Secret society that invites the tourists for tea

March 25, 2005

Michael North explores the hoo-ha around the controversial Catholic group Opus Dei and how it operates on campuses

Peter Brown is annoyed. He feels he has been stitched up by a national newspaper that has just portrayed the hall of residence he runs as a key recruiting centre for Opus Dei, the notorious Roman Catholic group to which Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, has been linked.

The newspaper carried a picture of the entrance of Netherhall House, Hampstead - where Kelly has been a guest speaker - that made the building look almost haunted, suggesting shady practices within.

Netherhall is an intercollegiate private hall of residence that caters for male undergraduates and graduates. Residents pay between £100 and £115 a week for full board and a studious environment: there is plenty of calm library space and a good computer room. There are also sports facilities and a packed programme of cultural events. Brown, an Opus Dei member, enthuses about the musical recitals and theatrical productions.

At the centre of the house is the oratory, "the most important room" in any Opus Dei residence.

With 95 residents, 50 of whom are non-Catholic, Netherhall is the largest of four single-sex residential houses run by Opus Dei in the UK - two are in London and two in Manchester. There are also houses in Oxford and Glasgow where members can meet.

Netherhall House is certainly a disappointment for anyone seeking the intrigue that has surrounded Opus Dei (which means "God's work" in Latin). It is a far cry from the world of the murderous self-flagellating Opus Dei monk who appears in The Da Vinci Code , the bestselling novel by Dan Brown. To show it has nothing to hide, Netherhall House invites tourists doing the "Da Vinci Code" tour of London inside for a cup of tea.

Opus Dei was created in 1928 by the Spanish priest JosemarÍa Escrivá de Balaguer. It made powerful friends in Franco's Government - the Minister for Education, José Ibàñez MartÍn, was a key ally in 1939. Opus Dei became known for its extreme Catholic conservatism, the exclusivity of its lay members - who held positions at the top of Spanish society - and its secrecy (the Opus Dei constitution became public only in the late 1980s).

In Spain, where it runs its own universities, including the Universidad de Navarra, it is still regarded by many as being linked to the extreme Right.

There are no specific Opus Dei universities in the UK because, with only 520 of its 85,000 worldwide membership in the UK, it is too small.

Nevertheless, many UK members, including Kelly, have their first contact with the organisation at university. Indeed, many of its centres are in university towns and, although the organisation says it is not elitist, a spokesman agreed that its links with universities could explain the generally high intellect of members.

The disciplined, ascetic lifestyle of Opus Dei members coupled with The Da Vinci Code and the Kelly link (given her possible influence on matters such as stem-cell research) have prompted huge media interest. Full members, or numeraries, take a vow of celibacy, spend hours a day in prayer, and are expected to perform "mortifications of the flesh" either with a small cat-o'-nine-tails-style whip, known as "the discipline", or by using a "cilice" - a spiked band worn around the leg or arm for a part of each day.

There have also been stories of "brainwashing" by former members. The Opus Dei Awareness Network website, based in Indiana in the US, catalogues many such reports. The site was started by Dianne DiNicola after her daughter Tammy became involved with Opus Dei as an undergraduate at Boston University in 1986. Dianne DiNicola says Tammy was lonely and vulnerable when she was befriended by an Opus Dei member. She moved into a group residence and, within months, took a vow of celibacy. "There was no period of discernment, no time for reflection on making such a huge decision," Dianne DiNicola says.

The DiNicola family, who are devout Catholics, became worried when their vivacious daughter began to seem withdrawn and alienated, and started to come home less and less, even missing Thanksgiving. Her mother says Tammy was told to deceive her parents and "to lie for God". "We used to go all the time to see her in the Opus Dei house. There was a sense of gaiety, everyone laughed, but there was something wrong that we could not put our finger on. We didn't know any other families with the same problems. We thought it was us."

After the family employed an "exit counsellor" to persuade Tammy to leave Opus Dei, Dianne DiNicola says the extent of Tammy's "brainwashing" became evident. "Every element of her life had been controlled. She needed permission for everything - when to leave the residence, what to read, how much money she could spend. They even read her mail. When she came out, she went to a grocery store and there was so much choice she could not handle it. It was almost like she had a panic attack."

Tammy remains a Catholic and is now married with three boys who attend church, but her mother says the episode caused "a crisis of faith" in the family. Fourteen years later, the website she started to warn other families about Opus Dei is still going strong. "We are inundated with messages from people with similar experiences. We get up to 5,000 hits a day," she says.

In the UK, Catholic commentator Michael Walsh, author of Opus Dei: An Investigation into the Powerful, Secretive Society within the Catholic Church , warns of the group's power to lead young people away from their families. "They are an alternative family. Escrivá made that central to his early apostles."

John Roche, a fellow of Linacre College, Oxford, brought about a change in Opus Dei working practices after writing a critical report on his time with the group from 1961 to 1974. In 1981, in what Walsh terms a "public rebuke" of Opus Dei - which is now said to enjoy growing status in Rome - the late Cardinal Basil Hume laid down guidelines stating that no person under 18 should be allowed to take a vow of long-term commitment to Opus Dei, and if they did so at 18, they should first consult with their parents. He said all members should be free to join or leave Opus Dei without pressure, and that all Opus Dei enterprises should be transparent and clearly labelled.

Roche calls Opus Dei "an Orwellian world employing much doublethink and internal and external deception" based on a cult of personality (Escrivá's) that makes it "virtually a cult or sect in spirit, a law unto itself, almost totally self-centred, grudgingly accepting Rome's authority".

He says that since he left the group years ago, "I have heard from, or met, many former members of Opus Dei and parents of present members who expressed gratitude and relief that, at last, something was being done about Opus Dei."

Unsurprisingly, Opus Dei representatives in the UK reject the claims made against the group. Andrew Soane, Opus Dei's director of information in London, says Tammy DiNicola's allegations "exaggerate hugely".

Soane is open about Opus Dei's strict practices, talking freely about his use of the cilice and "the discipline", first practised by Escriv to remind him of the suffering of Christ. The founder was renowned for heroic mortifications that sprayed the walls of the first Opus Dei house in Madrid with blood, but Soane plays down the severity of the practice. "It doesn't inflict pain. The cilice does not make you bleed. People go swimming (with it on). We also try to find ways in our ordinary lives for mortifications, for example, smiling when you have a headache or not having milk with coffee. Little mortifications here and there strengthen the will. You are better placed in times of temptation to exercise willpower and not behave like an invertebrate."

Soane says no one is pressured to do anything against their will within Opus Dei, although guidance on such matters as what members should read is given by a spiritual director. Soane calls this "a perk, something helpful", not a control mechanism.

On the subject of Ruth Kelly, who turned down a request from The Times Higher to talk about her faith, Soane says she is a "supernumerary" - a married member of Opus Dei. He stresses, however, that Opus Dei would not pressure her on any political decision.J"We could not put pressure on someone in his or her professional life. The influence has to be through one's spiritual life." And Peter Brown says: "It comes down to her conscience. I trust that she will make the right decisions."

Soane dismisses as nonsense talk of coercing young people into joining Opus Dei. But Cambridge religious historian Emile Perreau-Saussine says Opus Dei's very structured approach may attract vulnerable people "who need that". "The real question is whether they manage to flourish as members while remaining free." Soane says the group's reputation for secrecy may come from its ethos of "evangelising in your own environment... The idea is not to wave banners, but to do it among friends. We're never going to go door to door."

Theologians at Oxford University, where Opus Dei has run the non-residential Grand Pont House since the 1960s, testify to the group's discretion. Reverend Robert Morgan of Linacre College and an Oxford scholar for 30 years; Paul Joyce, a Catholic scholar at St Peter's College; and Gerard Hughes, master of Campion Hall, the Jesuit college, all say they have had little or no contact with Opus Dei in Oxford. The word from staff at Glasgow University's religious education department is the same.

Oxford's Catholic chaplain, Father Jeremy Fairhead, praises the professionalism of Opus Dei. He says: "I have nothing but respect for them here. They are transparent and part of the mainstream clergy. They are not doing anything underhand. In nine years in London and Oxford, I have never had an instance of someone terrorised by Opus Dei. They are not mad extremists."

Opus Dei numeraries certainly exude an intensity that may be compelling to an idealistic undergraduate looking for direction, although the same could be said of any religious group with strong convictions. Brown talks about trying to form "fully human" people at Netherhall, giving students access to the arts, compassionate works such as a community action programme in Nicaragua ("an essential part of a human being is having charitable concern for others") and spirituality ("without God, there's a lack of purpose").

"Ultimately," he says, "what we are trying to do is get people into heaven."

Soane adds: "Everyone throughout his or her life has, in my view, to try to obtain holiness. The struggle for virtue never ends. We are always trying to get closer to God."

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