Opus Dei is again in the press, this time because of the release of the movie There Be Dragons, which is somewhat based on the life of Opus Dei’s founder, St. Josemaría Escrivá. Whenever Opus Dei comes up, it seems that strong opinions and even controversy is sure to follow. Some of this is understandable – after all, any organization that quickly grows and becomes as influential as Opus Dei is sure to attract both strong friends and enemies – but some of it is also laughable for those who even have an inkling of knowledge of the group. But one thing I’ve noticed is how often in many minds the scandals involved with another Catholic movement – the Legion of Christ – have impacted Opus Dei.
The reason for this is due to the many similarities between Opus Dei and the Legion of Christ. A few include:
- Both were founded by Spanish-speaking men in the first half of the 20th century.
- Both desired to promote an orthodox understanding of the Catholic faith.
- Both were embraced by the Church hierarchy as a means to reform the Church after the troubles that followed Vatican II.
- Both focused on helping lay people grow in holiness in their daily lives.
- Both dramatically increased in size and influence in a short period of time.
- Both have been strongly attacked by outside forces, as well as by former members.
Because of these similarities, these two organizations have melded in many people’s minds almost into a single entity. So when the Legion faced serious scandals, some held Opus Dei in suspicion as well. I will admit to doing this myself. I personally have felt for some time that the Legion should be disbanded, and my strong feelings towards them seeped into my view of Opus Dei as well. I was suspicious that the failings of the Legion (which don’t just include the failings of its founder) were replicated by Opus Dei.
But over time I realized that my thoughts were an injustice to Opus Dei, which in fact is not in any real way related to the Legion. The similarities I mentioned above are superficial and none really relate to the Legion scandals. So to judge Opus Dei based on the sins of the Legion would be like judging Abel for the sins of Cain. And in fact, there is one big difference between the two organizations, which is:
The Legion of Christ doesn’t offer assassination training to its albino monks.
No, wait a minute, that’s not right (but realize that all articles on Opus Dei are required to have at least on albino monk joke). The real difference between the two groups is:
Opus Dei was founded by a canonized saint. The Legion of Christ was founded by one of the most notorious scoundrels who ever lived.
One cannot overemphasize this point too much. In the Catholic tradition, religious orders and movements are integrally linked to their founders. An authentic movement is faithful to its founder and keeps his or her spirit and teaching alive for future generations. In the case of Opus Dei, its founder has been officially recognized by the Church as living the faith heroically and in a way that can be imitated. In the case of the Legion, its founder has been recognized as a deceiver, an abuser, and an all-around scoundrel of the first order. Not exactly someone whose spirit we should keep alive, is it?
This of course does not mean that Opus Dei is for everyone or that its members have not sinned or done things at times improperly. But it does mean that as Catholics we should treat Opus Dei as we would the Franciscans or the Dominicans: as an authentic movement founded by a holy man whom we can look to as a heroic example of someone who lived the Christian faith well.