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Opus Dei Controversy Explained: What Are Its Beliefs? Who Are Its Members?

Latin for “Work of God,” Opus Dei is a Roman Catholic lay and clergy organization dedicated to the pursuit of personal Christian perfection as well as the promotion of Christian ideals and values in the workplace and throughout society. It has long been a source of debate because of Opus Dei’s conservative theology, which accepts the church’s teaching authority without question. Opus Dei has also been accused of secrecy, cultlike practices, and political aspirations.

The past and present of a company

St. Josemaria Escrivá de Balaguer y Albás (canonized in 2002), a priest trained in the law, founded Opus Dei in Spain in 1928. Escrivá hoped to inspire Catholic laypeople and priests to pursue holiness through their chosen professions, believing that daily life can be sanctifying. As a new type of religious organization that “proclaims the evangelical counsels in secular life,” Opus Dei was formally approved by the Holy See in 1950. A staunch supporter of Opus Dei, Pope John Paul II created the first personal prelature in the church, which has jurisdiction over individuals rather than a geographical area, on November 28, 1982. Since 1982, a prelate elected by the organization’s members has served as its head, with separate branches for men and women. There is some oversight by local bishops in the establishment of seminaries and the promotion of seminary students to holy orders.

Involvement in and Participation in

To join Opus Dei, one had to swear an oath of obedience and chastity. As a prelature, the group is no longer required to have members sign a formal agreement to participate in spiritual formation activities like weekly classes (“circles”) and an annual religious retreat. For members, self-sacrifice can take the form of fasting or abstain from certain pleasures, but it’s not uncommon for them to go so far as to wear a cilice (a spiked chain worn around the upper thigh). The probationary period for new members lasts at least five years before they are formally admitted to the organization. Most numeraries devote most of their time to Opus Dei as an organization. They, like priests, must remain single and celibate, but unlike priests, they are allowed to marry and have children. The vast majority of Opus Dei’s members, on the other hand, are supernumeraries who are free to marry, make financial contributions to the order, and live out their faith daily. Cooperators, who aren’t members of the group and don’t even have to be Christians, also contribute to the group’s finances. Only 2,100 of the nearly 95,000 members of the organization are ordained priests; this is a tiny fraction of the total membership.

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Many vocational, trade, home-arts, and agriculture centers have been established around the world, as have numerous high schools and business administration colleges, all of which have been funded by the organization. The Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and the University of Piura in Peru are also operated by Opus Dei, which founded and endowed the University of Navarra in Spain with government assistance and is regarded by many as Spain’s finest university.

A Description of Control

DiNicola was a first-year Boston College student when he joined. A few blocks away from her school, she moved into the Opus Dei numerary center and began living the strict life of an Opus Dei numerary.

Daily activities were carefully planned, mail was read (both incoming and outgoing), expenditures had to be recorded (both incoming and outgoing), reading and watching television were restricted, and she had to consult with her spiritual director before leaving the center for any reason. They discouraged her from confessing her sins to non-Opus Dei clergy, she claims. –

“It wasn’t presented as an optional thing, you were told you needed to obey your directors in everything,” says DiNicola.

DiNicola, like Julie, who requested that her real name not be used, claims that she was content with her life as an Opus Dei member. However, like Julie’s family, they were having issues with it as well.

“Over time, our daughter’s personality began to change, giving us the impression that something was wrong with her. She had withdrawn socially from the rest of the family. The first time that had ever happened to me “says her mother, Dianne DiNicola, who founded and runs the Opus Dei Awareness Network, a non-profit that educates the public about the group’s practices.

“Opus Dei has become Tammy’s new family,” says the mother. “You were powerless to persuade her. The decision had been made for her. When you’re in a controlled environment, you stop analyzing things critically. She was unable to make her own decisions because she was being coerced into it.”

According to her mother, DiNicola walked away from Opus Dei after her family staged an intervention. An individual informed her of all aspects of Opus Dei, which sparked her critical thinking, and she decided to leave.

There are hundreds of other men and women who have shared similar stories with Dianne DiNicola, she says. “We get e-mails, phone calls, letters, and faxes almost every day,” she says. “So many people have told us the same thing. The fact that I’ve been hearing the same thing for the past nine years is significant.”


The fact that Opus Dei included so many well-educated individuals led Generalissimo Francisco Franco of Spain to enlist the help of Opus Dei members when implementing economic reform in 1956. After Franco died in 1975, other groups in Spain began to gain political clout. This led many to speculate that Opus Dei had political and economic goals. Allegations against the organization include aggressive recruiting practices, brainwashing of new members, and the isolation of members from their families. The group has been accused of operating as a cult or secret society because of the secrecy of its membership. Opus Dei denies these allegations and maintains the Vatican’s support by pointing to its continued expansion.

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