Guestview: Opus Dei pulls few strings in Spanish business

On Sept. 27, over 200,000 people gathered outside Madrid for the beatification of Alvaro del Portillo, a Spanish priest who led Opus Dei 20 years ago. It was a rare public gathering in the homeland of a Catholic organisation which typically shuns publicity. The service was attended by Spain’s Minister of the Interior and the Economy Minister. High-powered sponsors helped foot the bill. Conspiracy theorists sometimes suggest that Opus Dei is a secret powerhouse inside the economy.

It is easy to speculate, since members rarely declare their status publicly. Globally, membership of the personal prelature, the group’s status inside the Roman Catholic Church, has grown from 60,000 to 90,000 members since 1975. A third of the total is in Spain, where numbers are stable.

Beyond the members, Opus Dei, which means “work of God,” has an indeterminate number of supporters, who participate in Opus activities or send their children to schools connected with “the work,” as its members call it.

Even so, Opus used to punch well above its numerical weight in Spain. Some of its members were modernising ministers under Francisco Franco, when the Spanish dictator started to open up the economy in 1959. More recently, prominent businessmen such as Luis Valls, chairman of Banco Popular until 2004, were well-known members.

The group’s importance seems to have declined. Even so, they still do occupy important posts in companies, banks and law firms. But this isn’t a conspiracy hatched up on the margins of religious retreats. It is mostly the natural result of Opus Dei’s spiritual approach.

Josemaria Escrivá, the founder of Opus, placed great emphasis on the “sanctification” of work. His idea of holiness on the job has echoes of the Protestant work ethic. Also, the Opus approach to religion – members are urged to attend daily mass, weekly seminars, plus monthly and annual retreats – may encourage the sort of dedication and discipline which work well in business.

There are no signs of an organised Opus campaign to infiltrate the IBEX 35. On the contrary, members say LinkedIn style networking is frowned upon. Even so, recruits are mostly drawn from members’ friends, family and colleagues. As the Mormons have shown in the United States, common ideas can easily create an informal sphere of influence.

As was true of the Jesuits in past centuries, the Opus Dei influence is amplified by its involvement in education. The group is associated with Spain’s most elite business school, the IESE (part of the University of Navarra), and there are dozens of schools founded by members. There is no legal or financial relationship between Opus Dei and any of these schools, and less than 1 percent of the students at IESE are members. But many faculty members are, and Opus is in charge of providing doctrinal and spiritual formation for those interested.

Money is also important. Opus Dei owns relatively few assets. John Allen, author of a book on Opus Dei, estimated worldwide assets to be worth $2.8 billion a decade ago, which was comparable at the time to the Catholic archdioceses of Chicago. Yet members are exceptionally well organised when it comes to fundraising for Opus Dei-related works. The numeraries, celibates who mostly have normal jobs but live in Opus centres and make up 20 percent of all members, donate all savings to Opus-related activities and charities.

Also, elite professional members have bulging rolodexes. High-powered sponsors of the beatification included Telefonica and el Corte Ingles (though they are two of Spain’s biggest advertisers). Madrid Vivo, another sponsor of the beatification, is a foundation that promotes Catholic values. Its list of patrons reads like a who’s who in Spanish business.

Opus Dei can certainly put on a good show in Spain. But even if it has a core following, the country is steadily becoming more secular –70 percent of the population say they are Catholic but just 13 percent of those that declare themselves members of a religion attend weekly mass – and its economy more globalised. The trend looks set to continue. The conservative government’s recent retreat on tightening abortion rules is a sign of the new order – not one in which Opus Dei is likely to be a power-broker.