Most of these horror stories refer to life as a numerary. See Question 7 for a discussion of the different types of members.
It’s my opinion that the root cause of these stories is a difference in expectations of what numerary life is about. Opus Dei is very clear that members are “ordinary lay people.” Certainly they are lay people. And most of them are very ordinary. But it is true that there are aspects of the spirit of Opus Dei which are shared with many contemplative religious orders.
A number of years ago I watched the movie “A Nun’s Story.” In the movie there was a scene that bore a striking resemblance to Opus Dei’s practice of the “emendation.” (See Question 32) Given Opus Dei’s insistence that the members are ordinary lay people, I was rather confused by this, and thought it was evidence of a religious, as opposed to a lay, mentality. Upon further reflection I realized that just because nuns and monks have a certain practice, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily inappropriate for lay people!
For example, numeraries are completely at the disposal of Opus Dei. They are ready to move to another city, or even another country, according to the needs of the Prelature. Many people who understand this level of commitment for a priest or nun see this as more appropriate for members of a religious order than for “ordinary lay people.” But there is no reason a lay person can’t be as committed to the particular apostolate of an organization as a Religious!
Women numeraries are supposed to sleep on a board, and male numeraries to take a cold shower in the morning, offering up these mortifications for the prelate. While these practices have been common in the contemplative orders, most ordinary lay people don’t do them. (As an aside, before you recoil in horror, I know for a fact that the Discalced Carmelites in Port Tobacco, Maryland, did these same mortifications as recently as the early 1980’s. So Opus Dei is NOT the only institution in the Church that still practices corporal mortification.)
All members of Opus Dei are bound to obey the directors in all that relates to the spirit of the Work, including their spiritual life and apostolate. Many people feel this smacks of the obedience required of members of religious orders. But how can ANY organization, continue to function if its members, employees, or subordinates are not required to submit to authority? In my job I’ll get fired if I don’t follow my superior’s instructions. Still, members of Opus Dei, like all Christians, must refuse to obey if they are given an instruction that is immoral!
There are other examples, too, including the cilice and discipline (see Question 34). But even lay people have historically performed these types of corporal mortifications, including St. Thomas More, and Blessed Francisco and Jacinta Marto (mere children, no less!). In fact, Our Lady of Fatima has asked all of us to perform various sacrifices, including small acts of mortification, for the conversion of sinners.
There is no doubt that many “ordinary lay people” don’t always see practices which are part of Opus Dei’s spirit as being appropriate for “ordinary lay people.” But that doesn’t mean they aren’t.
The problem is further compounded by the fact that some of these practices are not told to new members until after they have joined, and that therefore, the new member may not feel they made a fully informed decision. When the new member expresses surprise or doubt about how these practices are appropriate for lay people, they are usually counseled to trust St. Josemaría and the directors, and to “give it time and it will become clear.” In some people’s opinion, this makes it psychologically very hard for a new member to decide not to proceed with full incorporation because they’re afraid of abandoning what they’ve been assured is a divine calling. But isn’t this a danger in any vocation?
At the risk of drawing the analogy to religious orders too strongly, I would seriously doubt that the Jesuits, or the Franciscans, or the Carmelites all tell every detail of their spirit to potential novices. That’s what the novitiate and temporary vows is all about — to give the novice the opportunity to learn “up close and personal” what life in that religious order is like before making a permanent commitment.
While Opus Dei is not a religious order, there is a similar time of “getting to know” Opus Dei. It takes at least 6 and a half years for someone to make a permanent commitment to Opus Dei. And this commitment does not take the form of a vow and can be gotten out of much more simply than a vow can.
I don’t deny that it can be very hard, psychologically speaking, for a member to leave during that time. But I would argue that it is no harder than it would be for a Jesuit, Franciscan, or Carmelite novice to leave during their novitiate. It is often hard to discern what God is asking of us, especially when one is considering leaving what they once thought was their vocation. That is as true for Opus Dei as it is for other institutions in the Church.
There is a constant concern in Opus Dei with “winning new apostles,” particularly numeraries. For Opus Dei to be able to continue, numeraries are essential. Forming a numerary takes many years and requires a great commitment of resources, both financial and personal. Also, because numeraries must receive an intense philosophical and theological formation, suitable for the priesthood, they must have or be working on a college degree. Thus, new numeraries are most often found among college students and those recently graduated from college, and Opus Dei often has centers near the finer colleges and universities. Opus Dei also runs high schools where students can come into contact with numeraries and other members, thereby learning about the Work.
When a young person first comes into contact with Opus Dei there is usually a member close to their age who will try to get to know them. If the person agrees, this member will become their spiritual director. If the spiritual director believes the person has the qualities necessary for a vocation, they will likely ask the person to consider a vocation.
Critics argue that these factors lead to many abuses. Some of the more common criticisms are:
- An “instrumentalization” of friendship, where members are encouraged to make friends only with people who might have a vocation to Opus Dei. In my experience, this is frequently and strongly discouraged by the directors of Opus Dei.
- A 17 year old adolescent can’t discern whether or not another 17 year old adolescent has a vocation to Opus Dei. Yet numeraries this young are sometimes made spiritual directors of prospective members, and as such, encourage other teens to consider a vocation to Opus Dei, even as a celibate member, before they’ve begun to fully live the life of a numerary themselves. However, no one is allowed to join Opus Dei based solely on the judgment of a 17 year old numerary. In fact, a 17 year old numerary would be strongly corrected if he ever, without the approval of the directors, suggested to someone that he consider a vocation to the Work.
- Parents are often not involved in the process of discernment of a vocation to Opus Dei, even a numerary vocation. While this may have been common in the past, this is much less common now.
Nevertheless, I agree that these are real dangers, and have witnessed situations where they have occurred. This should not happen!