Cults and Secret Societies: Opus Dei cover

Cults and Secret Societies: Opus Dei


To its members, it is quite literally “Work of God” – the Latin translation of the organization’s title – and a means of incorporating a deeper, practical faith into everyday life. But to its critics, Opus Dei is a dangerously manipulative, ultra-conservative secret society.

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Cults and Secret Societies: Opus Dei

Opus Dei

Opus Dei is the most controversial group in the Roman Catholic Church.

To its members, it is quite literally “Work of God” – the Latin translation of the organization’s title – and a means of incorporating a deeper, practical faith into everyday life.

But to its critics, Opus Dei is a dangerously manipulative, ultra-conservative secret society with a penchant for self-flagellation, right-wing politics and aggressive recruitment.


A relic and portrait of Josemaria Escriva, founder of the Opis Dei, in St. Mary of the Angels in Chicago.


The enduring conspiracy theories about the group were reinforced by Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and the subsequent movie starring Tom Hanks.

The fictional plot centers on a ruthless Opus Dei operative who commits murder to hide the secrets of the Holy Grail.

The book drew complaints that far from being a sect or a cult, Opus Dei is, in fact, a fully integrated entity of the Catholic Church with a prelate ordained by the Pope himself.

Big Group

Opus Dei claims more than 93,000 members in 90 countries around the world, and they are encouraged to promote the evangelizing missions through their professional work.

Of that number, only about 2,000 are priests.

Comprised chiefly of lay people, Opus Dei has prominent representatives among governments and companies and a huge, corporate headquarters in Manhattan, funded by members who are expected to donate part of their often substantial ncomes.

About 70% - the “Supernumaries” - live in their own private homes. They’re often married with careers and devote some time each time to pray.

St. Mary of the Angels in Chicago

Image by JeremyA (CC BY-SA 3.0)

St. Mary of the Angels in Chicago

The second largest group of about 20% are called “numeraries” and are celibate, with many living in Opus Dei centers.

Some Of It’s Changes

Initially, it was only open to men but has accepted women since 1930.

There are also “numerary assistants, unmarried celibate women who take care of the numeraries, and “associates,” a smaller number of the celibate faithful who do not live in Opus Dei homes.

Founded in Spain in 1928 by the Catholic saint and priest Josemaría Escrivá, Opus Dei was given final Catholic Church approval in 1950 by Pope Pius XII.

Opus Dei teaches that work not only contributes to social progress but is "a path to holiness", and its founder advised people to: "Sanctify your work. Sanctify yourself in your work. Sanctify others through your work."

Some Of Their Practices

In 1982, by decision of Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church made it into a personal prelature.

Meaning the jurisdiction of its own bishop covers the Opus Dei congregation wherever they are, rather than in geographical dioceses. It is the only one of its kind in existence.

The practice in Opus Dei that attracts the most criticism is mortification, which can involve fasting and, in some circumstances, self-inflicted pain.

Some numeraries go to the extremes of whipping themselves or winding a wire chain, known as a cilice, into their legs.

Across the World

Public Domain

Across the World

It has been endorsed in the past by Popes as a way of reflecting on Christ’s death on the cross but Opus Dei spokespeople insist self-flagellation is now extremely rare.

Corporal Mortification

“It's a very minor thing. It's not something that looms large in the life of a member of Opus Dei,” Andrew Soane, Opus Dei's then communications officer, told The Guardian in a 2004 interview.

“It's optional. You could compare it with training for a rowing race or a marathon, or some of the more rigorous slimming regimes. It sounds dramatic, but it isn't.'

Celibate members are much more likely to follow “corporal mortification” routines such as fasting, remaining silent for hours or days at a time, or voluntarily undergoing discomforts such as sleeping on the floor or without a pillow.

Part Of Their Practice

While the theology of Opus Dei may have its roots in earlier times it is very much a modern institution, helping to found universities, business schools, technical and agricultural colleges and hospitals.

The total assets of non-profits linked to Opus Dei are estimated to total more than $2.8 billion.

The secrecy stems from the organization’s 1950 constitution in which members were expressly forbidden to reveal themselves without the blessing of their superior, a practice that has led to much speculation over which senior public figures could belong to Opus Dei.

Spiritual Tasks

There have also been claims that members are barred from reading certain books and had to submit their mail for inspection before reading it.

In addition, Escrivá and his followers faced condemnation for supporting radical right-wing goverments such as Spain’s dictatorial Franco regime.

"Life is schizophrenic in Opus Dei centres," former numerary Carmen Charo told the BBC.

"Each member has lots of spiritual tasks to fulfil, like praying, going to mass every day, training other followers, and his or her development as a free person isn't really considered - one is always under the orders of the spiritual leaders, and also under their strict control. The same happens with your money."


The Opus Dei Awareness Network (ODAN) claims to be a worldwide community of “people who have had painful experiences as a result of their association with Opus Dei.”

On its website, ODAN features testimonies from ex-members of the group and accuses Opus Dei of “deceptive and manipulative” techniques.

What They Claim

ODAN goes on to claim:

“The great tragedy is that most Opus Dei members do not realize that the ideals they aspire to do not correlate with their actual practices, which include a culture which demands aggressive recruiting, especially at the numerary level..."

"The withholding of information from new recruits and new members; the imposition of intense coercion and guilt on those who wish to make free decisions; and blind obedience to superiors as the Founder of Opus Dei commands in Maxim 941, The Way: "Obedience, the sure way."

Obey or Leave


Obey or Leave

"Blind obedience to your superior, the way of sanctity. Obedience in your apostolate the only way, for in a work of God, the spirit must be to obey or to leave."