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Opus Dei the centrists at schools meeting

NCR staff
Steubenville, Ohio

It was a telling measure of the Independent Schools conference -- and perhaps of how far to the right some elements of the church have drifted -- that Opus Dei stood out as a veteran moderating influence.

In a room full of educational insurgents, most of whom have come to the cause within the last few years, Opus Dei members represented decades of tradition in running independent schools. On such key issues as relations with the bishop, whether to accept non-Catholics and how hard to push the envelope on devotions, catechesis and the “Catholic character” of the school, Opus Dei members struck a more centrist tone than many of the other voices at the Steubenville meeting.

“We’ve always had very, very cordial relations with the diocese in our cities,” said James Stenson, an educational consultant and Opus Dei member who has served as headmaster in Opus Dei schools in Washington and Chicago. “We never saw ourselves as a protest operation at all. I know some of these people do, unfortunately. I don’t quite understand where they’re coming from,” he said in an interview here.

“Comparisons are invidious,” Stenson said. “Who are we to judge the job that other people are doing? We know there are many ways of looking at things in the church, there’s great diversity of opinion, people have many, many approaches that lead to God.”

Then why create schools at all -- which can’t help but be seen as a judgment on the Catholic schools that already exist? Fr. Malcolm Kennedy, an Opus Dei priest in Washington said the work of Opus Dei members in education was a logical outgrowth of Vatican II. “The vocation of the laity is to sanctify the world from within, to be the leaven in the world and not just to be on the fringes of ecclesiastical structures,” he said.

Kennedy is a tall, gaunt, silver-haired cleric with an aristocratic demeanor who came into contact with the prelature during his student days at Harvard in the 1940s. “There were a number of us there at that time,” he said. Kennedy later co-founded the Heights School in Washington with Stenson in the 1960s.

Today Kennedy said he was shocked to find himself a father figure to a new wave of educational activists. “To come here and think, my God, I’m like the granddaddy of all these schools. I’ve always considered myself the newcomer on the block and suddenly I’m the old man in the movement.”

Opus Dei, an international association of lay Catholics and priests, was founded in 1929 by Msgr. Josemaria Escriva. The controversial Spanish cleric was declared blessed in 1992. In 1982, the organization was accorded the status of a “personal prelature” by the Holy Father, meaning that its members’ activities fall under Opus Dei jurisdiction rather than directly under the local bishop. Such papal preferments, along with the group’s reputation for secrecy, for what some see as excessive control over members’ lives and for involvement in right-wing politics of both the secular and ecclesial sort, have made Opus Dei something of a bête noire among many Catholics.

Though overseas Opus Dei operates an extensive network of schools, in the United States at grade levels K-12 it has only five: The Heights School for boys and Oak Crest for girls in Washington, the Montrose School for girls in Boston, and Northridge Prep for boys and Willows for girls in Chicago. The Heights and Oak Crest are formally tied to Opus Dei, while the remaining three are the initiatives of Opus Dei members with a looser connection to the prelature. According to both Stenson and Kennedy, most of these schools have over time received official recognition from their local diocese as “Catholic” schools.

“The relationship with Opus Dei in the school is not hands-on, so to speak,” Kennedy said. “Just the appointment of chaplains -- that’s it. The school is run by an administrative committee, and then its board of directors. The selection of the new headmaster, decisions regarding policies and the financial development of the school -- those are all the work of the board of directors. Opus Dei doesn’t get involved in that at all.” Of course, Kennedy acknowledged, many of the key players, both as administrators and board members, are Opus Dei members.

Unlike many of the more recent lay-led independent Catholic schools, Opus Dei schools tend to emphasize academic rigor as opposed to religious fervor, stressing their college preparatory curriculum and the intellectual achievements of the faculty. Schools offer optional daily Mass and have an Opus Dei-approved chaplain, but much course content is non-sectarian, and many students are not Catholic.

Non-Catholics are not required to take religion classes or to engage in devotional practices. And unlike many of the schools at the Steubenville conference, originated by parents and run on a shoestring budget, the Opus Dei schools tend to be led by seasoned educators and backed by considerable resources, often drawn from other lay members of the prelature.

Kennedy went so far as to throw a bit of cold water on the obvious enthusiasm of many in the Steubenville crowd for the Baltimore Catechism, saying at one point “It does need some updating, after all.” And Stenson said he didn’t quite understand the lust of many independent schools for Latin.

Lest there be any mistake, however, about where his -- and, by extension, Opus Dei’s -- sympathies lie, Stenson peppered his keynote address in Steubenville with references to “St. John Paul II,” and said that “The first blow in the fulfillment of Our Lady of Fatima’s prophecy about the destruction of Marxism came in 1978 with the election of Karol Wojtyla.”

Despite the ecumenical tone to Opus Dei’s educational philosophy, Stenson made it clear that winning souls for the church is still an important objective. He related anecdotes drawn from his experience in Opus Dei schools about an Asian student who converted to Catholicism because of the kindness shown to him by students who attended daily Mass and about a faculty member who returned to the faith and became an Opus Dei “cooperator.”

Kennedy acknowledged in an interview with NCR that Opus Dei’s legendary taciturnity may be partly responsible for the negative image it has acquired in some quarters. “It may be true what you say, that Opus Dei has never really been publicity-hungry, is kind of publicity-shy in many respects. I don’t think Opus Dei is much for blowing its own horn. That may be a factor.

“But I think more important is the whole idea that these are ordinary people, they are not consecrated people, people who are set apart in a religious state of life or a secular institute or something like that,” he said. “Since they don’t wear the Opus Dei name tag, you might say they’re hiding something. What some people might say is a lack of disclosure might simply be more naturalness, just living my life and not trying to say, ‘We are the guys who are really doing it well.’ ”

National Catholic Reporter, September 11, 1998