Opus Dei and Me
By: Paul Milo
What drove this Opus Dei aspirant away was not cultish skulduggery, but an elitist indifference toward the disadvantaged.
I was out with friends a while back when one mentioned that she had just finished reading Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code, a bestseller that is part revisionist history, part thriller. As my friend described the book, she mentioned Opus Dei, the mysterious, real-life Roman Catholic sect that figures prominently in the novel's plot.
I immediately perked up and, staring at her, said, "I used to belong to Opus Dei." The look she gave me was the equivalent of a hush falling over a room.
Thanks to "Code," Opus Dei is now an infamous name to my friend and to millions of others. According to Brown, the once obscure, mostly lay religious organization is a sinister cadre of Scary White Men (many of the group's members are, indeed, successful professionals) bent on preserving a 1,700-year-old cover-up sustained by the Vatican. Adding to the weirdness quotient in Brown's telling is the celibate membership's practice of ritual self-flagellation.
Others have charged that Opus Dei relies on narcotics and brainwashing to lure prospective members; some who have left the group said they were forced to sever ties with family and friends who questioned the group's practices. More ominously, Opus Dei's founder, the Spanish priest Father Josemaria Escriva, was seen by some as a closet Fascist who was linked to the regime of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.
I never progressed beyond its outermost ring and am no expert on Opus Dei, but I seriously doubt the reports of sleep deprivation sessions in stone dungeons; I'm positive no one ever slipped peyote in my Pepsi. What got to me was a more powerful drug: the lure of being part of the elite, of being, well, a Scary White Man in training. When I finally left the group a few years later, it wasn't because I was asked to execute an enemy but because I simply started to grow up. And I began to wonder if they needed to grow up too.
I first encountered the group back in the early 1980s. Not far from where I grew up in northern New Jersey was an Opus Dei center that recruited eighth-grade boys from area Catholic schools, including mine. They offered classes and activities meant to appeal to college-bound, bookish kids like me, stuff like rocketry and trips to museums. As I began to participate in these Saturday afternoon sessions--sprinkled with small dollops of religious instruction--it seemed to me I was being sized up by the men who ran them and that, perhaps, I was making the grade. It felt like I was applying to the Ivy League.
That had a tremendous appeal to me. Somewhere along the way, I had decided I would lead a life of rigorous quality, become someone extraordinary. But I had no idea how to get there. I grew up in a blue-collar town, the kind of place where people changed their own oil and lived in homes packed so tightly that you could almost touch two of them at once with your outstretched arms. Everyone around me was plain as bread--or so it seemed to my 13-year-old, maladjusted self.
The people I met in Opus Dei, however, were cut from different cloth. The chapter I was affiliated with was home to about six laymen who took vows similar to Holy Orders yet kept one foot firmly in the secular world. They were scientists, Wall Street types, journalists for nationally prominent publications--the kind of people I knew existed only because I'd read of them.
Moreover, they seemed comfortable with their status and power in a way that I had never experienced before. To me, being rich meant that everything you bought was neon-bright or Cadillac-big, paid for in cash so new the ink was still wet. Opus Dei, however, taught me that money could murmur as well as shout.
But my attraction to the group was about much more than style. Opus Dei's members are Catholic traditionalists, largely hostile to the liberalizing reforms brought about by Vatican II, when the Church sought to become more inclusive. Members attended Mass in small, opulent chapels where the priest stood for long periods with his back to the pews and the liturgy was in Latin, as was the practice before the reforms of the 1960s. That these men would dare paddle against the modernizing tide suggested to me that Opus Dei's was the path of integrity, a beacon in a damp dark of moral relativism.
It's true, as Brown describes in his novel, that the group is influential, both in the workaday world and the gilt halls of the Holy See. Despite their small number, followers occupy places of authority within the Church and the group clearly enjoys the favor of Pope John Paul II (his spokesman, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, is a longtime member of Opus Dei). Opus Dei enjoys a special status within the Catholic hierarchy known as a "personal prelature." Such an entity is headed by an Opus Dei member known as a prelate, who lies outside the diocesan structure of bishops, archbishops and cardinals. In 2002, Opus Dei's founder, Escriva, was canonized, or made a saint. The process often takes a century or more after the candidate dies. Escriva attained the distinction not quite 30 years after his death.
In short, Opus Dei struck me as being a kind of ethnic Skull and Bones Society, a WASPy aristocracy for able Irish and Italian boys. I was an outsider heading in, and for a little while it seemed to be exactly what I wanted.
Yet the longer I stayed in the group, the more ill at ease I became. Partly I came to realize that I didn't take myself seriously enough to be comfortable at the spear point of Catholic reaction; I didn't feel much like a Crusader, just a confused kid. I began to take my fixation with being a part of the elect for what it was: an insecure teenager's desire to fit in, anywhere. Gradually I realized that lots of my neighbors in my working-class hometown were in fact leading fulfilling lives. At the age of 16, after about two years as a member, I left Opus Dei for good.
Just before I left, I noticed other things about Opus Dei that I began to find a little troubling. For a zealous religious organization, there was a stunning lack of interest in the less fortunate. In the year and a half I attended the Opus Dei center, the overriding emphasis was on glorifying God through stoic self-improvement, both physical and intellectual. Not once can I recall being urged to collect donations for the needy or to volunteer at a homeless shelter--the kinds of things my hometown parish and most religious congregations do all the time. They also seemed to tolerate racist attitudes, and it was apparently an article of faith that women, though permitted to join, were somehow less equal. One guy, a full-fledged member, would "entertain" us (including a priest) with his Steppin' Fetchit imitation of a black worker from a restaurant near his Manhattan office. The only female members I met would serve at meals silently, with eyes downcast, and clear the table afterwards.
I don't claim now that prehistoric attitudes about minorities and women troubled me a lot back then. I was struck by the hypocrisy of a group that claimed to hew closely to the example set by Jesus while seeming to accept the notion that his darker-skinned children, and all of his daughters, were somehow something less than I was.
Reading "Code," it's clear that Brown's sympathies lie with a worldview that is more humanist, more inclusive, than the one I was exposed to in Opus Dei. Twenty years ago, as I began to examine my misgivings about Opus Dei, I gradually came around to ideas whose spirit is captured in Brown's book.
Elitism and religious devotion don't mix. In many cases, those who strive for power do so only for the sake of being powerful, for the kick of belonging to a club that few can join. And even successful, Scary White Men can fall prey to loopy ideas.