The Opus Dei Survival Kit

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by Dimitri Knobbe, Holland


In August 1993 I was looking for housing in Amsterdam, preparing myself for my freshman year in college. When I came across this beautiful student house named Leidenhoven, which was led by apparently nice people, I did not have to think twice about moving in. As usual within Opus Dei, I did not hear anything about this organization until some weeks after I had moved in. In an early stage I started to find the atmosphere in the house quite suffocating and things just did not feel right, although I could not exactly tell what bothered me at that time. Even though I was feeling somewhat uncomfortable with the Opus Dei members, I did come close to a vocational crisis at one point, largely due to an excessive understanding of my personal sinfulness and human sin in general. These thoughts were at least triggered by the Opus Dei spirituality, by which I was surrounded.[1] After about six months, the pressure had built up to an extent that I had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for two months. On my return to Leidenhoven, I was advised by the director of Leidenhoven not to talk about my situation with anybody since people would think I was "crazy as a loon". He sent me to a "friend of the house" as he called him, for psychological follow-up counseling. You have to understand that all this time I was not fully aware of the psychological pressure they were putting on me. This Opus Dei psychiatrist told me basically that I should stop mourning and that I should "pray and fight". He told me that only the Catholic Church could save the world and that I should break all ties with my parents, only to look them up on their deathbed. Indeed my relationship with my parents was not a very good one, but to say the latter exemplifies the practice of detachment advocated by Escrivá: "Detach yourself from creatures until you are stripped of them."[2] During the rest of my stay in Leidenhoven, I was treated by the Opus Dei members with cynicism due to my ongoing emotionally unstable state. According to a book by Jef Geeraerts [3] this sort of cynicism should be considered as givings of eleemosynae spirituales, Latin for spiritual alms, as a way to become strengthened in the Opus Dei spirituality. At the end of the second year, I was asked to leave the house so that others "could get a chance".

I will stop here writing about my own experience with Opus Dei. Although it took me years to recover from it, my experiences are insignificant compared to those of others.[4]

A few years later, I found out that my university was providing Opus Dei with facilities in order to attract students to spend their summer in Latin America working on a development program. Of course the name Opus Dei was not mentioned - the organization was simply named Studenten voor Ontwikkeling, Students for Development. I decided to inform the university press about this and they gave the subject considerable attention and, as is usual in these cases, received an enormous amount of letters to the editor from angry people (all Opus Dei members and sympathizers, without saying it) after they had published a critical article.

Via this article, I was contacted by a girl who went on one of those trips to Latin America. She told me about the fight she and some other girls had had with the members of the organization because nothing had been said about Opus Dei, while, in fact, the whole trip appeared to have been organized by this organisation. As a side note, I would like to mention that Opus Dei traditionally is on the side of ultra-rightwing politics in Latin America.[5]

I was also contacted by a minister who wanted to talk to me. He had experienced Opus Dei when he was working in the city of Maastricht, Holland, where he had been consulted by parents whose children had become just a little too close to Opus Dei. Proselytizing among very young children is perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of Opus Dei.[6]

I was also contacted by the parents of somebody I knew from boxing practice. Their daughter had been staying in the student residence for girls De Aenstal in Amsterdam. At one point, when their daughter seemed to slip into Opus Dei, members of Opus Dei more or less forced their way into the house, packed his daughter's belongings and took her away. The girl stayed under psychological care for years, and maybe still is. Curiously, after all this, when the guy I knew from boxing practice happened to run into one of the female members of Opus Dei at the university, she greeted him as if nothing had happened between Opus Dei and his family.

Researching this paper

As a way to form a proper opinion on Opus Dei I started to read many books on this organization. And because of the cases just described, I have come to the conclusion that I should get actively involved in the worldwide criticism that Opus Dei has provoked over the years. However, when reading about Opus Dei I was struck by the lack of a more profound understanding of this organization. Although many works are highly researched, many authors do not seem to capture the inner world of Opus Dei. Often authors are paying too much attention to subjects like the character of Josemaría Escriva [7], the quest for power within the Roman Curia [8], the financial and political scandals [9] etcetera. Even worse, some authors come up with strange theories, like Opus Dei being a secret Jewish organization for instance.[10]

My understanding of Opus Dei

The spirituality of Opus Dei should be understood against the background of the typical form of Spanish religiosity. This religiosity often takes the middle road between the mentality of a knight and that of a monk, which could be considered the result of the centuries-long struggle against Islam. Not surprisingly, many aggressive orders have arisen from Spanish soil, for instance the Dominicans and the Jesuits ("los de siempre", the usual ones, according to Josemaría!).[11] A famous member of the latter order was Baltasar Gracián, a 17th century priest, who is often compared to Machiavelli and the Chinese war strategist Sun Tzu. His maxim was: "Use divine means as if there aren't any worldly and use worldly means as if there are no divine." His book The Art of Worldy Wisdom is literally full of opportunism but still ends with: "Be a saint, that says everything." Apparently some means are justified by the intention which underlies the means. This has to be understood primarily by the way the Catholic Church sees herself, as the only earthly provider of divine grace, in particular by providing the gratia habitualis by way of the sacraments. The Church as an intermediary has known many inner conflicts as to how to operate her sacred task. The central question, in my own words, was to what extent individual members of the Church could be allowed to use pressure and lies as a means to benefit the Church. With regard to this question, the Catholic moral theology has developed several moral systems between the 16th and 20th century. All of these systems looked for a solution to the problem of how the individual consciousness, wavering between an objective law and subjective freedom, could justify a (deceptive) utterance. On the one ultimate side there was the system of probabilism, on the other probabiliorism. The former learned that, when in doubt, the individual consciousness had the freedom to judge his own pronouncements (lex dubia non obligat), the latter learned the opposite.

In my opinion, the way propagated by probabilism still persists in the practices of Opus Dei, although the most extreme forms of this system (characterized by rigorism or tutiorism) have been condemned by the Church. I shall try to give an example.

In all intimacy, I was once called "a friend for life" by an Opus Dei member. Since Opus Dei discourages genuine friendships between their members and since non-members certainly are not considered friends, this apparently friendly gesture should be understood as a form of reservatio mentalis; the inner reserve of somebody who says or promises something, by choosing his words in such a manner - in particular by giving them a different meaning than normally is expected - that the hearer is deceived and the speaker can always deny having said something. So the specific utterance of calling somebody a friend for life should be considered a form of love-bombing, which Opus Dei is often accused of. It is sometimes hard to tell the difference between real love-bombing and genuine cordiality in the world of Opus Dei. This has to do with the fact that the Catholic teachings do not see the human nature as fundamentally sinful, as in the traditional protestant churches, but rather lacking the imago dei (since Adam's fall) which can only be restored by following the Church. The combination of love-bombing and ego-destruction is often the way of destabilizing people's minds and propelling them into Opus Dei.

Opus Dei has always dismissed any criticism by saying that all the criticism is expressed by people who "just do not understand" their organization or by former members, the latter often being accused of flaqueza, Spanish for lack of character, which leads to a distorted view of reality. At the same time however, Opus Dei has all the characteristics of a sect, as formulated in a 1986 Vatican document [12] and as every critical-thinking individual would agree.


[1] Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, wrote in his booklet The Way: "Don't forget that you are just a trash can […]" (maxim 592).

[2] Idem, maxim 149. A good analysis of The Way is provided by André van Bosbeke in his book Opus Dei in België, Breda 1985. You also might want to read the book by Klaus Steigleder Das Opus Dei, eine Innenansicht, München 1996, in which many maxims are cited. It is one of the best books on Opus Dei I have read so far, because it captures the atmosphere around the modus operandi of Opus Dei so well. The German author Peter Hertel cites from Cronica as well as some other documents that Opus Dei tries to hide from the public in his book Geheimnisse des Opus Dei, Geheimdokumente - Hintergründe - Strategien, Freiburg 1995 (published by the same author; Ich verspreche euch den Himmel: Geistlicher Anspruch, Gesellschaftliche Ziele und Kirchliche Bedeutung des Opus Dei, Düsseldorf 1991. A similar introduction to Opus Dei is from the hand of the renowned author on religious subjects Michael Walsh, The Secret World of Opus Dei, London 1989).

[3] Author of two novels on Opus Dei; Het Rashomon complex (1992 Antwerpen/Amsterdam) and De PG (1999 Amsterdam).

[4] You could check the homepage of Franz Schaefer ( for other people's personal experiences. Or read the book of Fergal Bowers, The Work: An Investigation into the History of Opus Dei and how it Operates in Ireland Today, Dublin 1989.

[5] For instance Penny Lernoux, People of God, the Struggle for World Catholicism, New York 1989.

[6] In particular Javier Ropero Palaéz, Im Bann des Opus Dei, Familien in der Zerreissprobe, Düsseldorf 1995.

[7] For instance Luis Carandell, Vida y Milagros de Monseñor Escivá de Balaguer, Fundador del Opus Dei, Barcelona 1992. I have not read this book yet, or any other in Spanish. Quite interesting with regard to the supposed holiness of Josemaría is the book by Kenneth Woodward, Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn't, and Why, New York 1990.

[8] For instance Matthias Mettner, Die Katholische Maffia, Kirchliche Geheimbünde greifen nach der Macht, München 1995.

[9] In particular Robert Hutchison, Their Kingdom Come, London 1998.

[10] Alfonso Carlos de Borbón, Die Ganze Wahrheit über das Opus Dei, Durach 1997.

[11] The quotation of Josemaría is derived from the book by María del Carmen Tapia, Beyond the Threshold, A Life in Opus Dei, New York 1998. To understand more about the relationship between Opus Dei and the Jesuits, see Joan Estruch's Saints and Schemers, Opus Dei and Its Paradoxes, New York 1995.

[12] The booklet Parents' Guide to Opus Dei (New York 1993) by J. Garvey describes the sectarian character of Opus Dei using the Vatican document Challenge of New Religious Movements (1986) as a basis. The Parents' Guide is distributed by the Catholic organisation 'Our Lady and Saint-Joseph in Search of the Lost Child', 305 Madison Avenue, suite 1146, New York 10165, USA (with many volunteers in different countries). A second organisation in the USA is the 'Opus Dei Awareness Network' (see Other initiatives from within the Catholic Church have led to the publications of Harald Schutzeichel (Hg.), Opus Dei - Ziele, Anspruch und Einfluss, Düsseldorf 1992 and Paulus-Akademie (Hg.), Opus Dei - Stossgrupp Gottes oder 'Heilige Maffia'?, Zürich 1992.