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Posted Thursday, April 20, 2006
TIME Takes an Inside Look at The Most Controversial Group in Catholicism - Opus Dei

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TIME Speaks With Current and Past Opus Dei Members;

Why The Da Vinci Code Exposure Could Bring In More Devotees

Opus Dei Numeraries Expected, Although Not Compelled, to Wear Small Chain with Inward-Pointing Spikes, Around Upper Thigh for Two Hours Each Day; And to Flail Themselves Weekly, With a Small Rope Called a Discipline

After Years of Keeping Mum, Opus Dei Is Willing to Publicly Deny the Membership of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, almost-Justice Robert Bork, Senators Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback, Columnist Robert Novak and Former FBI Head Louis Freeh, Yet TIME Explains How Opus Dei May Still Exert Power in American Politics

On TIME.com: Photo Gallery Inside Opus Dei's New York City Headquarters

LONDON: 17 April 2006:
In this week's cover story, TIME magazine goes inside the Catholic group Opus Dei, which has broken its history of silence in response to the upcoming movie, The Da Vinci Code. The Da Vinci Code's Opus Dei- a powerful, ultraconservative Roman Catholic faction riddled with sadomasochistic ritual, one of whose members commits serial murder in pursuit of a church-threatening secret- is obviously not reflective of the real-life organization. TIME's religion reporter, David Van Biema along with reporters Carolina Miranda and Sean Scully, attempts to answer some of the questions that have long dogged the organization, and may also show how The Da Vinci Code could help it in the end.

Membership Small - 85,500 Worldwide, 3,000 in U.S.: Opus Dei is not a kind of spiritual pick-me-up for casual Catholics. It features a small, committed membership (85,500 worldwide and a mere 3,000 in the U.S.), many of whom come from pious families and are prepared to embrace unpopular church teachings such as its birth-control ban. Members take part in a rigorous course of spiritual "formation" stressing church doctrine and contemplation plus Escrivá's philosophy of work and personal holiness. Opus' core is its "numeraries," the 20% who, despite remaining lay, pledge celibacy, live together in one of its more than 1,700 sex-segregated "centers" and extend their training to a degree rivaling a priest's-all while holding day jobs, with most of their pay devolving to the group. That near cloistered life produces both the group's most avid, satisfied members and its bitterest dropouts, TIME reports.

'They Must Be Secret' Because Not Marching as a Group: For all its uniqueness in mission and structure, Opus Dei is best known for being secretive. It has a special set of greetings: "Pax" and "In aeternum" ("Peace" and "In eternity"). Its 1950 constitution barred members from revealing their membership without permission from the director of their center. In 1982 a new document repudiated "secrecy or clandestine activity," and Thomas Bohlin, the U.S. vicar, claims that the continuing impression is a misunderstanding based again on decentralization. "People [get Opus training] and go back to where they were," he says. "So we never march in a parade as a group because we don't form a group. And when people don't see us marching, they say, "They must be secret." Yet Opus will still not identify its members, and many prefer not to identify themselves, TIME reports.

Political Clout: Some have said that Opus' true secret is its clout in international politics. Poland's new conservative regime includes an Opus minister and several Opus officials, according to one of the group's Warsaw directors; membership there is rumored to be a political stepping stone. For years, Catholics in Washington have kept informal count of possible high-profile Opus people, including Justice Antonin Scalia and almost-Justice Robert Bork, Senators Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback, columnist Robert Novak and former FBI head Louis Freeh. The tally was not totally arbitrary: Freeh's child attended an Opus Dei school, and his brother was a numerary for a while; Scalia's wife has attended Opus events, and the Justice is close to an Opus priest; and Brownback, Bork and Novak converted to Catholicism under one's wing. Several have denied the rumors ("I can't stress enough that he is not a member," says Santorum's communications chief.) But a bonus of Opus' new candor campaign is that it now states freely that not one of the powerful Washingtonians belongs, TIME reports.

Opus Dei Informs 'About a Million Conservative Catholics' in the U.S.: Scott Appleby, a Catholic history expert at Notre Dame, estimates that through programs for nonmembers and the articulate piety of its members Opus Dei informs "about a million conservative Catholics" in the U.S. That's just 1.5% of the 67 million Catholics nationally, but it's a trove of motivated voters a politician can love, and may explain why Santorum has spoken at Opus events, in one case quoting Escrivá: "'Have you ever bothered to think how absurd it is to leave one's Catholicism aside on entering a professional association [or] Congress, as if you were checking your hat at the door?'"

And as for corporal mortification? Numeraries are expected, although not compelled, to wear a cilice, a small chain with inward-pointing spikes, around the upper thigh for two hours each day; and to flail themselves briefly weekly, with a small rope whip called a discipline. With rare exceptions, even those who leave don't cite self-mortification, as it's known, as their deal killer. Lucy, a former numerary assistant, told TIME it was "... nothing. It's not like The Da Vinci Code." Catholic laity and luminaries-including Mother Teresa-have used it to identify with Christ's — and the world's — suffering. San Antonio Archbishop José Gomez, an Opus member, notes its tie to Opus' roots: "In the Hispanic culture," he says, "you look at the crucifixes, and they have a lot of blood. We are more used to sacrifice in the sense of physical suffering."

Film Could Aid Opus Dei: The Da Vinci Code may be the best fate that could befall Opus Dei. The movie will not deter Opus' usual constituency-conservative Catholics do not look to Ron Howard for guidance. But by forcing Opus into greater transparency, the film could aid it: if the organization is as harmless and "mature" as Bohlin contends, then such exposure could bring in a bumper crop of devotees-with perhaps even more to come if, as seems likely, American Catholicism becomes both more Hispanic and more conservative, TIME reports.

That is the kind of outcome Julian Cardinal Herranz, Opus' ranking Vatican official, expects. Long ago, he says, when he was editing a university newspaper, someone submitted a story claiming that Opus Dei was part of a worldwide conspiracy. Fascinated, Herranz began talking to Opus members, eventually becoming one himself. "That article I read was fiction," he says. "And now I'm here. I became a priest, I came to Rome, I became a bishop, and now a Cardinal. All because I read a fictional story about Opus Dei."

TIME.com Photo Gallery: Opening Up Opus Dei

There's more on TIME.com about Opus Dei: a photo gallery of scenes from inside the group's New York City headquarters; correspondent David Thigpen's visit to its Chicago center; and a chance to ask David Van Biema, writer of this week's story, your own questions, at www.time.com/askdavid

TIME magazine is a global media brand, with a circulation of 5.2 million, and an audience of 29 million readers worldwide. TIME gives readers access to news, information and analysis that leverage the magazine's global resources in 26 news bureaus around the world. TIME is the leading English-language newsmagazine in the world, with a weekly circulation of 4.2 million in the US and Canada, 550,000 across EMEA and more than 400,000 in Asia, Australia & New Zealand.


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