Opus Dei: A Silent Crusade

Video in Spanish. A 2005 documentary about the secretive cult-within-Catholicism, Opus Dei, and specifically, its inordinate political and economic influence in Chile.

Opus Dei, also known as La Obra (The Work) in Spanish, was founded in 1928 in Spain by a right-wing priest who has since been canonized. This strange sect, which promotes itself heavily as a “personal spiritual path”, flourished in Franco’s fascist Spain, thanks to its affinity for the authoritarian and reactionary piety of those Catholics who supported Franco. It is active today in many countries throughout the world (and yes, Canada is among them, unfortunately.) But it was particularly prominent–even instrumental–in Pinochet’s fascist Chile.

To this day, the sect exercises an influence beyond the proportion of its members in Chilean society, but the influence is curiously lopsided: La Obra favors and rewards the rich, the powerful and the ultra-pious. Its membership is divided into two basic categories: “numeraries”, who remain unmarried and dedicate their lives and entire incomes to the “Work”, much like nuns or monks but without the habits and convents (many live, instead, in houses largely indistinguishable, outwardly, from ordinary family homes), and “supernumeraries”, who typically marry and have large families, and bring their children up to be members of the sect also. (“Supernumeraries”, often heading up wealthy and powerful families, are the Quiverfulls of the cult, one might say.)

One can’t help noticing in this documentary that the “numeraries” tend to come from much humbler backgrounds than the “supernumeraries”, and their positions in the cult tend to reflect this. Dedicated “numeraries” live ascetically, flagellating themselves and mortifying their flesh in order to recall the torments of Christ on the cross. They tend to work in a subservient capacity; many are menials in Opus Dei houses. (Women are disproportionately represented among these; sexism is rampant in the cult, and is excused/enforced with thinly disguised variations on the usual sin-of-Eve twaddle.)

All “numeraries” are taught from an early age not to aspire above the social station into which they were born. “Class warfare” is a mortal sin to the cult, so you will also not find labor unionists among its members–nor, for that matter, anyone espousing free thought and freedom of conscience (the “free market”, however, is a notable exception, and reserved for powerful and wealthy “supernumeraries”–after all, they have to maintain the class order, and the coffers of the “Work”, somehow).

“Supernumeraries” are not nearly as ascetic, although a certain degree of rigid mental discipline is still there; daily attendance at Mass is de rigueur. Social and political conservatism characterize them. Many are active in business and politics, where they seek to impose their reactionary tendencies covertly. The well-to-do ones are apparently not discouraged, however, from indulging in such blatant worldly luxuries as golf, complete with caddies (“numeraries”, by any chance? It wouldn’t surprise me…)

As long as there is no movement toward level playing fields, other than for soccer at the expensive private schools, apparently this double standard goes unnoticed–or at least, unchallenged from within the movement. From without, it has been increasingly questioned in recent years (most notably as a result of the runaway success of Dan Brown’s novels), to the point where Opus Dei now has “opened its doors” and co-opted the media, turning them into unpaid propagandists for the sect. (You can find a particularly cloying array of pro-Opus videos here. View at your own risk.)

Opus Dei is the polar opposite of the progressive current within Catholicism known as Liberation Theology, and liberation theologians are anathema in all Opus Dei schools and colleges. You will not find, say, Leonardo Boff or Hans Küng on their library shelves, though you’ll find a great many other things, including ultra-orthodox works lauding Fr. Josemaría Escrivá, the controversially-canonized founder of the “Work”. If you want to know exactly what or whom the Vatican considers kosher, you need look no further than Opus Dei–any theologian who was silenced by the current pope back when he was head inquisitor is automatically excluded from the Opus Dei canon.

What really struck me in this documentary, looking at the members of the organization, is how very cultish they are, and how strangely alike their facial expressions, as though they had beaten all true individuality out of themselves. Their consciences do not truly belong to them; the rigors of their daily practice have seen to that. While they look benign enough on the surface, and talk very earnestly about love for their fellow man, you don’t have to scratch very hard to find something scary about them. Even the children already have that fanatical light in their eyes, and that incurious orthodoxy of thought that one can recognize in any cult where extremely controlling leaders tell you how to do everything, right up to and including how to flog yourself with a whip of knotted cords. (That last is a scourge which Jesus himself, a liberationist if ever there was one, only used to drive out the moneychangers from the Temple–an irony utterly lost on the Opus Dei cultists!)

Little wonder, then, that Opus Dei is a thread that ties together capitalism, religious conservatism and fascism. The mental distortions it creates are the very kind necessary to sustain the head-spinning cognitive dissonance it took for Spaniards to accept the dissolution of the democratic Republic, and for so many Chileans to avert their eyes from the blatant human-rights abuses of the oh-so-pious Augusto Pinochet. Like the dying Opus Dei priest who narrates Roberto Bolaño’s novel, By Night in Chile, the members of the sect all have a bad case of tunnel vision which, if challenged hard enough by reality but not softened in advance by an ability to question authority, will lead to mental breakdown.

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6 Responses to Opus Dei: A Silent Crusade

  1. Jim Hadstate says:

    And, of course, it comes as no surprise that John Paul II was and Herr Fuhrer Pope Benedict is a strong supporters of Opus Dei. This group is, as you say, a cult. A viscous and repressive cult. And far too accepted by the clergy of the Catholic Church. Both of the last two Popes are/were wingnuts and this influence will be a long time felt. The church may be a long time recovering from this foolishness, if it does. If it doesn’t, it will become another obscure footnote in history like the other cults in recorded history.

  2. So far, it seems that Opus Dei’s influence has waned, but its numbers have not. It’s actively recruiting, and they troll prestigious university campuses looking for lost sheep to lure into their fold. It’s a lucky thing I was brought up with very minimal religious exposure, or I might have fallen victim–like so many other 19-year-olds, when I first went to Queen’s (which is as prestigious a Canadian university as you’ll find), I was full of spiritual questions and looking to find my own way through the maze. In other words, much like any other kid away from home for the first extended period ever, and just the sort they’re looking to cultivate. Happily, I met my best friend in the first week there, and through him, “discovered” Wicca–which is about as free and autonomous a spiritual path as it gets. In turn, that took me politically to the left–if you worship Mother Earth, you can’t help becoming an environmentalist. And when you question the patriarchal notion of God, you also start questioning all the mechanisms of political and social control that go along with it…
    I have the sense that Opus Dei got the special dispensations it did because its mission (stated or not) is to bring individuals under much tighter churchly control, and to turn everyone on the planet into an obedient right-wing Catholic. At a time when Catholicism is fast losing ground to modernity and liberality, that sort of thing must be music to the Vatican’s ears. The current pope really believes that Vatican II, rather than making the church more up-to-date and relevant as it did, weakened it, encouraging people to go off and seek themselves. He’s a man of much orthodoxy and very little faith, in other words.

  3. Barry says:

    This is such a funny site. Your humor is like no others. Thanks for the laughs, little girl. What grade are you in, 5th or maybe 6th? Good luck in your future, you may turn into a very bright lady.

  4. Dude, you were “Bobby” two days ago, and your spoofed e-mail was different then. But I’m glad you got brave enough to post your patronage to the top of the page this time, unlike the cowardly shit you pulled the other day. Also, you chose an e-mail spoof more in line (get it? My “humor”!) with your personality. Although I suspect you’re actually more of a crack-smoker than a coke-snorter…can’t drink champagne on a beer budget there on the South Side, after all. Even if you are a white guy. Which of course you are. An old white guy with a huge gut and a chip on yer shoulder the size of the Sears Building, right?
    You are still reserved for a slot on my Wankers of the Week list, don’t worry. In fact, given how funny YOU are, I might just consider making you a co-blogger to liven this joint up!

  5. Slave Revolt says:

    Bina, you know when you make the patriarchs shit their pants when they come off with the shit Barry did in response to this ass-kicking short essay.
    Barry, come and and play-yaa! Let auntie Bina put some anti-Opus on da Popus.
    Bina, my main work associate, a Peruvian surfer, nature type of dude, has a brother in Opus. Here in Latin America I can very well see how this group can be so strong across social classes. Standing up to oppressive class and gender hierarchies is always scary and risky–and some folks would rather keep to the well worn path of peonage than question authority and embrace social justice.
    Funny how the upper class super-numenaries are allowed sexual pleasures and opulence, and the servant class has to live on bread and water. Funny how that shit works.
    Lastly, you think it was the Opus folks close to the Pope that had severe qualms about Avatar! You think that´s is what provoked the clumsy, wierd critique from the Vatican?
    Sorry, the Catholic Church is akin to the Mormons and other weirded-out supporters of imperialism and oppression in my estimation.

  6. Slave, Barry is banned now. He pooped here twice more, and I have a three-strikes rule. And since he has no balls, I can’t let him walk. Baseball, “Barry”–do you have any idea what that is? Maybe when they let you graduate kindergarten you’ll learn…
    Anyway, I feel your surfer buddy’s pain…he must wonder what’s wrong with his brother, that they can no longer talk openly with one another as they once did. Opus twists people’s heads around. They actually tell joiners not to tell their families until they’ve signed everything over, including their incomes. Can you say cult? Separating people from those they love and trust, who can talk sense to them and with whom they can be painfully honest, is THE hallmark of cultish behavior. The Moonies do it. Scientology does it. Opus Dei does it. Hell, those creepy “crisis pregnancy counselling centres”, the ones that try to talk women out of having abortions, do it. (I’ve seen their “volunteer training” sheets–I know. It’s all about mind control.)

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