Women of Opus Dei Explain “True Feminism”

Women of Opus Dei: In Their Own Words
By M. T. Oates, Linda Ruf, Jenny Driver, editors
The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2009

Opus Dei, formally know as The Prelature of the Holy Cross or Opus Dei and informally known as “The Work” or (depending on who you are talking to) a cult, is an organization of the Catholic church whose members are by and large lay people. The group, long shrouded in secrecy, came into the spotlight after Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code hit the New York Times bestseller list.

The novel suggested that the women in Opus Dei are “forced to clean the men’s residence halls for no pay,” and remarked upon the broad subjugation of women in the order. And while the novel is fictional, the alleged “misconceptions” that arose in the fallout of the media attention surrounding The DaVinci Code provided much of the impetus for a new book: Women of Opus Dei.

A collection of essays and interviews by women involved in “The Work,” Women of Opus Dei is meant to set the record straight when it comes to the subjugation of women within the order. However, the hot pink book cover is a good sign that this book is anything but a manifesto for women’s rights. In fact, these women are trying to suggest that what seems like sexism isn’t really that at all.

We might be able to chock this all up to internalized oppression, as these women really do seem to believe in the “complementarity” of the sexes: that is, the idea that women and men do maintain equal dignity but have complementary roles. Take, for instance, the testimony of Claire Huang, a marketing executive who has attended Opus Dei’s spiritual programs for 20 years. When asked about the biggest challenges facing women in today’s society, she answered:

I think it’s a balance of work and family, love of family versus feminism, true feminism. True feminism recognizes that women bring different qualities to the workplace than men. Women can have a nurturing attitude and do things at work that are caring, but not sentimental; thoughtful, but not harsh. Women add warmth; that’s why motherhood is such a beautiful thing. True feminism means being everything that a woman is good at, for example, being efficient, multitasking, etc.

This “true feminism” sounds quite similar to the ideologies of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church which has asserted this “care” theory as reasoning for why women cannot take on leadership roles.

Claire mentions motherhood in her statement on “true feminism,” and this theme is carried throughout the book. Not all of the women in the book are mothers; however, motherhood seems to be 0 to 60 as they frame it. That is, one either has no children or gaggles of children—the mothers in the book have four, six, eight, and twelve children. Also, a woman either works or is a stay-at-home mom, with a few exceptions.

Interestingly, many mothers featured are graduates of ranking universities—Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, to name a few. Jane Reckart, a Stanford grad and stay-at-home mom, remarks on how Opus Dei helped her along to way to motherhood:

…I was caught unprepared for how debilitating pregnancy would be for me. I was sick, listless, and depressed for months with each pregnancy. I never would have had more than one or maybe two children if I hadn’t learned from St. Josemaria when it is difficult, and in sharing with them the love God gives to us, we are building up society and sharing in God’s work of creation.

If motherhood of women is uplifted in “the Work,” so is the “fatherhood” of God. The very first chapter suggests that we are “children of a father God” and that the equality of men and women “rooted in the Bible… stems directly from God’s fatherhood.” Unfortunately, the Bible passages referenced to support this notion of God as father do not include passages that frame God in a way that is greater than gender. It is like a trickle-down effect: framing God as father reaffirms male authority in church and society, furthers the subjugation of women, and so on.

The notion of the fatherhood of God as acclaimed in Opus Dei is something emphasized by St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, who is exalted as a godlike person throughout most of the book. Every interviewee was asked the question “Did you ever meet St. Josemaria?” and his words are quoted exponentially more than that of, say, Jesus or the Pope. If one wanted to make the case that Opus Dei is cultlike, it is here that evidence could be gathered.

The book is not all so ominous, and neither is Opus Dei. The core principle of Opus Dei is this: as members of society we are called to “find and love God” where we work and live. At the most basic level, this is something that many people would approve of, and are already striving to do. However, the muckiness comes in how the members of Opus Dei are framing and finding God. This is where women get the short end of the stick. This is where the injustice comes in.

All in all, the defense of Opus Dei’s devotion to the equality of women as expressed in this book is unconvincing at best. In fact, for many, it might further the idea that Opus Dei is a deplorably sexist institution.

And while it might be as simple as brushing these women off as having “drunk the Kool Aid,” something bigger is at play here. Opus Dei is a powerful organization with members in political and church leadership throughout the world. As such, the mentality that negates the full and equal rights of women has effects far beyond the world of “The Work.”

kchildsgraham@gmail.com'

Kate Childs Graham writes for the National Catholic Reporter and YoungAdultCatholics-Blog. She also serves on the Women?s Ordination Conference board of directors and the Call to Action Next Generation Leadership Team.