The Vocation Trap

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

Today I would like to write about what has been called the "vocation trap" of Opus Dei. It is a "trap" because once a person gets in, it is psychologically very difficult for him to get out. I believe that the "trap" in its most coercive form is a psychological one, yet it has the potential to be as compelling as a physical jail. In my own case, it took at least three long, unhappy years for me to decide to leave the Opus Dei organization, from the time that I first felt the unmistakable desire to leave to the point at which I actually left.

The entrapment process takes more or less the following form:

  • A person "sees" his numerary vocation or at least is persuaded that he "sees" it.
  • This person writes a letter to the Opus Dei prelate to ask for admission as a numerary and is accepted.
  • The numerary learns about Opus Dei ideas, customs, and traditions.
  • After some time, for some reason, the numerary does not feel it is his vocation to stay in Opus Dei--sometimes, he develops this feeling after learning about Opus Dei ideas, customs, and traditions, which in some cases is possible only after many, sometimes many, many years because they are disclosed piecemeal over an extended period of time, and some aspects are never even revealed.
  • He is told by the priest that he has a vocation, even if he cannot remember "seeing" it, and that he commits a mortal sin by leaving Opus Dei.
  • He trusts the priest and does not want to commit a mortal sin, so he stays on, sometimes agonizing over the decision.
  • He decides to leave and is censured by the organization.

The process is rendered abusive primarily because of the lack of informed consent, although other abusive aspects include the psychological coercion, the misconstruction of vocation, and the stigmatization of the former member.

Initially, a person is asked to "give everything to God," "God" here being identified with "Opus Dei," without knowing the content of this surrender: it is not possible for this person to know and evaluate the nature of this commitment except after many, sometimes many, many years, by which time he is no longer permitted a graceful exit by the Opus Dei organization. Hence, the lack of informed consent.

The situation is a classic "damned if you do, damned if you don't." The numerary is trapped in Opus Dei and if he or she leaves, there are unfortunate consequences, real and imagined. Besides the threat of eternal perdition and the pernicious emotional blackmail engendered by the charge of betrayal of Jesus Christ, there are other forms of psychological pressure, in the form, perhaps, of peer pressure or cognitive dissonance arising from a real upending of the intensely cultivated Opus Dei weltanschauung. Having invested many years of wholehearted service to the organization, it becomes very difficult for the numerary to acknowledge the folly of this investment, cut his losses, and pull out, to use a stock market analogy. It means acknowledging a terrible mistake--perhaps the most difficult psychological step--and spending many, many years afterward correcting the negative and sometimes traumatic consequences of the mistake.

There is a theology of vocation behind this trap that finds its source, justification, and perpetuation in the words and actions of Blessed Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer y Albas. By institutionalizing this specific incorporation process into the Opus Dei system, Blessed Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer y Albas is ultimately responsible for its abusive and unfortunate consequences.

In Blessed Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer y Albas' system, a vocation to Opus Dei is defined by the following:

  • It is the product of a moment of prayerful illumination.
  • It bears an essential or intrinsic relation to individual salvation.
  • It is compulsory under the penalty of mortal sin.

Numerary recruits are told that once they "see" their vocation, they have a moral obligation to follow it. The supposed momentary vision is supposed to validate all the obligations and teachings that Opus Dei imposes upon the recruits for as long as they remain in Opus Dei.

In meditations preached by Opus Dei priests, the following words of Blessed Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer y Albas were reported regarding vocation:

"If a son of mine has seen his vocation once and never sees it again, it should suffice for the rest of his life."

"If a son of mine leaves the Work, I cannot guarantee his salvation."

The latter is a veiled threat, especially since Blessed Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer y Albas guaranteed the salvation of members if they stayed in Opus Dei until they died.

Keeping numeraries in Opus Dei seems to have been a lifelong obsession for Blessed Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer y Albas. We were told stories of how he wept when "God took away the first vocations," at how he would personally admonish individual numeraries to "be faithful" and not to leave, and how he would yell in what seems to have been staged public anger upon reading letters of separation of former numeraries or at the numeraries themselves when they expressed their decision to leave. He identified Opus Dei with Jesus Christ--perhaps a valid identification in his case, in which he seems to have felt an indubitable certainty of his vocation to Opus Dei, but certainly a questionable assumption with respect to many individuals who chose to follow their own conscience, sometimes after great internal struggle, and leave the organization. I believe that his intolerance reflects his narrow-minded convictions and lack of respect for the truth residing in the consciences of former members.

In my own experience, the directors represented leaving Opus Dei as a mortal sin, and considering how obsessive the directors were in citing and passing on Blessed Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer y Albas' ideas and practices, I can only trace the source of this view to Blessed Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer y Albas himself. When I left, the priest told me to confess to mortal sin, and from what I understand, the same ludicrous imposition has been inflicted upon other former numeraries. This official Opus Dei theology of vocation is only one version of what constitutes a range of legitimate Catholic ideas about vocation. Notwithstanding, Blessed Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer y Albas' theology is represented to the numeraries as the only version.

Blessed Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer y Albas' theology finds similar expression in the writings of St. Alphonsus de Liguori, who in fact appears to be one of Opus Dei's official theological sources on this issue. St. Alphonsus argues that because a vocation bears an intrinsic relation to individual salvation, the failure of the individual to respond to the vocation amounts to mortal sin and eternal damnation. (See Note 1)

Still another important idea about vocation, which is expressed in the writings of Fr. Jose Luis Soria, an Opus Dei priest, and that seems to comprise Opus Dei's official line is that the obligation to remain steadfast to a vocation can be morally imposed if the vocation is "absolutely certain." Fr. Soria's view also implies that it is possible for an individual to be "absolutely certain" about a vocation. (See Note 2)

However, there are alternative theological ideas about vocation, some of which run counter to Opus Dei's official line. Among these ideas are the following:

  • A vocation is the product of a gradual process of illumination - St. Joseph is often cited as the classic example.
  • A vocation bears no intrinsic relation to salvation because it demands more than what is expected or required of a Christian to attain salvation - This is the argument given, for example, with respect to a religious vocation, in which the evangelical vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience are not considered essential for salvation.
  • No sin is involved, for the same reason that the demands of a vocation exceed what is normally required of a Christian.
  • A vocation is not certain, and even less, "absolutely certain" - Because a vocation is a moral and spiritual reality rather than a scientific reality, it is not possible to obtain the same certainty about a personal vocation as that which characterizes empirical answers to scientific or empirical questions.
  • A vocation cannot be imposed - This follows from the premise that a vocation is not certain.
  • A vocation is an invitation from Jesus Christ, not a command.

My own personal belief is that it is possible for an individual to arrive at moral certainty, even a strong moral certainty, of a vocation or inner calling. However, this conviction must also be confirmed by external circumstances, especially by the persons who are charged with the authority to confirm the vocation, as in the case, for example, of the bishop who ordains a priest. I would like to venture that a vocation is an inner reality in a person's soul that must be confirmed by external circumstances. When the inner and outer reality coincide, the likelihood of a vocation is high but it is still never scientifically certain.

In consequence, I believe that a spiritual director must respect the inner reality of an individual's conscience. Based on my own experience in Opus Dei, this respect is truly deficient. How can a spiritual director be "certain" about a personal vocation, and even less, impose it? I believe it is more important for a director to assist an individual in getting in touch with the inner reality of his or her soul instead of imposing an unqualified commitment to an organization that after a certain point may have lost much of its credibility.

Blessed Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer y Albas, by his ideas about vocation that he imposed upon the members of Opus Dei, does a disservice to the truth. With special implications for the entrapment of well-intentioned persons is his narrow theology of vocation, which represents a vocation as certain and mandatory, conveyed in a moment of divine illumination. But there are a variety of legitimate theological notions about vocation, and by no means do these ideas universally assert that vocation is mandatory, and even less, certain. To represent Blessed Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer y Albas' preferred theological ideas as core Catholic doctrine is a misrepresentation of the truth. It is especially oppressive and harmful when such misrepresentation in the name of truth and holiness distorts individual conscience and restricts and even twists acting according to such conscience. This deleterious influence cannot be understated.

Note 1: The following passage is taken from the Catholic Encyclopaedia on the internet, in the section on Ecclesiastical and Religious Vocation. The Catholic Encyclopaedia is a bastion of conservative theology and Catholic apologetics. Notably, here is what it has to say on the subject of vocation:

"St. Paul does not intend to indicate any particular profession as a gift of God, but he makes use of a general expression to imply that the unequal dispensation of graces explains the diversity of objects offered for our choice like the diversity of virtues. We agree with Liguori when he declares that whoever, being free from impediment and actuated by a right intention, is received by the superior is called to the religious life...The rigorist influences to which St. Alphonsus was subjected in his youth explain the severity which led him to say that a person's eternal salvation chiefly depended on this choice of a state of life conformable to the Divine election. If this were the case, God, who is infinitely good, would make His will known to every man in a way which could not be misunderstood."

This rigorist way of thinking about vocation that derives from St. Alphonsus de Liguori was prevalent in the spirituality of Escriva's formative period, i.e., early twentieth-century Spain, and the paradigm persisted in widespread form in the Church up to the sixties. Notice that the above passage underscores the importance of a right intention in determining the existence of a vocation. Unfortunately, right intention is impaired by the lack of informed consent, compounded by the practice of thoroughgoing censorship, the use of "holy discretion" to conceal vital information, and the absence of spiritual discernment, specifically concerning vocation, in the attitudes of the members of the Opus Dei community. This latter deficiency, which has been noted by Tammy DiNicola, is confirmed by the experience of others. Notice, too, that the last sentence in the above passage concedes the ultimately uncertain nature of vocation.

I believe that the responsibility for establishing this questionable system of religious incorporation lies not only with Escriva, but also with the institutional Church for endorsing it in negligent haste.

Note 2: Fr. Jose Luis Soria's views about vocation are located in a pamphlet, "Vocation," published by the Theological Centrum, another Opus Dei front organization based in Manila, Philippines, in the second half of the eighties. I have examined Fr. Soria's latest version of another "Vocation" pamphlet and it does not set forth any of these questionable ideas. I suspect that Opus Dei may have made it difficult to access this Philippine pamphlet, similar to the fate of the 1950 Constitutions of Opus Dei, which were first published in 1970 in Paris, or copies of Maria Angustias Moreno's autobiographical expose when they were originally released in Spain. There is reason to be suspicious. Robert Hutchinson, Their Kingdom Come (1996) and Maria del Carmen Tapia, Beyond the Threshold (1998) have reported that Opus Dei falsifies and destroys documents. These claims are credible because they are consistent with my own experience. During my stint as a numerary, I witnessed the numeraries, including the directors, intermittently burning books in the garden at the back of the center. Usually, Protestant Bibles and books on the theory of evolution.