You asked whether Opus Dei and feminism are incompatible. It may seem so, when reading the following statement by Opus Dei's founder, St. Josemaría Escrivá:
“Women are responsible for eighty percent of the infidelities of their husbands because they do not know how to win them each day and take loving and considerate care of them” (Conversations with Monsignor Escrivá de Balaguer, number 107).
And yet, even as someone with little patience for men who blame women, it's worth looking more closely at St. Josemaría and Opus Dei.
This quote, said in the late 1960s, was not spoken unprompted to a general audience. St. Josemaría offered his seemingly hyperbolic perspective to an audience of women, responding to a question asked by women: “What would you advise married women to do to ensure their marriages continue to be happy with the passing of the years and that they do not give way to monotony?” (Conversations, number 107).
It is a familiar question for any sex or marriage therapist: What do I do when my relationship becomes boring? It would be terribly unhelpful for St. Josemaría, or any marriage counselor, to respond to this group of wives, “You can't do anything when marriage gets boring; it's completely up to your husband to keep himself happy.”
Instead, Josemaría offers workable advice to the women who asked the question: to try, every day, to win their husbands’ hearts. He reassures them that marriage does not inevitably “give way to monotony.”
Notably, when asked a similar question by a man several years later in Argentina, Josemaría responds quite differently, with no hint of blaming women. The man expresses concern about sexual “filth” in contemporary society: adultery, pornography, and fornication. Rather than applaud this man’s holiness for calling out the sins of others around him, and rather than suggest that the man laments a problem he has no power to fix, St. Josemaría once again gives workable advice to the person asking the question:
“First, be a good husband to your wife, and a good father to your daughters. Take care of your interior life. Do that first, and think of these other things later” (John Allen, Opus Dei 70).
When asked a similar question by a man several years later in Argentina, Josemaría responds quite differently, with no hint of blaming women.
While I can excuse St. Josemaría’s women-blaming language when viewed in the fuller context of the conversation, the audience, and his additional writings, it is always relevant to recall that every saint is fully human and fully fallible.
To further challenge the suggestion that Josemaría might err toward misogyny — and similarly taint the entire mission of the organization he founded — consider his encouragement that men fully embrace emotions of sadness or regret:
“You are crying? Don't be ashamed of it. Yes, cry: men also cry like you, when they are alone and before God. Each night, says King David, I soak my bed with tears. With those tears, those burning, manly tears, you can purify your past and supernaturalize your present life” (Josemaría Escrivá, The Way, chapter 7, number 216).
Intersectional feminism echoes Josemaría's advocacy that emotional intelligence among men needs strengthening as a cultural norm.
Josemaría also advocated for women’s leadership in politics. In acknowledging that the greater physical responsibility of childbearing falls to women, he recognized that women are more likely than men to draft quality legislation in support of children and families:
“The presence of women in the whole range of social life is a logical and entirely positive phenomenon ... A modern democratic society has to recognise women’s right to take an active part in political life and it has to create conditions favourable for everyone who wants to exercise this right ... Her specific contribution will often ... lead to the discovery of completely new approaches. By virtue of their special gifts, women greatly enrich civil life. This is very obvious, for example, in the sphere of family or social legislation. Feminine qualities offer the best guarantee that genuine human and Christian values will be respected when it comes to taking measures that affect family life, education, and the future of youth” (Conversations, number 90, emphasis added).
Josemaría advocated for women’s leadership in politics.
I’ll stop short of declaring Josemaría’s inevitable endorsement of Catholic feminism out of respect for his repeated refusal to connect Opus Dei to any social or political movement on the chance it would detract from his one central focus, Jesus Christ:
“For more than thirty years I have said and written in thousands of different ways that Opus Dei does not seek any worldly or political aims, that it only and exclusively seeks to foster — among all races, all social conditions, all countries — the knowledge and practice of the saving teachings of Christ. … But there will always be a partisan minority who are ignorant of what I and so many of us love. They would like us to explain Opus Dei in their terms, which are exclusively political, foreign to supernatural realities, attuned only to power plays and pressure groups” (Josemaría Escrivá, Christ Is Passing By 70).
From this uncompromising conviction, Josemaría protected Opus Dei’s primary mission — “the saving teachings of Christ” — by refusing to entangle his organization in any political alliance, liberal or conservative, even when those politics claimed Catholic foundations. When Monsignor Giovanni Benelli, a high-ranking Vatican official, attempted to create a Catholic political party in Spain, Escrivá firmly refused any support from Opus Dei. He condemned what he called the “pseudo-spiritual one-party mentality,” insisting that “Opus Dei can never be, in the political life of a country, a kind of political party: there is and always will be room within Opus Dei for all outlooks and approaches allowed by a Christian conscience” (Allen 105).
Still, this prioritization of Opus Dei's Christ-based mission, preserved by members’ conscientious political freedom, does not preclude the organization from social justice activism. Perceptibly, Opus Dei’s advocacy for marginalized people around the world develops as a natural fruit of its inclusive, work-based spirituality rather than as a comprehensive endpoint objective. Opus Dei has youth centers in inner cities to resource young people out of poverty. Through professional training programs, Opus Dei gives women in third-world countries the means to become financially independent. And, Opus Dei opened the first racially integrated university in East Africa (Allen 127, 201).
Opus Dei’s advocacy for marginalized people around the world develops as a natural fruit of its inclusive, work-based spirituality.
Regarding Opus Dei’s stringent organizational divide between men and women, it might be likened to similar divisions in other Catholic groups, such as the Dominicans and Franciscans. Importantly, this separation by sex within Opus Dei does not seem inherently unequal. The women’s side of Opus Dei — its many departments, schools, centers, events, issues, studies, and the problem-solving all of them requires — is run entirely by women, independent from the men’s branch.
Numeraries, the most dedicated members of Opus Dei, are men and women lay members who take vows of celibacy and live in community, often working professional jobs in the world while volunteering extensively within Opus Dei centers. Men and women numeraries receive the same doctrinal and theological formation.
A common concern with regard to potential sexism within Opus Dei is the role of numerary assistants, a subset of women numeraries whose consecrated work is solely dedicated to the care of Opus Dei centers. Often described as the “mothers” of Opus Dei, numerary assistants’ primary work is housework and cooking. This perceived endorsement of domestic labor as exclusively “women’s work” raises valid questions. Are mundane tasks of cleaning or food preparation truly outside of a man’s capability or responsibility?
It is worth noting that in some men’s Opus Dei centers, men do the housework and cooking. Nonetheless, they do so in their capacity as numeraries, since the role of numerary assistant is reserved only to women.
Relevant to any discussion around numerary assistants is Opus Dei’s innate incompatibility with hierarchies of labor; in the spirituality of St. Josemaría Escrivá, all work is holy. Every job, regardless of wage — even, and especially, the wageless job of “homemaker” — is considered professional work, because every person is pursuing excellence. In this light, numerary assistants might be better contextualized as interior designers, catering managers, event planners, or professional domestic specialists rather than viewed through a secular lens, which often dismisses housekeepers or servers as second-class citizens. In affirmation of the professionalism associated with their position, numerary assistants receive pensions and insurance for their work in Opus Dei.
In the spirituality of St. Josemaría Escrivá, all work is holy.
Finally, consider the indispensable personal connection between vocation and charism within the Church. Someone who enjoys teaching might join the Dominicans. Social work? The Vincentians. Prayer? The Carmelites. Youth outreach? The Salesians. Health care? The Alexian Brothers. Hospitality, homemaking, event planning, and cooking? Opus Dei's numerary assistants. And why not? If all work is equally holy, then why not have a religious vocation dedicated to every form of it? Many numerary assistants report they would be doing similar work in the secular world, and they appreciate the opportunity to do this work within a religious commitment (Allen 184).
People who identify as feminist within Opus Dei tend to align with the feminist ideals embraced by FemCatholic: that there are discernible differences between the sexes and, in bringing women more fully into the public sphere, we do not seek to increase the size of an androgynous workforce but, rather, to incorporate the valuable perspectives women have to offer.
Marta Manzi, a member of Opus Dei and spokesperson for the organizing committee of Josemaría's canonization, repeats St. Josemaría's fundamental approach to women in the public sphere: Women’s work is not simply repetitious or replaceable to men’s work. The insights women bring to business, politics, governance, communication, and every sector of society are done “in a surprisingly different way and not as a clone of man” (Allen 194-195).
While some describe Opus Dei as a somewhat exclusive organization, attractive only to a minor subset of Catholics, collaboration within Opus Dei is quite diverse. The spirituality of Opus Dei is open to non-Catholics of any religious background, including atheists. Remarkably, Opus Dei was the first Catholic institution to receive permission from the Holy See to include non-Catholics in its enrollment.
Not unlike FemCatholic, Opus Dei discerns its mission with both broad inclusivity and a Christ-centered singular focus, which makes it an easy target for misunderstanding and dismissive generalizations. From my reading of St. Josemaría Escrivá and the contemporary work of his organization, Opus Dei is wholly compatible with Catholic feminism.
Not unlike FemCatholic, Opus Dei discerns its mission with both broad inclusivity and a Christ-centered singular focus, which makes it an easy target for misunderstanding and dismissive generalizations.