Thank you Lord, may I have another?

As the controversy over Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ rages on and the pope withers, a new breed of rigid, right-wing Catholicism is catching fire. Among the most powerful sects is Opus Dei, the secretive group at the center of the best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code. Why are so many influential Americans signing on, and what's with the whips? by CRAIG OFFMAN (from GQ Magazine, December, 2003)

Sharon Clasen has a small voice and apologizes too much. She's not someone you'd think would pick a fight with a group like Opus Dei. But those people made her suffer. It's been years since she left the group, and she's still suffering. Still wounded. Still angry. They threatened her with hell. She had to confront them. Make them answer to her for once. * For a long time after she left, Sharon didn't talk about Opus Dei. If she'd learned one thing in her six years in the church, it was this: You never air the group's dirty laundry. Opus Dei is too powerful - entrenched in the media, the government, the Supreme Court. The gorup could make life hard for you. But Sharon had no job to risk. Opus Dei couldn't take away her kids. So she posted her memoir online, "My Nightmarish Experience in Opus Die." Expecting the worst, expecting catharsis. Neither came.

Sharon first encountered Opus Dei - or "met the Work", as members say - when she was a freshman at Boston College, in 1981. Yeah, looking back, she was probably a little gullible, a little earnest, looking for direction. Opus Dei offered her a room at Bayridge, their lavish single- sex residence designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, on leafy Commonwealth Avenue. Rent was reasonable, religious supervision free. She decided to try it.

In no time, Sharon's devotion to the group was fierce. After three years, a senior member pulled Sharon aside and told her that God had "chosen" her: She could be a core member. Sharon jumped at the chance and became what is known as a "numerary". A nun, just about. She made commitments to chastity and to poverty. She didn't have to wear a habit, but she couldn't wear pants either. Her spiritual director came by and tossed out things she thought Sharon didn't need.

There were so many obligations. For two hours each day, Sharon had to wear a cilice - a barbed thigh chain that left puncture marks in her skin. Once a wekk, she submitted to the "discipline" - a long, macrame-like rope she used to whip herself. She took cold showers, slept on bed boards and went without a pillow once a week. She wasn't supposed to see her family. Opus Dei was her family now, she was told. No outside friendships. No photos of anybody but Josemaria Escriva, the name that members called the Founder. Or the Father. Like he was God.

Sharon had no money of her own. She was required to turn over her will and all her paychecks to the Work. Even presents had to be relinquished.

Things came to a head about the time when her spiritual director forbade her to go to her best friend's wedding. Sharon snapped. This was against her conscience, her closest friends, her better judgement. Enough already. She was IN the wedding party. She went all right and had a great time too. And afterward she realized: She didn't want to be married to God anymore. She wanted to marry a man, have a family. She wanted out. But what would happen to her soul? Opus Dei told her that God was calling her and that she had made a commitment to Him for life. Leave Opus Dei and you're abandoning God. You're paving your own path to damnation.

She wrote a letter to the Opus Dei leadership and asked permission to leave.

Four months later, she was free. She moved out and got a place of her own. Got a new job. One night during that time, she was coming out of work, and her spiritual director was there. Just standing outside the building, waiting for her. The spiritual director wasn't menacing or rude, but Sharon told her to get lost. Undeterred, the director followed her into the North Station subway. So many questions.
What was Sharon doing about her daily rituals? Was she still praying? Would she reconsider Opus Dei? Sharon couldn't shake her. She told her she had an interview and had to get off at the next stop. The director followed her out onto the platform. She uttered words that have tortured Sharon ever since.

I'm worried about the salvation of your soul, the director said.

Are you saying that I'm going to hell? Sharon asked.

The director didn't say anything. Sharon asked her again, this time at the top of her lungs. ARE YOU TELLING ME THAT I'M GOING TO HELL?

Sixteen years later, she still doesn't know.

As an ailing Pope John Paul II puts his house in order, he leaves three major legacies: He helped remove the Communists from power in Eastern Europe, mended relations with the Jewish community and, closer to home, granted unparalleled power to the orthodox lay organization known as Opus Dei. Not since the Jesuits were founded five centuries ago has the Vatican seen such controversy over a new group, and the pope, a conservative, has been one of its most tireless advocates. Founded by the Spanish priest Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer y Albas in 1928, this young and wealthy group has a modern message with a fierce traditional spin: Sanctify your everyday life and you can be a saint.

Opus Dei is small, with only 85,000 members worldwide. In terms of influence, however, it is enormous. The group has accumulated billions of dollars in assets and has converted many public figures. Most important, Opus Dei has access to the pope, who in 1982 granted it the status of personal prelature. This means that unlike any other Catholic group, Opus Dei doesn't have to report to the local archbishop. A floating diocese, it answers only to the Vatican. Many liberals in the Church see Opus Dei as the pope's own cult; others believe it is the guardian angel of traditional Catholic values. Call it what you will, it is in the Vatican's catbird seat.

To critics, Opus Dei represents an elitist, radical and cultish group that deliberately cultivates an aura of mystery. Its lavish centers and residences located in posh neighborhoods across the world seldom identify themselves as Catholic or even religious. No outsider knows the sources of its immense wealth. Members rarely announce themselves as such. They keep their internal publications under lock and key. They even have a secret greeting: Pax, in aeternum. They have their own vernacular. And then there is their long flirtation with fascism to consider. In Europe and Latin America, where Opus Dei's presence is stronger than in the United States, Catholics with long memories cite the fact that several Opus Dei members served in various juntas, from Franco's in Spain to Pinochet's in Chile.

In the United States, Opus Dei is still relatively tiny, with only 3,000 members. But for a group that could barely fill a high school auditorium, it has considerable cultural clout. Some of the country's best- known conservatices have been pegged as Opus Dei sympathizers or friends: Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Robert Bork, Republican senators Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback, form Information Awarenesss Office director John M. Poindexter and TV pundits Lawrence Kudlow and Robert Novak.

Many Americans first heard about the Work when they picked up last summer's best-selling thriller The Da Vinci Code or when they came across the group's name after FBI mole and Opus Dei member Robert Hanssen was arrested in 2001 for selling secrets to the Russians. Late last year, another follower, Tyco counsel Mark Belnick, gave the Work a black eye when he was charged with embezzeling millions that allegedly went to the Work.

Because of this, Opus Dei is trying to improve its image. Last year it opened a $47 million, seventeen-story national headquarters in the middle of Manhattan, and surprisingly, journalists are allowed inside. The building has separate entrances for men and women, and segregated parking. Inside, it's all mahogany and marble, with six dinning rooms, six opulent chapels and numerous bedrooms and living rooms. Massive wooden bookcases line almost every wall, and the shelves are cluttered with donkeys, the Founder's favorite animal. There are small photos of the Founder - and of almost no one else - everywhere. Opus Dei wants to make this center a religious sanctum for holy Catholics with day jobs.

But even the most sumpathetic journalists can't under the PR damage caused by Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, in which the Work is depicted as a stealthy, unswervingly loyal and murderous extension of the Vatican - in effect, the pope's secret police. Ron Howard will start directing a movie based on the novel next year, spreading the anti-Opus Dei gospel even further. Others are trying just as hard.

"We'd love it if the Work was put out of business," says Dianne DiNicola, executive director of the Opus Dei Awareness Network, a principal source for The Da Vinci Code. The mother of a former numerary, DiNicola runs the network out of her home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Like many parents of former members, she believe Opus Dei used mind-control techniques that gutted her daughter's personality. "Opus Dei is based on manipulation and deception," DiNicola says. "It is a cancer on our Church."

DENNIS DUBRO is a nuclear physicist. He has a degree from MIT and a hard-right hair part. He's a stickler. A moralist. Takes his Catholicism very seriously. He doesn't take orders from liars or deceivers. After graduating from college and joining Opus Dei, Dennis wanted to stay in the United States and pursue a career. But when you are a numerary, you go wherever they tell you to go, and you spread the Word. They shipped him off to Australia. He was told he would help run Warrane College, an Opus Dei residence in Sydney. That's where the weird stuff started. A physician and Opus Dei bigwig there boasted to Dennis that he had lied on his medical exams. Dennis was outraged. He told his spiritual director that he refused to obey this man. A senior official took him aside. Cheating is okay, he said, if it's for the greater good. For Opus Dei.

Dennis's job was to keep the residence's accounting books. They were totally screwed up. Looking life funny business to him. He spoke out about it: This financial stuff was unacceptable. His spiritual director reprimanded him. The leadership instructed him to shut up and meet the deadlines - at any cost. Dennis had a choice: unity or disobedience. He kept speaking his mind, kept slamming into a wall of authority. After his seventeen years of service, Opus Dei kicked him out. His commitment of poverty had left him penniless. Opus Dei did help him find an apartment in Queens, New York, and lent him a month's rent. But Dennis never forgot what Opus Dei did to him.

He vowed that from then on Opus Dei would never come to his backyard. Fifteen years later, he made good on the promise. When he was living in California and working for a utility company as a nuclear physicist, he saw an ad in the local paper for an Opus Dei meeting. He got permission from the city to protest at the community center where it would take place. Then he wrote and ran off sixty copies of his three-page screed on Opus Dei. Put an Opus Dei logo on it. Dressed up in a suit and tie. Now he'd look like one of them. Presentable. Successful. He drove to the Union City Community Center, a little Japanese-style house surrounded by strip malls, and stood outside the doors. Waited with is copies. About sixty people filed out. Thinking he was Opus Dei, they all smiled and took his fliers. Now they had
his gospel in hand

**********

THE MOST VISIBLE Opus Dei official in the United States, Father C. John McCloskey III, belies the nefarious image of Opus Dei. He's anything but subtle. "I don't know about this whole secretive thing," he says. "I can't find anything I do on a daily, weekly or monthly basis that I haven't read about. Except for my squash game."

A former Wall Street executive, McCloskey runs the Catholic Information Center in Washington and has converted many major Republican players to Catholicism, including Brownback, Kudlow and Novak, as well as influential conservative publisher Alfred Regnery and even the former abortionist Bernard Nathanson. A galvanizing speaker with an occasional flash of wiched humor, McCloskey is a newsprogram fixture when Catholic controversies arise. Some members say that his eloquence elevates the group's image. Others complain that he's grown too big; the Founder didn't ever want one member to become ubiquitous.

Core memebers like McCloskey are called numeraries. They live in single- sex Opus Dei centers and represent 30 percent of the official membership. (When critics allege that all of Opus Dei is a cult, they are usually referring to the lifestyle of these core members.) Supernumeraries, on the other hand, represent about 70 percent of the membership. They live at home, raise families, participate in such rituals as daily Mass or meditation and contribute a percentage of their income to the Work. The most casual Opus Dei associate is called a cooperator: a person who prays for the Work or donates money to it.

Cooperators are not considered members, and McCloskey says that very few of the famous people he counsels belong officially to the organization. "Some of them may be cooperators, but that's a very loose term," McCloskey says. "It's like signing up for a Web site and getting on the spam list." Typically, cooperators give money to Opus Dei because they like its message; former members say that cooperators want to attach themselves to the Work because of its elitist aura. The Work doesn't publish a list of cooperators, but if it did, prominent names from the Republican establishment would be on it.

McCloskey says people don't understand Opus Dei because they don't understand Catholicism. In his opinion, most Opus Dei members are only doing what good Catholics should be doing every day: praying and bringing people closer to God.

While some orders, such as the Jesuits, have abandoned the orthodox teachings of the Church, Opus Dei has remained the faithful son mimicking the father. For example, "culture of death" is an epithet the pope often uses to describe the United States and Europe; McCloskey uses the same damning terminology. "When you see contraception, abortion, divorce, pornography, active homosexuality from a Catholic point of view, they are deadly," he says. "They cause enormous harm to souls who are involved in any of those activities, and also to a culture. That's what I mean by the 'culture of death.'" As far as Opus Dei is concerned, liberalism and tolerance lead to one thing: the extinction of Catholicism. "We've had the whole thing with homosexuality, gay marriages, abortions, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera," he says. "People could say, 'We're being tolerant,' That's not being tolerant. That's revolutionary.

In response to criticism that its practice of self-mortification is too traditional, McCloskey insists that many Catholic groups still practice self-mortification and that Opus Dei's whips and barbs are minor compared to other, more secular forms of self-punishment. "I see people jogging on a summer morning in D.C.," he says, "and that looks more uncomfortable to me."

**********

MARIANO CURAT met the Work the day he was born. His parents were Opus Dei. By the time he was 14, he had joined - or "whistled", as members say. Not long after, his spiritual director handed him a box with his name on it. Inside? A discipline and a cilice. If you give yourself to God, he was told, this is what you do. Obedience above all. To dull the temptations of the flesh. Inch your suffering a little closer to Christ's.

The cilice her wore two hours a day, switching legs to distribute the punishment. It didn't hurt much when he was standing around. But forget you're wearing it and sit down suddenly - you hit the ceiling. It breaks the skin, draws blood. And then there was the discipline. Once a week, in a bathroom. Sometimes he could hear the others doing it, too. The snapping. The stifled moans.

By the time he decided to leave the Work, Mariano Curat barely punished himself anymore. Once he left, it took two months for the scars to heal.

**********

YOU DON"T FIND Opus Dei. They find you. If you're a young guy, you might meet the Work on a college campus. If you're a devout Catholic, you may have a friend in the Work who invites you to a retreat or to volunteer at one of its centers for the underprivileged. If you're the son of a supernumerary, you don't have much choice: Your parents probably sent you to an Opus Dei school ro to one of their recreation centers, where an Opus Dei priest took your confession.

If you're a very spiritual Catholic, once-a-week Mass won't slake your soul's thirst. Some people say that you could go to a parish. But you'll have a hard time finding people there who'll struggle with you. If you're serious about God, you don't neglect your soul fo days on end; it is a finely tuned instrument that requires constant attention. Opus Dei helps you refine it until it sings.

Your new Opus Dei friends will draw you closer. They share your interests, ask you about them and promote them. You'll go to more meditations, attend more weekend retreats. Your new Opus Dei friends will tell you that it's possible to lead both a holy and an ordinary life. Even your most menial tasks can turn into something holy. Getting a coffee, talking on the phone with a friend - any small act of charity becomes an offering to God. Everything is a prayer. They also remind you that it is every Catholic's sacred duty to bring people closer to God. Opus Dei members don't freely admit it, but they call the courtship process "fishing". There's even an Opus Dei song about it: "La Pesca Submarina." This kind of fishing is hardly recreational. It's run like a bureaucracy. Members must have lists of ten to fifteen candidates, three of whom should be close to seeking a vocation, or divine calling. A former member gave me a form that fishers fill out to assess the virtues of a female candidate. "Does she have devotion to our father? Understand our ideal? The big picture? Family? Is there love, respect, service, serenity, tension, drinking/drug problems?"

If Opus Dei thinks you're a candidate to be a numerary, a director will tell you, "I think you have a vocation," and you will accept. "You feel that if you say no," says Mariano Curat, "you're denying God." You'll be a plainclothes monk with a day job and no money of your own - an eternal contract with the possibility of a post-mortem promotion. You work for God. You're literally doing His Work. Opus Dei.

You begin your "plan of life". Your day starts at dawn, when you jump from bed and kiss the ground. You get ready in silence until 7 A.M., at which time you have a half-hour meditation, a half-hour Mass, then a silent breakfast. After a morning at your job, you have an afternoon prayer and another prayer time in the evening. You wear your cilice. You repeat the Holy Rosary, followed by another half hour of silent prayer. You then turn in for the night, but not before sprinkling holy water on your bed. If you're good, you get weekend excursions or even trips to Rome. You're likely involved in good works. You're counseling others. Once a year, you go on a weekend retreat, where leaders may spell out some of your future responsibilities. Every year, you renew your commitment. If you want to leave, you can - Opus Dei says that the door is always open - but not without turning your back on God.

After six and a half years, you "make your fidelity" - or your lifelong commitment to God. Your priest and spiritual director call you in and give you a ring. You're on the road to salvation.

**********

FATHER ALVARO DE SILVA is a gangly 54-year-old Spaniard with a big smart-guy's head. He's a published author and a charmingly crusty man. Ousted for insubordination in 1999, he left Opus Dei's Chestnut Hill, Massachusett, residence on an overcast Monday with nothing but $40 in his pocket and an old Toyota. But he was still an Opus Dei priest - no matter what happened. The group had to find him a parish. But that's all. Even though he'd given Opus Dei every single penny he'd earned since he was 14. Even if he once had so much seniority that he occupied the best room in the residence. That was the rule: If you make a commitment to poverty for life...

Alvaro survived on small hopes. Maybe the proceeds from his next book would help him out. Alvaro told his publisher, an Opus Dei member, that he'd been expelled. The publisher told Alvaro that he couldn't publish his book.

Four years later, Alvaro was living in a rectory at a modest red church in Roxbury, a rough-and-tumble Boston neighborhood. Late one afternoon, an Opus Dei director from New York showed up. He was a Spaniard like Alvaro, and the two were always cordial. They moved to a quiet conference room and caught up a bit. The director asked him if he would come back to Opus Dei.

The offer stunned Father Alvaro. He couldn't abide the rules, he said. When he was in Opus Dei, he'd called them on all the little things tht drove him mad: Why can't numeraries read whatever books they want? See the movies they want?

If only Alvaro would obey the rules, the director said, he could come back. But they may want to move him somewhere else...

Obey the rules? Alvaro said. And move? Move? Didn't the guy understand? That's why he got kicked out in the first place. Alvaro got fed up, asked the guy to leave. These people mean well, he decided, but they torture you with their kind intentions.

A week later, the bishop of Boston informed Alvaro that allegations had been made against him: He was accused of elitism and of having bad relations with his parishioners. Did he wish to defend himself? Father Alvaro was baffled. Elitist? Him? He worked in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Boston. Bad relationships with his parishioners? He demanded to know who said that.

The bishop wouldn't tell him. This was a show trial. Guilty no matter what. In early September, the bishop called Father Alvaro to give him the news. Since Alvaro refused to elaborate on the accusations, he was relieved of his post. The archdiocese had no choice. Did Opus Dei perpetrate this? Many of his supporters thought so, but Alvaro didn't. When he left Opus Dei, he never thought he was going to hell, and he wasn't going to start feeling sorry for himself now. One can do good anywhere, anytime.

**********

VATICANOLOGISTS forsee a conservative successor to John Paul II, which bodes well for Opus Dei. As the pope sees it, Europe and the United States have gone pagan, corrupted by the temptations of materialism and sexuality. In response to this, he is creating a legacy that incorporates faith into daily life and, in turn, brings a new brand of evangelic fervor to recharge the Church. No group better embodies that idea than Opus Dei. "It has called people to serious spirituality and given them a deeper understanding of the Church at a time when few people have a real grasp of the faith," says Deal Hudson, the editor of the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis. "It looks radical from where we are as a culture, but from the point of view of the Church, it is a call to friendship with God."

When it comes to the issues that divide American Catholics, Opus Dei's positions are firmly in the conservative camp - no female priests, birth control or gay rights. "In the English-speaking world, Opus Dei has become the lightning rod for the broader cultural wars in the Church," says John L. Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter

Facing a decling membership in the States and a bruised public image, the Catholic Church is at a critical juncture. With fewer priests and a growing number of secularized, liberal Catholics, there aren't as many people to carry on and follow the faith. And if the Church can't find enough priests, who will look after the flock? Liberals suggest turning to women or to married men. But traditionalists (including the pope) insist that only men who uphold traditional values can instill them in others. If the Church ever gets to the point where it can't get a priest to look after a parish, orthodox lay groups like Opus Dei may function as the second wave of the priesthood. Who knows? In ten years, you could be taking Communion from an Opus Dei numerary.

Opus Dei members feel as though their dissidents have grossly misrepresented them. Most members are happy, they maintain, but if you speak to one of these poor people, you'd think everyone was heading for the door. They aren't. The fraction of people who leave with rancor is small but mighty: It's 125 anti-apostles fighting 85,000 believers. The anti-apostles are getting all the attention, and the believers are painfully aware of it. Some members admit that mistakes have been made, and reforms are under way. The minimum age for new members has been raised to eighteen, for instance. But overwhelmingly, the attitude remains that the dissidents, not the organization, are at fault.

When confronted with the complaints, current members simply compare these departures to defections. They've seen the Web sites. They've read the stories. And they just call it bad PR. "Any organization is going to have disgruntled people leaving it," says Father McCloskey. "Like David Brock leaving the Republican Party and writing a book about how awful it was. People are trying to justify themselves."

Current and former members compare the problem to divorce. Once Opus Dei tells you that you have a vocation, that's it. You're married for life. Good Catholics don't divorce their wives, and they don't divorce God. Opus Dei says the door is open, that you can leave at any time, but then again, God called you. Can you forget that?

As Opus Dei gathers momentum in the next decades, it may also become victim of its most effective tactic: zeal. The former members didn't belong to the group for nothing. They are obsessive, articulate and intelligent. They are still slightly leery of this pagan world. They come by all these qualities honestly. They may have left Opus Dei, but Opus Dei will never leave them.


CRAIG OFFMAN is a freelance writer. This is his first story for GQ.