Inside Opus Dei

Book Review by
Maxwell D. Epstein, Dean Emeritus,
International Students and Scholars. UCLA


By Maria del Carmen Tapia
The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. New York, New York, 2006 360 pages

Before Dan Brown's immensely popular book (and movie) "The Da Vinci Code," few Americans had heard of Opus Dei. Now, few who read or saw it, can forget the hulking fictional albino monk, Silas, who committed murder on behalf of Opus Dei.

The author of "Inside Opus Dei," Maria del Carmen Tapia, born in Spain, was a member, from 1948 until 1966, and she certainly qualifies as an insider. She was a personal secretary to the director, and from1956 to 1965 she served as the Venezuelan Regional Director of Opus Dei Women. For reasons she fully explains, she became dissolusioned with the organization, and she wrote the first version of her book in Spanish in 1992. The English version was published in 2006. Currently, or at least as of 2006, she lives in Santa Barbara, California, where she works in the Education Abroad Program at the University of California there. Here is what she has to say in her expose of Opus Dei.

Opus Dei was founded in 1928 in Spain, by a priest, Jose Maria Escriva de Balaguer. It was originally a secular organization, connected with Franco after the Spanish Civil War, and was taken under the wing of the Catholic Church in 1982, as a "Personal Prelature." Its headquarters are now in Rome. Although sources differ on the numbers, it has about 80,000 members in about 80 countries. Twenty percent of the members live lives of celibacy in single sex Opus Dei houses, and they are called "numeraries." the other eighty percent live normal lives doing normal occupations, and they are called "supernumeraries." There are about four thousand priests among the members.

Father Escriva's original idea was that the best way to spread the teachings of the church was through ordinary people working at ordinary professions as opposed to relying on the priesthood. As stated in an MSNBC report, "Opus Dei provides a structure for lay Catholics so they can better live their journey of faith immersed in 'the work,' " (which is the term for all Opus Dei endeavors).

At the end of the book, Carmen (as she is called by her friends) explains why she wrote this book: "I judge it my responsibility before God and humanity to unmask Opus Dei...even at
the risk of being destroyed by Opus Dei...because I believe in spiritual freedom and in the defense of human rights."

Although she does not claim the organization commits murder, a la Dan Brown, she does level serious charges against Opus Dei. Most of these pertain to the treatment of women, which is what she knows best. According to Carmen, Opus Dei:

__Maintains extreme secrecy. Nothing of "the work" can be revealed to outsiders, and even within the organization, people are promoted, demoted and sent to other locations with no explanation.

__Very young girls are aggressively recruited, and during that process, they are not allowed to inform their parents of what is happening until they have made a written commitment, for life.

__While claiming a concern for the poor, very little is done for them, and recruitment is focused on the girls of prosperous families.

__The founder, Father Escriva, had a nasty vicious temper which was unleashed on all who displeased him.

__It was required that the father be venerated above the church and above the Pope (except on the day the Pope visited Opus Dei headquarters.

__Treatment of those who wanted to leave was brutal, including assignment to mental institutions (following psychological abuse), and blackmail after they left to prevent them from exposing the organization.

__Those who leave forfeit whatever possessions they brought with them, and receive nothing for their years of work-no social security or money, which keeps many older members from leaving.

__There is strict control of all contact with the outside world, with no magazines, newspapers, radio or TV. There is no mention of other religions.

__The sexes are kept entirely apart, and women are not allowed to hold a visiting child, for fear that would stimulate maternal feelings.

__Women are worked hard, maintaining the house, praying, and listening to lectures, so there is little time or energy to think.

__The greatest single effort of Opus Dei, during Carmen's tenure, was devoted to obtaining sainthood for father Escriva. (It is curious to note that he was canonized in 2002, but there is no mention of that fact in this book, published in 2006).

There are more charges, but this gives the flavor of Carmen's view of a repressive, autocratic organization which mistreats its members and fails to live up to its stated mission. Carmen was ordered to leave, but before that happened, she was yanked from her position in Venezuela, and kept in Rome, in isolation, subjected to regular verbal abuse. She was accused of having done bad things in Venezuela but never told what.

From her own account, one can understand why she would have become a target in such an organization. Before being sent to Venezuela, Carmen broke small rules, like going into places forbidden. Once in Venezuela, in a position of power, she committed larger transgressions. She exposed the women to outside literature, and ran a more open house than was allowed.

When, years after her dismissal, she arrived at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Carmen tried, with the help of the faculty there, to obtain records of the studies she had undertaken in Venezuela. All efforts were met with the response that she had never studied in Venezuela, until finally, an official she does not name, sent them.

Personal note: From 1963 to 1970 I was the Dean of Foreign Students in Santa Barbara, and one of those whose letters on her behalf are listed in Carmen's appendix A, Mr. K. M Mathew, was my successor there. I spoke to him in the process of preparing this review, and he said that if I speak to Carmen, say hello, for she is a "good soul."

The book is written in a clear manner, but it has excessive detail. There are hundreds of names, positions, locations, beyond the interest of readers. Carmen says that her detailed account was necessary for her sanity, but it has the reverse effect on her readers.

Despite her studies, and world travel, Carmen appears naive. Two examples--She cannot understand how a religious organization can do evil, apparently having forgot the Crusades. She explains that Opus Dei always houses women one or three to a room, never two, in order to prevent lesbianism.

Carmen may have exaggerated the evils of Opus Dei (she was, after all, badly treated), and she does not say much about good works. Still, with the qualifications mentioned, she has written a book of historic interest, which very few others could have written.