The Spirit of Opus Dei Harms People
by Former Numerary, Asia
- "Let your 'Yes' mean 'Yes,' and your 'No' mean 'No.' Anything more is from the evil one." (Mt 5:37)
Really, I could write a book about my experience in Opus Dei, but I do not wish to burden myself with the curse of Opus Dei any more than necessary. So I will try to focus on what I believe to be the essentials of my overall negative experience.
To begin with, I had a strong conversion experience in third year high school. There came a point when I stopped believing in God and I decided not to attend Mass on Sunday. This went on for about one month. Then, during Holy Week, I watched some shows on TV about people like Padre Pio or about the Shroud of Turin, and they convinced me of the truth of the Catholic religion. I started to read religious books, and I felt very consoled by the stories of the saints, like St. Francis of Assisi. Quite eagerly, I decided I wanted to become a monk, and my first choice was Carthusian. This is natural, because I was experiencing the fervor of conversion. I later found out there were no Carthusians in my country, so I decided that I would join the Trappists, who live in a somewhat remote location here. I got this idea by watching them on a TV documentary, and I grew enthusiastic. I was also inspired by reading Thomas Merton's books.
But in the Jesuit high school where I was studying, there was a strong orientation in religious education toward serving the poor. I was good in every area of academics, but I scored well in the science aptitude tests. I decided to become a medical doctor. I thought of opening a clinic outside the monastery, and so fulfilling my desire for a prayerful monastic life combined with service to the poor.
Now, in the first year of college, I was feeling strong desires for a deeper spiritual life. I wanted to join the monastery that year. But I also wanted to finish medical school--nine years' schooling at that time. I started going to spiritual direction and confession with an Opus Dei priest. But at that time, I didn't know anything about Opus Dei. Opus Dei assigned me a friend who taught me some norms of piety. After about a year, my mental prayer became a very satisfying and happy experience. It was like the opening of a wonderful new world.
My friend asked me to join Opus Dei. I wrote the letter thinking that it would be a good thing to continue with my spiritual practices with the help of Opus Dei until I could finish my medical studies and enter the
monastery. That was all that I really wanted. I did not intend to undertake ANY of the commitments that were later imposed on me, very gradually.
I consider this event to be possibly the greatest single misfortune of my entire short life, even exceeding in unfortunate ramifications the death of my mother.
After several months, I was told to go on a retreat. I did not want to, but because of the insistence, I went. I had a very positive experience during the retreat. I felt a real horror of sin and a great desire to serve God. At that point, I was ready to accept anything Opus Dei told me.
I was instructed by the director of the center to lie to my parents that I had joined Opus Dei. Initially, my conscience was very disturbed by this instruction, but because of my positive spiritual experience under the sponsorship of Opus Dei, I thought that the director must somehow be right. This concession on my part marks the very beginning of the brainwashing. I can say this now, Opus Dei is wrong to require the numeraries to lie about their membership, especially to their parents. It is a sin, an injustice, and a betrayal of trust. "Holy discretion" cannot justify it.
I know of religious who joined the order at a young age and their parents caused them much suffering and rejection. But the religious never lied about their decision to enter the novitiate. That Opus Dei is not, legally speaking, a religious order is irrelevant in this situation because the commitment of the numerary is de facto the same as that of a religious. In fact, Opus Dei asks of the numerary a commitment that in certain respects even exceeds that of a religious, without the protections of canon law afforded to religious.
This lack of regulation in canon law of the life of numeraries opens the door to abuse, as has been well documented, with children 14 years old or even younger being recruited to make a lifetime commitment as numeraries.
Over a period of over two years, I lived a very intense prayer life. My life of mortification was quite severe, and I fasted often. The priest who was my spiritual director took no steps to counsel moderation. I experienced a great deal of spiritual consolation, especially in seeing the Virgin and feeling her special presence.
Then I got sick with hepatitis. My mother saw her chance to get me out of Opus Dei. She bought airplane tickets to another country where Opus Dei did not have an established presence--she was a diplomat working there--and forced me to stay in bed. I was also isolated from my spiritual director and experienced terrible temptations and felt the presence of the devil. But I also experienced the heights of mystical prayer, at one point feeling the wonderful presence of the Virgin, more intensely than in the past.
My mother had by this time developed a hatred for Opus Dei. Her words, "I hate Opus Dei!" The main reason why she hated Opus Dei was because she thought it was "sneaky." Both my parents resented the fact that I never consulted them about my decision to join Opus Dei. But if you recall, I was instructed by the director of the center to lie about this.
While I was experiencing severe interior trials, I steadfastly adhered to Escriva's ill-advised rule not to seek the counsel of other priests outside the Work. I kept insisting that I had to return to my country so that I could speak to an Opus Dei priest. This insistence stoked the already intense anger my mother felt for Opus Dei. Some of this anger was directed, naturally, at me.
Eventually, I was allowed to return to my country. My spiritual director would not talk to me about my experiences. My parents said that I had been confined to bed after my bout with hepatitis because I was sick in the head, meaning that my illness was a delusion. The truth is, my mother wouldn't allow me to get out of bed!
The result of this experience was anguish and confusion, initially. I had undergone so much suffering that I was filled with fear. My spiritual director would not speak to me about what was going on inside me. This was a very big mistake. But I also think he was incapable, honestly. Lack of adequate theological education or poor pastoral training.
I make this evaluation because I am familiar with the formation of numeraries. All the spiritual director is taught to do in Opus Dei is to imbibe a specific way of thinking and to dispense it. No understanding of counseling, which in some cases intersects with spiritual direction. In theology classes, there is a dearth of genuine scholarship and an almost complete absence of critical understanding. No questions are allowed. Religious education in Opus Dei is indoctrination.
Later on, I was assigned a new spiritual director. This time, when I would speak directly about what was troubling me deeply, I would not receive helpful advice. Usually, I got a laugh as a response. Believe it or not. The laugh meant something like, "Why are you making up problems?" It was largely dismissive and plainly obtuse. One hundred percent unhelpful. Because of deficient spiritual direction, many internal issues pertaining to my spiritual experiences remained unresolved and festering.
Eventually, I lost faith in my spiritual director. Three years later, I left.
The system was full of contradictions. The straw that broke the camel's back was when the director said that everything I owned belonged to Opus Dei. This statement was inconsistent with what I had been told almost six years earlier, that we were lay people who owned our own private property. There was no such thing as common property because Opus Dei members were not religious.
By that time, I could not think straight because of the brainwashing. What I had learned in Opus Dei was inconsistent with logic, my own knowledge of the Catholic faith, and my own spiritual instinct. I was in a state of severe cognitive dissonance.
My plans to finish medical school and to become a monk were in shreds. I was extremely unhappy. This condition persisted for many, many years. I never became a medical doctor or a monk.
I had to sort out why I had such a bad experience in Opus Dei. And I am convinced that the reason is in significant measure because the system is defective. I have many critical views about the system, and they are consistent with what other former members, especially John Roche, have written.
Essentially, many aspects of the religious way of thinking in Opus Dei, the Opus Dei spirit, are unsound. They harm people. I believe that if I had had the benefit of a knowledgeable, experienced spiritual director, I would not have had such a bad experience.
Indoctrination in the Opus Dei spirit turns peculiar ideas in theology in general, and spirituality in particular into dogma, just because Josemaria Escriva espoused them. For example, Escriva believed that personal holiness--whatever he means by that--is often sufficient qualification to give spiritual direction. He allowed very young numeraries--we are talking here of late teens to early twenties--to become spiritual directors, urging them to "mature quickly"--again, whatever he means by that. However, in my opinion, you can't have children--and numeraries at this age are children when it comes to spiritual direction--counseling a person who is undergoing mystical experiences. You need a mature, experienced spiritual director.
At the age of 21, I myself was required to be a spiritual director. I was extremely distressed by the responsibility. I accepted this role only out of obedience--at that time, I had a vow to keep. I decided that all I would do would be to report to the committee what I had been told by the directee--spiritual direction was overseen by a group consisting of the priest, the director of the center, and sometimes, one other member of the local council--and then communicate their advice to the directee. "Tell him to exercise fortitude," the priest would say. So I would tell the directee, "You have to exercise fortitude." But the truth is, I was clueless.
I would add that Opus Dei priests are inbred in the bad sense of the word and often lack the knowledge, breadth, and depth to be good spiritual directors. Once again, I make this evaluation based on my own experience. The preparation of Opus Dei priests is inadequate because it is narrow. And there is no justifiable reason why the training of Opus Dei priests should be so limited because Opus Dei plainly has the resources to train them very well.
Let me give an example. At one point, I asked the Opus Dei priest why I had seen a vision of Escriva in the living room, years after he had died. The priest said, "God is sending you this vision to strengthen you." Now, that didn't sound right. It didn't ring true. Years later, when I had left Opus Dei, I asked a secular priest about this experience, and he replied, "Visions can come from God or the devil." Then he repeated St. John of the Cross' counsel about treating mystical experiences as "glowing embers," saying, "Feel the heat but do not grasp." Ah!
The Opus Dei priest is trained to think along premeditated grooves and may not be sufficiently exposed to traditions in Catholic spirituality outside the ambit of the Opus Dei spirit.
Thus Escriva allowed children or priests inadequately trained to direct souls who are treading upon tricky and dangerous spiritual paths.
I think that my horrible experience with spiritual direction in Opus Dei would have not occurred had the following sound principles of spiritual direction been followed:
- The person must be encouraged to use reason.
- The person must be encouraged to follow conscience.
- The person must be encouraged to use discernment.
- The person must be allowed the opportunity to seek truth for themselves, which means no censorship and freedom to consult other priests and spiritual guides, without the Opus Dei guilt trip.
- The person must be encouraged to make decisions knowingly and independently and to accept full responsibility for decisions. Blind obedience produces blind people.
- The person must be encouraged to develop and grow as a normal human being and not live in the artificial Opus Dei environment. It has been called a "hothouse."
The point about censorship of information and freedom of choice in spiritual direction is a very important one. Opus Dei loves to exclaim that every member is free, free to come, go, leave, etcetera. Why the insistent repetition? Because individual freedom is a major sticking point in the testimonies of former members.
How can freedom exist when Escriva denigrated reason and conscience in the practice of obedience, which, by the way, in Opus Dei really derives not from any influence of lay spirituality but from the centuries-old tradition of religious spirituality? The same observation has been made by James Martin, S.J., Michael Walsh, and others.
How can a member truly exercise freedom if the choices are limited? Opus Dei limits the choices of members by identifying free access to information as a mortal sin, consultation with clergy outside Opus Dei as the direct influence of the devil, and departure from Opus Dei as a trip to Hell. No one with a sincere religious conscience and trustful of Opus Dei clergy will want to commit a mortal sin, dally with the devil, or jump into Hell. Therefore, the choices Opus Dei presents to members, misappropriating the name of God, are not choices at all.
A lame man is free, yet he cannot walk. It is more meaningful, therefore, to speak of constraints upon the exercise of freedom, not freedom in an absolute sense.
The essential problem in Opus Dei, as I have expressed it before, is that the institution represents its own opinions as dogma. Opus Dei's opinions are Escriva's rather narrow ideas. Maria del Carmen Tapia in Beyond the Threshold (1998) expresses this way of thinking rather well: "No divergence from [Escriva's] opinion was allowed. Dialogue does not exist in Opus Dei. You do things because they are done 'just so.' 'Just so' means that everything is carried out according to the instructions sent by the Father. No one with 'good spirit' dares to deviate a fraction of an inch when the Father gives suggestions…Everything is always based on the claim that 'God wants things thus.'"
This way of thinking makes Escriva more infallible than the pope. So the joke goes, Opus Dei is more Catholic than the pope.
I don't care if Escriva is a saint--he is wrong, as many other illustrious saints in Church history, like St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Thomas Aquinas, or St. Alphonsus de Liguori. We can add St. Gertrude the Great to this list, which is predominantly male. No surprise here for those who are familiar with the history of the Catholic Church.
Just to clarify this point, let me excerpt St. Augustine on the theology of slavery, which the Church condoned for centuries. In Peter Garnsey's Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine (1996), St. Augustine is quoted: "The condition of slavery is justly imposed on the sinner…The prime cause of slavery, then, is sin, so that man was put under man in a state of bondage; and this can be only by a judgment of God, in whom there is no unrighteousness, and who knows how to assign divers punishments according to the deserts of the sinners." In other words, if you are a slave, God is punishing you justly, so live with it.
The teaching of the Church on slavery is considered the classic example of how the non-infallible magisterium was shown to be untrue. Sixteen centuries after St. Augustine, the Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (1965), declared: "Whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torture inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself, whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, and selling of women and children…all these things and others like them are infamous…Human institutions…should be bulwarks against any kind of political or social slavery and guardians of basic rights under any kind of government." This active stance is very different from the passive condoning of earlier centuries.
Theological opinions that are questionable or outright wrong can be found in the writings of the other saints I have mentioned. All the males, by the way, are Doctors of the Church, the title that Opus Dei would like the Church to bestow on Escriva.
Opus Dei's strategy is somewhat obvious on its quest to legitimize Escriva's ideas. The argument goes something like this: "Escriva is a saint and a Doctor of the Church, so he can't be wrong." Well, the argument is flawed because it assumes a rule that is rendered false by exception.
St. Gertrude the Great was a mystic, just like Escriva. She reports many private revelations, of which the following example, noted in Augustin Poulain, S.J., Revelations and Visions (1998), can hardly be considered true: "St. Gertrude relates that on Easter Sunday Our Lord said to her, when speaking of the Alleluia: 'Observe that all the vowels, except the o, which signifies grief, are found in this word; and that, instead of this o, the a is repeated twice.'" How odd that Jesus should be understood to establish a necessary association between a vowel and an emotion!
I believe that Escriva's mistakes, which are the source of harm for many devout Catholics, should be recognized for what they really are--skewed and even erroneous opinions. His ideas have been institutionalized, to the detriment of many. I think that many of Escriva's ideas should be subject to critical examination and some of them eventually discarded.
A critical review would indeed be possible if Escriva's complete writings were not always locked up in Opus Dei's cabinets. Some members have testified that portions of his writings have already been burned to ashes, entirely lost to the world.
In 1996, Kenneth Woodward of Newsweek had this to say about Escriva's writings: "There is the matter of the banality of his writings, especially the axioms. Not the sort of stuff, I think, to build a spiritual community around." When Escriva's story about a boy picking his nose becomes incorporated into spiritual reading, then we know that Woodward has struck the right chord.
Someone asked me about this story, so I will expand on it. The story about the boy picking his nose appears in a set of internal documents that was prepared for spiritual reading, the primary source being Cronica. They were photocopied, inserted into clear plastic sheets, and then bound together using aluminum fasteners. We numeraries were told to use these documents as spiritual reading in our mental prayer. Apparently, in order to limit the wear and tear to copies of Cronica, the distilled wisdom of this publication was compiled into these bound volumes.
Escriva tells a story about a boy who picks his nose, so that his mother says, "Oh, he's going to be an explorer!" The story is supposed to illustrate the mother's love for the boy, how it colors her interpretation of his behavior. Escriva uses the story as a religious metaphor, illustrating, I believe, how God relates to His children.
I am very disturbed that a lot of what has been exposed from Cronica is quite old. It dates from the fifties and sixties, the main source, I suspect, being John Roche, who seems to be the only former member who has managed to smuggle out copies of this publication. Based on my own reading of the bound volumes that I described above, I can say that there is a significant amount of information in Cronica since that time that is objectionable that has not seen the light of day. It is unfortunate that these ideas have been identified with the mind of God.
I believe I am an example of how someone with good intentions ends up being twisted and harmed by an oppressive religious system.
"By their fruits you will know them." (Mt 7:16) We see the fruits--many hurt people who complain about the same things in Opus Dei.
P.S. This account is anonymous because I talk about some of my spiritual experiences, which I think are necessary to the coherence of the narrative. Saints and spiritual writers in the Catholic tradition warn against speaking in public about these experiences. Sometimes, Jesus' words are advisedly cited: "Do not give what is holy to dogs, or throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces." (Mt 7:6) I have decided not to follow this counsel in order to write for my own sake and those of others. My identity is known to ODAN.