Most people who have heard of Opus Dei learned about it through one of the following ways:
- They read about in Dan Brown’s best seller, the Da Vinci Code.
- They learned about it when a member of Opus Dei, Robert Hanssen, was arrested and eventually convicted of selling American intel to the Russians.
I learned about it because I went to an Opus Dei school.
Opus Dei, for those of you who have never heard of it or only know a little about it, is a personal prelature of the Roman Catholic Church. A “personal prelature” is like a church diocese, only it’s not defined by a specific geographic boundary. Opus Dei means “work of God” in Latin, and its members are supposed to strive to bring God into their everyday lives, not just on Sundays.
Most members are secular folks like you and me who are called “supernumeraries.” A smaller portion of Opus Dei members are “numeraries.” I like to call them plain-clothed nuns. They promise to be celibate and live in Opus Dei centers with other numeraries of the same sex. All numeraries, super or otherwise, are expected to give a decent portion of their income to Opus Dei.
Opus Dei is weird and often secretive. They have centers all over the country, but their members are instructed not to tell the neighbors with whom they are affiliated. Numeraries practice self-mortification, where they intentionally hurt or deny themselves.
They are incredibly sexist -- men in Opus Dei centers do not cook or clean for themselves but have female “numerary assistants” (often from low-income families or foreign countries) take care of domestic issues. Married women are encouraged to emulate June Cleaver and always be dressed up for their husbands in the evening.
They can also, frankly, be obnoxious. Opus Dei members are taught that if they see someone doing something they believe to be against the teachings of the church, they have a moral obligation to say something to that person.
I was raised Catholic, but my upbringing was still fairly liberal for the Catholic Church. I only knew about Opus Dei because I had extended family who were members. They sent their children to one of two local schools in DC: Oakcrest (for girls) or the Heights (for boys, and where Rick Santorum’s children attend high school).
Oakcrest had a huge variety show each year, and I remember watching my cousins perform in it. As a budding musical theatre geek who was just dying to be on stage, I was smitten. Word to the wise: Don’t let your child pick a school based on a two hour performance.
During the admissions process, I was told that my mother’s divorce might affect my chances of getting in. But somehow they managed to see past that and accepted me. It probably didn’t hurt that we didn’t qualify for financial aid, and they had a few too many large families that were putting a strain on the school.
Oakcrest, when I attended, was located in Northwest DC in an old convent that was converted into a school. It was tiny -- my first year, my class was 30, but it dropped to 25 the next year. Some grades were even smaller. Mass was said every single day, but we were not required to attend. If you chose not to pray, you went to “Enrichment,” where you sat in a classroom and read a book from an approved reading list. After a couple of years, they caught on to the fact that most people were reading “The Scarlet Pimpernel” over and over and over again, and took it off the list.
Courses at Oakcrest included Theology every day. We learned not just how to be good Catholics, but about how Opus Dei was superior. When one girl told our teacher that her parish priest said French kissing was not a mortal sin (those are the really bad ones -- the ones that you’d better hurry to a priest to confess because if you die with them on your conscience you might go to hell), our teacher told her that she should always listen to Opus Dei priests over “regular” priests, because Opus Dei priests are better educated.
There were no sexual education courses at Oakcrest. We talked extensively about sex in Theology class, though, and I can trace most of my sexual hang-ups to what I was taught there. Any sexual urges outside of the marriage bed were to be repressed, no exceptions.
Masturbation was a big no-no, and if you indulged in impure thoughts, well, you might as well have been masturbating, because that was almost as bad. Certain girls had their pay phone conversations monitored (this was before cell phones became ubiquitous) if they were suspected of getting too involved with a boy.
Abortion was, as you would expect, the ultimate sin, and Oakcrest took us to the March for Life in DC each year. We proudly marched through the streets of DC, so sure that in this (as in everything else) we held the moral high ground. During the Bush/Gore election, the school put up fliers saying it was a mortal sin to vote for Al Gore because he was pro-choice. Never mind that almost all of the students were under the age of 18 and unable to vote.
The only thing deemed worse than abortion at Oakcrest was homosexuality. I’m sure there were gay students, but they were not out, or they were in deep denial. We were taught that it was a sin to act on homosexual feelings -- that whole “love the sinner, hate the sin” thing. At one point, two girls in school were suspected of being in a relationship, so the administration made one of the girls sit in the front office every day after school until her carpool arrived, to keep them apart.
If you were a student at Oakcrest, you likely didn’t just experience Opus Dei teachings within the school. DC had many Opus Dei centers (where the numeraries lived), and we occasionally had sleepovers hosted there. Many of my friends came from Opus Dei families, and their mothers worked hard to get us involved in Opus Dei activities. There were “Days of Recollection” on the weekend, where you went to an Opus Dei center for mass, confession, a lecture on some virtue or another, and then a quick lunch. Opus Dei also ran a summer camp for children, which I worked at one summer.
I realize now that the numeraries were trying to figure out who among us was a potential recruit. They would try and get close to us, often in comically inept ways. One woman was especially awkward at trying to win our friendship. On one memorable occasion, she spent about a half hour trying to get me to admit that it upset me that my parents got divorced. I finally gave in and told her it bothered me sometimes, which was probably the biggest lie I have ever told in my life.
Oakcrest and Opus Dei really messed with my psyche. I was a susceptible kid who wanted desperately to be liked and to have something to believe in. There were no shades of gray at Oakcrest, and I gained a comfortable moral certitude that I knew the “truth.” I didn’t have to make up my own mind because everything was already laid out for me.
I look back on that time with extreme regret, and I thank my lucky stars every day that no one tried to seriously recruit me during that time, as I would have been a prime target.
My first week at college, I had to write an essay on who I was and what I believed in. I wrote about my strict moral beliefs and said something stupid like, “I believe I’m right, but who doesn’t?” My professor responded to this with, “Actually, the wisest people I know realize they don’t know everything.”
That one small sentence was the beginning of the end for me, and I slowly started thinking for myself again. It took a long time for me to get here, but I now consider myself agnostic, I’m pro-choice and I no longer think homosexual actions are a sin.
Today I liken my time at Oakcrest as being brainwashed. Everyone at Oakcrest seemed so nice and normal. It was hard to see the hatred they were teaching behind the facade of virtue. Fully breaking away from their teachings took me years, but I like to think I’m stronger now, and I’m proud of the person I’ve become.