Church

Dear Edith: This Catholic group Opus Dei - are they sexist?

January 6, 2020

Dear Edith,

A few of my friends have recently gotten involved in Opus Dei. I love the idea of Opus Dei; I find the idea of sanctifying everyday life to be compelling and obviously what our Catholic faith calls us to. At the same time, I’ve been hesitant to get more involved, because I have some concerns about how the organization views women.

For example, I know that at the men’s house, they hired a completely female staff to cook, clean, and do laundry for them. I heard that the men are instructed not to engage with the staff at all and are not even allowed to speak to them. This is problematic to me for a number of reasons but, at its core, it seems dehumanizing of women.

Another area of concern for me stems from this quote by the founder of Opus Dei, St. Josemaría: “That is why I am not afraid to say that 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” (Escrivá de Balaguer 164). Blaming women for their husbands’ infidelity is not something that a Catholic should endorse or encourage.

I worry that these attitudes and sentiments are steeped into the culture of Opus Dei. I was hoping some of your readers have insights that they can share, especially if they have had personal experiences in Opus Dei. Are Opus Dei and feminism incompatible?

Sincerely,

Anonymous

Opus Dei Response #1 — Helen

Dear Anonymous,

Many thanks for the question! I’ll work backward in responding to you.

The short answer to your question is yes: Feminism and Opus Dei are definitely compatible. I’m in Opus Dei, and some of the fiercest feminists I’ve ever met are other Opus Dei members. Opus Dei members don’t actually agree among themselves about much. I think the only thing we agree on is that everyone is called to holiness and the basics of the creed. And that's about it.

Opus Dei members don’t actually agree among themselves about much. I think the only thing we agree on is that everyone is called to holiness and the basics of the creed.

I think people mean pretty different things when they use the word “feminism,” and I think it has evolved a lot over time. Although I agree with many feminist ideals and believe that women often do get unjustly discriminated against, I find that some feminist attitudes and approaches do not always provide the most adequate frame for understanding complex problems and, as a result, can do more harm than good for women. But I certainly like this blog’s version of feminism based on what I’ve read so far.

To focus on your question though, I think you would find like-minded feminists among Opus Dei members if you actually spent time becoming their friends. It would be unfair for me, however, to speak on behalf of everyone, or to say that Opus Dei as such is “pro-feminism” or “anti-feminism.” Everyone has their own opinion.

If that doesn’t answer your question, here’s a different take on it:

In the formation that Opus Dei has given me, I have been encouraged to pursue my professional ambitions and, at the same time, to consider why family should be a priority; to realize that both spheres of life require work (it’s no small thing to raise children, care for a home, and make a family happen); and that all work, whether it enjoys social prestige or not, can be a path to holiness, imbued with the Gospel values of Jesus’ silent work as a carpenter for the majority of his life and with Mary’s work at home.

On this last point, you could say that St. Josemaria’s spirituality has led many women — but also many men — to view the work that goes into family and home in a new light, finding real fulfillment in something others consider trivial or lacking impact. The fact that many work environments implicitly force women to choose between the two spheres is another matter, and probably a more threatening problem. But as far as advancement of women is concerned, Opus Dei is all for it, and so was its founder, maintaining this principle for both sexes. In short, you will find many married women in Opus Dei who are moms and work full-time outside of the home, but you will also find many full-time moms. So, take your pick.

St. Josemaria’s spirituality has led many women — but also many men — to view the work that goes into family and home in a new light

As for that particular quote from St. Josemaria, it might not be one of my favorites. In my own experience, though, growing up in a family where both parents were members of Opus Dei, my impression is that he says pretty much the same thing to men, telling them that they have to “win over” their wives daily, serve them, and put them first — including above their children. In addition, he definitely did not see educating children as primarily a women’s job, telling men to view their family as their “most important business,” to be actively involved in raising their children and creating the family dynamic. At least, that’s what I saw happening in my own house growing up, and I’m pretty sure this is where my Dad gets his personal conviction that his “true greatness” lies in the kind of spouse and father he is.

I don’t think it’s fair to paint a picture of St. Josemaria as someone who viewed women primarily as home-makers. He insisted that women receive the same academic training as men and that they pursue all fields. In any case, St. Josemaria was definitely a man of his time, and some of his language does not sit well today. I think this is ultimately true of everyone, though, sooner or later.

St. Josemaria insisted that women receive the same academic training as men and that they pursue all fields.

As for the first point about the men’s center, I agree with you that it looks odd, but I imagine the motive behind them not seeking to engage in personal relationships with the staff has more to do with respect and courtesy: It would not be appropriate for the men living at the center to ask for personal services from the staff.

Also, you might be interested to know that last May, the Church beatified the first layperson in Opus Dei: Guadalupe Ortiz de Landázuri, a woman who was one of the first female chemists in Spain in the 1950s.

Last May, the Church beatified the first layperson in Opus Dei: Guadalupe Ortiz de Landázuri, a woman who was one of the first female chemists in Spain.

Finally, you might enjoy this interview with the woman who leads Opus Dei's central advisory, which works directly with Opus Dei's prelate in Rome.

In closing, I just want to say that I think this website is a fantastic, much-needed initiative and a great forum for dialogue. Thanks a lot!

Sincerely,

Helen

Opus Dei Response #2 — Anonymous

Dear Sister in Christ,

I understand your concerns. I have lived in an Opus Dei student center for three years and my husband for five. He is also from The Work, a supernumerary, and I am not. That being said, I would say I am a little bit of an “insider.” I share your concern regarding how this organization views woman. In my personal experience, however, I do not find their teachings offensive.

It is true that the men in an Opus Dei center are not allowed to have contact with the female staff. When I first heard about this rule, I was shocked and found it ridiculous. However, now that I have heard multiple explanations of why this rule exists, I understand it more. It helps the male and female numeraire members of Opus Dei to live chastely. Since they live a life of celibacy, it may be hard to encounter women every day in your living room, study room, bedroom, etc. Opus Dei is very careful with mixing sexes in this regard, and I can't say I blame them, with all the scandals from sexual abuse within the church.

This doesn't mean that numeraries completely avoid contact with the opposite sex. They are meant to sanctify their work, and there are both males and females on the workfloor. They just keep an appropriate distance, and Opus Dei draws a fairly strict line for in-house contact. I view this as part of Opus Dei’s charism, one that can help some people grow closer to God and fulfill their vocation. Also, I have heard (though I’m not certain!) that they are experimenting with student houses in Spain where there is little to no female staff in the male houses. If this is the case, I think they are considering a more modern approach to household chores.

Opus Dei’s charism can help some people grow closer to God and fulfill their vocation.

I would also like to comment on the quote of the founder that you had concerns about. I share your view on that particular statement. Before commenting, I would like to quote the entire two paragraphs where this is written to provide some context:

“Another important thing is personal appearance. And I would say that any priest who says the contrary is a bad adviser. As the years go by a woman who lives in the world has to take more care not only of her interior life, but also of her looks. Her interior life itself requires her to be careful about her personal appearance; naturally this should always be in keeping with her age and circumstances. I often say jokingly that older facades need more restoration. It is the advice of a priest. An old Spanish saying goes: ‘A well-groomed woman keeps her husband away from other doors.’
That is why I am not afraid to say that 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. A married woman’s attention should be centered on her husband and children as a married man’s attention should be centered on his wife and children. Much time and effort is required to succeed in this, and anything which militates against it is bad and should not be tolerated.”

I think the point St. Josemaría tries to make is that it is important for both husband and wife to take good care of themselves. Personally, I think it is very good for men and women to be encouraged to look put together. At the same time, a good marriage is not built on physical appearances (though it can help).

To answer the last question, “Are Opus Dei and feminism incompatible?”: personally, I don’t think so. Participating in Opus Dei can be very empowering — especially to women! Both sexes are called to sanctify their ordinary lives. Whether that means being a stay-at-home mom or a businesswoman, we are called to work hard, do good, and become Saints while being present in the world. As the wife of a supernumerary, I often hear my husband talk about how he is called to take very good care of me by working hard but also by helping me with the kids and household duties. He will not become holy by letting me do all the work while he does his daily prayer. Instead, he is encouraged to pray while changing diapers, folding laundry, or cooking. And I think that’s wonderful.

Both sexes are called to sanctify their ordinary lives.

Sincerely,

Anonymous

Opus Dei Response #3 — Charlene

Dear Anonymous,

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.

Sincerely,

Charlene

Opus Dei Response #4 — Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

I write as a former numerary (celibate) member of Opus Dei. I was recruited to “the Work” (as it is called by those familiar with it) when I was 14 years old. I left seven years later, before making a permanent commitment.

I want to be completely up front: after those seven years of living in the organization, I had to spend several years processing the spiritual and mental abuse I experienced during that time. I realize that is a controversial claim, and I know I may sound like a conspiracy theorist. I also know that some will write off my response as just the ravings of a bitter ex-member, which is untrue. In fact, I’m still friends with many current and former members of the group.

Since we’re internet strangers, I won’t ask you to trust me. I will simply encourage you to trust your gut. Your intuition that Opus Dei might be incompatible with feminism is not wrong. It is also a good idea to seek information about Opus Dei from an outside source. I want to briefly address this before I move on to the topic of feminism: one of the difficulties of learning more about Opus Dei is that it is purposely discrete about its practices around recruitment, its governance, and its finances. This secretiveness is not always easy to discover. Some members say they are an open book, and they will answer your questions. If you don’t know what to ask, however, they won’t offer further information. The effect is that you feel like you’re always peeling back layers of the onion, but you never quite get to the center. Even after seven years living within the organization, I still don’t feel like I have a full grasp of what was happening at higher levels of governance where decisions are made. The longer I spent in the organization, the more I felt I wasn’t allowed to ask.

With all of that in mind, let’s move on to your concerns regarding Opus Dei’s compatibility with feminism. You’ll need a bit of background information to understand that this concern about misogyny is relevant to not just a few members’ personal opinions or the practices at just one center, or even in just one country. Rather, this concern is relevant to Opus Dei’s organizational structure. St. Josemaría organized Opus Dei so that the men’s and women’s branches are completely separate, in large part to avoid temptation for celibate members of the opposite sex. The lay men and women run separate apostolates and their governance is largely separate. There are only two places of overlap: the priests who give spiritual direction to all members and what is called the Administration: the women who cook, clean, and care for domestic matters in Opus Dei men’s centers, student residences, and conference centers.

In terms of governance, both the men’s and women’s sides are run by boards of numeraries. I don’t know whether this is still the case, but when I was in the Work, the differences in rules between the two sides, while sometimes minor, gave the impression that the women were more strictly controlled. For instance, male numeraries could smoke, but not women because it wasn’t ladylike. If a potential recruit smoked, she was encouraged to quit. If she couldn’t quit, she was allowed to join Opus Dei only as a supernumerary (who can be married or single and dating). Additionally, female numeraries’ clothing and appearance were much more strictly policed. Even the priests were watchful of the women’s appearances. A numerary who had just returned from the headquarters in Rome once told me a story about the Prelate publicly chastising a woman for not waxing her facial hair and then chastising the other female members present for their lack of charity in not telling her to wax before he had to do so.

Returning to the Administration: it is run by female numeraries, and the majority of the women in it are numerary assistants. This is a special vocation for women only: a celibate life dedicated to caring for matters of the home (cooking, cleaning, laundry, chapel linens, etc.) at Opus Dei centers.

In women’s centers, the female numeraries are in charge of all decision-making, job assignments, and spiritual direction for numerary assistants. Unfortunately, this could leave numerary assistants more vulnerable to exploitation than the average Opus Dei member. The female numeraries eat separately from the numerary assistants who wait upon them.

In men’s centers, due to the need for separation, there are certain times when the men must stay out of their sleeping quarters and dining rooms, and they are never allowed to enter the kitchen while women are present. The doors are locked from both sides to prevent any interaction between men and women, and there are strict protocols for communicating with the Administration: all notes are read by two people, phone calls are brief, and another numerary or numerary assistant is required to be present when a call is placed or received to the other side.

I can see the wisdom in practicing prudence through separation of the sexes. And thus far, Opus Dei has avoided even the appearance of sexual scandal by virtue of these practices. However, the locks and elaborate protocols of separation would be unnecessary if Opus Dei trained its male members to clean and cook for themselves, or if it opened up the vocation of numerary assistant to men. St. Josemaría believed interaction between celibate men and women to be a huge risk, but he felt it was worth the risk to preserve the luxury of men not having to cook or clean for themselves. By creating a vocation for only women only to do these chores, St. Josemaría clearly communicated what is expected of a man in Opus Dei versus what is expected of a woman.

Regarding your quote from St. Josemaría about a woman’s responsibility for her husband’s infidelity: Most in Opus Dei would defend this quote, perhaps not on its merits, but on the basis of historical context. They’d say that St. Josemaría is a product of his time and place, and turn-of-the-century Spain wasn’t exactly progressive. Be that as it may, as I’ve shown here, concerns about misogyny are relevant to more than one man’s writing and his historical context; they are relevant to Opus Dei’s very structure and expectations for its members.

I still believe that the ideals and some practices of Opus Dei are good: answering the call to universal holiness as a layperson, sanctifying one’s work, frequenting the sacraments, and developing a strong relationship with God our Father. At the same time, Opus Dei doesn’t have a monopoly on these ideals and practices, nor do they hold some secret to living them. They are available to all Catholics.

Sincerely,
Anonymous

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