To describe Opus Dei as mundane would likely strike most readers as odd, if not perverse. After all, the group has been embroiled in controversy since its birth, attracting criticism for its secretive practices, its members’ collusion in Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in Spain, and its often rigidly conservative beliefs. But the most literal meaning of “mundane” is “of this world”; and this is how Opus Dei understands itself, and how it has come to describe its charism. The key to understanding this group is ordinary secularity.
Throughout the history of Christianity, the tension between this-worldliness and otherworldliness has drawn many boundaries and defined countless identities. For someone like Augustine of Hippo, the two poles were quite clear: the realm of the transcendent is the City of God, the land of the promise of eternity; and the secular—saeculum—is the time between now and the Second Coming, before the wheat is sorted from the tares. To be self-consciously secular, or mundane, is to consider oneself wholly and truly of this age.
And this is indeed how Opus Dei sees itself. In the two-volume Opus Dei: A History, two senior members of the group, José Luis González-Gullón and John F. Coverdale, try to pin down the specific qualities that have given form to Opus Dei. And what they’ve come to see, nearly a century since the group was founded, is that it’s inextricably tied to the ordinariness of this age, to “a message that unites the human and the religious.”
Opus Dei was founded by the priest Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer in Spain in 1928. During the Spanish Civil War, its members consolidated their presence in the country and strengthened their grip on its cultural, political, and professional circles. Few Commonweal readers will be unaware of Opus Dei’s more than slightly unusual history. A novelty in the Church, it began garnering the approval of certain key figures, especially Popes Pius XII and John Paul II. This allowed it to grow from a small association of Spanish lay Catholics and a handful of priests to become a one-hundred-thousand-strong “personal prelature”—a special status in canon law that grants it jurisdiction over all its members, outside the geographical diocesan system.
Opus Dei’s rapid ascent has been regarded with suspicion both inside and outside the Church. Its members are known for being fervently outspoken about their positions on such contested social issues as abortion and same-sex marriage (positions, it should be said, that many ordinary Catholics outside Opus Dei share). Their belief in the rigid separation of the roles of men and women, with the latter being instructed by the group to serve the former, has led many to find them uncomfortably conservative, even reactionary. Yet this is not where they get the most flak.
Escrivá believed in the necessity of meeting God, and sanctifying oneself, within the ordinary responsibilities of everyday life. In concrete terms, this implied a total, wholehearted acceptance of the professions—forms of life distinctive of the modern age. Among the ranks of Opus Dei, it is common to find lawyers, bankers, academics, journalists, and politicians of significant status. Opus Dei prepares and guides its members to an extraordinary extent. They all receive attentive spiritual formation based largely on Escrivá’s book The Way; many end up at one of the group’s well-funded colleges and universities, institutions that offer the subjects that make up the modern quadrivium: philosophy, law, economics, and communications.
All this is designed to help the members of Opus Dei burrow deep into their workplaces—from banks and law firms to universities and government ministries—and to make the most of their professional careers. As one member once told me, they demonstrate through their professional activities how the gifts of Christianity are finely tuned by the instruments Opus Dei provides. A typical member of Opus Dei is a well-formed member of the professions with a well-articulated, albeit somewhat idiosyncratic, sense of what it means to be a modern Christian.
During the years of Franco’s dictatorship, many of his closest allies and ministers were members of Opus Dei. The opusdeístas, as their critics would call them, staffed many ministries and offices that kept alive one of Western Europe’s longest-lasting authoritarian dictatorships. Yet as international commentators in the 1960s observed, these “ultra-Catholic” technocrats were also instrumental in delivering Spain from its only partly industrialized, mostly agrarian past. The opusdeístas brought the country, kicking and screaming, into the modern world. For their allies within Franco’s regime, and those who still today hail them as the country’s modernizers, they are considered trailblazers of rationalized statecraft and administration; to their critics, they were exploitative opportunists who instrumentalized Cold War free-market economics to keep Spain, morally and culturally, in a premodern limbo—a critique the authors of Opus Dei: A History don’t have much to say about.
The truth lies somewhere between the two. It would be absurd to deny that many opusdeístas were complicit in some of the most unsavory aspects of Franco’s regime, though many in Opus Dei write this off as more accidental than intentional. González-Gullón and Coverdale claim that there’s little in the political conduct of the opusdeístas that is specifically attributable to their membership in Opus Dei. “All members,” they stress, “enjoy freedom in political and cultural matters.” All Opus Dei does, they insist, is fulfill a “purely spiritual and evangelizing purpose.” But the distinction here is too neat. Even if Franco’s Opus Dei allies were not exactly controlled by their spiritual advisors, the convictions that motivated their work certainly did arise from the whole group’s sense of what the modern world had to offer, and what needed to be changed.