Opus Dei is a personal prelature within the Roman Church that has been the subject of numerous controversies. Throughout its history, Opus Dei has been criticized by many, including by numerary members who knew the founder and had roles in Opus Dei’s internal government. The reports by former members in the USA, England, Spain, Latin America, France, Germany, and other countries are published. Journalists have described it as “the most controversial force in the Catholic Church” and its founder Josemaría Escrivá as a “polarizing” figure.
The canonization process of Escrivá has been described as unreliable. Former members who worked and lived with him for years reported that they “did not recognize” the highly flattering portrait of Escrivá promoted by Opus Dei at the time of the canonization process as the same man they had known. Numerous members also reported being excluded from the process because prelate Javier Echevarría feared that they would reveal unflattering facts about Escrivá. Another former member has reported that John Paul II allowed an unusually swift canonization of Escrivá because Opus Dei had bailed out the Vatican Bank with $250 million in 1985. Those who question the infallibility of the canonization of Escrivá note that John Paul II was naïve in the cases of Theodore McCarrick and Marcial Maciel, both of whom procured large sums of money for the Vatican, like Opus Dei.
Controversies about Opus Dei have centered on allegations of secretiveness, including the cover-up of sexual abuse in Spain, Mexico, Uruguay, Chile, and the United States;recruiting methods aimed at teenagers becoming numeraries; the illicit use of psychiatric drugs in its central headquarters; the misleading of its lay faithful about their status and rights under Canon Law; the “mortification of the flesh” practiced by its celibate members (cilice, discipline, and sleeping on a board); elitism and misogyny; and support of authoritarian or right-wing governments, including the reactionary Franco regime.
According to former members of Opus Dei, the controversies about Opus Dei are rooted in practices institutionalized while Escrivá was alive and are written into internal documents and orally-transmitted customs that have not been reviewed by the Catholic Church.
Some of the more famous former numeraries who have reported on these matters are: Maria del Carmen Tapia, Secretary to Escrivá in Rome and commissioned by Escrivá to start the women’s branch of Opus Dei in Venezuela; Vladimir Felzmann, a numerary priest; Miguel Fisac, who accompanied Escrivá across the Pyrenees during the Spanish Civil War and lived for years with him in Rome; Antonio Perez Tenessa, Secretary General of Opus Dei and regional director of Opus Dei in Spain; and María Angustias Moreno.
Opus Dei has also been criticized for allegedly seeking independence and more influence within the Catholic Church.
According to some journalists, criticisms against Opus Dei are based on jealousy or fabrications by opponents. Critics respond that some of these journalists are associated with Opus Dei, and that none of them interviewed numeraries who left Opus Dei in protest or examined internal governing documents.
Defenders of Opus Dei point out that John Paul II and other Catholic leaders have endorsed Opus Dei’s teaching on the sanctifying value of work, and its fidelity to Catholic beliefs.
Josemaría Escrivá had a Jesuit priest as a spiritual director (Fr. Sánchez) at the time that he founded Opus Dei (1928ff.). As a result, he apparently based some of the practices of Opus Dei on the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, such as: required manifestation of conscience to a superior, seeking prestigious people for membership, a military-style hierarchical authority structure, and an emphasis on blind obedience as a means of efficiency in the apostolate.
Nevertheless, the Superior-General of the Society of Jesus Fr. Wlodimir Ledóchowski (1866–1942) later told the Vatican he considered Opus Dei “very dangerous for the Church in Spain.” He described it as having a “secretive character” and saw “signs in it of a covert inclination to dominate the world with a form of Christian Masonry.” In the 1950’s, some Jesuits told Italian parents of members of Opus Dei that their sons were being led to damnation.
Allegations like this from within well-regarded ecclesiastical circles (“the opposition by good people,” as Escrivá called it), were interpreted by Escrivá as misunderstandings or jealousies, and defenders of Opus Dei today claim that present-day criticisms are merely vestiges of this old prejudice. Specifically, they argue that criticism of Opus Dei by members of the Society of Jesus was caused by these Jesuits’ not understanding the difference between Opus Dei and religious orders, and that this misunderstanding continues among people with a “clerical” or “religious” mentality. For Opus Dei officially describes itself in contrast to “religious” (monastic) life: ordinary lay Christians living out their baptismal call to holiness without being externally distinguished from other citizens.
Messori, a journalist associated with Opus Dei, also identifies political ideology as the root of some controversies involving some Jesuits. After Vatican II certain sectors of the Church became politically and theologically “liberal,” including Jesuits in Latin America who were experimenting with “liberation theology.” In contrast, some Opus Dei laymen had been working for the far-right Franco regime in Spain and similar regimes in Latin America. Escrivá himself gave a spiritual retreat to Franco, and the numerary priest and bishop Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne was reportedly friendly with Peru’s president Fujimori and unsupportive of human rights advocates. Messori emphasizes, however, that Opus Dei has also had members from left-wing parties such as the UK Labour Party (see Opus Dei and politics).