When I joined the Legion of Christ in 1962 most people in Ireland had no knowledge of the newest religious congregation in the Catholic Church. I don’t think very many were familiar with another group called “Opus Dei.” Shortly after I joined the Legion, my mother told me that one of our neighbors in Dublin had joined the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei” – a group which Fr. James Martin, S.J, writing in America magazine in 1995 dubbed “the most controversial group in the Catholic Church today.”
Just a couple of weeks ago, at a friends home, I paged through a special edition of “US News and World Report” dedicated to “secret societies.” I noticed that the Opus Dei was featured in an article by the intrepid journalist John Allen (who also wrote a book about the Opus Dei). Then I went off on a business trip and forgot to buy myself a copy…
However, I found myself thinking about some parallels between both organizations. Maybe the Legion is the best thing that happened to Opus Dei… because the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi have taken center stage in what was once the controversial domain of Opus Dei.
Guinness Extra Stout and Catholic lay movements
John Allen, the aforementioned American Catholic journalist, once described Opus Dei as the “Guinness Extra Stout of the Catholic Church.” He described Guinness, a popular Irish drink, as “a strong brew, definitely an acquired taste and clearly not for everyone” that “enjoys a cult following among purists who respect it because it never wavers”.
Although contemporary Guinness Draught and Extra Stout are weaker than they were in the 19th century, Guinness ran an advertising campaign in the 1920s based on market research which said people felt good after having a pint. Hence the "Guinness is Good for You" slogan was born. This is the image of Guinness I grew up in my native Dublin. Nowadays Ireland has forbidden this type of pseudo-medical advertising for alcoholic drinks that implies improved physical performance or enhanced personal qualities. Nonetheless, I’ve always enjoyed a pint of Guinness (may work as well as a low dose aspirin to prevent heart clots that raise the risk of heart attacks.) But, to get back to my topic, I didn’t know much about the Opus Dei before I joined the Legion. For that matter, I didn’t know the taste of Guinness either. Now I think that the Legion and Allen’s description of Opus Dei have much in common.
My first exposure to the Opus Dei was after I joined the Legion of Christ in 1962. More precisely, when I first went to Mexico on assignment in 1965, the founder of the Legion, Fr. Marcial Maciel, told me that the school I was to help start (the Irish Institute - Instituto Irlandés) was being built as a response to a competitive threat from Opus Dei. Following his instructions, we managed to have the Irish Institute (a school for boys) up and running in two months. The Opus Dei school we were competing against never materialized. However, it became increasing clear to me, during those early days with Fr. Maciel in Mexico, that there seemed to be uncanny resemblances between the works of Msgr. Jose Escrivá de Balaguer the founder of Opus Dei, and the ideas of Fr. Maciel.
Some years after my arrival in Mexico City, the Legionaries “formally” launched a lay movement known as “Regnum Christi.” At the time, it appeared to me there was a parallel between the relationship of the lay movement known as “the Opus” with the priests of the Holy Cross and the relationship between the Regnum Christi and the priests of the Legion of Christ. I had no doubt that Fr. Maciel saw Monsignor Escrivá as something of a “religious rival.”
Some similarities between Opus Dei and the Legion of Christ – Regnum Christi
As I came to learn how Legionaries would encourage lay members of Regnum Christi to live their commitment to the Gospel, I couldn’t help but note similarities between the Legionary approach and the methodology of Opus Dei. It seemed to me that:
• Both organizations want to inject Christian principles into global capitalism.
• Both approaches represent the “conservative” side in the struggle with post Vatican II liberals
• Both seek to apply fundamental Catholic beliefs to secular life
• Members of both organizations hold important positions in the Church, politics and the business world
• Both provide opportunities for lifelong commitment, requiring duties such as daily mass, contribute a percentage of earnings to support the organization. Depending on the degree of commitment some members contribute all their money to the group and live a life of celibacy.
• Both groups practiced "corporal mortification" by use of a small whip and a cilice (a band made of wire with pointed spikes, worn around the thigh), to emulate the suffering of Jesus.
• Schools and universities run by both groups are seen as promotional vehicles and centers for recruitment.
• Both groups preached that you do not have to become a priest or a brother to serve God. Members are taught to serve the Lord through work and by living the basic duties of Christian life.
• Members who are business and political leaders are urged to humanize and transform their milieu into Christ’s Kingdom.
• Both organizations choose to pursue the work of evangelization from the top down – encouraging the powerful and the wealthy to transform society according to Catholic principles.
Once the Legion was well established in Mexico, Spain, Italy and Ireland I found that Fr. Maciel spoke less about the Opus Dei. We did not define who we were, what we wanted to become or our spirituality in terms of Opus Dei. I saw them as a similar organization, fighting essentially for the same objectives. If anything, because I knew that there was another “Vatican approved” religious congregation and lay movement not unlike what we were creating in the Legion, I felt more secure with the aims of the Legion. While the founder of the Legion was younger than Escrivá it was comforting to know that both organizations were still going through their foundational periods. It seemed to me that both organizations fulfilled similar, legitimate missions within the Catholic Church. One started in Spain, the other in Mexico.
Later on, as I became aware of criticisms of the Legion and of Fr. Maciel’s methodology, I took some comfort from the fact that the criticisms of Opus Dei were not that different from those I was hearing about the Legion.
For instance both organizations:
• Have been accused of accumulating excessive wealth
• Are considered to be cult-like and excessively secretive
• Have been accused of having their own particular agendas within the Church, operating with a certain distance and disregard for Bishops and diocesan priests
• Are extremely aggressive in recruiting new members
• Restrict member’s access to certain books
• Are dismissive of former members
• Are accused of catering only to the wealthy, using “lower income” apostolates to serve as “cover” for all sorts of schemes including mafia-like operations
• Both are criticized for being too cozy with members of the political and business establishments especially in Spain and Mexico.
• Critics of both groups do not like the ultra-conservative world view. They suggest members are hypocrites often enriching themselves as they pursue the organizations’ goals
• Former members are amongst the most vociferous critics of both organizations.
• David J. O’Brien, Loyola Professor of Roman Catholic Studies at Holy Cross, and author of “From the Heart of the American Church: Catholic Higher Education and American Culture,” says he is of two minds about Opus Dei in the United States. While he admires their approach “drawing idealistic people together in a concerted manner,” he thinks their appeal might be self-limiting. “They are so negative toward American culture that they can’t understand how deeply our notions of freedom and individualism can go.” The same has been said about the Legion.
• Perhaps because of the private nature of the apostolic work of Opus Dei and the Regnum Christi, neither organization is widely known in the United States.
• Because of Opus Dei’s and Regnum Christi’s emphasis on secrecy - or, as they prefer to call it, discretion, there are no independent archives of either organization's foundational documents, training materials, or internal memos.
• The only (very partial) accounts of life within both organizations, independent of the both organization’s self disclosure comes mostly from disillusioned former members who have written about their experiences. My book (“Driving Straight on Crooked Lines”) is one of only two books in English written by former members of the Legion.
Similar organizations, different outcomes
Opus Dei and Escrivá
Opus Dei is a personal prelature of the Catholic Church. Its stated mission is “to contribute to the Church’s evangelizing mission by helping all kinds of Christian faithful to live fully in accordance with their faith in life’s ordinary circumstances, and especially to sanctify their daily work.”
Although Escrivá received a much better formal education than Fr. Maciel and served as a rural priest before founding his organization, Opus Dei's founder is not without controversy. Fr. Maciel pointed out to me that Escrivá changed his name several times over the course of his life. In 1963, the Catholic Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a harsh critique of Escrivá's spirituality, as reflected in his [Escrivá's] book "The Way", which describes Escrivá's approach to religion as a form of "integrism" declaring that “despite the affirmations of the members of Opus Dei that they are free in their political options, it is undeniable that its foundation is marked by Francoism, that that is the "law within which it has been formed." In 1968, Escrivá requested and received from the Spanish Ministry of Justice the rehabilitation in his favor of the aristocratic title of “Marquess of Peralta.” To be fair, it seems he never used that title.
After the death of Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer on June 26, 1975, the Cause of his beatification and canonization received many testimonies and letters from people all over the world. One-third of the world's bishops (an unprecedented number) petitioned for the canonization of Escrivá. The Cause for his beatification was introduced in the Vatican on February 19, 1981 on the strength of the apparently miraculous cure in 1976 of a rare disease. On April 9, 1990, Pope John Paul II declared that Escrivá possessed Christian virtues to a "heroic degree", he was beatified on May 17, 1992. John Paul II, (who frequently expressed public support for Opus Dei and its work,) canonized Escrivá on 6 October 2002. His canonization attracted an unusual amount of attention and criticism, both within the Catholic Church and in the secular press. Critics have argued that the process was plagued by irregularities.
The Legion of Christ and Maciel
The Legion of Christ is a religious congregation of pontifical right, founded “to extend the Kingdom of Christ in society according to the requirements of Christian justice and charity, and in close collaboration with the bishops and the pastoral plans of each diocese.”
The Legion’s founder, Fr. Maciel, started the Congregation, with a small group of young recruits, in Mexico in 1941. Maciel was a seminarian at the time. The details of his studies and ordination by an uncle Bishop are quite blurred, to say the least. By 1941, he had moved his first group of seminarians to Rome where Pope Pius XII said that “the new religious congregation must contribute to the formation of Catholic leaders, especially in Latin America.” On June On June 29, 1983, the Holy See gave its definitive approval to the Constitutions of the Legion of Christ.
On January 30, 2008 Fr Marcial Maciel passed away in Jacksonville, Florida. His mortal remains were laid to rest in his hometown, Cotija de la Paz, Michoacán (Mexico). A year later, after a very gradual internal process of gathering information, the congregation of the Legionaries of Christ publicly confirmed that Fr Maciel had a daughter in the context of a prolonged and stable relationship with a woman. Eventually, they confirmed other reprehensible behaviors including the sexual abuse of seminarians. Some months later, two young siblings stated in the Mexican press that they are sons of Fr Maciel by his relationship with another woman.
In March of 2009, Pope Benedict XVI began an apostolic visitation to the institutions of the Legion of Christ to help the congregation overcome its “difficulties.” The apostolic visitation was carried out by five bishops. As a result, on March 25, 2010 the superiors of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi issued a public statement expressing their deep sorrow for the gravely reprehensible actions of their founder. Upon the conclusion of the apostolic visitation, Pope Benedict XVI decided to appoint a pontifical delegate, with the task of guiding the congregation through a process of revision and renewal. An apostolic visitation to the consecrated members of Regnum Christi is also underway.
In a statement, remarkable in its tough denunciation of Maciel's crimes and deception, the Vatican denounced Fr. Maciel for creating a "system of power" built on silence and obedience that enabled him to lead an "immoral" double life "devoid of scruples and authentic religious sentiment" and allowed him to abuse young boys for decades unchecked.
Conclusion: Guinness Extra Stout is an acquired taste
As far as I can tell, Regnum Christi and Opus Dei perform a multitude of good works, despite the fact that both organizations raise red flags for the average laid-back Catholic and even bigger flags for the average North American. While in the Legion, I felt that both organizations afforded an opportunity for wealthy Catholics to be comfortable with their good fortune, affording them the opportunity to use their means and leadership for the good of fellow human beings. Neither organization sought to demonize capitalism, the powerful, and big business. Rather they profess to want to penetrate and humanize environments that, at least in Latin America, seemed to be off-limits for the traditional Church.
To return to John Allen’s Guinness analogy, the black stout (it’s actually described officially as “ruby”), is not for everyone and is very much an acquired taste. I know very little about the Opus Dei. But I do know the Legion and Regnum Christi may not be for everyone. This is especially true as they try to untangle themselves from the crimes of their founder, Fr. Maciel.
Despite their very great flaws, there is no denying the breath taking accomplishments achieved by the Legionaries and Regnum Christi - organizations that – in Catholic terms – are still in their infancy.
The Founder of Opus Dei is now Saint Josemaría Escrivá while the founder of the Legionaries is disgraced. Not too long ago, Fr. Maciel seemed bound for sainthood . I can’t help but wonder what might have happened had he died during the reign of Pope John Paul II, before his double life was revealed…. That’s when I have to remember Christ’s saying, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”