Opus Dei: The Pope’s Right Arm in Europe

By Gordon Urquhart | 1997
Catholics for Choice

Three cardinals have emerged as the most powerful in Pope Francis’s papacy; all have close ties to Opus Dei. Two now control all Vatican finance. One of Opus Dei’s goals “was to control the Vatican’s wealth, now closer than ever to being realized” with Cardinal George Pell in charge of reforming the Vatican’s finances at the new Secretariat for the Economy. (Source: Opus Dei Influence Rises to the Top in the Vatican / Daily Kos.) (Image: Alfredo Borba / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0)

This report was researched and written for Catholics for Choice by Gordon Uquhart, author of The Pope’s Armada: Unlocking the Secrets of Mysterious and Powerful New Sects in the Church (Prometheus Books, 1999).

Opus Dei is one of the most powerful—and reactionary—organisations in the Roman Catholic church today. The organisation troubles liberal Catholics, but its devotion to promoting, as public policy, the Vatican’s inflexibly traditionalist approach to women, sexuality and reproductive health is cause for concern far beyond the boundaries of Catholicism.

Opus Dei pursues the Vatican’s agenda through the presence of its members in secular governments and institutions and through a vast array of academic, medical, and grassroots pursuits. Its constant effort to increase its presence in civil institutions of power is supported by growth in the organisation as a whole: worldwide membership increased by 5 percent during the first half of this decade, and Opus Dei ordains up to a hundred new priests a year and opens forty centres annually. The organisation’s aim, according to Crônica, a magazine for members, is “to hallow and Christianise the institutions of the peoples, of science, culture, civilisation, politics, the arts and social relations.” Because of the high degree of members’ allegiance to Opus Dei and its religious agenda, their work in the public sphere breaches the church-state division that is fundamental to modern democracy. It is essential, then, to monitor the organisation’s undertakings in secular arenas—a task made difficult by the fact that individuals’ membership is often undisclosed to the public.

Since John Paul II became pope in 1978, Opus Dei has increasingly thrown its considerable might into the pope’s reactionary programme on sexuality and reproductive health. Today the organisation focuses virtually all its resources in this area. So closely has it identified itself with the pope’s struggle that when the Swiss community of Le Paquier, Fribourg, opposed the construction of an Opus Dei seminary there, Opus Dei member Edgardo Giovannini blamed the opposition on “a strong and active group that would not accept the papal politics of the family.”[1]

Asked in a 1993 interview whether the Vatican had entrusted a special task to Opus Dei, the organisation’s Rome spokesman, Giuseppe Corigliano, replied succinctly, “Europe.”[2] With strategic precision, the organisation has concentrated its European activities in vital areas: opinion forming among academics through frequent conferences; the foundation of research institutes across the continent; involvement with the medical community including construction of two hospitals; grassroots activities against legal abortion; and above all, a political presence at the highest levels of governments and European institutions, completing a direct line from the Vatican to the secular heart of Europe.

The almost military nature of this operation is reflected in the words of the head of Opus Dei, Monsignor Javier Echevarría, to a Family Congress in 1994: “A few days ago the Pope spoke in Rome … about the necessity of setting up a new ‘Maginot line.’ He suggested that a ‘great wall’ should be erected to keep out the hedonist consumerism that threatens to invade the developing countries. You well know that this hedonism is often expressed by an aggressive antinatalist drive.”[3] It is against this “drive” that Opus Dei has erected its line of defence in Europe.

Octopus Dei

Opus Dei, whose name means “Work of God,” has just over 80,000 members worldwide. Its power, however, is out of all proportion to this relatively small total. From its origins, Opus Dei has worked in academic circles, nurturing a highly educated elite. Spurred on by the organisation’s message of sanctification through work, members aspire to the highest positions in society. The professions in which Opus Dei is strongest, particularly in Europe and South America, are the media, medicine, the judiciary, education (especially at the university level), and, above all, high finance and politics.

The Constitutions of Opus Dei require members to obey the pope in all things and to obey Opus Dei authorities in all things insofar as they regard the organisation. According to the Constitutions, all members must be “disponibili,” that is, at the disposition of the organisation, each according to his or her personal circumstances. Members also are required to proselytise—that is, to propagate Opus Dei’s interpretation of Catholic morality “in a constant doctrinal and catechetical apostolate which should be suited to the particular needs of those among whom they live and work” (Constitutions, Rule 114). The Constitutions also instruct members to focus their efforts on people with influence in civil society—intellectuals and those of high office or status (Constitutions, Rule 116).[4]

Internal newsletters and conversations with members reflect a culture that places much emphasis on advancing traditional church teachings and Opus Dei objectives through the professional lives of members. Although the organisation neither claims nor acknowledges responsibility for the activities of its members, the nature of members’ commitment to Opus Dei makes their professional activities and the organisation’s agenda virtually impossible to disentangle. Yet Opus Dei admits at most only to providing spiritual support, for example, by posting chaplains to work at educational institutions or nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) run by Opus Dei members.

Opus Dei’s strategy of influencing the influential explains the organisation’s focus on recruitment of students, intellectuals, professionals, and the wealthy. It also accounts for the stringent financial demands placed on Opus Dei members, many of whom receive a modest stipend in exchange for turning their salaries over to the organisation or making Opus Dei the sole beneficiary of their wills. Opus Dei also supports itself through the operation of business enterprises, either directly or indirectly, through its members. Opus Dei expert Michael Walsh has suggested that Opus Dei linked businesses have been so successful that, when the Banco Ambrosiano collapsed in 1982, Opus Dei offered to bail out the Vatican Bank (which was inextricably linked with Ambrosiano) and pick up 30 percent of the Vatican’s annual expenditures, possibly in exchange for the pope’s agreement to confer the special status of personal prelature on the organisation.[5]

Opus Dei achieves its goals by applying huge concentrations of resources in strategic areas. This is nowhere more evident than in Opus Dei’s crusade against a modern understanding of sexuality and reproductive health.

At a grass-roots level, innumerable initiatives have been launched throughout Europe:

  • Opus Dei “schools for parents” offer a curriculum based on Opus Dei’s ideology of “family values,” including total rejection of contraception, abortion, and homosexual relationships.
  • Propaganda and lobbying on a mass scale are carried out through “prolife” movements founded or led by Opus Dei members or sympathisers such as the Meyer family in France and Carlo Casini, a member of the European Parliament (MEP) and president of Italy’s Movement Pro Vita.
  • Research institutes on bioethics, sexuality, and reproductive issues run by Opus Dei members have sprung up all over Europe and are coordinated by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family (PCF). Opus Dei-linked institutions were well represented at a 1995 PCF meeting of Higher Institutes of Study on Marriage and the Family and Bioethical Centres. Participants adopted the recommendation that the institutes engage in “skilled use of the means of social communications” [their emphasis] and collaborate with other religions on “the shared values of the Natural Law tradition which is under challenge today.”[6]
  • Opus Dei-linked higher education institutions of all kinds hold scholarly events on the organisation’s traditionalist perspective on reproduction and sexuality.

In addition to academic meetings, Opus Dei and Opus Dei associates hold numerous other antiabortion or family conferences all over Europe, often with powerful patronage from the worlds of politics or the aristocracy.

Opus Dei Membership

Opus Dei membership ranges across 80 countries and totals more than 80,000 according to the Vatican yearbook Annuario Pontifico.

Membership Categories*

  • Numeraries enter a permanent contract called “the fidelity” (similar to vows, but Opus Dei eschews that term) of poverty, chastity (celibacy), and obedience, and they live in Opus Dei gender-segregated communities, while often holding jobs in the secular world. Numeraries donate their salaries to Opus Dei and receive a stipend in return. They are required to have or be capable of obtaining a doctorate, although the women work in the domestic administration of male communities. An underclass of women numeraries, called auxiliaries, is dedicated full-time to cooking and cleaning. Numeraries make up 20 percent of total membership.
  • Associates, generally for family reasons, do not live in Opus Dei communities. Like numeraries, they enter a contract or “legal bond” effectively equivalent to vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
  • Supernumeraries, the majority of Opus Dei members, are married. This is considered a lower rank than that of numerary.
  • Priests in Opus Dei, many of whom come from the ranks of the numeraries, belong to Opus Dei’s Priestly Society of the Holy Cross.
  • Cooperators support Opus Dei through prayers, donations, and other activities, but they are not strictly considered to be members.

*Michael Walsh, The Secret World of Opus Dei (London: Grafton, 1989) / Opus Dei (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), chapter 5.

Sexuality, Reproduction, and Women—An Ideology

Opus Dei’s expression of its views on sexuality and reproduction rivals the Vatican’s in its ferocity and frankness.

  • on contraception: Opus Dei refers to “the intrinsic evil of systems of birth control inasmuch as they disfigure the nature of human sexuality.”[7] Father Lino Ciccone, an academic close to Opus Dei, declares contraceptives “the first step on a way of death” and says users are guilty of “grave sin… of a seriousness and weight which are difficult to quantify but certainly enormous.”[8] Contraceptives are also linked to marital failure: “If divorce in Western countries affects 35 percent of couples, it is only 3 percent among couples who only use natural methods of birth control,” claims Francois Geinoz, the director of the Opus Dei-linked Limmat Foundation.[9] Sounding a common theme among Opus Dei members—that family-planning programmes are a form of “neocolonialism”—Geinoz suggests that participants from developing countries see family planning “as new American methods for exercising power on the masses of the South.”[10]
  • on abortion: Opus Dei considers abortion murder, and members work to limit its legality or accessibility. To this end, Opus Dei has elaborated an ideology of arguments cloaked in scientific language, presumably to buttress the Vatican’s arguments in purely secular terms. A doctor close to Opus Dei—G.J.M. van den Aardweg of the Opus Dei-linked MEDO Institute (recently succeeded by the International Theological Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family)—speaks of “the problems a woman is faced with after abortion” and says that “various research projects show how in such situations a strong sense of guilt takes over, often accompanied by a series of psychic and moral problems.”[11]
  • on in vitro fertilisation: Commenting on in vitro fertilisation at an Opus Dei symposium on “the Dignity of Human Life,” a speaker, Doctor W.J. Eijk, told participants that “the ends of progress do not always justify the means employed.”[12]
  • on families: In a talk entitled “Real and Unreal Families,” Dr. van den Aardweg held forth on “the current tendencies which aim to transform the concept of the family and harness it to various forms of non-matrimonial relationships, for which legal recognition is demanded.”[13]
  • on homosexuality: In one of his many writings on homosexuality, Dr. van den Aardweg cites, approvingly, a woman who claims to have been “totally cured” of her lesbianism, which she describes “as an amputated leg, which can never come back.”[14]
  • on AIDS: Another MEDO Institute doctor, Dr. Joannes P.M. Lelkens, claims to have proven that the condom is not sufficient protection against the AIDS virus.[15] His article met with a storm of protest from other medical experts in the Italian press.

These, then, are some of the fundamental ideas of Opus Dei’s ideology of sexuality and reproductive health. Opus Dei spokespersons in this field are almost always men, often priests and celibates. Women, in fact, play a strikingly subordinate role within the organisation, and some of the views on women expressed by members appear to come from another age. Although a women’s branch of Opus Dei was set up a few years after Opus Dei’s founding as a male institution in 1928, women have always been second-class members. The sexes are strictly segregated, in living arrangements and in roles. For example, women cannot participate in the election of the organsation’s leader.

Although some Opus Dei women achieve doctorates, the chief activity for Opus Dei women is domestic work. As one of its principal activities, the organisation has set up schools for domestics worldwide. Women trained in these establishments are then employed as maids in Opus Dei centres, including those for celibate men. “Women’s” work is glorified and romanticised. Opus Dei founder Father Josemaría Escrivá expressed his view of women in a single line of his book of slogans, El Camino “Women needn’t be scholars—it’s enough for them to be prudent.” The glorification of subservient roles for women supports Opus Dei’s policy of excluding women from power; Escrivá once told the women who cleaned the floors at the organisation’s University of Navarra, in Pamplona, Spain, “I would not be able to say what is more important—your task or that of the Directive Committee,” which runs Opus Dei.[16]

Deportment and modesty are among the subjects on the curriculum for female members of Opus Dei; there is no equivalent for men. The organisation’s antimodern views of women could be seen as comically quaint. For example, the theme of a conference held by the Opus-Dei-linked Business Spouses Association of Dublin, Ireland, in 1994 was “Home Technology—Family Friend or Foe?” The event looked at the “impact of television on family intimacy” and the “psychological implications of the habit of ‘virtual reality.’”[17]

The founder of Opus Dei was much preoccupied with female modesty, and regular events are held for Opus Dei women on the subject of “Christian fashion.” At a conference for women university students at Opus Dei’s centre at Grottaferrata, near Rome, a participant asked a speaker about sexual harassment in the workplace. Dr. Clementina Meregalli Anzilotti, a neurologist at the Hospital of San Carlo in Milan, replied, “I believe that sexual harassment comes to those who invite it. Some women go around dressed in such a manner that they attract that kind of approach. If we were more careful about our way of speaking, not sliding into dirty talk, if we took more care in our way of dressing, not descending to low-cut clothes, then, I believe, these problems would be eliminated at the root.”[18]

Opus Dei organisations and members attempt to apply their standards for women’s roles not just to Opus Dei members but to the world at large. The organisation accuses women’s rights advocates of “hyperfeminism”—a term coined by demographer Gerard-François Dumont, a professor at the Sorbonne. Opus Dei members claim “hyperfeminism” aims at “assuring women, independently of their specific characteristics and assets, of a power in society which goes much further than the power of men.”[19] This is contrasted with “good feminism,” sometimes called “new feminism,” which “guarantees … the same dignity to men and women”[20]—a concept compatible with the most traditionalist concepts of gender and the terminology the Vatican favours. According to François Geinoz, director of the Opus Dei-linked Limmat Foundation, “‘hyperfeminism’ was implicit in the title of the fourth chapter of the Cairo Platform for Action; ‘Gender Equality, Equity and Empowerment of Women.’”[21] In a lecture on the Cairo conference, Geinoz declared that fighting discrimination against women “does not mean resolving the problems in terms of power, giving women a masculine ‘power.’”[22]

Links to the Vatican

The liberal views on sexuality and reproductive health that prevail in Europe today are characterised by Pope John Paul II as reflecting a “culture of death.” The struggle against this culture has become the main thrust of John Paul’s pontificate. To this end, he has founded three organisations, under the auspices of the Vatican, to promote and coordinate not only church teachings but also long-range activities in the political arena. Opus Dei plays a dominant role in each of these organisations:

The Pontifical Council for the Family, established in 1981. The council’s mission is to promote “the pastoral care of families so they may carry out their educative, evangelising, and apostolic mission and make their influence felt in areas such as defence of human life and responsible procreation according to the teachings of the church.”[23] The current president, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, is one of the closest collaborators of the pope, with whom he worked during the early 1970s at Opus Dei’s centre for priests in Rome. During this papacy, Lopez Trujillo has risen more rapidly than any other church dignitary.

Members of the Council are chosen by the pope and include:

  • Doctor Jean-Marie and Anouk Meyer, Opus Dei members; Anouk Meyer, the daughter of Jerome Lejeune (below), belongs to France’s premier Opus Dei dynasty
  • Professors Andrzej Poltawski and Wanda Poltawska, close to Opus Dei and old friends of the pope from his Krakow days

The Committee for the Council for the Family includes:

  • Cardinal Lucas Moreira Neves, archbishop of São Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, president of the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference, and a powerful Opus sympathiser

Consultants to the Council for the Family include:

  • Carlo Caffarra, Archbishop of Ferrara Comacchio, who is close to Opus Dei and who has been involved in all three of these Opus Dei-linked Vatican bodies
  • Rev. Juan lgnacio Arrieta, an Opus Dei member
  • Rev. Ramón Garcia de Haro, an Opus Dei member
  • Bishop Klaus Küng of Feldkirch, Austria, an Opus Dei member who, before becoming a bishop, headed Opus Dei in Austria; appointed by the Austrian Bishops’ Conference as Bishop for the Family
  • Polish theologian Tadeusz Styczen, close to Opus Dei
  • Christine Boutin, French member of parliament, close to Opus Dei

The Pontifical Academy Pro Vita (Pontifical Academy for Life), an advisory body composed primarily of scientific professionals, working closely with the Pontifical Council for the Family. Members are nominated by the pope and selected “without any religious … discrimination” but must sign the Declaration of the Servants of Life and “pledge themselves to act in conformity with the Magisterium of the Church.”[24] The academy acts as an information network, and members intervene in local public life at a word from the Holy See. The academy was founded in February 1994 after the venerable Pontifical Academy for the Sciences (whose members are appointed for life and take no pledge of adherence to Vatican doctrine) refused to accede to the papal point of view on population issues. The academy Pro Vita is the brainchild of the pope’s right-hand man on life issues: Jerome Lejeune, who was an advisor to the United Nations on genetics and the biological effects of radiation and a leading Opus Dei member in France. As the academy’s first president, Lejeune recruited members until his death in 1994. Of the first forty members named, more than half are members or sympathisers of Opus Dei.

They include:

  • the current president, Professor Juan de Dios Vial Correa, an Opus Dei member
  • Archbishop Carlo Caffarra
  • Carlo Casini, member, European Parliament; president, Movement Pro Vita, Italy Professor
  • Gonzalo Herranz Rodriguez, director of bioethics at Opus Dei’s University of Navarra, in Pamplona, Spain, and author of the Pontifical Council for the Family’s 1991 report criticising RU-486[25]
  • Birthe Lejeune, Professor Jérôme Lejeune’s widow (honorary member)
  • Professor Wanda Poltawska, who with her husband also belongs to the Pontifical Council for the Family
  • Reverend Tadeusz Styczen
  • Professor Wolfgang Waldstein

The John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, created in 1982 as an annex of the Pontifical Lateran University, in Rome. The institute works closely with the Pontifical Council for the Family. Uniquely for a Vatican body, this institution has branches in Washington, DC; Mexico City; Guadalajara, Mexico; and Valencia, Spain. Archbishop Carlo Caffarra has served as president of the institute.

Beyond these organisations, too, Opus Dei enjoys favour with the Vatican.[26] Especially during the current papacy, the Vatican appoints Opus Dei members to important episcopal positions and has made Opus Dei a growing presence in the Roman Curia, the administration of the church.

At the Heart of Europe

Opus Dei advances its agenda for sexual and reproductive issues on a number of fronts and through a variety of strategies. The ultimate aim of all of these endeavours is to gain political power so that its moral agenda might be enshrined in public policy and legislation.

The organisation is already well-placed through the political power of its members and sympathisers in parliaments and governments. Opus Dei has traditionally been linked to the right, not to say the extreme right, the most notorious example being its members within Franco’s cabinet.[27] France and Italy are home to some Opus Dei sympathisers who have been particularly well placed in politics.

In France:

  • Hervé Gaymard, deputy for Savoie in the National Assembly, and the minister of health and social security, is close to Opus Dei. Gaymard was an advisor to Jacques Chirac’s electoral campaign and is the son-in-law of the late Jerome Lejeune.
  • Raymond Barre, deputy for Rhone and mayor of Lyon, is also close to Opus Dei. Barre testified in the beatification process of Opus Dei’s founder, his friend Monsignor Escrivá.
  • Prince Michel Poniatowski, a member of the French Senate since 1989, is considered close to Opus Dei.
  • Christine Boutin, deputy for Yvelines and a member of the right-wing Union pour la Democratic Francaise, is also considered close to Opus Dei. Appointed by Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Council for the Family, Boutin wages her personal crusade against “the new holocaust” by continually proposing legislation to outlaw abortion.[28]

In Italy:

  • Member of Parliament (MP) Ombretta Fumagalli Carulli, of the right-wing Centro Cristiano Democratico party, is close to Opus Dei.
  • MP Alberto Michelini, a liberal federalist, is a member of Opus Dei. Michelini recently lent his support to the ultraconservative Committees for the Defence of Family, Natural and Christian Order, which in October 1995 submitted a petition with 136,000 signatures to the European Commission protesting the European Parliament’s acceptance in 1994 of a report that advocated the eradication of discrimination against lesbians and gays in member states and proposed the legalisation of homosexual unions. The petition, which Michelini signed, demanded that the European Commission issue a binding directive against legal homosexual unions in member states.
  • Opus Dei recently courted the Alleanza Nazionale, the former Italian Fascist Party. In an interview published in Studi Cattolici, a magazine close to Opus Dei, party leader Gianfranco Fini declares, “I am on the Pope’s side,” and aligns himself against abortion and with John Paul II’s vision of “the culture of death.”[29]
  • In 1994, the Residenze Universitarie Italiane (RUI), the Opus Dei organisation for Italian university students, promoted a petition against the preparatory document for the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development—the “Cairo conference” of 1994. The petition was submitted to Italy’s president and prime minister but received its most enthusiastic support from the Alleanza Nazionale minister for agriculture, Adriana Poli Bortoni, who issued a press release in its favour. Bortoni’s press release, stamped “Press Office of the Holy See,” was later distributed to journalists by the Vatican Press Office, run by Opus Dei member Joaquin Navarro-Valls. An extraordinary letter from Italy’s president to the prime minister, urging opposition to legal abortion in Cairo, was due in part to the RUI petition and another petition, signed by one thousand Italian academics, that was also organised by Opus Dei members.[30]

Opus Dei also has maintained a constant presence in the European Parliament and European Commission. Of MEPs close to Opus Dei, a pivotal figure is Carlo Casini, who is close to the pope and belongs to the Vatican’s watchdog body on reproductive health and sexuality, the Pontifical Academy for Life. A lawyer, Casini heads the EP Committee on Legal Affairs and Citizen’s Rights. This position takes on particular significance in the light of legislation Casini is promoting in Italy as president of Movement Pro Vita. The legislation would modify the first article of the Italian Civil Code to say that “every human being possesses juridical capacity from the moment of conception.” According to the movement’s spokesman, Pier Giorgio Liverani, this proposal already has the support of the five Christian parties and the Alleanza Nazionale.[31] Casini is also active in European Parliament proceedings on reproductive health, genetics, and the family. In 1994, after the United Nations’ Cairo conference on population, Casini proposed a resolution celebrating the Cairo consensus but highlighting four concerns that closely matched the Vatican’s view of Cairo. The European Parliament rejected most of his proposal but followed his lead in adopting a resolution stating that abortion is not a method of birth control, essentially reiterating a point already stated in United Nations documents.

Opus Dei in Public Policy

Members of national parliaments who are friends of Opus Dei have included:


  • Dr. Marilies Flemming, former family minister
  • Vinzenz Liechtenstein
  • Dr. Alöis Mock, former minister of foreign affairs


  • Raymond Barre, mayor of Lyon and parliamentarian
    Christine Boutin
  • Hervé Gaymard, minister of health and social security
  • Prince Michel Poniatowski


  • Graf Alöis von Waldburg-Zeil


  • Adriana Poll Bortoni, former agriculture minister[32]
  • Ombretta Fumagalli
  • Carulli Alberto Michelini


  • Mota Amarall
  • Roberto Carneiro, former education minister
  • Amara da Costa, a founder of the extreme right-wing Partido do Centro Democratico Social—Partido Popular (CDS-PP)
  • Oliveira Dias
  • Hernan Lopez, former economic minister
  • Enrico de Melo
  • Jorge Miranda
  • Pedro Roseto
  • Silverio Marluns da Silva, a CDS-PP founder


  • Gaspar Arino
  • Isabel Tocino, minister for the environment
  • Frederico Trillo, president of the Congress

Members of the European Parliament (MEP5) close to Opus Dei have included:


  • Francoise Seillier


  • Fritz Pirkl (now deceased)
  • Kurt Malangre
  • Otto von Habsburg
  • Graf Alöis von Waldburg-Zeil (former MEP)


  • Carlo Casini Alberto Michelini (former MEP)


  • Enrico de Melo


  • Jose Ignacio Salafranca

European Commissioners who are friends of Opus Dei have Included:


  • Jacques Santer, president of the Commission


  • Marcelino Oreja, a member of Franco’s cabinet during the early 1960’s


  • Joao de Deus Pinheiro

Opus Dei sympathisers on government Delegations to UN conferences include:

  • Carlo Casini: EU delegation to the International Conference on Population & Development (Cairo, 1994)
  • Ireria Kowaiska: Vatican ‘Delegation to the Fourth World conference on Women (Beijing, 1995)
  • Dr. Andreas Laun: Austrian Delegation to Cairo
  • Dr. Monika Pankoke-Schenk: German Delegation to Beijing

International Development

There is no question that Opus Dei members see themselves locked in battle against “antinatalist” forces manipulating the United Nations and the European Union. That they see themselves in partnership with the pope in this campaign is apparent from the similar ways in which Opus Dei and the Vatican approach and speak of international events such as the recent UN conferences on population and development, in Cairo in 1994, and on women, in Beijing in 1995.

The Vatican’s attitude toward the conference on population was captured by Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujilló, the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, when he said “The battle begins in Cairo.” That war cry was echoed by Opus Dei member Pier Giovanni Palla, director of the study centre of an Opus Dei organisation called the Istituto per la Cooperazione Universitaria, a development NGO. “The Strategy of the UN Is Against the Family,” declared the title of an article Palla published in the July 1994 Studi Cattolici, the Italian monthly close to Opus Dei. Palla wrote of “the offensive the Vicar of Christ has launched against clear and hidden manipulators of conscience.” Hinting at the identity of these “manipulators of conscience,” he referred to the “powerful of the Earth,” those who possess the ideological and financial control of the great international organisations and the politics of aid to the developing countries.” First among these, Palla said, was US president Bill Clinton.

Members of Opus Dei organisations participate in international conferences to lobby national delegates—and they lobby vigorously. They consider the EU position hard to influence because the European Union is represented by the delegates of the country that happens to hold the presidency, and is therefore never representative: it was Germany in Cairo, Spain in Beijing, and Italy in Istanbul in 1996, at the Second UN Conference on Human Settlements. Francois Geinoz, director of the Opus Dei-linked Limmat Foundation, disparaged the Spanish EU Delegates at Beijing as a “hyperfeminist.”[33]

To combat such Delegates, Opus Dei has actively promoted the appointment to government delegations of its members and others sympathetic to Opus Dei’s hard line on reproductive health. It was rumoured at Cairo that when the Vatican needed more allies, unsympathetic delegates from Central and South American countries were dismissed and replaced with Opus Dei members who would heed the Vatican line. Certainly the majority of the countries that allied themselves with the Vatican were those in which Opus Dei has a strong political presence—for example, Argentina, Peru, Guatemala, Honduras, Malta, and the Philippines.

Opus Dei members also advance their worldview at the grassroots level, through the many organisations they operate. One critic described the Opus Dei approach to development—at least in Peru, where Opus Dei is powerful—as following Opus Dei founder Escrivá’s strict concept of unalterable hierarchy: “The progressives help a worker to become the boss (where possible), whereas Opus helps the same worker to become the best of workers.”[34] More importantly, Opus Dei’s presence in the development field wins members a place in the discussions at UN conferences and an entrée to lobby international institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union. Some of the more significant Opus Dei-linked organisations involved in development work are described here:

  • Istituto per la Cooperazione Universitaria (ICU), which is mentioned repeatedly in Opus Dei’s semi-internal bulletin Romana, is one of the largest organisations, with offices in Rome and Brussels. As of 1993, its projected emergency aid programmes ranged from Peru to Albania and the former Soviet Union, and its activities generally followed the work pursued by Opus Dei in Western Europe. Its budget for 1993 was $4.8 million, of which only 10 percent came from private sources, while 85 percent was from public sources, including the European Union (the remainder being self-financed).[35] Only eight of its twenty-two salaried staff members are to be found in developing countries.[36] ICU sponsors an annual international conference in Rome, for university students from around the world, attracting about five thousand participants. The guest of honour in 1993 was former Philippine president Corazon Aquino. Philosophically, ICU adheres to the Opus Dei hard line on issues of sexuality and reproduction.
  • The Association for Cultural, Technical, and Educational Cooperation (ACTEC) is a Belgian development organisation. Its budget for 1993 was $867,000, of which 30 percent came from private sources and 70 percent from public funds, including the European Union.[37] ACTEC works in seven countries in central Africa and South America.[38]
  • The Limmat Foundation, a Swiss organisation accredited to the European Union, operates in central and eastern Africa, South America, Southeast Asia, and the countries of the former Soviet Union. Limmat’s stated specialisation is in “projects of professional formation, especially of women,” Its budget for 1993 was $880,000, most of this being privately funded (78 percent) and a significant share of it being self-funded (20 percent), with only 2 percent of funding coming from public sources.[39] This funding base is owed to Limmat’s links to the Europe-wide network of banks operated by Opus Dei members or sympathisers. Through its board members, Limmat is directly linked to the Banco Popular of Spain, the Nordfinanzbank of Zurich, and the Rhine-Danube Foundation, which also funds Opus Dei activities and itself receives EU funding. The Limmat Foundation states that it “has neither a political nor a religious character,”[40] but the projects Limmat funds are linked to Opus Dei. One of these, in Peru, is the Condoray Women’s Training Centre, whose criteria for selecting women leaders smack of Victorian ideas of “the deserving poor”: “They must be mothers…. They must have a well-constituted family… They must be ‘economically stable.’”[41] To mark the UN conference on women, a special issue of Limmat’s magazine, Familie und Erziehung, “defended not only the advancement of women, but also the right to life and family values.”[42]
  • The Hanns-Seidel Foundation, based in Germany, is accredited with and receives funding from the European Union. The foundation is linked with the CSU (the Bavarian Christian Democrat) party of the late Fritz Pirkl, who was in the European Parliament and served on the boards of directors of Hanns-Seidel and the Rhine-Danube Foundation. Together with Limmat, Hanns-Seidel has funded Opus Dei’s extensive operations in the Philippines, including the Centre for Research and Communication. The centre’s “self-declared task is to form the future economic and political elite of the country,” writes Opus Dei critic Peter Hertel.[43] “Under President Corazon Aquino, Opus members have put a decisive stamp on the country’s Constitution.”[44]
  • Progredi is an Opus Dei-linked international foundation based in Brussels (not accredited with the European Union as’ an NGO). One of its board members is Gian Mario Roveraro, Opus Dei member, owner of the Milan-based merchant bank Akros, and a financial advisor to the Vatican. Progredi says its aims include “the elevation of material and spiritual well-being” and “contributing… to an improved economic, social and cultural development in any country and, in particular, developing countries.”[45]

Organisations Linked to Opus Dei

Research Institutes linked to Opus Dei include:

  • the Institut für Medizinische Anthropologie und Bioethik (IMABE), now an official Institution of the Austrian Bishops’ Conference, Vienna
  • the Institute for Family Development, Dublin
  • the Institute of Sciences for the Family, Pamplona, Spain
  • the International Theological Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, Gaming, Austria, which opened in January 1997 as the successor to the MEDO Institute (Institute for the Family and Marriage), which had been in Rolduc, the Netherlands
    *Researchers associated with the institute have included Dr. G.J.M. van den Aardweg and Dr. Joannes P.M. Lelkens
  • the Jerome Lejeune Foundation, Paris
  • the Swiss Society for Bioethics/ Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Bioethik, Zurich

Opus Dei-linked institutions of higher education Include:

  • Libero Istituto Universitario Campus Bio-Medico, a teaching hospital built by Opus Dei in Rome
  • the high-profile Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Ia Empresa (Institute for Higher Business Studies), Barcelona, which, according to Opus Dei literature, collaborates with Harvard University[46]
  • University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, including its teaching hospital

Opus Dei’s “schools for parents” include:

  • Associations for Family Orientation, Spain
  • Family and Education Association, Switzerland
  • Young Family Initiative, Germany
  • a correspondence course for parents offered by the Institute for the Sciences of Education at Opus Dei’s University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain

Other Opus Dei-linked Institutions and organisations include:

  • Association for Cultural, Technical and Educational Cooperation (ACTEC), Belgium
  • Aurach Centre of Cultural Formation, Munich
  • Centro Romano per Incontri Sacerdotali (CRIS), a centre for priests, Rome
    *High ranking church officials who have worked at CRIS include Pope John Paul II, then Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, and Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, then auxiliary bishop of Bogota, Colombia
  • Hanns-Seidel Foundation, Germany
    *The late Fritz Pirkl (died 1994), who served on the board of directors of Hanns-Seidel, also served In the European Parliament and on the board of the Opus Dei-linked Rhine-Danube Foundation
  • Istituto per Ia Cooperazione Universitaria (ICU), Rome and Brussels
    *The secretary-general of ICU, Opus Dei member Umberto Farri, was formerly the foreign minister of Italy and is a board member of the Limmat Foundation
  • Limmat Foundation, Zurich. In addition to funding development projects, Limmat publishes a quarterly magazine, Familie und Erziehung. Limmat’s officers include or have included:
    * Francois Geinoz, director and general secretary, an Opus Dei member
    * Hanns Thomas, board member, a leading Opus Dei member in Germany (his brother, Father Rolf Thomas, ranks high in the Opus Dei hierarchy in Rome)
    * Umberto Farri, board member, Opus Dei member, and former Italian foreign minister and secretary general of ICU
    * Arthur Wiederkehr, of Zurich, one of Limmat’s original board members, who left the foundation in 1985; past member of the boards of Nordfinanzbank (Zurich) and of Roberto Calvi’s now defunct Banco Ambrosiano (Milan)
  • Progredi, Brussels
  • Rhine-Danube Foundation, Germany
  • Zonnewende Centre for Meetings, the Netherlands

Publishing ventures linked to Opus Dei Include:

  • Edizioni Ares, Milan, Italy, which publishes the works of Opus Dei founder Escrivà
  • Europe Today, news service
  • Studi Cattolici, an Italian monthly run by Opus Dei members and friends

European banks linked to Opus Dei Include:

  • Banco Popular, Spain
  • Nordfinanzbank, Switzerland
  • Akros, Italy

Opus Dei-linked movements against, legal abortion include:

  • Movement Pro Vita, Italy
    * President, Carlo Casini, member of the European Parliament
    * spokesperson, Plergiorgio Liverani
  • the Association for the Family (APF), launched in France in 1994 and working virtually throughout Europe
    * founders, Professor Jean-Marie Meyer and his wife Anouk (née Lejeune) members of the Pontifical Council for the Family

Names Often Associated with Opus Dei

Dr. GJM van den Aardweg

  • connected with the MEDO Institute, Rolduc, the Netherlands (now the International Theological Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, Gaming, Austria)
  • appears regularly at Opus Dei-linked events across Europe

Carlo Casini

  • frequent contributor to Opus Dei publications
  • member, European Parliament
  • member, the Pontifical Academy for Life
  • president, Movement Pro Vita, Italy

Jerome Lejeune (died April 1994)

  • leading French Opus Dei member, from France’s premier Opus Dei family dynasty
  • advisor to the United Nations on genetics and the biological effects of radiation
  • member, Institut de France and the French Academy of Medicine Lejeune spent the last months of his life campaigning on the basis of antiabortion ideology for or against candidates to the prestigious French scientific associations to which he belonged, even to the extent of being whisked from his deathbed by ambulance to vote against “the opposition.”
  • member of the Pontifical Academy for the Sciences
  • an associate of Pope John Paul II and the one at whose suggestion the pope created the Pontifical Academy for Life
  • first president, Pontifical Academy for Life

Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo

  • president, Pontifical Council for the Family
  • longtime friend of Opus Dei
  • worked during the early 1970s at CRIS, the Opus Dei-Iinked centre for priests in Rome
  • close collaborator of Pope John Paul II, with whom he worked at CRIS
  • named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1983
  • former archbishop of Medellín and former auxiliary bishop of Bogota, Colombia
  • president, Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM), 1979-83

Professor Jean-Marie Meyer and Anouk Meyer (nee Lejeune)

  • members of Opus Dei and of France’s premier Opus Dei dynasty, the Lejeune family
  • members, Pontifical Council for the Family
  • founders, Association for the Family (APF), which opposes legal abortion throughout Europe
  • led the French Families’ pilgrimage to Rome, October 1995

Professors Andrzej Poitawaki and Wanda Poltawska

  • close to Opus Dei
  • old friends of Pope John Paul II from Krakow
  • members, Pontifical Council for the Family
  • Wanda Poltawska is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life


In his 1989 book The Secret World of Opus Dei, Michael Walsh speculated that “the zenith of Opus Dei’s fortunes has been reached—and may have been passed.”[47] The current evidence suggests that, on the contrary, Opus Dei is enjoying increasing activity and influence. The growth in its membership during the first half of this decade and the regularity with which it opens new centres and ordains new priests are evidence of the strength behind the organisation’s relentless work around the globe. With their membership in Opus Dei usually undisclosed, the growing ranks of academics, doctors, parliamentarians, government ministers, judges, and journalists give the Vatican a powerful, hidden force that toils to impose its moral code not just on Catholics but, through legislation and public policy, on the population at large.

[1] “Opus ne renonce pas,” KIPA (Zurich), no. 164 (13 June 1989), p. 14.

[2] Recorded interview with the researcher of this report.

[3] Romana (Rome), July-Dec. 1994; p. 336; Romana is the internal news bulletin of Opus Dei.

[4] Michael Walsh, The Secret World of Opus Dei (London: Grafton, 1989), published in the United States as Opus Dei (New York: HarperCollins, 1989 with 1992 afterword). Chapter 5 examines the Constitutions in detail.

[5] Walsh, citing Jose Maria Bernáldez, Tiempo, 1 Aug. 1983; Coleman, Washington Post, 6 Dec. l985; John A. Coleman, “Who Are the Catholic Fundamentalists?” Commonweal, 27 Jan. 1989.

[6] “Second PCF Meeting with Institutes for the Family and Bioethics,” in Familia et Vita, Pontifical Council for the Family, March 1995, Rome, p. 27.

[7] Romana, July-Dec. 1990, pp. 265-66. The quoted phrase was the theme of a conference in Santiago, Chile, in November 1990, on Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical condemning birth control.

[8] Father Lino Ciccone. writing in Studi Cattolici, Oct. 1996.

[9] Francois Geinoz, “Le dédale des pyramides,” text for lerture on the 1994 Cairo Conference, unpublished manuscript, p. 12. Geinoz cites a survey carried out in Austria but does not say who carried out the survey.

[10] Ibid., p. 39.

[11] Romana, Jan-Jun. 1998, p. 107, paraphrasing Dr. van den Aardweg’s comments at a symposium on “The Dignity of Human Life,” held at Opus Dei’s Lonnewende Centre for Meetings, 17 Feb. 1993.

[12] Romana, Jan.-June 1993, p. 107, reporting on “The Dignity of Human Life” (note 11).

[13] Romana, July-Dec. 1994, p. 330, quoting Dr. van den Aardweg at Opus Dei’s Aurach Centre of Cultural Formation, Munich.

[14] Patient’s quote, from Dr. G.J.M. van den Aardweg, Homosexuality and Hope: A Psychiatrist Thinks about Treatment and Change (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1985), translated and updated as Omocessualitd e Speranza (Milan, Italy: Edizioni Ares, 1995).

[15] Dr. Joannes P.M. Lelkens, writing in Studi Caflolici, Nov. 1994.

[16] Quoted in “Opus Dei: ‘I.e Chemin mene a Rome,’” Le Canard Enchainé, Paris. Sept. 1982.

[17] Romana, Rome, July-Dec. 1994, p. 331.

[18] Dr. Clementina Meregalli Anzilotti, “Modi e Moda”, Documenti di Lavoro (Deila Rondaeione RUI), Rome, April 1994.

[19] Quoted in Geinoz (note 9), p. 15.

[20] Ibid., p. 15.

[21] Ibid., p. 16.

[22] Ibid., p. 16.

[23] Felician Foy, ed., 1995 Catholic Almanac (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Div., 1995), p. 148.

[24] Annuarlo Pontifico (Citta Dei Vaticano: Libreria Edltrice Vaticana, 1996), p. 1875.

[25] Orgins 21:2:28-33 (23 May 1991).

[26] A profile of Opus Dei in the traditionalist magazine Inside the Vatican says Opus Dei is “considered by many the single most powerful force in the Church today” and lists among its “friends” several high-ranking Vatican officials: Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family; Angelo Sodano, the secretary of state; and Angelo Felici, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Antonio Gasparl, “A New ‘Way’ for the Church?” Inside the Vatican, June-July 1995.

[27] See, e.g., Walsh (note 4), multiple references.

[28] “Christine Boutin: la passionaria,” Goisas, Paris, May-June 1995, p. 56.

[29] Nicola Guiso, “Gianfranco Fine ‘Jo Sw Col Papa,’” Studi Cattolici, July 1994, pp. 443-47.

[30] Carlo Casini, “Le Cinque Questioni di Cairo,” Studi Cattolici, Nov. 1994, p.699.

[31] Pier Giorgio Liverani, interview with the researcher of this report.

[32] Bortoni was among the most enthusiastic supporters of the petition of an Opus Dei student organisation against the Cairo conference, and her press release on the petition was issued under the stamp of the Vatican press office (see text). The Vatican Press office is run by Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who has been identified as a member of Opus Dei.

[33] Geinoz (note 9).

[34] Quoted in Pierre Abromavic, “Amérique Latine: La Reconquista de l’Opus a l’Oeuvre!” Gollasi no. 30 (Summer 1992), p. 145.

[35] Figures are from The Directory of Non-governmental Organisations Active in Sustainable Development, Part 1: Europe; Development Centre of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Paris, 1996, p. 488.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., p. 63.

[38] Ibid., p. 63.

[39] Ibid., p. 145.

[40] Limmat Foundation Annual Report 1995, p. 19.

[41] Janina Ghiglino, director of the social development programmes at the center, quoted in Changing Mentalities (Zurich: Limmat Stiftung, 1995), p. 179.

[42] Limmat Foundation Annual Report, p. 18.

[43] Peter Hertel, “Seidel, Sin and Opus Dei—A Christian.Catholic Connection,” manuscript.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Progredi statutes.

[46] Dominique le Tourneau, What is Opus Dei? (Cork: Mercier Press, 1987), p. 96.

[47] Walsh (note 4), chapter 9.

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