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Opus dei : an hypothesis about conflicting evidence

Opus Dei : A Dialogue Between Friend and Foe


One of the most striking fact about Opus Dei is that some people will admire the Work and most of its members without reservation while other people will be very suspicious. This is puzzling , as it is probably too simplistic either to suppose that the organization is so clever that it can make mafiosi looking like saints, or that its enemies are ideologues lost somewhere in the 60s. The truth must be somewhere in between, there must be some misunderstandings. Here's a try of explanation.

I will not talk about theology or philosophy, as those are not concerned with factual evidence. Opus Dei is very much classical in its culture and its theology is stricly orthodox and thomist in the classical sense. This explains why, very often, its enemies are or become unorthodox, thus attacking Catholic doctrine while they think they attack only Opus doctrine - and weakening their own credibility at the same time; and also why enemies of orthodox catholicism are most vocal against Opus.
So criticism based on factual evidence is what must be studied. A respectable model of this can be found at ODAN - Opus Dei Awareness Network* (source of quotes below). However, among the criticisms suggested on this site, I think we must make a distinction between facts and interpreted facts; that is, some facts listed may be not pure facts, but facts tainted by theology or zeitgeist. For instance a witness says
"The cilice and disciplines are so foreign to the experience of most people, that they just conclude that Opus Dei is very odd for mandating them. That is true as far as it goes,"
Well, what is true here ? The fact that there is mortification, that a majority thinks it is odd, or the oddity in itself? Oddity is not a fact, but an interpretation, and very suspect at that, if we consider the postconciliar anti-ascetic trend (criticised by Maritain, e.g. about fasting). So we are back here to theology.
By the way, the same person says "The real point is that even if the cilice and the discipline are acceptable forms of penance, their use shows that Opus Dei members are NOT ordinary people, are not free agents." - Well, all depends on the meaning of "ordinary"; since sainthood has nothing to do with it, it is clear that "ordinary" means only ordinary day-to-day work , in Opus.
The same could be said about the concept of spiritual militia. It is not ordinary. But The Way will try to make it as ordinary as possible. For this reason, obedience will be valued, but conscious identity will not be cultivated. Opus will not repeat: "you must obey because we are an army". Some aspects will remain not explicitly reflected upon, in the background so to speak, so they will minimally interfere with the "ordinary life". There may be a surrender of the will without explicitly insisting on it. A fine line.
Again, about:
"Under the umbrella of the "Spirit of Opus Dei" hide many of the abuses in Opus Dei. The subtle control to conform to the norm is typical in groups which practice mind control; members are "guilted" into conforming, feeling that they must in order to follow "God's will" as it is outlined by the controlling group."
As I said in my criticisms, mind control (kind of) is central to the concept of Jesuit obedience, or to the efficiency of any army for that matter. Surrender of the will is very Ignatian. So I guess we must distinguish between excessive control and normal mind control. But what is excessive? Watch the influence of the liberal zeitgeist here. It is obvious that, in a very liberal country or epoch, a certain interpretation of what is normal freedom will be common, and this interpretation will make religious discipline look abusive in a lot of instances, simply because that discipline is not usual or even is attacked - perhaps wrongly. This surely explain, in part, the suspicion and talks about Opus. So in the end, again, we are back to interpretation and theology, pure facts are gone.

According to ODAN, some questionable practices are:
-Aggressive recruitment using teams and staged activities.
-Recruitment through the use of front groups.
-Members must report regularly on the progress of their personal recruiting efforts.

Sure, ODAN is moderate and formulates its potential objections with good sense. But Opus calls "front groups" discretion (part of its spirituality of ordinary life: they don't want to be or look like a religious order, hence like a visible group), and calls "recruiting" apostolate (make converts, "fishing"- a biblical term) through friendship. McCloskey is admitting "Indeed, if we are not in the process of developing a a deep and lasting friendship with the potential new member of the Church, then our question lacks authenticity and will be rightfully judged as impertinent and insincere."
So are the facts listed simple facts, or already interpreted facts? Is recruitment bad? Or only the means? The line is very fine here. The criticism will emphasize the value of respect and consent, Opus will emphasize the value of vocation and eternal salvation. So I don't know.
However, some says:
"The cilice and disciplines are so foreign to the experience of most people, that they just conclude that Opus Dei is very odd for mandating them. That is true as far as it goes, but there is a more important point to be made. Because of the dangers of masochism, the traditional Catholic teaching on this sort of mortification is that it be done under obedience to a spiritual director. Such supervision in fact exists in Opus Dei, although often authority is entrusted to people who lack requisite maturity and prudence. "
This may be a part of explanation: some mistakes are done, misjudgments in apostolate. This is all too likely since very often the numerarii are young people in their 20s. How could they possibly not make mistakes in recruiting, be too pushy or things like that? Misjudge the fine lines? The contrary would be difficult to believe. Part of the explanation must be there, so that a lot of members see no problem at all in the recruiting, while others feel manipulated - especially if they don't have that vocation.
This brings us to the heart or the problem about conflicting evidence:
ODAN suggest that there is:
-Lack of informed consent. Some controls, like opening all personal mail, corporal mortification, and donation of entire salaries are not revealed until after the initial commitment has been made.
-Members are often discouraged from telling their parents of their lifetime commitment to Opus Dei "because they will not understand."
-The display of pictures of loved ones is discouraged, not by rule but by subtle example.
-Some members have been told that if they leave Opus Dei they may be damned and will surely live life without God's grace.

The last point may be true but seems to reflect classical theology about vocation: not to answer an authentic vocation call is a mortal sin and an extremely serious failure. What may happen then are misapplications of that theological point of view, especially when there is no real vocation.
By the way, serious personal problems encountered by some who have quit Opus are not peculiar to the Work: any person who quit a religious order or monastery with deep commitment demands encounter them.

I suggest the following hypothesis about the other points: Both Opus Dei and some families are right in their appreciation of the evidence available, because their point of view is different.
For instance, families who see their 20 y.o. going to Opus without talking much about it, while beginning to take a different path, are rightly suspicious, as if a daughter was saying suddenly that she will marry someone but that she prefers not to discuss about this decision or to say whom she will marry etc. Obviously, the reaction is normal.
On the other hand, it is likely that an Opus dei director may think that a vocation, with all the means of eternal salvation, is authentic, and that it may be put into jeopardy by a natural family. This atttitude may be the result of a long past experience within Opus or even within the church (St Thomas, St Francis)- before the council, several monasteries were not allowing monks to display pictures of their families - . So Opus will consider that supernatural vocation is more important than other goods, whatever legitimate.
Also, given the practice of mortification, it is obvious that Opus may be right in saying "They won't understand": the average family of today, perhaps wrongly, will say this is foolish, abnormal, etc. So it is the difference of Opus, its peculiar way, that makes this attitude necessary, given that an authentic vocation is at stake.
True, informed consent is not in place at the first meeting, it seems to be very gradual, but apart from the fact that Opus and its practices are more and more known in the public and that a total ignorance is unlikely, would it make sense today to talk about the cilice at the beginning? Opus is likely to think about efficiency , so about graduality, in these things. So we have vocation and efficiency on one hand, lack of informed consent on the other. I guess Opus would say that you must reach a certain state of readiness to make the fully informed consent by having all the information, and that in the balance the subtleties of consent must be weighted against the importance of eternal salvation.
So in the end, if we take seriously, as a fact, the "They won't understand", it seems difficult to blame either side. This is, quite explicitely, a misunderstanding.

Of course, we must consider the mistakes members of Opus are making - and remember those are often young men and women - in making disciples. It seems that people well adapted to Opus don't have any problem with "manipulation" or consent. Either they are not able to see it (indoctrination theory) or they think that the practices are not trespassing reasonable limits. It seems to be when Opus is sensing wrongly a potential vocation that problems arise or are perceived: the candidate cannot but feel being manipulated, because things are going in a direction he doesn't want to go. So manipulation impressions could come from circumstances of spiritual conflicts.
To say it in another way, about the families problem: no problem ever arise if the whole family are members of Opus, cause in that instance everybody "understands".

So, at the same time, the principles of conduct of Opus may be right, and the criticisms about a number of cases also.

I would like to quote a # of the Way about families:

361 For you, who complain to yourself because they treat you severely and who feel the contrast between this harshness and the conduct of those of your own blood, I copy those lines from the letter of an Army doctor: "There are 2 ways of approaching each case: the conscientious professional attitude - cold and calculating, but objective and useful to the patient: or the tearful fussing of the family. At the height of a battle, when the stream of casualties begins to arrive and to accumulate because they can't be dealt with fast enough, what would become of a first aid post if a family stood around each stretcher? One might just as well go over to the enemy".

One may certainly think that duties toward one's natural family is part of a christian call. But there may be also a call to Opus ( #905 ...Do not forget that Christ too has his "militias" and people chosen for his "service".). What one is supposed to do when there is a conflict between the 2 calls? God first, I guess, and no doubt Opus feels that way.
Also, the fact that we are talking here about lay vocations gives a lot more freedom of appreciation to Opus. After all, this is not a call to priesthood, and so the conditions and controls over the whole thing should be less strict: not a lot is needed to be member of, let's say, a third order. So Opus seems to be freer to interpret what is a vocation to Opus.

P.S. Since the summer of 2002, the year of canonization for Saint Josemaria Escriva, ODAN's site has clearly evolved toward an all-out anti-Opus Dei stand, with all the inflation due to zeitgeist, thus loosing part of its credibility in the process, in my opinion, . It has become much more editorial and much less factual. The text above is referring to a previous version of ODAN's site.

*Link to ODAN