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John Paul II’s Penitential Practices: The Opus Dei Connection

John Paul II and Alvaro del Portillo

As a supplement to what I posted here recently about Pope John Paul II’s penitential practices, I’d like to offer readers a brief overview of some resources for further study.  These resources focus on a particular topic—namely, the use of self-flagellation and other penitential practices such as wearing chains with sharp points that dig into the skin (cilices) by a contemporary Catholic movement, Opus Dei.

Since not all readers may be aware that there is at least one group in the contemporary Catholic church which encourages its members to whip themselves, to wear cilices, and to sleep on the floor or on boards, I’d like to draw attention to the important body of literature that has developed to study and critique Opus Dei’s penitential practices in recent years.  It’s also significant that John Paul II was closely connected to Opus Dei and actively promoted and protected this controversial religious group—about which more below.

Site of Opus Dei Headquarters, New York

It’s clear to me from the response to the revelations about John Paul’s practice of self-flagellation that this is a topic which elicits strong attention among Catholics and others interested in the spiritual life today.  Cindy Wooden’s summary of the story of JPII’s penitential practices at the National Catholic Reporter website, to which my previous posting links, has attracted a thread of lively commentary, most of it strongly critical of the use of practices of self-mortification such as whipping oneself in the contemporary church.

The response to the revelation that JPII practiced self-flagellation at this and other Catholic online threads suggests to me that I am perhaps justified in the conclusion I reached in my previous posting about this topic: that is, that the sensus fidelium finds such practices of self-punishment not merely difficult to understand and justify, but downright abhorrent.  As my previous posting notes, it’s also clear to me that, from the center of the church, from the inner power circles of the church’s ruling elite, there’s an equally strong presupposition that the faithful will be awed when they learn that the previous pope beat himself and slept on the floor to do penance.

The disparity between the narrative about sanctity in the contemporary church that the center wishes to impose (and rehabilitate, since it’s an essentially medieval narrative), and where many Catholics find themselves in our practice of the faith today, is striking.  It does not bode well for the future of the church.

For many of us, there is a clear and self-evident line from the gospel narratives about the life of Jesus to the witness provided by Archbishop Oscar Romero, Jean Donovan, and Sisters Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford, and Maura Clarke.  At the same time, for many of us, the line from the life and practice of Jesus to the revelations about Pope John Paul II’s practice of self-flagellation is anything but self-evident.

That those releasing this information about the former pope expect Catholics to be bowled over (in a positive sense) by the revelation that John Paul beat himself indicates something—something crucially important—about how decisively out of touch the center has gotten with the rest of the people of God.  Far from silencing all critics of the process of canonization for JPII, the revelation that he practiced self-flagellation has succeeded only in raising serious red flags among many of the faithful about the sanctity of the previous pope—and, by inference, about the march backwards he and his right-hand advisor, Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict, instituted in the church following Vatican II.

Opus Dei and Practices of Self-Mortification

For those seeking more theological background about the practice of self-flagellation, wearing cilices, sleeping on the floor or on boards, and so forth, in the church today, I highly recommend a rich trove of articles at the website of the Opus Dei Awareness Network (ODAN).  As the ODAN site notes, ODAN is a “worldwide community of people who have had painful experiences as a result of their association with Opus Dei.”

In a moment, I’ll point to a number of sources that provide information about precisely what the Opus Dei movement is and does.  Before I do that, though, I want to draw attention to the striking parallels between Opus Dei’s penitential practices and those employed by JPII—parallels that should not be surprising, once one realizes how closely aligned with this secretive movement the former pope was, and how much he protected the movement against its detractors.

As the ODAN site notes, Opus Dei actively promotes practices of corporal mortification for its lay and ordained members.  It does so in response to the insight of its founder, Spanish priest Josemaria Escrivá, that pain is blessed and purifies the soul: in his 1939 spiritual guide for Opus Dei members entitled The Way, Escrivá wrote, “Blessed be pain. Loved be pain. Sanctified be pain. . . Glorified be pain!”

And so the Constitution (article 147) of this religious movement dictates that its members should wear a cilice (the chain with sharpened points to inflict pain) at least two hours daily, “for the purpose of chastising the body and reducing it to servitude,” and that they shall sleep on the floor to mortify the flesh.

The ODAN website contains numerous articles providing first-hand testimony by former Opus Dei members about its penitential practices, with reflections about the harm these practices inflicted on those who have now broken with the Opus Dei movement.  These include, for instance, an article entitled “Making Modern-Day Martyrs Using Medieval Methods” by a former lay member of Opus Dei, Sharon Clasen.

Clasen notes that a secret internal Opus Dei document provides eyewitness accounts by Fr. Alvaro del Portillo, who succeeded Escrivá as head of Opus Dei, about Escrivá’s practice of self-flagellation.  Portillo notes that on at least one occasion when he was in the room in which Escrivá flogged himself, the floor was covered in blood following the more than 1,000 whip-blows Escrivá gave to his back.

For Clasen, the revelation that Opus Dei encouraged—indeed, demanded—such practices of its followers, in imitation of the founder (“glorified be pain!”) created cognitive dissonance.  She was attracted to a movement that she understood to provide lay Christians a way to follow Jesus in their workplaces and everyday lives.

But she soon found that there was a perplexing streak of “cruel self-mutilation in Opus Dei” that seemed to run in precisely the opposite direction—not towards the inner freedom that is a hallmark of the Spirit’s presence in a Christian’s life, but towards a psychological dependence on self-mutilation:

What first attracted me to Opus Dei was the message that ordinary Christians could sanctify their work in the middle of the world. However, this new knowledge about ecstasies and cruel self-mutilation confused me. I thought I had joined a lay organization, but more and more it was revealing itself to me to be a religious organization. It went against my nature to do violence to myself as Escriva had done, but I dismissed my inner voice and trusted the judgment of my spiritual director. Trying to emulate the founder, I found some tiny metal safety pins and pressed them into the knots of my whip in order to inflict more pain. Feeling guilty for doubting my vocation, I whipped my back with more pain as a way to punish myself. While it is true that some who have suffered much pain have achieved greatness, it is also true that great suffering can cripple people inside. Those who become crippled might believe that they would not be able to survive in the world without Opus Dei’s walking stick.

As Clasen notes, though Opus Dei seeks to downplay the centrality of practices of self-mutilation in its spirituality—“It’s just like getting the body in shape for a marathon”—there is abundant testimony by former Opus Dei members proving the importance of self-flagellation and other penitential practices to Opus Dei’s spirituality.  Clasen cites a 2005 account by former Opus Dei member John Roche, “Whips, Spiked Garters, and Bloodshed . . . ,” who states,

As a member of Opus Dei, I was expected to undertake a weekly discipline of private self-flagellation 40 strokes with a waxed, corded whip. We were encouraged to ‘draw a little blood’ and frequently told how ‘the Father’ the founder of the organisation drew so much blood that he spattered the walls and ceiling with it.

In 1988, a Spanish former member of the movement, Agustina López de los Mozos Muñoz, wrote a similar statement about the penitential practices of Opus Dei, noting that her spiritual advisor told her that these are especially important for women, who need to “keep their bodies in check” by denying themselves comforts that might lead to temptation.

In another article entitled “How Opus Dei is Cult-Like” at the ODAN website, Clasen suggests that Opus Dei relies on such extreme penitential practices in order to strengthen the authoritarian control of the group’s leaders over its members.  She relates the use of practices of pronounced self-mortification in Opus Dei to Steve Hassan’s BITE model of mind control, as that model is set forth in his study Combating Cult Mind Control (Sommerville, MA: Freedom of Mind Press, 2000).

Hassan notes that cults succeed in controlling the minds of their members by controlling behavior (B), the information available to members (I), the thought processes of members (T), and their emotional states (E).  In Clasen’s view, Opus Dei’s insistence on the use of self-punishing devices like the cilice and on practices like self-flagellation is consistent with cultic groups’ attempts to control the minds of their members by controlling their behavior, emotions, and thought processes.

What Is Opus Dei?

There’s a vast body of literature about the Opus Dei movement—a growing body of literature.  In what follows, I want to point to only a handful of important resources that may be of use to those seeking information about this secretive, worldwide religious movement, which has strong connections to highly placed and powerful economic and political elites, as well as to the Vatican.

1. An indispensable resource for those seeking an overview of  Opus Dei is Michael Walsh’s book Opus Dei: An Investigation into the Powerful Secretive Society within the Catholic Church (NY: HarperCollins, 1992 and 2004).

2. Frank Cocozzelli, a contributor to the Open Tabernacle site, has published important work on Opus Dei at various websites, including Talk to Action.  Frank’s article “The Catholic Right, Part Two: An Introduction to Opus Dei” notes the fascist roots of this movement in Franco’s Spain, and the fact that Opus Dei is “openly more concerned with the economic self-interest of ‘friends’ who already have superfluous wealth and power, often at the expense of the economically less powerful.”

As Frank notes in articles entitled “Opus Dei Declares War on Religious Freedom” and “The Catholic Right’s Art of Constructive Schism—Part 1,” there appears to be a deliberate strategy on the part of Opus Dei to create schism within the contemporary Catholic church, in order to purge the church of “dissident” Catholics who continue to promote the collegial model of church set forth in Vatican II’s documents and the social justice teachings of the church.

3. A valuable discussion of Frank Cocozzelli’s analysis of the “constructive schism” that Opus Dei appears to be promoting in the church is also found at the Wild Reed blog, maintained by another Open Tabernacle contributor, Michael Bayly.  Michael’s analysis focuses on a highly placed Opus Dei member in the United States, Jesuit Fr. John McCloskey, whom journalist Chris Suellentrop calls “the Catholic Church’s K Street lobbyist” in a 2002 Slate article noting the ease with which McCloskey travels in elite circles.  As Suellentrop indicates, “That focus on elites is a hallmark of Opus Dei . . . .”

4. Opus Dei’s strong ties to both the intelligence communities of some Western nations, and to the Vatican bank, are studied in an important December 2009 posting by another Open Tabernacle contributor, Colleen Kochivar-Baker.  As Colleen notes, John Paul II made Opus Dei his own personal prelature in the midst of troubling revelations about financial wheelings and dealings by the Vatican Bank.  (Frank Cocozzelli’s introduction to Opus Dei also notes that this “highy secretive and ultra-conservative group” was the personal prelature of JPII.)

5. As Fr. James Martin notes in an America article entitled “Opus Dei in the United States,” Opus Dei is the only personal prelature in the church, a designation that gives it the status of religious communities that can operate freely across geographical boundaries.  Its critics have wondered why what is ostensibly a lay movement would require such freedom and status.

Fr. Martin also notes critics’ concerns that John Paul II “rigged” the canonization process of Opus Dei’s founder Josemaria Escrivá, preventing the usual process of testimony by those with information critical of the saint-to-be, including allegations that Escrivá had pro-Nazi sympathies.

6. More recently, a number of journalists including Danielle Truszkovsky have uncovered strong indicators of Opus Dei’s ties to influential anti-gay groups in the United States like the National Organization for Marriage (NOM).  Truszkovsky notes that NOM shares an office in Princeton, NJ, with the Witherspoon Institute, identified by ODAN as an Opus Deil affiliate.  Louis Tellez, Witherspoon’s president, is on NOM’s board, and is also an Opus Dei member.  There are strong suggestions, many NOM watchdogs believe, that among the financial backers NOM does not wish to disclose as it works to roll back gay rights in the U.S. is Opus Dei.

As this brief overview suggests—and there are many more resources available for those seeking information about Opus Dei and its practices—the confluence of John Paul II’s penitential practices and those of this secretive, influential right-wing Catholic group which JPII personally protected and promoted raises troubling questions.

For many of us, those questions drive right to heart of the push to have Pope John Paul II canonized.


6 Responses

  1. […] readers today?  I do so because I want to add a clarification to  the two postings I made here (and here) recently about ascetical practices of self-mortification that include self-flagellation, wearing […]

  2. This is a very good article, even though it is somewhat disturbing. It sounds like self-mortification is being used as a means of power and control. I don’t think that Pope John Paul II’s practice of self-mortification showed holiness as much as it showed something disturbing. I think that for some people that self-mortification becomes a type of ritualized fetish. The idea that some can get some type of self-gratification out of whipping themselves is creepy. It is more or less S & M and to me has little to do with holiness. Pope John Paul II wrote about the Theology of the Body but these actions seem to contradict that. I was a great admirer of Pope John Paul II and this fills me with sadness.

    • Mark, I’m happy that this posting was helpful, even if disturbing. It does help to have the full range of information about any issue, as we make up our minds about it.

      You’re right, I think, to point to the huge discrepancy between what JPII wrote about the theology of the body, and his practice of self-flagellation. Others are now noting this, too.

      To be fair to him, I think this discrepancy is rooted in Catholic thinking in general. There’s a kind of schizophrenia that causes the tradition to view sexual ethics in isolation from the rest of creation, so that what we teach about human rights and social justice in every other area is suddenly absent from our understanding of human sexuality.

      And that undercuts what we want to say about human rights and social justice in other areas. (And the practices of physical self-abuse designed to subjugate the body in the Catholic tradition have often revolved around the belief that the body is at war with the soul in the area of erotic attraction.)


    • AJITH, I’m happy to try to provide more information. It would help me, though, if you could tell me in more specific terms what you’d like to know more about. If I have further information on any aspect of this article or can find further information, I’m glad to try to assist.

  4. […] Site of Opus Dei opentabernacle.wordpress.com […]

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