The Canonically Revolutionary Figure of Opus Dei and Its Repercussion on Vatican II

October 11, 1943: Nihil Obstat on Opus Dei

Today should be a feast for the universal Church since what happened for Opus Dei today in 1943 happened for the universal Church in the promulgation of Lumen Gentium (The “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”) on November 21, 1964 during the Second Vatican Council. On this date in 1943, the Holy See put its hands over Opus Dei approving the radical equality of laity and priests as “sharing one and the same basic theological condition and belong (ing) to the same primary common category.”[1] The founder of Opus Dei, St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer remarked: “In Opus Dei we’re all equal. There’s only a practical difference: priests are more bound to place their hearts on the floor like a carpet, so that their brothers and sisters may tread softly.”[2]

            In a word, the canonical struggle for Opus Dei to find a juridical mould to hold the radical equality of laymen and priests as having the same vocation, spirituality and formation anticipated the struggle to achieve the radical equality of the “People of God” (soon to be upgraded to the terminology of “Communio”[3]) that took place in the Second Vatican Council to rewrite the schemas, in particular the schema for Lumen Gentium,  from a clericalized and hierarchialized document, to one calling for radical equality of all the baptized, with a functional diversity for hierarchy, laity and religious.

The History:

            It all took place in 1943. On February 14, “Fr. Josemaria was celebrating holy Mass in the center of Opus Dei’s women’s branch in Madrid. Suddently, during holy sacrifice a new light shone in his interior. Once again God had entered his life and marked out the way. `When I finished celebrating Mass I designed the seal of the Work, Christ’s cross embracing the world, in the very heart of the world, and I could speak of the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross’…

            Fr. Escriva now saw, with a clarity that confirmed the earlier lights, that God wanted … as an integral part of Opus Dei, a priestly body to perpetuate Christ’s actions, especially the Mass, which represents and makes present the supreme immolation of the Cross. The Cross must be inscribed in the world, reaching the four cardinal points, brought by each Christian with his life and work. To make this possible, so that ordinary Christians – with their common priesthood – might be one with Christ and make him present among men, they must be backed by like-minded sacred ministers, as instruments of Christ to communicate life and grace. Hence, as the Church is structured so also must Opus Dei be, in its own way.”[4] Since the Church had not yet gone through the Second Vatican Council, it would be more accurate to say that Opus Dei was struggling with the absence of a juridical structure and an adequate theology before and in preparation for that the Church was going to go through from 1962 to 1965 and beyond.

            “What aims was the founder trying to accommodate? He sought the canonical erection of a priestly [read clerical or ministerial because the laity by baptism are already “priestly”] group or body within the total pastoral phenomenon of Opus Dei, so he could count on priests from the lay ranks of Opus Dei and formed according to its spirit, ascribed to the Work with no change in their secular condition. They would answer to the President General [the problem of incardination had to be solved] for the exercise of their ministry: pastorally tending to the members of Opus Dei and cooperating with them in their apostolic endeavors.

            “But the 1917 Code of Canon Law permitted only ascription to a diocese or a religious institute…. Among the non-religious associations or societies, only some, the so-called Societies of common life without vows (title 17, book 2, CIV 1917) enjoyed the faculty of incardinating priests, if with the Holy See’s approval this were established in their constitutions or granted to them by papal indult….

            “With the light of February 14, Opus Dei’s founder decided to take a new juridical step. He proposed to the ecclesiastical authority a formula he characterized as `the only viable solution within the framework of the present law. I am ready to yield in the words, so long as the document itself always affirms in a precise way the true substance of our way.’ The step would solve immediate problems, though still not totally satisfactory.

            “In choosing this solution for the sake of having priests, the founder did not see Opus Dei as such being transformed into a Society of common life. Rather as he explained in a 1944 Letter, his idea was: `to transform a small nucleus of our Work, made up of priests and some laymen approaching ordination, into a Society of common life without vows, the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross…. [5]

            The Shortcomings: 1) “Opus Dei appeared as something secondary: as an association proper to and inseparable from the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, when the fact of the matter is that none of these two parts of our Work is secondary. Both of them are principal.”[6] “The priests and lay people who are the protagonists of a single pastoral phenomenon, united in self-giving, are co-responsible for a single mission, to whose realization both actively contribute. The function of the ministerial priesthood consists in making present in the organism of the Work Christ’s face and grace, mainly through the sacraments.”

            2) “(E)ven though the new juridical formula clarified that Opus Dei members were not religious, the figure of Societies of common life was seen by most canonists as approaching the religious state. This formula, therefore, could sow confusion. The founder did all he could to stress the differences….

            “The founder spared no pains to reflect and safeguard in the best way possible Opus Dei’s secularity. But the limitations of the juridical figure remained. In itself it was incapable of faithfully expressing the reality of Opus Dei. While the additional refinements managed to safeguard the substance, they did not achieve a fully satisfactory fit. It was the `least inappropriate’ solution from among the possible ones…. In 1944 he wrote, `For the moment there is no better arrangement’ … `Let’s pray and live in a holy way,’ he added, `the spirit we have received from God, and he will give us the definitive juridical structure to preserve us faithful to our vocation and to render us effective in the tasks of our apostolate.’[7][8] The whole of this would have to wait for the creation of a doctrinal and juridical paradigm shift or revolution that would make it possible for Opus Dei to take its correct place as “a little bit of the Church.”[9] This revolution and paradigm shift was the Second Vatican Council.

   * * * * * * * * *

The Parallel Between the Radical Equality in Opus Dei (October 11, 1943) and the Radical Equality of All in the Church (November 21, 1964.

The Evolution of Lumen gentium in the Second Vatican Council: As Opus Dei was struggling for diocesan and pontifical recognition as a secular phenomenon where laymen and priests were equally called to holiness, the Church of the Second Vatican Council was going through a like struggle in re-interpreting itself as a people of God that was radically equal with a functional diversity within this same and equal people of being hierarchy, laity and religious. Writ small, Opus Dei was going through what the Church was about to go through writ large:

The first schema for Lumen gentium consisted of, I: The Mystery of the Church; II: The Hierarchy; III. Laity; IV: Religious….  The significance of this is the identity of the Church with the Hierarchy. The Church being considered primarily hierarchy then comes derivatively, the laity and the religious. Concerning this schema and the others, then-Cardinal Ratzinger commented: “The situation was that proposals had already been worked out in Rome for the composition of the Curia, the commissions. And the expectation was that there would be an immediate vote on the basis of those proposed lists. Now, many of the Father didn’t want that. Then both Cardinal Lienart and Cardinal Frings rose to their feet and said that we cannot simply vote at this time, that we have to get in contact with one another in order to find out who is suitable for what, that the elections have to be postponed. That was the first drumbeat at the beginning of the Council.”[10]

Following on that “the chapter of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium devoted to the People of God was significantly transposed. As is well known, this chapter appeared as the result of dividing into two parts an earlier draft entitled De Populo Dei et speciatim de laicis, which came after the section dealing with the Hierarchy. The new arrangement placed the chapter De Populo Dei second in the Constitution precisely to emphasize the condition which is common to all the christifideles, who are dealt with in greater detail according to their different functions, in later chapters: the hierarchy in chapter III, the laity in chapter IV and the religious in chapter VI.”[11]

            Further on, Alvaro del Portillo continues,

“It is extremely useful to trace… the steps of Vatican II…. (I)n drafting the text of the Constitution Lumen gentium an attempt was made to distinguish clearly the view of the People of God as a whole from the various missions fulfilled by the members. Or, in other words, an effort was made to separate clearly the rights and obligations common to all the members of the People of God from those which are specific to particular categories of the faithful: deacons, priests and bishops, (this is to say the members of the Sacra Hierarchia) in one category, the laity in another and religious in a third category. For this reason the division of what was originally one chapter (De Populo Dei speciatim de laicis) into the present chapters II (De Populo Dei) and IV (De laicis)… is highly significant as regards distinguishing the generic concept of `members of the People of God’ (the condition common to all on the place of equality) from the other, specific concept, a typological description of which would center around the characteristic layness (Laicus). Laicus in the terminology of the council does not denote the generic concept of member-of-the-Church, but rather a special category which includes neither clerics nor religious.”[12]

[1] Alvaro del Portillo, Faithful and Laity in the Church, Ecclesia Press, Shannon Ireland (1972) 19.

[2] Pedro Rodriguez, “The Place of Opus Dei in the Church” Opus Dei in the Church, Scepter (1994)38.

[3] “Communio” is a deeper and more exact formulation of the meaning of the Church than “people of God” since the unity it expresses is not only a likeness in one aspect, but a “pluriformity” of radically disparate persons. The Extraordinary Synod of 1985 says, “The ecclesiology of communion is the central and fundamental idea of the Council’s documents. Koinonia/communion, founded on Sacred Scripture, has been held in great honor in the early Church and in the Oriental Churches to this day. Thus, much was done by the Second Vatican Council so that the Church as communion might be more clearly understood and concretely incorporated into life.” The Synod then says,  “Here we have the true theological principle of variety and pluriformity in unity, but it is necessary to distinguish pluriformity from pure pluralism. When pluriformity is true richness and carries with it fullness, this is true catholicity;” The Extraordinary Synod 1985: Message to the People of God.

[4] Fuenmayor, Gomez Iglesias, Illanes, The Canonical Path of Opus Dei, Scepter MTF (1994) 110.

[5] Ibid. 11-112.

[6] Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, Letter, December 29, 1947/February 14, 1966, #160.

[7] Letter, February 14, 1944, #12,

[8] The Canonical Path… op. cit. 128-129.

[9] Pedro Rodriguez, Opus Dei in the Church, op. cit. p. 1.

[10] J. Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth (1997) 71-72.

[11] Alvaro del Portillo, op. cit. 21.

[12] Ibid. 24

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