Voluntaristic Obedience

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by Dennis Dubro

This short essay explains the concepts of obedience and freedom as they apply to Opus Dei, which help to explain why Opus Dei is such a difficult organization to discuss and understand.

Obedience and spiritual direction in Opus Dei can be described as "voluntaristic obedience." It is a process of carrying out someone else's will, in your own name, based upon faith in that person, without having the facts needed to concur with the action as a moral action in your conscience. Members are told to internalize the things that their director "asks" them, and then to carry them out in their own name. To do something and then say your director told you to do it, is against the policy of Opus Dei. The Founder of Opus Dei, Saint Josemaria Escriva, used to say that the strongest form of command in Opus Dei is "please". This sounds great in public statements, but it degenerates into a system in which "please" becomes a code word implying a command of obedience. It is a type of obedience which is set up so that it can be denied.

As much as we are lead to believe that the Catholic Church is one in faith and teaching, one finds in theology and Scripture that there are two diverging approaches to obedience. St Thomas Aquinas teaches that you need to be fully informed to make a proper moral decision. But Opus Dei prefers the teaching of faith and trust (and guilt) "Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed" (Jn 20:29) which our Lord bestowed on the other St Thomas, the Doubting Apostle. They imply that you are not trusting Jesus if you don't trust your director.

The exemplar of obedience in Opus Dei is the obedience lived by Jesus at the time of his crucifixion when He prayed, "Father ... not my will but yours be done" (Luke 22:42). It is hard for anyone to criticize the obedience of the Man-God in His salvific moment, but to ask human beings to apply this type of obedience to all the decisions of one's waking moments by placing your will at the disposal of human directors is a process fraught with problems and prone to abuse.

One aspect of Jesus' obedience never conceded by Opus Dei is that there were numerous occasions in Jesus' life in which He was threatened by the authorities and He said that His moment had not come yet. So even when Jesus submitted in obedience to death, He chose the time for that submission. "So his brothers said to him, 'Leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing' (John 7:3) ... Go up to the feast yourselves; I do not go up to this feast because My time has not yet fully come." (John 7:8). When a person in Opus Dei is asked to do something by his directors, there is never a choice of time or means in carrying out the command.

Directors of Opus Dei in various public statements say that all their members are free to come and go as they please, and to accept or reject the "advice" of their directors. This is an example of a "bait and switch" mental reservation. The freedom they refer to is the intrinsic freedom of human nature which makes a person capable of committing sin or choosing to do anything that he wants. It is not the personal freedom to choose things or acts that a person feels is important for his/her life in a given moment. Members are told that they are free to do what they want, but if they choose not to follow the "advice" (also called "indications") of their directors, that they are not being loyal (or faithful) to the Father, their divine vocation or the unique salvific Spirit of Opus Dei. And everyone knows that if a person is unfaithful to his divine vocation that he is subject to eternal damnation on the Last Day.

Obedience in Opus Dei is like gang or cult obedience. A person is involved in a corporate activity in which he/she has little influence (since newcomers are always in the minority of voting councils) or knowledge of what is going on. They are overworked and placed in circumstances in which they have to make quick decisions which involve loyalty to the group. People are pressured into taking on leadership positions as a process of living up to your vocation fully and helping others. As time progresses, they are gradually given fuller knowledge of what goes on, but they still have little influence on policy. If one objects to some of the policy, he is lead to believe that this is the way things have always been done, that he is unfaithful, that this is the way all society operates at high levels, that one is going to prevent some fruitful apostolic activity from blossoming if he doesn't "get with the program", or other similar ploy. People are overworked, often inexperienced and are reminded of their "failures" at appropriate times. Because of the way leadership is carried out and information is controlled in Opus Dei, no one is given any information at any policy level without being implicated as being responsible for it. One is not permitted to speak outside of your chain of command or even ask questions that are not immediately associated with your daily work. This makes it very hard for a person to go "public" on the organization, because they would have to admit that they went along with some questionable policy at some time or another. Anyone who leaves and disavows the organization has to face the public question of why they did not speak up and object in the beginning. It is a very nasty psychological ploy that Opus Dei uses to exploit people.

Members are often told that a certain policy was set in the judgement of a certain director who was exercising his God-given freedom, and the other members are supposed to respect his authority and judgment and obey the policy. The implication is that the policy could be changed by another director. But when a new director is appointed, the new director strangely finds himself advocating the same policies of his predecessor. The new director finds himself looking in the mirror and wondering what he is looking at. The same happens with other members, appointed to office, who were known to oppose policies before their appointment. The situation makes it very difficult for a member to complain, years later, after he finds out the truth of certain circumstances, because he is cast as a fool who should have been responsible in the first instance for his actions. The same phenomena happens in the rest of the world in corporate structures -- but Opus Dei has an unfair advantage because they have the power, supported by the Catholic Church, of imposing obedience on their members, without telling them the full story, and threatening them with eternal punishment. Furthermore, because it is one's vocation from God, there is no easy way to quit Opus Dei. In corporate structures, one has more freedom to quit, although there might be financial and political penalties in doing so.