What Does the Pope Have Against Opus Dei?

Is there some problem with Opus Dei that led Pope Francis to take so many steps to contradict what its founder thought a key to its continued usefulness to the Church?

I have many questions about the pope’s latest canonical offensive against Opus Dei. The first of them is what was wrong with the status quo? I would think a man as interested in new ideas and experiment in pastoral work would not feel it necessary to fix what was not broken. Was there some problem with Opus Dei? Something that led him to take so many steps to contradict what its founder thought a key to its continued usefulness to the Church? I really doubt it.

First, the pope did not ordain as bishop the new prelate of Opus Dei in 2016. This was something both St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI had granted to the prelature. It was obviously a sign of things to come. 

Secondly, in the apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium, the prelature was moved in the elaborate pastoral organigram of the Vatican to depend on the Dicastery for Clergy instead of that of the Congregation for Bishops. Then comes the motu proprio issued August 8 of this year which established that the prelate of Opus Dei would definitely not be ordained a bishop. He was allowed, as a consolation prize, “the use of the title of Supernumerary Apostolic Protonotary with the title of Reverend Monsignor and therefore may use the insignia corresponding to this title.” Most people know how highly the pope regards monsignors. 

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One does not have to be a canon lawyer to see that these steps are not meant to promote the prelature but rather to put it on the level of other institutes. When the prelature status was granted, I remember there were murmurings by religious and clerical critics about “special favors” and political connections. Pope Francis says that taking away the bishop from the prelature “is to strengthen the determination that, for the protection of the particular gift of the Spirit, a form of governance based on charism more than on hierarchical authority is needed.”

That reasoning reminds me of a book by Leonardo Boff, supposedly a friend of the Holy Father, called Charism and Power. The theme of the book was that the institutionality of the Church got in the way of the Holy Spirit. I have two objections to the pope using the idea: one is that Pope Francis did not even mention that two saints, St. Josemaría Escriva and St. John Paul II, thought differently about the configuration of the prelature than he does. He is, once again—like when he imposed restrictions about the traditional, so-called Tridentine rite of the Eucharist—reversing the decision of recent popes. 

The second objection I have is that it sounds odd that the pope is almost lyrical about charism versus hierarchy when he is laying down the law with his typical hierarchical forcefulness. A book I read years ago described the popes as absolute monarchs. This pope is not shy about his power both to legislate and enforce obedience. 

He is using the institutional power to impose his charismatic vision. “When he meets a bureaucratic hurdle, he changes the rules,” a priest told me. There are enough anecdotes to be assured that he is not averse to using intimidation even when dealing with his brother bishops. That is not what I would call purely charismatic leadership.

There have been few commentaries critical of the new papal ukases. One lonely bishop said that he considered the new rules an incorrect interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. “Personal prelatures are a juridic reality, born of the Second Vatican Council, for the purposes that are specified in Presbyterorum Ordinis, and should not be assimilated into the category of a clerical association.” 

Opus Dei is not going to criticize a papal decision, and the issue seems narrowly canonical. There have been very few protests about the moves. The “Work” is not going to defend itself against a papal order; it would be oxymoronic to hear that Opus Dei, dedicated to obedience, was opposed to something the pope did. It is not likely others will take up the cudgels to oppose what seems to apply only to one group of people. 

And, let’s face it, Opus Dei does not have a lot of friends. Dan Brown and company have practically made the name Opus Dei anathema for people who have no idea about what it really is. People in the Church (ignorance is everywhere) use the name as a substitute for all that is reactionary. A special structure for Opus Dei rankles some for reasons I cannot discover. Is it jealousy or conservative-liberal tensions, or something else? I am pretty sure that it is rarely about personal experience of the charisms or the sincere spirituality of members of Opus Dei.  A special structure for Opus Dei rankles some for reasons I cannot discover. Is it jealousy or conservative-liberal tensions, or something else?Tweet This

St. Josemaría’s idea of the prelature was supposedly inspired by some Latin inscriptions he read about the canonical structure of the military orders which helped him think of a unique structure for the charism he dedicated his life to promoting. The specialness of the vocation for laity involved in Opus Dei was strengthened by the fact that “members” had a reference to a bishop. Now, the prelature is a unique kind of structure, and there is some discussion about whether laity, including the numeraries, are “members.” But the prelature is now assigned to a dicastery about priestly institutes and the pope has emphasized that Opus Dei is ruled by parochial and diocesan structures.

This might not seem problematic. After all, the military ordinariate has faithful that de facto are often involved in two canonical jurisdictions. However, what about the lay men and women who have dedicated their lives to the “Work” and live in community? They had more stability in the prelature as previously understood. 

And there is a shocking example from Spain of what that assertion of the local bishop’s authority might entail. St. Josemaría dreamed of building a shrine in honor of the Virgin. The church, Torreciudad, was built by donations from supporters and for years was staffed by Opus Dei priests to serve hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who visited the shrine. Now the local bishop has asserted his rights over the church and taken over its administration. “Nothing less than confiscation of a good built, administered and ministered by the ‘Work,’” said one source to me, who prefers (surprise!) to remain nameless. 

Opus Dei (of which I am not a member nor affiliated in any way) lives and breathes an obedience to the office of the Holy Father that is almost mystical. Msgr. Fernando Ocáriz, the present prelate of Opus Dei, wrote a letter in which he asked for “sincere filial obedience” to Pope Francis’ “dispositions” and reminding everyone in the prelature of the spirit of Opus Dei with regard to the pope. Nevertheless, he asks for “suggestions” on how to make the changes necessary to meet the requirements of the papal orders. I think we should all pray for the members of Opus Dei in what is practically a crisis of institutional structure of a special charisma.

This whole story reminds me of something that happened in 1773. In Dominus ac Redemptor, Clement XIV dissolved the Jesuit order. I reread the document recently. Like the absolute monarch he was, Clement did not mince any words. He claimed to have needed time to consult about the move against the Society of Jesus, which he said was “a grave and momentous matter.” 

He said that “Indeed, it happens that scarcely or not at all can the true and lasting peace of the Church be restored as long as the Society is intact.” The measures were draconian: “We take away and abrogate each and every one of its offices, ministries, administrations, houses, schools, colleges, retreats, farms, and any properties in whatsoever province, realm, and jurisdiction in whatever way pertaining to the Society.”

Obviously, I am not comparing what I regard as canonical reforms that seem to go against the vision of Opus Dei, structured until now in the law and life of the Church, with Clement’s decree against the Jesuit Order. However, it is heartening to remember that what one pope tears down, another can rebuild. The Jesuits, ironically, survived in countries that were not friendly with the papacy and would not permit the decree to be published, a sine qua non of Church law before modern communication developed. Pope Pius VII, in 1801, cancelled the suppression decreed by his predecessor and restored the Jesuit Order to the life of the Church. 

Opus Dei will also survive what I regard as invidious interference in its mission. My informant was not very optimistic about the future of Opus Dei, but I feel we have not seen the last of this discernment of charism and law. They will play the long game, obediently, with the piety and persistence of their founder, and things will work out.

[Image: Pope Francis and Monsignor Fernando Ocáriz Braña, Prelate of Opus Dei (Credit: Vatican Media)]


  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

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