Opus Dei

Opus Dei
   Founded in 1928 by José María Escrivá de Balaguer as an organization of lay Catholics, Opus Dei (The Work of God) merged in 1943 with the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross. It has 75,000 lay members in eighty countries and 1,500 priests, and is known by its members simply as La Obra (The Work). Some 28,000 members are based in Spain, representing 35 percent of the total worldwide. The Director since 1994 is Javier Echeverría, who entered the organization at the age of 16 in 1948.
   In terms of Roman Catholic canon law, the official status of Opus Dei is that of a "secular institute", but in practice it has many features of a religious order, with the highest category of membership, the numeraries, living mostly in community and taking vows of poverty (e.g. holding property in common), celibacy and obedience. The difference from the traditional religious orders is that the vast majority of its members are not ordained, do not wear a special habit, and work in various paid occupations in the outside world.
   The other difference from most orders, and the church at large, is that Opus Dei is much more theologically conservative, and has refused to embrace the liberalizing trends in Roman Catholicism which appeared in the early 1960s. This has caused it to be specially favoured by the Vatican under the highly conservative pontificate of Pope John Paul II, who in 1982 conferred on the organization the status of a personal prelature, which makes it virtually independent of the control of the local bishop, and gives it an equal right of direct access to the Vatican. This move was controversial even within the church, as it involved the highly unusual application of a procedure devised for a totally different purpose, that is, to enable, in case of need, the exercise of episcopal functions separately from territorial jurisdiction, for example, in military chaplaincies. The conservative and authoritarian traditions of Opus Dei are reflected in the hierarchical relationships which operate within the organization. These hierarchies are determined in the first place by the power wielded by the small minority of priests, and thereafter essentially by academic achievement and earning potential. The numeraries are all graduates, many with postgraduate qualifications. Below them in importance rank the associates (formerly oblates), who observe the rule of celibacy, and supernumeraries, who are not required to do so. Though many women occupy the highest rank of numerary, the "auxiliaries", who are assigned permanently to domestic duties, are nearly all female. Testimonies from ex-members suggest that discipline within the organization is strict, with censorship of personal correspondence and control of reading matter. There have been persistent reports that those who leave continue to be subjected to pressure, direct and indirect, to prevent them publishing accounts of their experiences, and there have even been allegations of smear campaigns against individual ex-members. Opus Dei has consistently claimed in public to be a purely religious organization engaged in what it calls the "intellectual apostolate", but article 202 of its statues declares that the most appropriate way to exercise this apostolate is through the holding of public office. The exact extent of the order's influence is, however, difficult to determine because of its secretive character. Though it has frequently repudiated this accusation, article 191 of its statutes imposes what it describes as a "prudent silence" regarding the identity of members.
   What is certain, however, is that it has wielded considerable power in the educational, political and economic spheres in Spain. During José Ibáñez Martín's tenure of the Ministry of Education between 1941 and 1951, Opus members were appointed to a large number of university chairs, and in 1962 the organization set up a private university in Pamplona. By the 1990s, there was hardly a city in Spain which did not have at least one secondary school owned by Opus Dei. The technocrats who achieved control over economic policy after the 1957 cabinet reshuffle, such as López Rodó, were predominantly members of the order, as was Franco's deputy Carrero Blanco. Several of those who helped to engineer the transition to democracy after 1975, notably Adolfo Suárez, were associated with the order. Though Opus Dei's influence has declined since 1975, the year which saw the death both of Franco and of Escrivá, it still has a not inconsiderable presence in the higher ranks of the centre-right PP which came to power in 1996, and counts two ministers, Isabel Tocino (Environment) and José Manuel Romay (Health) among its supernumeraries, as well as the Chief Public Prosecutor, Jesús Cardenal.
   Further reading
   - Hooper, J. (1995) The New Spaniards, Harmondsworth: Penguin (pp. 140–3 give an excellent summary of the character and influence of the order).
   - Moncada, A. (1987) Historia oral del Opus Dei, Barcelona: Plaza y Janes (a first-hand account by an ex-member).
   - San Segundo, G. (1997) "Opus Dei, una secta en el poder", Cambio 16, 2 June: 12–15 (see also pp. 16–20 of this number for other interesting material on the organization).

Encyclopedia of contemporary Spanish culture. 2013.

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