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Media Watch: “domestic servitude” in Opus Dei

By Maggie Hall

The Opus Dei Diaries 

This recent Financial Times article about Opus Dei (see explainer below) is very long and very worrying. Unfortunately, since I read it the article has disappeared behind a pay wall, so it is only available to those with a subscription. However, it was featured in March on the BBC Radio 4 Sunday programme (30.53), in an interview with a woman who has suffered from spending many years practically imprisoned in one of their institutions: the article itself tells the stories of others with similar experiences. Basically, they were persuaded that they had a “vocation” to domestic servitude with no pay in these establishments, which masquerade as educational institutions. The women joined them as teenagers under the impression that they were going to be trained to qualify for work in the hospitality sector. There was no mention of Opus Dei in the advertisements that attracted them to apply. They ended up spending as long as 40 years closeted in these places, working as unpaid domestic servants with virtually no time off and cut off from their families. The BBC programme also interviewed the writer of the article and someone from Opus Dei, who took the line that it all happened a long time ago and everything’s different now. The writer insists that this is not true and her investigations have convinced her that there are some parts of the world where these abuses are still going on.


What is Opus Dei?

Opus Dei, formally known as the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei, is an institution of the Roman Catholic Church. It was founded by Saint Josemaría Escrivá in 1928 in Spain and gained approval as a personal prelature by Pope John Paul II in 1982. Opus Dei means "Work of God" in Latin, reflecting its mission to help ordinary Christians understand that they can find God in their everyday lives, particularly through their work and daily activities. Its key characteristics and principles are as follows:

  1. Spirituality of Ordinary Life: Opus Dei emphasises that everyone is called to holiness and that spiritual life can be achieved through ordinary daily life. It teaches that work, family life, and other ordinary activities are occasions for spiritual union with Jesus Christ.

  2. Personal Prelature: Opus Dei is structured as a personal prelature. A prelate is similar to a bishop but with jurisdiction over persons rather than a place. It is composed of a prelate, clergy, and lay members who remain under the jurisdiction of the prelate rather than local bishops.

  3. Lay Membership: The majority of Opus Dei's members are lay people, both men and women, who lead regular lives, often marrying and maintaining secular jobs. There are also numeraries and associates who commit to celibacy and dedicate themselves more fully to the organisation’s activities and goals.

  4. Spiritual Formation: Opus Dei provides spiritual training to its members, which includes daily Mass, prayer, spiritual reading, and regular confession. It focuses on the formation of Christians committed to the sanctification of their work and the Christianisation of society.

  5. Controversy and Criticism: Opus Dei has often been the subject of controversy and criticism, partly due to its perceived secrecy, its disciplinary practices, and its significant influence within the Catholic Church. Its portrayal in popular culture, most notably in Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code has contributed to its controversial image, although such representations are often accused of being misleading or inaccurate.

Opus Dei has approximately 90,000 members worldwide with a significant presence in Europe and Latin America, but also with members in North America, Asia, Africa, and Australia. The organisation's global reach reflects its aim to have a universal impact on society.

Religious Education 

Megan Manson, of the National Secular Society, was on the same programme (18.16) talking about Religious Education, along with a Zoroastrian businessman who thinks that it is a subject that everyone should study as it gives certain advantages when people go on to careers in diverse business communities. Megan took the opportunity to point out that the RE system as it stands is not really fit for purpose.

Andrew Copson on BBC Radio Four

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson has just brought out a new book entitled What I Believe, based on his podcast of the same name in which he interviews various high profile humanists about their beliefs. One of the contributors to the book is Nichola Raihani, author of The Social Instinct and they were both interviewed on BBC Radio Four’s Sunday programme on 28th April (29.38). The interview centred rather more on what humanism is than what is in the book but it’s worth a listen.

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