Opus Dei founder put conscience above all else

It was 10 years ago, Oct. 6, 2002 to be exact, that I was in St Peter’s Square with more than half a million people for the canonization of the Spanish priest St. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, founder of Opus Dei. In his homily, the late John Pope II said that the new saint could well be named the patron of the “ordinary.” St. Josemaría’s had a rare talent to discover the divine reality hidden in our everyday lives.

Through Opus Dei, St. Josemaría opened a new path within Roman Catholicism —that of each individual to embrace their personal responsibility within the Church and society.

St. Josemaría’s original expression, “unity of life”, has served as a spiritual “GPS” along this path. By unity of life he meant the harmonization of every dimension of who we are. It is a way of harmonizing our words and thoughts, our intentions and actions.

One of the consequences he drew from unity of life had to do with his stand on the fundamental freedom of each person. Although St. Josemaría is not well known for his views on civic responsibility and freedom of conscience, he had a lot to say about it – especially because he suffered the closed-mindedness of a one-party regime and the unfortunate narrow-mindedness of some people within the Church. These stifling circumstances were a stark contrast to his open personality and his defense of personal liberty.

He avoided being politically active because he wanted to become completely accessible to anyone who might seek his spiritual guidance. In a 1960’s interview, he said: “I do not act in politics. I do not wish to, and I cannot. But my outlook as a jurist and theologian, and my Christian faith, lead me always to stand up for the legitimate freedom of all men”

We sometimes read that he sided with Franco. Indeed, some Opus Dei members served as ministers under Franco’s fascist government. However, this position can only be properly read under the light of his defense of freedom of conscience and, as a consequence, political pluralism as a defining feature of Opus Dei. As a matter of fact, during Franco’s long-standing dictatorial regime other members of Opus Dei were exiled for their opposition to one-party rule.

St. Josemaría was once asked about Opus Dei’s political stance. He said: “Opus Dei is neither on the right nor on the left nor in the centre. As a priest I strive to be with Christ. Both of His arms — not just one — were outstretched on the Cross. I freely take from every group whatever seems to me good and helps me to keep my heart and my two arms open to all mankind. And every member of Opus Dei is also utterly free, within the bounds of the Christian faith, to hold whatever opinion he likes.”

These words – spoken while Spain was still under Franco’s dictatorship – strike me as timely in light of recent political debates. Under the guise of tolerance, it is increasingly difficult for those in the Western world to act according to their conscience. In fact, authentic tolerance and freedom of speech are under serious attack. St. Josemaría had no reservation in condemning intolerance and small mindedness, be it political or religious.

“No one has a right to impose non-existent dogmas in temporal matters. Given a concrete problem, whatever it may be, the solution is to study it well and then to act conscientiously, with personal freedom and with personal responsibility as well.”

Regardless of their religious and political affiliations, St. Josemaría would applaud all those who – following their conscience – speak their minds honestly and courageously.