Is Opus Dei a religion

A dropout says: "It was brainwashed"

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In a few months Franzi will give up her so-called Fidelitas, the final, lifelong union with Opus Dei. From that moment on, quitting the work would be morally impossible, because the numerarians follow a divine calling. To terminate membership is tantamount to a grave offense against God. If someone doubts their calling or becomes unhappy, they say: That is exactly the test that must be passed before God.

Franzi has given up her self-determination, her right to privacy, her freedom. Why? She seems reserved, but still like a confident woman. She considers her answers, speaks eloquently. Outwardly, it does not differ from others of its age. Her clothes are subtle but modern. Her big blue eyes look interested in the world. If you didn't know - you wouldn't realize that Franzi is an Opus Dei member.

The organization has many opponents - as evidenced by the dropout literature. There is also a forum on the Internet where former members can share their experiences of suffering. Their goal: to warn young people. They always describe the same pattern: the Opus Dei people who are turned towards you entice you with fun group trips, then invite you to pray the rosary together without any obligation, and finally to Holy Mass. The alumni unanimously report a strong sense of community and exclusivity. A "spiritual leader" demands - at first benevolently, but then more and more urgently - a regular "examination of conscience", the most intimate thoughts must not remain hidden from the work. Candidates are urged to "kill off" sinful thoughts and deeds, overcome physical weaknesses, in order to fully serve God.

Georg Döller also reports on such experiences. When he was ten years old, he "fell into the clutches of the plant," as he says. When he was 15, he signed the declaration of commitment as a numerarian. He's keeping it a secret. Ten years later he gets out. "They don't play with open cards. It's a system. They have plausible answers to everything, everything sounds harmless." Döller says you have to understand Opus Dei's image of God to understand why it has such power over its followers. "As a teenager I learned that God sees everything I do, even what I think. He watches me, knows my mistakes, my weaknesses. I had to keep talking to God, that is, pray, pray, pray. " Every minute one has to be turned to God.

"There is simply no time to think, to reflect. How am I supposed to question something when I am irrationally controlled all day?" Says Döller. And that is exactly what is wanted. In this way the members would be kept docile. "It's like another world." When he decided to leave the organization after ten years, he lost all orientation in the world. He was used to discussing everything with his spiritual leader and blindly obeying him. Suddenly he has to make decisions all by himself. He is socially isolated, in debt, confused. "They stole the most important years of my youth from me. It was brainwashing."

The prominent American psychiatrist and sociologist Robert Lifton has worked out criteria that are effective in totalitarianism and in sects. Döller is convinced that all of these characteristics apply to Opus Dei. The daily examination of conscience in the company of other numerarians and the weekly confession are instruments of total submission.

Today it has been 28 years since Döller left the factory behind. He got married and works as a teacher at a high school. When he talks about his past, his voice sounds as if he had to struggle to suppress a long pent-up anger. One brother is still a member of Opus Dei. The organization intervenes deeply in the relationship with the family. Child and parents alienate each other. "When my mother found out which way I was going, she resisted. But the more she tried to dissuade me, the deeper my conviction became that I was on the right track." The young Döller was referred to the Gospel of Luke: "Whoever wants to join me must be ready to break with father and mother", it says there. At some point his mother gave up. "What should she have done if she didn't want to lose me?" Döller suffers from the fact that the church accepts these methods and that popes even protect the organization.

Franzi's mother lives alone in Berlin. How does she live with her daughter's decision? At first there is nothing to suggest that she is worried. "The people from Opus Dei are very nice. Franzi is in good hands there," she says. When the girl converted at the time, it was a shock. She exemplified Protestant Christianity for her as best she could. And then suddenly it didn't mean anything to her anymore.

Franzi's membership in Opus Dei, however, did not surprise her. She is someone who does everything very precisely, everything with ultimate consistency. But that the daughter will put on a penitential belt, whip herself with a whip, and never give her mother a grandchild? The answer is hesitant. Yes, that is sad. But she just looks to see if Franzi has any scars anywhere. If your daughter is fine, she doesn't think about it much anymore. Sometimes Franzi gives her mother some of the works to read. It alienates her, says the mother. At some point, just turn them off. The mother thought that she herself had a part in Franzi's development. She speaks of guilt. She and her daughter used to be alone. Franzi doesn't even know how beautiful a family can be. She didn't even get to know her father. Now she has God, who is always loyal to her. He'll never leave her. The mother's expression is not desperate. Perhaps "powerless" is the right word.

Martin Hochholzer, advisor for sectarian and ideological issues at the Catholic Office for Missionary Pastoral (KAMP), confirms this thesis without knowing Franzi. "Opus Dei offers young people a home, an orientation in life, clear rules. The work takes the place of the family. It is very tempting for someone who has a lack of it." Hochholzer rates Opus Dei as an employee of the Catholic Church.

Clear rules. Georg Döller would probably speak of control and incapacitation. Then Franzi would smile and reply that as a Catholic laywoman she doesn't want to just live like that. That she has a mission in the world. That she acts in accordance with her calling, according to God's will - and that she fulfills it deeply. You can now imagine the answer to every critical question.

The inner logic of Opus Dei is captivating. Still, she has no way of knowing what is coming. She could also meet a man at university who questions her whole life plan. "No," says Franzi simply. "I act like I'm married. I don't send false signals. The boys know that." She says that at a second meeting. Hilde Müller is not there this time, but it doesn't really make any difference. Franzi has internalized the teachings of the work. She is absolutely certain that what she is doing is right. Anyone who has doubts about its truth can only regret it; after all, he has not yet reached her level of knowledge. Franzi recognizes neither control nor manipulation or a profound intervention in her personality development. For them, Opus Dei is the way to perfection, the only way to God. Franzi doesn't seem like a victim, but like a self-confident young woman. Maybe that's just so disturbing.