Opus Dei shuns Da Vinci Code image
By Daniel Flynn
MADRID (Reuters) – A gold seal emblazoned on the stone
altar of a house in a wealthy Madrid neighborhood reminds the
young men of Opus Dei of their mission.
The sign, a cross locked within a circle, was chosen by the
Catholic group’s founder, Saint Jose Maria Escriva, to embody
his vision of Christianity at the heart of the world.
“This cross is a reminder the founder exhorted us to
emulate the first Christians, moving in the world and
converting others with our faith,” said Guillermo, one of
around a dozen men living in the comfortable but unobtrusive
Founded in Madrid in 1928 when Escriva was a 26-year-old
priest, Opus Dei — Latin for “God’s Work” — is one of
Catholicism’s most dynamic and controversial groups.
It teaches ordinary Catholics to strive for saintliness
through their work and has more than 84,000 members. Escriva
was canonized in 2002 despite some opposition from liberal
Catholics and the group continues to attract suspicion.
Critics accuse Opus of promoting right-wing beliefs and
using aggressive recruiting methods. Some former members allege
cult-like practices such as brainwashing and coercion.
Its notoriety soared with the 2003 bestseller “The Da Vinci
Code,” in which U.S. author Dan Brown depicted it as a
secretive society ruthlessly plotting to keep the church
“So many lies are told about Opus, even by ex-members who
lost their way,” said Reyes Carreno, a mother of five who runs
nursery schools. “We are just ordinary Christians.”
Like three-quarters of members, Carreno is a supernumerary,
meaning she can marry and have children. She and her husband
make donations to “the Work” but she laughs at the idea it is a
sect — saying members are free to do as they choose.
“There was a time when Opus was not so open … That may
have given the impression of occultism, even though it never
existed,” said Carreno, 44. Opus became more accessible when
Pope John Paul recognized its special status in 1982, she said.
The practice of corporal mortification, an attempt to
imitate Christ’s Passion, has aroused mistrust. Critics say
Opus encourages flagellation and the use of the cilice — a
belt tightened around the thigh with metal prongs pointing
inwards which is used in some religious orders.
Members say the reality is much more normal: mortification
can mean doing a job well when tired or doing a favor without
seeking reward. Escriva said the best mortification was a
“I do not flagellate myself or put on a cilice. It would
shock my wife,” said teacher Juan Manuel Saenz, 39, whose
spouse is not an Opus member. “I have other types of
mortification: praying while I feed my baby, for example.”
MISGIVINGS IN SPAIN
In increasingly secular Spain, many people view Opus with
mistrust. Some point to the wealth and influence of members and
the group’s own assets, including a $42 million New York
Opus founded Spain’s most prestigious business school,
IESE, and executives at some of the country’s top companies are
said to be sympathizers. Spain’s third largest bank Banco
Popular donated 21 million euros ($25.27 million) last year to
charities linked to Opus.
Opus’s Navarre University has been responsible for
producing some of the country’s highest achievers. Its
respected journalism school claims to have produced more than
half of the editors of Spain’s national newspapers. The Vatican
spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, is a prominent Opus member.
Opus has been accused of wielding political clout. During
Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, members formed the backbone of
a “technocrat” cabinet from the late 1950s which dragged Spain
from economic collapse — helping to prop up the faltering
regime which subsequently survived to Franco’s death in 1975.
More recently, a former defense minister during Spain’s
1996-2004 conservative government said he was a member. Other
figures in the Popular Party, which backed conservative social
policy and a church role in education, were linked to the
“I defy anyone to prove Opus Dei has ever supported any
government,” said Opus spokesman Manuel Garrido. “Individual
members are free to take part in politics, like any Catholic,
but Opus does not take positions on social or political
The smartly dressed Garrido is a “numerary.” He lives in an
Opus house near Madrid’s business district, is celibate and
donates much of his income to the group, his “family.”
“God asked me to renounce human love and dedicate myself to
him,” said Garrido. “It is comfortable to have lukewarm beliefs
but Opus wants us to show we’re Catholic, helping others.”
Some ex-members have attacked the group’s methods. Maria
del Carmen Tapia in her book “Beyond the Threshold” depicts
Escriva as authoritarian and accuses Opus of brainwashing young
While Opus Dei has often dismissed Tapia’s criticisms as
outdated and inaccurate, more recent former members still
complain about the group’s methods.
“When I wanted to leave they did not want me to go and
tried to keep me. Eventually, they let me go,” said a former
member who joined Opus at the age of 19. He asked not to be
Opus priest and theologian Jose Carlos Martin, in charge of
promoting other members of Opus as possible candidates for
sainthood, said liberty is essential.
“Nobody in Opus Dei is obliged to stay,” he said. “If
someone leaves Opus there is no trauma — they continue their
working life. The only trauma could be that they have not been
faithful to a call from God.”
The Opus Dei school Tajamar was founded in 1958 at
Escriva’s request to tackle a lack of education in one of
Madrid’s poorest suburbs. It is an answer to critics who
complain that Opus Dei ignores the poor in favor of recruiting
among the elites.
“There is a lot of demagoguery with this issue. Opus does a
lot of social work at its schools,” said Garrido. “Opus is not
an NGO, although it has many members who work in NGOs.”
Starting from a cow shed amid tumble-down shacks, Tajamar
has 1,500 male students from 3 to 18. Its manicured campus
houses one of Madrid’s best graphic design schools.
“Of course we try to instill the values of Opus Dei,” said
school director Alfonso Aguilo over lunch. “But we also have
students who are Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims. They can
choose not to attend religion classes.”
Mohammed Karimian, an Iranian whose father works in his
country’s embassy in Madrid, praised the teaching at Tajamar.
“I have never been made to feel different because I am Muslim.”
Escriva began Opus by recruiting university students and
the group focuses on the educated when it starts in new
“Where do you start in order to reach all social classes?”
said Martin. “If an intellectual accepts God, that person is
going to have a rapid influence in society.” ($1=.8311