National Catholic Reporter ®

November 9, 2001                                                                                                               Vol. 1, No. 11

Opus Dei: No surprise
it gets top billing in this papacy

As for influence in the church, Opus Dei does seem disproportionately represented in the Roman curia. To take one point of comparison, Opus has the same number of clergy working in Vatican congregations and councils as the Jesuits (5 priests and 1 archbishop), despite the fact that there are over eight times as many Jesuit priests to choose from (14,852 to 1,763).

One of the fringe benefits of being a Vatican correspondent is that interesting people are constantly passing through Rome, and often I get the chance to sit down with them over lunch or dinner. It’s a marvelous way to broaden one’s sense of the universal church.

My guests usually want the latest Vatican gossip, so standard conversation starters include, “How’s the pope’s health?” and “Who’s up among the papabili (candidates to be pope)?” Almost invariably, however, as we move into a second bottle of wine and tongues loosen, there’s another question waiting to be popped. When the moment comes, people usually lean in and whisper, as if worried about the walls having ears.

They ask: “Is Opus Dei really taking over the church?”

At the risk of blowing whatever motive you might have to invite me to dinner the next time you’re in town, I’ll summarize here what I tell people. Opus Dei is theologically and politically conservative, and hence in favor in today’s church. Stop. Nec plus ultra — there’s no more beyond, no conspiracy, no dark plot.

Opus Dei (“work of God”) was founded by a Spanish priest named José María Escrivá de Balaguer in 1928. The idea was to teach lay people to sanctify their daily lives, especially in work. Opus Dei is thus primarily a lay movement, though it also has priest members. According to the 2001 Annuario Pontificio, the Vatican yearbook, there are 82,443 laity and 1,763 priests.

Most are drawn from what in broad terms we would call the right. I once asked an American member who would win a straw poll among the U.S. branch of the group, Bush or Gore, and he conceded it would probably be a landslide Bush victory.

John Paul II clearly likes Opus Dei. He beatified Escriva on May 17, 1992, before one of the largest crowds ever to fill St. Peter’s Square. Rumors are currently flying that Escriva will be canonized in mid-2002 for the 100th anniversary of his birth. If so, he could narrowly edge out Therese of Lisieux for the fastest modern path to sainthood (Therese was canonized 27 years and 8 months after her death in 1897).

Like the Knights Templar in the Middle Ages, Opus’ rapid success has brought suspicion. When I arrived in Rome, I made it a point to seek contacts with Opus Dei in order to develop my own perspective. 

My wife and I have become dining partners with Fr. John Wauck, a funny and intelligent American who teaches at Santa Croce, the Opus Dei university here. (Wauck, currently on sabbatical, is the brother-in-law of FBI spy Robert Hanssen, whose Opus Dei ties have helped fuel the group’s legend). I have gotten to know several young Italians who have contact with Opus Dei through parishes and youth groups. I am in regular contact with the Opus Dei spokesperson, a genial and efficient Spaniard named Marco Carroggio.

I recently sat down over coffee with Fr. Flavio Capucci, the Opus Dei priest responsible for the beatification, and perhaps soon the canonization, of Escriva. Given the group’s legendary reserve, I was nervous to put the question I know many have long pondered: How much did it cost? But when I asked, Capucci was quite open. The beatification process cost around $150,000, he said, and the ceremony $500,000. 

My observation is that the people of Opus Dei are generally well meaning, amiable conservatives, often very competent at what they do, who harbor a rather traditionalist vision of the church and the culture. It’s not my cup of tea, but there is certainly room for it under the Catholic big tent. (I know, I know: one wishes the traditionalists felt the same way about Call to Action, or Holland’s Eighth of May Movement, but that’s another topic).

As for influence in the church, Opus Dei does seem disproportionately represented in the Roman curia. To take one point of comparison, Opus has the same number of clergy working in Vatican congregations and councils as the Jesuits (5 priests and 1 archbishop), despite the fact that there are over eight times as many Jesuit priests to choose from (14,852 to 1,763). 

I’m not suggesting there is a conscious conspiracy to “plant” Opus Dei priests. Quite frankly, Vatican personnel decisions tend to be too ad-hoc to be the object of such a campaign. But this number does speak in a general way to who’s in favor and who’s out. Does anyone seriously believe that if the pope were determined, he could only find six qualified Jesuits to serve as his collaborators? 

(As a footnote, this statistic is misleading if taken as an indication of the service the Jesuits render to the pope. The Jesuits run Vatican Radio, for example, and Civilità Cattolica, and the Vatican observatory. The roster of consultors for virtually every Vatican department contains Jesuits. The point is that in the all-important decision-making organs of the Holy See, Opus Dei has an outsize presence).

Rome is constantly awash in speculation about new Opus Dei takeovers. Some inside Vatican Radio worry that Opus Dei may snatch it away. I know a Jesuit faculty member at the Gregorian University who fears that Opus Dei may end up running the place.

What explains the rise of Opus Dei? I see three primary factors. 

They’re hungry. Opus is in a stage of development of every new movement in the church in which signs of favor are important, and hence (consciously or not) they hustle after them in ways that most established communities don’t.

They’re filling a vacuum. I know people who have turned down offers to work in the curia, in part because they have bigger fish to fry, in part because they don’t want to investigate their colleagues. For much the same reason, I know young scholars in religious communities who don’t want to teach in Rome. They’d rather be at Berkeley or Nijmegen, away from Rome’s prying eyes. It’s part of the larger phenomenon of disengagement from the institution on the Catholic left; disenchanted progressives too often like to pretend the Vatican doesn’t exist, preferring to “do their own thing.” It’s understandable, but this retreat creates a void that groups such as Opus Dei and the Legionaries are only too happy to fill.

They’re in synch with the theological and political line of the John Paul II pontificate (some influential Opus Dei members have, of course, helped to shape this line). Institutional Dynamics 101 tells you that leadership roles in an institution tend to go to people in agreement with the institution’s positions.

Bottom line: For those who believe in a more open, progressive Catholicism (the church of Vatican II rather than Vatican I), it is a mistake to fix on Opus Dei as a sinister force lurking behind today’s disappointments and setbacks. Opus is more analogous to the boat lifted highest by John Paul’s conservative wave. 

Rather than demonizing Opus Dei, progressives need to deepen their theological reflection on the key issues facing Catholicism. They need to stay engaged with institutional politics, however distasteful and discouraging the effort may sometimes be. The battle for public opinion in the church will be won with arguments, not accusations. 

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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