New York -- When teenage "Julie" told her spiritual director she was thinking about leaving Opus Dei, she says she was told she would never be happy and would go to the devil if she did.
Tammy DiNicola, as a college student, says she was told she would go to hell if she left Opus Dei. The two women, now in their 30s, are among an undercurrent of critics of what they say are aggressive recruiting practices toward young people and a culture of control at Opus Dei, a small but growing conservative organization within the Roman Catholic Church.
Opus Dei's central theme is that people can be holy in every day life through prayer, discipline and generosity toward others. The group is unique in the church in that most of its members are lay persons and many of them, called "numeraries" and "associates," make commitments of lifelong chastity. Numeraries contacted say they lead fulfilled, happy lives. Opus Dei's national spokesman, Brian Finnerty, a numerary member himself, says the group respects the freedom of its members and potential members.
He says members are free to choose whether or not to join and remain in Opus Dei, and to submit to its practices, such as having their mail read by superiors and signing over their salaries.
"The whole process involves a recognition of the fact that there's a respect for the freedom of everybody who comes into contact with Opus Dei," he says. But the group's critics say once a person begins to participate and the restrictions are in place, it can become difficult for him to exercise his free will and leave.
"I think 90 percent of the members of Opus Dei are good devout Catholics," says the Rev. James Martin, an editor of the Jesuit magazine America. "But I think 10 percent of their activities really raise serious questions about their methods, most especially their recruiting, and some of the things that go on inside their houses."
With residence centers near many major colleges and universities, Opus Dei seeks to attract young people. "Youth is a time when people are open to great generosity, when they are trying to think about things, trying to think about the meaning of their lives and their plans for their lives," says Finnerty. "So I think youth can be a tremendous time for a person to grow in their faith, and so that's something Opus Dei tries to help people do."
Opus Dei members are said to have a calling to join the group. Joining involves making annual commitments, beginning as early as 18 years old, in the form of contracts with the group over the course of a 6 1/2-year period. At the end, the member chooses whether to make a lifetime commitment. One can apply to join and start living the numerary life as young as 16 1/2.
"Opus Dei is recruiting on college campuses young people who are looking for answers to questions about justice, truth, order, eternal life, and so forth, and saying, 'we have the answers, but they're not simply a set of documents, it's a way of life, it's also a commitment to this cause,'" says Professor R. Scott Appleby, an expert on new religious movements at Notre Dame.
DiNicola joined as a freshman student at Boston College. She moved into the Opus Dei center near the school and began living the life of discipline of an Opus Dei numerary.
She says her daily activities were precisely mapped out, some of her incoming and outgoing mail was read, expenditures were required to be accounted for, reading and television viewing were restricted, and she had to discuss with her spiritual director anytime she wanted to walk outside the center. She says she also was discouraged from confessing her sins to non-Opus priests. "It wasn't presented as an optional thing, you were told you need to obey your directors in everything." says DiNicola.
Like Julie, who asked that her real name not be used, DiNicola says she thought she was happy with Opus Dei life. But also like Julie, her family was having problems with it.
"Over a long period of time, our daughter's personality changed and we had a feeling whatever she was involved in was not good. She had become withdrawn from the family. That had never happened before," says her mother, Dianne DiNicola, who helped found and runs the nonprofit Opus Dei Awareness Network to inform the public about the group's practices.
"Tammy called Opus Dei her new family," says the mother. "You couldn't reason with her. She'd decided this was her life. When your environment is controlled, you stop thinking critically about things. She was not making free choices."
DiNicola decided to leave Opus Dei after the family staged an intervention, her mother says. "A person told her about all aspects of Opus Dei and she started thinking critically and she decided she wanted to leave."
Dianne DiNicola says her daughter's experiences were similar to those of hundreds of other men and women with whom she has spoken. "We are contacted almost every day, by e-mail, phone, mail, and fax," she says. "We've heard from so many people who say the exact same thing. After nine years of hearing people telling me the same thing, that has a lot of weight."
Opus Dei spokesman Finnerty, in a series of interviews, confirmed many of the practices described by the DiNicolas. He said, for instance, Opus Dei numeraries do turn over their salaries and eventually are encouraged to sign wills benefiting Opus Dei. They also are discouraged from reading certain literature and are encouraged to share mail with their spiritual directors, he said.
But Finnerty contends such practices do not limit members' freedom. "I think that commitments to serve others or to serve an ideal, which are freely undertaken, are not a limitation on freedom but an exercise of it."
He likens the commitment to marriage: "A person who is married is making all of his income available to his spouse and his children, he's thinking first in terms of the others."
An Opus Dei-published primer, "On the Vocation of Opus Dei," says "numerary members remain celibate to give themselves body and soul for the sake of the apostolate. In this way, they are fully available to carry out tasks for formation and direction within Opus Dei."
Massimo Introvigne, who runs the Center for Studies on New Religions in Italy, says restrictions of freedom have been common in Catholic convents and monasteries throughout the world since the beginning of Catholicism. But he says with church reforms beginning in the 1960s, strict convents have almost totally disappeared in the English- and German-speaking world.
"There may be pressures here and there, but these are not unique to Opus Dei," says Introvigne, adding, "If there are such pressures, they are wrong." Notre Dame's Appleby says the numerary life actually resembles that of a Catholic seminarian during the 1940s and 1950s.
"Once you grant that, then what you're describing doesn't sound particularly offensive or unusual, if you grant they're using a model from about 40 or 50 years ago, not using celibate seminarians but celibate lay people," he says. It raises a question, though, he says, about whether or not Opus Dei in its recruiting tactics is "exploiting the uncertainty and insecurity of youth."
Religious conversion, he says, should involve "a diologue between the movement and the individual, a free and autonomous diologue." But he observes it's tough from the outside to know whether that diologue has truly taken place. "You know, you can't really look into the soul of the kid next to you and know whether he's really telling the truth and is truly comfortable with the decision or being coerced."
Opus Dei has been accused by critics of having "cult-like" practices. Religious scholars say Opus Dei is not a cult. But many do say it engages in practices that appear cult-like, practices used by many strict religious groups and that used to be common in some Roman Catholic orders.
Though he doesn't believe Opus Dei is a cult, Father James LeBar, who has been the Archdiocese of New York's consultant on cults for some 20 years told ABCNEWS.com that some of Opus Dei's practices resemble those used in cults: "Yes, because they do use practices that were prevalent in the 1950s in all Catholic orders, [though] many of the orders have done away with them, the close supervision ... " he says.
LeBar says Opus Dei's practices are not necessarily wrong: "If someone wishes to follow a very strict way of life, and be very closely supervised, and they willingly go into that, that's fine," he says. "But if the group manipulates people so that this happens to them and they don't know it, I'd have objection to that."
LeBar says he has been in contact with Opus Dei over the years, "hoping to help them see where the line is drawn and where they cross over it." "What I've disagreed with at times are the methods by which they either invite people in or seek to keep them in when they want to leave," he says, but adds, "I've never found any serious problems, nothing to really raise a ruckus about."
"The main problem to me always seemed not so much between Opus Dei and the individuals but between the parents and Opus Dei, because they wanted to see their children more often," he says. Opus Dei centers would continue activities during holiday vacations, keeping numerary members away for the holidays, he says. "The idea is to keep them from getting corrupted."
LeBar says he has encountered instances in which members were told by an Opus Dei superior "if your parents don't approve with what you're doing they're the bad ones, they're in error or sin or worse. And that's not good." So parents complained, he said. "They thought [their children] were too controlled, and I'm convinced in some areas that's very true."
LeBar also is the coordinator of an association called the Coalition of Concern About Cults, which includes senior representatives from the U.S. Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Jewish faith and other religions. He says whether one thinks Opus Dei displays some cult-like characteristics can depend upon how one looks at them: "They certainly exhibit a high regard for their leader.
They respect the maxims and sayings of it with almost awesome reverence. But if you're an active Yankee fan, aren't you also always eager to hear what the Yankees are going to do?"
"There is no doubt in my mind that some people succumb to the intensive training of Opus Dei into almost a cult-like state of being," he says. "But there are others who saw it and saw what it was worth and could cope with it or leave it alone."
Unlike cults, LeBar says he's found Opus Dei's intentions beyond reproach. "Opus Dei has never veered from working for Jesus Christ and the church. Perhaps their methods are a bit strong, but I certainly would never doubt their intentions."
The "main difference," he says, is that "a cult is really turned inward toward itself, and the leaders are really looking for aggrandizement and that kind of stuff. Opus Dei really isn't doing that, even though they are using methods that may be old-fashioned, and really aren't too much approved in other circles these days."
Opus Dei members differ from monks and nuns in that they don't take vows, which are made to God. Rather, they make contracts, which are commitments to Opus Dei, according to Finnerty.
Critics say the practice of signing over their salaries and making wills in the organization's favor can make members dependent upon the group and without significant resources if they would like to leave. Finnerty argues such practices should not be considered unusual.
"Living in a spirit of generosity is something everybody is called to do, depending upon what the individual circumstances are. And if someone is a numerary in Opus Dei and he has make that lifetime commitment, that is something in which there is no problem in doing," he says.
Finnerty says Opus Dei directors stopped privately opening the mail of numeraries "a few years ago," though he said he could not specify a date. But he says directors now encourage numeraries to share their mail. "That custom was changed. I think the spirit is still the same, in that people are encouraged to share it, if people think there is something important that they need to talk to or get advice on, they're encouraged to do that," he says.
Finnerty says numeraries are discouraged from reading certain books because such reading could damage their faith. "The members of Opus Dei, and for Christians generally, are sort of encouraged to realize that there are certain things, literature that might represent an attack on the faith," he says. "It's a real possibility that if somebody keeps on gorging on nihilistic literature or something like that, it is a real possibility that somebody can read their way out of the Catholic Church."
He says numeraries, who have committed to chastity, are segregated by sex in the residential and work centers "as a measure of prudence that helps to keep it that way." And the regular corporal mortifications practiced by numeraries, using a crop on the buttocks and spiked chains around the thighs, also are intended to help control appetites, as well as to promote virtue and to imitate the sufferings of Christ, according to Opus Dei literature.
And the Opus Dei primer, mentioned above, explains why numeraries may see their families less after joining Opus Dei. "Like young people who have married they are sometimes unable to make it to their parents' home for Thanksgiving or an anniversary or birthday party."
It says joining Opus Dei brings a new set of relationships with other members, "not unlike those they had with other members of their family in their parents' home," and goes on to say, "They celebrate birthdays, anniversaries of important dates in the development of Opus Dei, and secular and religious holidays in the same way as the members of a closely knit Christian family."
New members are gradually exposed to Opus Dei practices and restrictions, said Finnerty. But he says they should be fully aware of everything by the time they make their first annual commitment to the group. Pressed to say whether Opus Dei directors tell numeraries they might go to hell if they break their commitment to Opus Dei and leave, Finnerty would not say yes or no.
"I think it's absolutely impossible for anyone to know if another person is going to hell," he says. "That's decided on another plane." But he adds, "The promise is viewed as a serious commitment. It's something important, it's not something that someone decides to go back on lightly."
The Opus Dei primer describes the commitment even more soberly. In recognizing a calling to Opus Dei, it says, "a person becomes aware that Jesus addresses to him or her personally his invitation to 'be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.'"
The following describes a former member's critical account of her experience with Opus Dei. She has asked that her real name not be used. Opus Dei has since raised the age of commitment to 18.
When Julie was 12 years old, taking cooking and ceramics classes at a local Catholic center, she says a priest took her aside and said he thought she might have a calling to join Opus Dei.
"He asked me what my plans were for the future, and I said, 'I don't know, get married and have kids,'" she says. "And he said, 'Well, I think God is calling you for something much higher, more important than that.'"
By age 13 1/2, Julie had joined as a "numerary," a life that eventually would include turning over all of future income to the organization and promising a life of chastity, as well as regular prayer, meditation, confession to an Opus Dei priest, and attending Mass in Latin.
For most of the next seven years, she says, she lived a secret life, hiding her new vocation from her family with the encouragement of her Opus Dei spiritual director.
"So, enter the mind-set of a goody-two-shoes Catholic girl: I was told that I had a higher calling from God. I was told that I'd never be happy, that I'd go to hell if I didn't follow this, and that I couldn't tell my parents, that in telling my parents, they would surely oppose my vocation. And, not only could I go to hell, but they could go to hell too," says Julie, who now lives in Washington, D.C.
At age 16, she says, she announced she had joined the group, and told her father she wanted to leave the family to move into an Opus Dei center.
Feeling betrayed, her parents disowned her. They dropped her off at the center and told her to never use their last name again, she says. But several days later, they brought her home. She promised she would not continue with the group, but that was a lie.
"I thought, when I was there, that I was a blissful human being," says Julie. And she says she loved and worshipped the Opus Dei people with whom she associated.
But at the same time, she says, the stress of concealing it from her family was making her sick. "My hair had begun to fall out in patches, I had daily migraine headaches. I would gain 20 pounds and lose 20 pounds. I couldn't' sleep for weeks and weeks at a time."
Julie says she left after confiding her experiences to a non-Opus Dei priest. "It was one of the hardest things I ever did," she says. "To this day, I have nightmares about it and I'm 36 years old, married with two kids."