My life in Opus Dei: why I joined & why I left

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By Alvaro Silva

For much of its existence, Opus Dei has been described in the popular media as “controversial.” Radical, prestigious, international, its membership composed mostly of laypeople–the group’s priests remain largely in the background–Opus Dei fashioned a new style and perhaps a salutary change in the traditional, highly clericalized church. More recently, though, the key word used by the media to describe Opus Dei has been “conservative,” if not “ultraconservative,” making it appear not much different from a number of similar groups in the church, all of which enjoy the favor of the current pope.

Religious competition has a long history in the Catholic Church, so I want to be clear that this is not what motivates my writing. Nor is my desire to tear down or detract from the group. For thirty-five years, twenty-five of them as a priest, I willingly gave my life and talent to Opus Dei. A full analysis and examination of it and its mission would take more space than is available to me, and it would have to include an extended exploration of church history and spiritual theology. So I will limit myself to a personal, sometimes critical testimony.

The beauty of the faith through human excellence

Opus Dei, or the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei, began quietly in Madrid in 1928, and spread following the tragic Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Years later–in 1964 to be exact–as a young high-school student in the Basque country, I welcomed its message. Even before I had come to read Charles Peguy, I believed passionately that “the only sadness is not to be a saint.” Holiness, as several bright Opus Dei university students explained to me while walking the rainy streets of Vitoria, was the only goal of Opus Dei. The idea was to demonstrate the truth and the beauty of the Christian faith through human excellence: in personal goodness and honesty, generous friendships, serious study, and exemplary professional work. Holiness consisted not in performing sentimental devotions but in doing serious daily work and in developing all the human virtues.

Many Catholics, of course, had been doing that, unsung, for centuries: following Christ in lives so humble and busy that there was no thought of claiming official recognition for themselves. Indeed, true holiness is often hidden, like a gospel treasure. But for centuries, both the lay state and marriage had been viewed largely as a sort of concession to human weakness. Indeed, the real disciple would abandon all fleshly desires and follow Christ as a priest or a religious.

A breath of fresh air

Opus Dei’s emphasis on ordinary life as the way to God felt like fresh air in the church; certainly it did to me. The members I met, mostly university students and a few professors, were truly remarkable people, obviously dedicated to a great spiritual enterprise. There were also priests in Opus Dei, and their presence was rather striking. They seemed natural and kind, smart, professional, and entirely accessible. Before ordination, they had all worked in the real world, in a variety of professional occupations, and had not gone to seminary–another fact that attracted me. They seemed to fade into the background, as you would expect from a servant, and didn’t seem to crave power or distinction. This absence of clericalism came as another revelation to me, something I continue to long for in the church at large.

When I first encountered Opus Dei, I thought it would clear the air in the stale, bureaucratic church. One Opus Dei story told of how the founder hadn’t wanted a separate name for the group. As an institution, it was to remain practically anonymous. An institution that cared more for persons and the church than for its own name and gain? I was young and innocent–and I joined.

The rhetoric: personal freedom. The reality: a Christian military model

The years that followed did not make me fall deeply in love with Opus Dei. Institutions, even religious ones, I often reminded myself, are not to be loved; they must be constantly watched, lest they devour what is personal and intimate. I had by then moved to Pamplona, to study architecture at the University of Navarre. The Opus Dei members there were exceptional individuals; still, the founder’s way had become a dry engine. It was sustained by an authoritarian desire for control and a pedestrian understanding of the gospel texts. Opus Dei became simply Opus–The Work–as routinized and self-driven as the production line of a factory. It operated not merely as a beneficial daily planner, a much-needed incentive to make good use of one’s time (whether you were going to be a saint or a criminal), but it planned one’s entire life and sought to control every detail. Once the institution took over, it determined what was good not only for itself but for you. As Escriva had put it, we needed to “sacrifice ourselves completely” so that God’s work might be achieved on earth.

Opus Dei operates under a Christian military model. Numeraries (full members who remain celibate and may eventually be chosen by the leadership to assume positions of responsibility) enter an assured state and can finally breathe free. They have made it. As in any life-controlling situation, the whole menu is ordered up for you. The group’s directors act as censors and plan all aspects of group life. If you are a docile member of Opus Dei, life can be rewarding, and there is the further assurance of an eternal reward.

There were some rules and regulations I disliked from the start, simply because they struck me as closer to the mentality of traditional religious life than to the lives of ordinary people. God wanted me to be a saint, but in the modern world. Some Opus Dei practices, like self-flagellation, had been imported from monastic practice. Or perhaps they sprang from the founder’s anxiety and obsession with holiness, since he didn’t want his children to be less “holy” than religious were in the eyes of the official church. Thus, visits to parents and family were regulated, as in the religious orders of old.

There were numerous restrictions on matters that should better have been left to the judgment of individual members. Escriva’s rhetoric was high on liberty and on personal responsibility, but the day-to-day reality was quite different. Often the directors became manipulative and authoritarian, handing down all manner of commands and claiming the “super-natural” character of Opus Dei as the basis for their decisions. This absolute conviction (a sort of fundamentalism) meant there was not much the institution or its leaders needed to learn from anyone else, much less from theologians (certainly not from modern theologians). Obedience and docility were promoted as the two supreme Catholic virtues, and I submitted again and again. I did want to be a saint. If that was what it took, I had to accept it and carry the cross.

Vatican II encouraged self-criticism. Opusdei squashes it.

While later doing studies toward a doctorate in systematic theology, I became aware of how brilliant an age the twentieth century was theologically. If my criticisms of Opus Dei had previously been about discipline and obsolete forms of asceticism, now I began to realize how Opus Dei needed to catch up theologically. A new church was being born in the fires of the Second Vatican Council. For Catholics, that great gathering is the most recent and convincing proof of the Holy Spirit’s indefatigable action. At Vatican II, a sleepy or negligent hierarchy finally woke up and understood, among other things, that one of the glories of Western civilization, self-criticism–another name for the great evangelical virtue of humility–should also have a place of honor in the church. To be critical is not the same thing as being traitorous. While many members in Opus Dei were critical of any number of things, there was a conspiracy of silence when it came to the group itself. A deep respect for the founder’s “divine inspiration” and its own “divine character” precluded any self-critical thought. If it did occasionally arise, it never proceeded very far.

Why such fear of personal freedom in making ordinary, common-sense decisions? Why treat adult members like children? Why the routinization of spiritual direction by way of uniform commands, endlessly repeated? Why maintain the Index of Forbidden Books after the Holy See itself had discarded it? Why such fear of modern critical biblical studies and new understandings of hagiography and ecclesiastical history? Why the stubborn resistance to liturgical change, from the use of the vernacular to Communion in the hand, permanent deacons, and altar girls? Why the obsession with prescribing human behavior? Saints can’t be manufactured like plastic dolls. True holiness has nothing to do with such obsessiveness.

Whither the ecclesial band of brothers?

For years, I protested sotto voce, only to be told again and again that the institution didn’t need to change and never would. Yet the Christian faith is intrinsically open and progressive, reasonable and free of any chains, and I was in no way trying to transform Opus Dei into an ultraliberal Catholic movement, betraying its original charisma. I was simply fighting against what I perceived as biblical, doctrinal, and ascetic fundamentalism. I came to conclude that Opus Dei was unwilling or unable to change because it feared that any change would make it seem less “supernatural,” its founder less holy, and the institution less divinely inspired. Again and again I argued with my co-members that the church had been changing since its very birth in Jerusalem, as all living and growing things must do. I pointed out the arrogance of wanting to be “holier than the church,” as if Opus Dei were a church within the church, a sort of new Port-Royal.

My modest efforts went nowhere. I thought of leaving, but realized that by expressing my views positively, much might be gained. Furthermore, I knew that other members felt the same way. Unexpectedly, in the winter of 1999, I was given an ultimatum: Either accept all the rules as meticulously handed down by the founder, or leave. Unfortunately, this only proved that all of my criticisms had been on target. I left, of course, and I wish the reader could see my sadness as I write this. In Opus Dei I met truly wonderful, generous, intelligent men and women, single and married, of all ages, trades, and nationalities. I consider them all my friends. Indeed, my critique was never of the people in Opus Dei; it was and is of an obsessive institution that has lost its way.

In a little over twenty years, Opus Dei will have been around for a century. Will it have the intelligence and humility to accept the changes in the church it claims to want to serve? Successors of other religious foundations have done so, often admirably, lest their particular institution become irrelevant in a new landscape. The Catholic Church itself did so during the Second Vatican Council. But since Escriva’s death, his two successors have been content to operate as clones, mere spiritual shadows who lack the substance and vigor of the real thing.

I am not saying that Opus Dei has failed to do good, or that there is no room for a genuine conservatism in the church. Still, it seems to me that Opus Dei is not what it could have been and deserves to be: a highly valuable, truly lay, personalist institution serving the needs of the modern church, an ecclesial band of brothers and sisters whom both conservatives and liberals could admire. And since the saints are our heavenly intercessors, I pray to the founder to intercede for Opus Dei, that it cease being so self-centered, so controlling. It might be his greatest miracle.


This article was originally published in Commonweal, February 25th, 2005.