Opus Dei In The Open

Many of the greatest Roman Catholic saints--Dominic, Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola--were also founders of great religious orders. To this August list Pope John Paul II will add the name of Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, the Spanish founder of Opus Dei. The canonization this week will draw at least 250,000 spectators to Rome.

For Opus Dei--Latin for the Work of God--the ceremony represents the Vatican's highest seal of approval for an international organization that critics regard as a secretive, almost Masonic sect within the Catholic Church. Under John Paul II, Opus Dei has replaced the Jesuits in papal favor. Its members hold offices throughout the Vatican bureaucracy, including the pope's press spokesman, and its wealth and influence have silenced most opponents in the Roman Curia. At a time when vocations to the priesthood are in decline--and sex-abuse scandals beset the American church--the relentlessly evangelical Opus Dei operatives are adding new members every day. Yet even its admirers know little about the inner workings of this shadowy church within the church.

Forged in the heat of the Spanish Civil War, Opus Dei now exercises political and financial clout well beyond the confines of the church. In Spain, two members of Opus Dei serve in the cabinet and many more in the hierarchy of the ruling Popular Party. Last year in Chile an Opus Dei member ran unsuccessfully for president. In the United States, former FBI director Louis Freeh is just one of a number of prominent Opus Dei members in Washington--among them his nemesis, convicted Russian spy Robert Hanssen.

Unlike the Jesuits and other religious orders, Opus Dei is a lay organization with a society of priests attached. Escriva's genius was to fashion a movement of worldly ascetics organized in a loose, cell-like structure. Members are encouraged to be entrepreneurial, creating autonomous businesses, foundations and study centers. Though they are financed, run and staffed by Opus Dei members, each can claim to be officially unrelated to the religious organization. Even within the church, Opus Dei enjoys a unique ecclesiastical privilege. Its members are under the authority of the Opus Dei bishop in Rome, Javier Echevarria--unlike other lay Catholics ruled by the bishop of the local diocese.

As members see it, Opus Dei is a divinely ordained community of Catholic men and women dedicated to personal holiness while working--anonymously--in the world. "We work alone in the workplace and do our quiet witness there," says Jack Valero, a member of the Opus Dei Council in the United Kingdom. "The vast majority are quite poor." But Opus Dei has not acquired its considerable wealth and influence by attracting the down and out. In the United States, where the organization claims only 3,000 members, Opus recently opened a $43 million, 17-story headquarters in Manhattan. Its student centers are placed near pricey campuses like Princeton, Harvard, Columbia and Notre Dame, where gifted--but often lonely--students are targeted according to the axioms of Escriva. And through dozens of innocuously named organizations like the Woodlawn Foundation and National Center Foundation, monies flow to conservative ventures--and to grateful beneficiaries at the Vatican.

Officially, Opus Dei claims 84,000 members, most of them in Europe with another 30,000 in Latin America. (By comparison, the largest order of priests, the Jesuits, numbers 42,000.) All followers of "the work," as Escriva called his mission, study the writings of the founder and submit to spiritual directors; confessing sins to an ordinary parish priest is strongly discouraged. Most members--called "supernumeraries"--are married, but their religious gatherings and retreats are sexually segregated. Thus the wife of Robert Hanssen knew little or nothing of his betrayal, nor his confession to an Opus Dei priest that he had stolen classified materials. (His assigned penance was to give $20,000 to charity.)

At the core of the work are some 25,000 numeraries who make promises--much like the vows required of monks and nuns--to be celibate and obedient to Opus Dei. They live in sexually segregated residences and give their earnings to Opus Dei, minus living expenses. The women do the cooking and cleaning for everyone but avoid contact with the men. Anonymous members, unrecorded wealth, covert organization and morphing alliances with secular power: these are features that have made Opus Dei more feared than respected as a Catholic organization. It may be the work of God. It is now the ambiguous legacy of a curious saint.