It is probably safe to assume that the Spanish priest Josemaría Escrivá — the founder of Opus Dei — was not being ironic when he described his Catholic fellowship as ‘an intravenous injection in the bloodstream of society’.
When Escrivá used those words, the ‘opium of the people’ — in its Catholic form — was effectively being outlawed in Spain. Convents and churches were set ablaze by anarchists who murdered fleeing monks and nuns. The prime minister of the day, Manuel Azana,
had declared the country no longer Catholic, telling the population that all the convents in Spain were not worth the life of a single Republican.
Frightened for their lives, Escrivá and other clergy scampered across the Pyrenees through Andorra to the relative safety of Burgos. When Franco’s Nationalists took power in 1939, Escrivá returned to Madrid, and Opus Dei began anew.
Opus Dei is a personal prelature. This means that its members share values that are as fundamental to the Catholic Church as those held by the Pope, but each leads a secular life; a plain-clothes division of the clergy, if you will. They believe it is their duty to promote the values of the church by sanctifying their everyday lives and work.
Josemaría Escrivá is now a saint, having performed, as a non-living person, two authenticated miracles, as the Catholic Church requires. The first was the miraculous cure of a Carmelite nun, who was suffering from terminal cancer; the second was the cure of a Spanish doctor who developed radiodermatitis from repeated exposure to x-rays. Escrivá is also said to have restored sight and hearing and miraculously healed the wounds of an Austrian shot by terrorists.
Worldwide, Opus Dei now has 85,000 members, which divide into three tiers: numeraries, who are usually celibate and work full time for Opus Dei; super numeraries, who are often married and give a portion of their earnings as a tithe; and finally, co-operators, who may not even be Christian but support the values of the movement.
In Australia, Opus Dei has about 100 numeraries, 400 super numeraries, and over 1000 co-operators. Membership is difficult to come by. If you want to join Opus Dei, a current member has to ask you along, and if you want to work your way up to being a numerary, the process is complicated and takes five years.
Richard Vella, who is the spokesperson for Opus Dei in Australia, explains that members prefer to be discreet about their involvement because, he says, it’s a personal relationship with God, which he describes as, ‘the greatest love of my life’.
Vella works at Warrane College as a counsellor for the UNSW students who live there. He’s an approachable, polite and slightly nervous young man, who was introduced to Opus Dei when he was studying medicine. ‘Back then’, he says, ‘God was a great comfort when I found myself suffering from anxiety.’ Richard told me that he took over the position of spokesperson from Dr Amin Abboud, who is now in Rome and about to be ordained.
Dr Aboud may be a familiar name to some Australians because he and Michael Cook, who both work for Australasian Bioethics Information, publish opinion pieces on ethical issues such as IVF treatment and stem cell research in Australian metropolitan newspapers. In the media, Dr Aboud identifies himself as a medical doctor and assistant lecturer in medical ethics and health law at the University of New South Wales, and also as director of Australasian Bioethics Information. Michael Cook calls himself editor of BioEdge, an email newsletter on bioethics.
On its website Australasian Bioethics Information declares itself ‘completely independent … a clearinghouse for information about cutting-edge bioethical issues. It is designed and maintained by volunteers and financed by supporters and contributors.’
Nowhere on the Australasian Bioethics Information website, nor in any of the opinion pieces they have written, do Dr Aboud or Michael Cook ever identify themselves as members of Opus Dei.
Michael Cook says that he doesn’t see any conflict of interest in this because the values that Australasian Bioethics Information promotes are based on scientific evidence. ‘I have religious views based on faith and my personal journey is irrelevant’, he says, ‘no one asks Alan Trounson [a leading embryonic stem cell researcher]where he gets his ethics from, whether it’s Bertrand Russell or whoever.’
Richard Vella is highly sensitive to the accusation of secrecy that is often thrown at Opus Dei, and I think I’m inclined to agree with him when he suggests that a person’s religious beliefs are his or her own private matter. Opus Dei members use a cilice (a spiked chain that is strapped around the thigh) and other forms of corporal mortification, including self-flagellation. I’m told it’s about pushing yourself to try a little harder every day. In any case, whether they are sleeping on the floor or going without butter on their toast, these are matters I’d rather leave to Opus Dei members and the privacy of their own homes.
However, when it comes to societal values and the concept of an open public debate, shouldn’t members declare a fundamental allegiance to the Church of Rome rather than betray their public life with a covert Catholicism that’s knocked up to look like their own opinion? Why not argue openly from a faith-based platform, rather than claiming you represent a scientific evidence-based one? Opus Dei is a long way from the burning convents of a conflicted Spain, yet it seems the hard political edge remains.
To read the opinion pieces of Dr Aboud and Michael Cook click here.
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