into the realms of finance, publishing, and international trade, ended in internal and external conflicts, spectacular failures, and a reputation for immorality and arbitrariness that have subsequently characterized the business ventures of men whose mentors proclaimed the idea of sanctification of work. Criticism grew to the point that at the end of the 1960s, Escrivá decreed the suppression of auxiliary enterprises or "common works" in internal terminology. The scandals around Matesa, Rumasa, and so many other affairs are full of Opus Dei names. Opus Dei authorities had presented the supernumerary member José María Ruiz Mateos as a model father and businessman, and an outstanding benefactor. He was suddenly excluded from the list of acknowledged members after public controversies with other members whom he blamed for his fall. [5]

Escrivá had placed special emphasis on Opus Dei's journalistic endeavors -- "We must wrap the world in printed paper" he used to say. The periodicals were the last to break away from institutional control. Some formed the Recoletos Group (Telva, Marca, Actualidad Económica) controlled by persons close to Opus Dei, and now owned by the British group Pearson. Even so, other scandals continued to percolate: the Fundación General Mediterránea, one of Opus Dei's secret economic instruments, has been in the Spanish papers recently because of unfair practices. Some specialists have begun to gather documentary evidence about connections between Opus Dei and Vatican finances. But as Opus Dei people believe in eclesiastical and banking secrecy with the same fervour as in confessión secrecy, most of the rumors are very dificult to probe. Among them is the role of Opus Dei in channelling money to Solidarsnoc to foster the break-up of Communism in Poland. [6]

In another field, a small group of Opus Dei men and women followed the time-honored ecclesiastical tradition of seeking influence at court. Federico Suárez Verdeguer, Angel López Amo, and Laura Hurtado de Mendoza obtained positions in the incipient household of Prince Juan Carlos. Others worked for restoration of the monarchy. Laureano López Rodó supported the prince. A group headed by Calvo Serer backed Juan Carlos' father Don Juan. Other Opus Dei members defended the Carlist candidate. Escrivá himself eventually leaned toward the position of López Rodó. [7]

A third stage of Opus Dei in Spain coincides with the return of democracy, John Paul II's pontificate, and the crisis of Catholic education. Under the democracy, a relatively small number of Opus Dei members hold leadership positions in national and regional conservative parties and in banks. Nowadays, members no longer act in a concerted fashion as in Franco's time, but pursue the normal goals of democratic capitalism and extract some benefit for their own objectives. Since Spain lacks an extreme right wing party, it is not possible to measure the percentage of members with extremist leanings, but the sympathy of many Opus Dei officers and some civilians for the February 21, 1981 coup d'etat attempt was apparent. General Armada, one of the masterminders of the coup, is close to Opus Dei, "Military men, by the very fact of their being that, already have half the vocation to Opus Dei," Escrivá used to preach.

Pope John Paul II reversed the Vatican's critical stance toward the Work. After Escrivá's death he granted the desired change of canonical status from secular institute to personal prelature, which bestowed great independence from diocesan bishops. Also the founder was beatified in a process whose flaws provoked sharp criticism even within the Curia. However, the most notable feature of the new stage is the transformation of Opus Dei into an organization primarily devoted to private education. It has thus assumed the care for sectors of the middle class that the Jesuits were abandoning.

Escrivá wrote in some foundational documents that the "Work" would never have its own educational institutions; rather, its members were to exercise their professions preferably "in State buildings with State money" [8]. Nevertheless, Escrivá and his representatives in Spain never ceased to adapt to circumstances and make a virtue of necessity. The energies set free by the abandonment of the politico-mercantile project were harnessed in a race to create primary and secondary schools and a few universities -- some directly under the jurisdiction of the "Work", while others belong to corporate intermediaries. In 2000, no Spanish city or Latin American capital lacks one Opus Dei school for boys and another for girls; coeducation is not allowed. Some cities have three or more.

Although Opus Dei never discloses the numbers of its members by category and function, my guess is that the majority of the numeraries today are employed in education, ecclesiastical jobs and the internal bureaucracy. Opus has come to resemble teaching congregations, such as the Sallesians or Marists, who appeared in France in response to the secularization and anticlericalism of the Revolution. The brothers were laymen with private religious vows; they acted and dressed like laymen, but gradually their practices and even their attire become uniform, a process observable among unmarried men and especially unmarried women of the Work. Little by little, Opus Dei has become clerical, and nowadays, the majority of its regional and national hierarchy are priests. A kind of social endogamy and fortress mentality is experienced as protection by those inside, ghetto by those outside. Many of the numeraries come from supernumeraries' homes, attend Opus Dei schools, graduate to its universities, go to Rome, and once trained, are assigned to the internal bureaucracy or the educational network without exercising a secular profession or having worldly experience. Such is the case of the current Prelate, Javier Echevarría, who became Escrivá's secretary as a young man and has spent his life in Rome in the internal bureaucracy; he lacks secular university studies or professional experience. Observers agree that there has been a lowering of social and intellectual status of new members.

Escrivá shared the misogyny frequent in Catholic theology and discipline and created a structure in which the primary activity of women was to care for houses and centers of the Work. Indeed one type of female members, who come from modest homes, were termed "servants" in the first edition of the Constitution. The result of this setup is that the numeraries are the last remaining males in Western countries, especially in Spain, who enjoy the prerogatives of traditional gentlemen, who do not get involved in household matters because that is the business of the women of the family or, in the present case, of his sisters in the apostolate. Still, a certain percentage of Opus Dei women have responded to the new educational imperative and run schools for girls. In any case, few of them exercise any secular profession independently or have university studies, something obligatory for male numeraries. Escrivá mandated stricter observances for women numeraries. Thus, among other things, women sleep on planks and used to have to ask permission to drink water between meals, although the latter rule was recently abolished. Needless to say, women count for little in internal government and limit themselves to applying the resolutions taken by male authorities.

The massive dedication to teaching produces a modification of foundational goals. No longer does one imagine the permeation of all sectors of civil society by Opus Dei members in the manner of an intravenous injection according to the founder's metaphor. Rather, efforts are focused on the education of children and adolescents. The control of so many educational institutions opens new avenues of influence. For one thing, these centers are conceived as tools for indoctrination. Encouraged by a militant Pope and fed by cyclical Church conservatism, Opus Dei teachers work to convince their students of the importance of maintaining the hierarchical structure of a traditional family, principal cell of the desired organic society. Anti-Communists during the Cold War, they are enthusiastic supporters of the pro-life movement. The head of the movement in Spain is a numerary. A new counter-reformation eases the Work's apostolates. Some of its priests hold Church posts related to censorship and prosecution of excessively independent theological thinkers. This situation has rendered superfluous any specifically Opus Dei doctrine or theology, since the task becomes maintenance of the Tridentine message as currently reworked by the Vatican. Accordingly, the Prelature has few theologians worthy of the title. The few who attempted to be genuine theologians have left, as Raymond Panikkar, or died, as Alfredo García. The world of Opus Dei has progressively more to do with group discipline, with control of behavior, and less with religion or theology, even though Opus Dei runs Theological Colleges in Pamplona and Rome basically specialized in moral theology and canon law.

Escrivá was infuriated with the openness of the Second Vatican Council. After the fashion of Cardinal Lefevre and other traditionalist leaders, he laid down directives which lead to clear doctrinal fundamentalism and to an explicit or tacit alliance with ultra-conservative social forces. Escrivá's obsession with Vatican innovations put him in continual conflict with other church leaders. Before he died it seems that he declared to his "children" that, as things stood, Opus Dei was the only group faithful to the Gospel, that Biblical remnant of Israel to which God confided the mission of returning the flood waters to their channel.

Like other contemporary Catholic institutions, at a given moment Opus Dei posed the question of the clash between Gospel principles of charity and solidarity and the rules of capitalist society; Opus Dei chose the side of individual success in market competition. For thirty years, its well known business school, the IESE or Instituto de Estudios Superiores de la Empresa, in Barcelona, with branches in Latin America, has trained carefully selected students in American management techniques to become managers and executives. In this vein, the prominent numerary and former President of the Spanish bankers' association Rafael Termes recently published Antropología del capitalismo [9], in which he attempts to prove the natural, almost sacred character of the economic system in which he believes as firmly as the creed.

The Work's schools have a good reputation among Spanish middle class parents for their competence and advising system. They carry on the mixture of cooperation and complicity with families and the creation of social class bonds among students which characterized Jesuit education. A Jesuit told a friend of mine that General Pedro Arrupe commented, "Seeing what they are today, I see what we were yesterday, and never should have been." But in this success are the seeds of new conflicts. A large part of the Catholic world accuses Opus Dei of acting as a kind of cult among young people. Nor could it be otherwise. The directors of Opus Dei have had to modify their proselytizing strategy for recruitment of numeraries in current social circumstances. In the first stage numeraries came from the university and it was frowned upon or even forbidden that boys should go to Opus Dei houses. A vocation was for men!

In recent decades, however, proselytism has become difficult at universities. It is easier to use the network of Opus Dei schools and the atmosphere of supernumerary homes to convince children of fifteen or even younger that God calls them to total, lifelong dedication. Recruitment becomes an obsession for teachers who are obligated to get at least two people a year to join, to make them "whistle". Consequently, they do not let their pupils alone in advising sessions and in confession. Collaborators in the campaign are other pupils who have already been recruited and are equally obsessed. The watchword is to increase numbers: "let there be more of us." Harassment is such that an American Catholic organization, ODAN, Opus Dei Awareness Network, has been formed to defend families from Opus Dei. Also, A Parents' Guide to Opus Dei has been written by J. J. M. Garvey [10] and translated to several other languages. Opus Dei is a more or less accepted feature of the Spanish landscape, where there seems to be less awareness of the danger of indoctrination of children, but organizations like AIS in Cataluña evaluate and offer information about sects, and frequently receive requests for help against Opus Dei's indoctrination of children. The secretive, intimidating style of recruitment continues after the child or adolescent joins Opus Dei. He or she is distanced from family and friends; reading materials are restricted; schedules, choice of studies, and place of residence are imposed; consciences are manipulated; members are controlled professionally and economically; Opus Dei becomes a Spanish, Catholic version of hermetic, sects in which religion works basically as bait to attract new members. [11]. Of course, all this contradicts the self description of Opus Dei members as ordinary Christians, free laymen, with completely normal family and professional relations. As an aggrieved mother said: "If they preach traditional family values so much, why do they treat their own families so badly?" A recent book, Hijos en el Opus Dei, by Javier Ropero [12] depicts this situation from the perspective of one who has suffered it and subsequently reflected about it.

Logically, the majority of these young Opus Dei members leave as soon as they open their eyes to reality. But many undergo great conflicts of conscience; they suffer situations of stress from which they emerge with mental and physical scars. Two sisters from the Basque Country speak with horror in private of the psychological pressure and use of drug therapies in the University of Navarre Clinic; they are so frightened that they refuse to give their names or speak publicly.

Economic control of members parallels psychological manipulation. Escrivá patterned the life of his numeraries along the lines of religious orders with vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These are feasible when a monk or friar abandons the world, but are extraordinarily complicated for a professional, businessman, or simply a person who administers property. Complicated rules govern how numeraries handle money, which effectively establish a kind of control by superiors of the Work even over inherited property. Unlike supernumeraries who only contribute ten percent of their income, numeraries must hand over all the money they earn and withdraw from the local treasury only what they need for short periods. Consequences are especially bleak when someone leaves the organization, which gives no further support of any kind.

Opus Dei does not even register the women whose task is housework in the Spanish Social Security system although they are starting to do it after so many pressures. Many men and women have had to start their lives over from scratch, without the money they contributed to Opus Dei and even without inheritances from their family that they found themselves forced to cede to the institution. This logically leads to fear of risking such penury by leaving; it also engenders perseverance based on resignation if not cynicism.

The reaction of Opus Dei leaders has been particularly violent toward members who left the institution and did not maintain silence. The cases of two Spanish female ex-numeraries have been especially striking. The first, María Angustias Moreno was the object of a campaign of defamation and was branded as a lesbian for having written a book criticizing -- from an orthodox Catholic viewpoint -- Escrivá de Balaguer's personality cult. [13].The second, María del Carmen Tapia, a former Women's Branch superior, has been demonized by her erstwhile companions because she dared to offer a detailed description of the despotic, arbitrary mode of government under Escrivá, to whom she was an aide in Rome[14]. Her Beyond the Threshold: A Life in Opus Dei, originally published in Spanish, has been translated to German, French, Portuguese, English, and Italian. Opus Dei's leadership has forbidden even the mention of these books within the Work and a fortiori (Index of Forbidden Books) [15] does not allow that they be read. This situation has engendered widespread criticism among Catholic women, religious and laity, who judge that the Opus Dei Women's Branch demeans women's place in the Church.

Many bishops, notably the late Cardinal Basil Hume of London, have complained to Rome about Opus Dei. They have received only private acknowledgments, because the Curia is aware of the Pope's special fondness for the Work, and in a hierarchical society like the Catholic Church it is not usual to contradict authority. But it would suffice for the next Pope to be less benevolent, for the old clerical animosity against the Prelature to bloom again. A contributing factor is the arrogance with which Opus Dei members behave when they can use influence to slander and crush an adversary. There are many scores to be settled in the long-standing struggles for Vatican power. Meanwhile, the sectarian character of the Prelature is starting to be recognized by civil authorities. In 1997, an investigative Commision of the Belgian Parliament included Opus Dei in its list of groups which are dangerous for young people, taking into account among other things the protest of many families whose children have been the object of Opus Dei's implacable proselytism.

Opus Dei's directors had high hopes when the Partido Popular assumed control of the government in Spain. Early results are discouraging. No Opus Dei member obtained ministries the Prelature considered important, Education in particular, although the numerary Andrés Ollero, worked hard to obtain it. Some leaders of the Partido Popular become uneasy when they are accused of being subject to Opus Dei influence. And in fact Opus Dei has also inherited the bad reputation for political maneuvering that the Jesuits had in past times. Members of diverse Catholic groups including some Jesuits as well as a few bishops are discontent that the Partido Popular has entrusted the direction of Ecclesiastical Affairs to a man close to Opus Dei. The appointment of the canonist Alberto de la Hera will doubtless guarantee the harmony between the government and Vatican as long as the present regimes last in Rome and Madrid. Opus Dei has a greater public impact in the business world through the hundreds of managers and entrepreneurs it has educated, who share Termes' faith in the market and prefer that the State interfere in sexual rather than other matters.


[1] Fuenmayor, Amadeo, Illanes, José Luis, 1990, El itinerario jurídico del Opus Dei. Historia y defensa de un carisma.

[2] Artigues, Daniel, L´Opus Dei en Espagne: Son evolution politique et idéologique, Ruedo Ibérico, 1968.

[3] Serer, Rafael Calvo, Ediciones Rialp, España sin problema.

[4] Entralgo, Pedro Laín, España como problema.

[5] Ynfante, Jesus, Opus Dei. Así en la tierra como en el cielo, Grijalbo Mondadori, 1996.

[6] del Giacomo, Maurizio and Minguel, Jordi, El Finanament de l'eglesia católica, Descoberta 21, 1998.

[7] Moncada, Alberto, Historia oral del Opus Dei, Plaza y Janés, 1985, and Jesús Ynfante, op.cit.

[8] Instruction of St. Gabriel, Opus Dei internal document, 1937.

[9] Termes, Rafael, Antropología del capitalismo, Plaza y Janés, 1994.

[10] Garvey, J. J. M., A Parents' Guide to Opus Dei, Sicut Dixit Press, 1989.

[11] Moncada, Alberto, "Sectas católicas: el Opus Dei", in Revista Internacional de Sociología, 1992.

[12] Ropero, Javier, Hijos en el Opus Dei, Ediciones B, 1993.

[13] El Opus Dei. Anexo a una historia, Planeta, 1976.

[14] Tapia, María del Carmen, Beyond the Threshold. A Life in Opus Dei, Continuum, 1997.

[15] Fortiori is an Index of Forbidden Books, Opus Dei internal document.

Alberto Moncada holds a doctorate in law from the University of Madrid and studied sociology and economics in London. He was recruited by Opus Dei in 1950 and in the 1960s participated in the creation of Opus Dei's first Latin American University in Piura, Peru, as its founding Pro-Rector. He left Opus Dei at that point and has taught Sociology and Education in European and American universities since then. He also worked as a consultant for UNESCO, OEA and the Council of Europe. He has published some 30 books. Those dealing with religious topics include Historia oral del Opus Dei, La Zozobra del milenio, and Religión a la carta. Moncada's sociological analysis of Opus Dei is widely quoted in the media and he was asked to give his deposition in the process of beatification of Escriva.

Below is a list of Alberto Moncada's publications about Opus Dei:

Alberto Moncada has chapters on Opus Dei in three more books:

  • Los Espanoles and Su Fe, Editorial Penthalon, 1982
  • La Zozobra del Milenio, Editorial Espasa, 1995
  • Religion a la Carta, Editorial Espasa, 1997

He has also contributed articles about Opus Dei to Journals and daily newspapers.