Thought Reform


Opus Dei - Thought Refrom

Franz Schaefer

20-Dec-1998 v0.03

1: Lifton's 8 criteria to identify "thought reform"

1.1: Milieu Control

1.2: Mystical Manipulation

1.3: The Demand for Purity

1.4: The Cult of Confession

1.5: The "Sacred Science"

1.6: Loading the Language

1.7: Doctrine Over Person

1.8: The Dispensing of Existence

2: Conclusions

3: Don't we find the Lifton's 8 criterions in every organisation - and especially in the Church too?

4: What is the source of ideological totalism

Recently I found this very interesting article from Robert Jay Lifton who has written a book about: "Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of 'Brainwashing' in China. Lifton, a psychiatrist and distinguished professor at the City University of New York, has studied the psychology of extremism for decades. He testified at the 1976 bank robbery trial of Patty Hearst, about the theory of "coercive persuasion." First published in 1961, his book was reprinted in 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Even though the position of Opus Dei is exactly on the other side of political extremism the methods of "thought reform" they seem to use on their members is very similar to those that Dr. Lifton has studied. This page is intended as a comparison of the methods used. I think this follows the author's thread since he writes:

For in identifying, on the basis of this study of thought reform, features common to all expressions of ideological totalism, I wish to suggest a set of criteria against which any environment may be judged a basis for answering the ever-recurring question: "Isn't this just like 'brainwashing'?"

I am well aware that each point of Lifton's criterions is rather weak by itself, and for each of them you can find numerous examples on how those same things can be found in various other parts of society. Furthermore the psychological argumentation is very speculative too. This comparison is not intended as an argumentation to criticise the Opus Dei, the critical arguments can be found in the FAQ. I have started this comparison not to criticise them but to help those people involved to understand what is going on inside them.

1: Lifton's 8 criteria to identify "thought reform"

He uses 8 criteria to identify "thought reform":

  1. Milieu Control
  2. Mystical Manipulation
  3. The Demand for Purity
  4. The Cult of Confession
  5. The "Sacred Science"
  6. Loading the Language
  7. Doctrine Over Person
  8. The Dispensing of Existence

1.1: Milieu Control

How important it is to control the milieu is what Mister Escriva found out some 35 years before Lifton when he founded his cult. In his book he even has a point that especially deals with the controlling of the milieu (the "Way" #376).

Lifton writes:

The most basic feature of the thought reform environment, the psychological current upon which all else depends, is the control of human communication. Through this milieu control, the totalist environment seeks to establish domain over not only the individual's communication with the outside (all that he sees and hears, reads and writes, experiences, and expresses ), but also in its penetration of his inner life over what we may speak of as his communication with himself.

For being systematic I would further split this point into 2 sub-groups:

  • surveillance of communication and
  • active control of communication.

The methods of Opus Dei that directly fall in these groups are:

  • The Censorship on books. Selecting the books that people are allowed to read. (See The "Way" #339).

  • Censorship of private mail. Carmen Tapia said that this happened. There is an explicit commandment from Mister Escriva in their secret internal writings: "The directors have the right and the duty to avoid that writings, letters, etc. come to the members of the opus, which could be of any danger to the recipients, where ever they may come from." (Glosas, cit. Peter Hertel). Well, how do they find out what is in the letters without opening them?

  • The obligatory weekly "talks". Here people are supposed to reveal the innermost details of their soul to a "spiritual director" who gives them advice afterwards.

  • Demanding blind obedience.

  • Alienating people from friends and family. (compare: the "way" #160, etc.)

  • For the numerary members who permanently live in the Opus Dei houses the total control of milieu is almost inherent.

Lifton further writes:

Such milieu control never succeeds in becoming absolute; and its own human apparatus can when permeated by outside information become subject to discordant "noise" beyond that of any mechanical apparatus. To totalist administrators, however, such occurrences are no more than evidences of "incorrect" use of the apparatus. For they look upon milieu control as a just and necessary policy, one which need not be kept secret.

The words the Opus Dei has for such "discordant noise" is: "the influence of the devil". Or the selfishness of "THE WORLD", etc..

From Lifton's book:

At the center of this self-justification is their assumption of omniscience, their conviction that reality is their exclusive possession. Having experienced the impact of what they consider to be an ultimate truth (and having the need to dispel any possible inner doubts of their own), they consider it their duty to create an environment containing no more and no less than this "truth." In order to be the engineers of the human soul, they must first bring it under full observational control.

This seems to reflect Opus Dei's methods.

1.2: Mystical Manipulation

What Lifton means with that is:

The inevitable next step after milieu control is extensive personal manipulation. This manipulation assumes a no-holds-barred character, and uses every possible device at the milieu's command, no matter how bizarre or painful. Initiated from above, it seeks to provoke specific patterns of behaviour and emotion in such a way that these will appear to have arisen spontaneously from within the environment. This element of planned spontaneity, directed as it is by an ostensibly omniscient group, must assume, for the manipulated, a near-mystical quality.

Manipulation of this kind where people should think that some ideas come from themselves or from God can especially be found in their way of recruiting new members. This is performed according to strict rules. Moreover: When the recruiting is successful, this is seen as a proof that one was doing the work of God. When it is not successful then it is seen as how evil THE WORLD is... again acknowledging the teachings of Mister Escriva. There is an answer to every situation in the teachings of Opus Dei.

Ideological totalists do not pursue this approach solely for the purpose of maintaining a sense of power over others. Rather they are impelled by a special kind of mystique which not only justifies such manipulations, but makes them mandatory.

Compare: The Way #655 or #643 where Escriva explicitly asks to be dishonest to others.

Included in this mystique is a sense of "higher purpose," of having "directly perceived some imminent law of social development," and of being themselves the vanguard of this development. By thus becoming the instruments of their own mystique, they create a mystical aura around the manipulating institutions the Party, the Government, the Organization.

The organisation that has the name "Work of God".

They are the agents "chosen" (by history, by God, or by some other supernatural force) to carry out the "mystical imperative," the pursuit of which must supersede all considerations of decency or of immediate human welfare. Similarly, any thought or action which questions the higher purpose is considered to be stimulated by a lower purpose, to be backward, selfish, and petty in the face of the great, overriding mission.

For a group that claims to be religious it is only natural to make extensive use of the "mystical" element. Most of the Opus Dei members have no doubt that they serve God when they act according to the rules of the founder. Within the "Way" political opinions and rules for living are mixed with a lot of good and pious ideas.

1.3: The Demand for Purity

Again we have a point where the Opus Dei meets the criterion very well. Lifton writes:

In the thought reform milieu, as in all situations of ideological totalism, the experiential world is sharply divided into the pure and the impure, into the absolutely good and the absolutely evil. The good and the pure are of course those ideas, feelings, and actions which are consistent with the totalist ideology and policy; anything else is apt to be relegated to the bad and the impure. Nothing human is immune from the flood of stern moral judgments. All "taints" and "poisons" which contribute to the existing state of impurity must be searched out and eliminated.

The demand for purity can be used for the thought reform in 2 ways. The first potential for manipulation here lies in the way that they define purity. Or as Lifton says it:

Thought reform bears witness to its more malignant consequences: for by defining and manipulating the criteria of purity, and then by conducting an all-out war upon impurity, the ideological totalists create a narrow world of guilt and shame.

A whole chapter in the "Way" is devoted to the "holy purity". It means something like: "to be free from sexual desire". Also related is the definition of "holiness" that is similar to purity. In the "Way" we find the holiness connected to a lot of bad traits. This is useful in case some person needs to be persuaded that some command that seems unethical to them, is something holy. We have the "holy coercion" (Way #398). "holy un-indulgence" (e.g. Way #396). "holy impertinence" (e.g. Way #388).

The 2nd way that the "need for purity" can be used to exercise "thought reform" is in the fact that it induces guilt. This is where the emphasis on purity in the sexual sense is very useful. Lifton explains it thus:

At the level of the relationship between individual and environment, the demand for purity creates what we may term a guilty milieu and a shaming milieu. Since each man's impurities are deemed sinful and potentially harmful to himself and to others, he is, so to speak, expected to expect punishment which results in a relationship of guilt with his environment. Similarly, when he fails to meet the prevailing standards in casting out such impurities, he is expected to expect humiliation and ostracism thus establishing a relationship of shame with his milieu. Moreover, the sense of guilt and the sense of shame become highly-valued: they are preferred forms of communication, objects of public competition, and the bases for eventual bonds between the individual and his totalist accusers.

... Since ideological totalists become the ultimate judges of good and evil within their world, they are able to use these universal tendencies toward guilt and shame as emotional levers for their controlling and manipulative influences. They become the arbiters of existential guilt, authorities without limit in dealing with others' limitations. And their power is nowhere more evident than in their capacity to "forgive."

The church has always tended to abuse the good and healthy instrument of "forgiving sin" to strengthen her power. (At times the church even sold it for money). When a stronger control was needed then the perception of guilt had to be increased by imposing additional moral laws. The Opus Dei extensively uses this method.

The individual thus comes to apply the same totalist polarization of good and evil to his judgments of his own character: he tends to imbue certain aspects of himself with excessive virtue, and condemn even more excessively other personal qualities all according to their ideological standing. He must also look upon his impurities as originating from outside influences that is, from the ever-threatening world beyond the closed, totalist ken. Therefore, one of his best ways to relieve himself of some of his burden of guilt is to denounce, continuously and hostilely, these same outside influences. The more guilty he feels, the greater his hatred, and the more threatening they seem.

The impure outside world is generally referred to as "THE WORLD" by them. The hate produced by the emphasis on the sexual purity is also often projected onto innocent victims like e.g. gays: Fr. McCloskey speaks of "barbarian hordes"; or Peter M. claimed on a public web board to be an Opus Dei member and complained about gay people who advocated their lifestyle in the US with the words: "The Goebbels of our day are gay.."

Lifton writes:

In this manner, the universal psychological tendency toward "projection" is nourished and institutionalized, leading to mass hatreds, purges of heretics, and to political and religious holy wars. Moreover, once an individual person has experienced the totalist polarization of good and evil, he has great difficulty in regaining a more balanced inner sensitivity to the complexities of human morality. For there is no emotional bondage greater than that of the man whose entire guilt potential, neurotic and existential has become the property of ideological totalists.

1.4: The Cult of Confession

Lifton Writes:

Closely related to the demand for absolute purity is an obsession with personal confession. Confession is carried beyond its ordinary religious, legal, and therapeutic expressions to the point of becoming a cult in itself. There is the demand that one confess to crimes one has not committed, to sinfulness that is artificially induced, in the name of a cure that is arbitrarily imposed. Such demands are made possible not only by the ubiquitous human tendencies toward guilt and shame but also by the need to give expression to these tendencies. In totalist hands, confession becomes a means of exploiting, rather than offering solace for, these vulnerability.

Again we have a point that very much applies to the Opus Dei sect. In addition to normal confession (which is also heard by Opus Dei priests) they have the obligatory weekly confession with their spiritual director. The fact that this is obligatory is an indication it is meant as "exploiting" rather then offering "solace". Even though most spiritual directors will be mere ordinary members and victims themselves, and will not be aware of manipulating their disciples, thinking they only help them to find God, only members who have well absorbed the obscure mixture of political ideology, rules for living and their "spirituality" will be appointed to be spiritual directors. This way the system sustains itself.

Lifton further explains the "rationale" behind the cult of confession:

The assumption underlying total exposure (besides those which relate to the demand for purity) is the environment's claim to total ownership of each individual self within it. Private ownership of the mind and its products of imagination or of memory becomes highly immoral. The accompanying rationale (or rationalization) is familiar to us (from George Chen's experience); the milieu has attained such a perfect state of enlightenment that any individual retention of ideas or emotions has become anachronistic.

Compare the "Way" #59, #62 or #64, #856, #862, etc..

1.5: The "Sacred Science"

Lifton defines this as follows:

The totalist milieu maintains an aura of sacredness around its basic dogma, holding it out as an ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence. This sacredness is evident in the prohibition (whether or not explicit) against the questioning of basic assumptions, and in the reverence which is demanded for the originators of the Word, the present bearers of the Word, and the Word itself.

There can be no doubt that the members of Opus Dei who worship their founder like a God think that his words are kind of "sacred". Therefore, no one questions that his political ideas are found in the Bible. (Interestingly only about 150 of the 999 paragraphs of the "Way" even have references to the Bible.)

While thus transcending ordinary concerns of logic, however, the milieu at the same time makes an exaggerated claim of airtight logic, of absolute "scientific" precision. Thus the ultimate moral vision becomes an ultimate science; and the man who dares to criticize it, or to harbour even unspoken alternative ideas, becomes not only immoral and irreverent, but also "unscientific." In this way, the philosopher kings of modern ideological totalism reinforce their authority by claiming to share in the rich and respected heritage of natural science.

Despite the fact that a lot of members there have a kind of academic education, science is not one of their strong points. People with theological education who talk with members of the Opus Dei usually find that those people (who also claim to have received a solid theological education there) even lack the knowledge of basic scientific terms. But then that should not come as a surprise: Why would the Opus Dei want to teach them how to interpret the word of God on their own when they already have the "interpretation" of Mister Escriva? Opus Dei members are not supposed to think on their own; they are supposed to follow their spiritual directors. Nonetheless, they call their brainwashing "theology" to give it a scientific touch. Speaking of scientific touch: What mister Escriva does to give his words a touch of logic is rather hilarious (see #471) - this way he can argument against any kind of science by claiming he has God on his side.

Lifton writes:

At the level of the individual, the totalist sacred science can offer much comfort and security. Its appeal lies in its seeming unification of the mystical and the logical modes of experience (in psychoanalytic terms, of the primary and secondary thought processes). For within the framework of the sacred science, there is room for both careful step-by-step syllogism, and sweeping, nonrational "insights." Since the distinction between the logical and the mystical is, to begin with, artificial and man-made, an opportunity for transcending it can create an extremely intense feeling of truth. But the posture of unquestioning faith both rationally and non-rationally derived is not easy to sustain, especially if one discovers that the world of experience is not nearly as absolute as the sacred science claims it to be.

I believe that this could very well explain what goes on inside the people who receive their "theological" education.

1.6: Loading the Language

This, or what George Orwell called "new-speak" is one of the really important point to understand how the indoctrination of the Opus Dei works. Usually most people of our time do not want to be associated with "fascism". They believe in liberty in democracy etc.. So it would be hard to recruit new members and keep them when they find out about the positions of the Opus Dei on that matters. Thus is important that they do not see through the veil. The way this is accomplished is by redefining the language. I had a conversation on a web based chat board with a person who claimed to be an Opus Dei member and analyzed a bit of his language. When he spoke about "liberty" he meant that everyone has the right to do what the Opus Dei thinks is "catholic". Of course, with this definition of "liberty" they are not in opposition to liberty. On the other hand, after enough indoctrination they will think that everyone else is against "liberty". Books that are written with other definitions of common terms in mind will not be understood; cutting them off from what normal people want to tell them. This loading of the language could be artificially introduced by the leaders of the Opus Dei, but it could have been developed over time to solve the conflict that arose between the moral values our society holds high and the particularly weird ideology of the Opus Dei.

Lifton sees an other important role of language for "thought reform":

The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliche. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.

To name just a few of these terms and cliches that I found that the Opus Dei seems to use are:

  • The World. How The World thinks. This term is used to refer to anything outside their limited believe system that they do not like. The use of the term The World dates back to Escriva himself. Besides its thought-stopping effect due to its generalisation (how more can one generalise then collecting all the world into one term?). The term has the side effect of implicitly suggesting that their ideas are "not of this world" - something supernatural - coming from God. (While I do not deny that they have some good sides and a little bit of religiosity the majority of their ideology has nothing to do with God or the Bible but is an invention of Mister Escriva or Generalissimo Franco).

  • Enlightenment Theories Sometimes used to describe eastern religions, but also for "the works of Freud, Marx, Darwin, and Mill" (see McCloskey

  • ..further examples welcomed..

Furthermore the common language creates a feeling of unity. Lifton:

Edward Sapir put it, "'He talks like us' is equivalent to saying 'He is one of us'."

To be fair, Lifton writes:

To be sure, this kind of language exists to some degree within any cultural or organizational group, and all systems of belief depend upon it. It is in part an expression of unity and exclusiveness: as Edward Sapir put it, "'He talks like us' is equivalent to saying 'He is one of us'." The loading is much more extreme in ideological totalism, however, since the jargon expresses the claimed certitudes of the sacred science. Also involved is an underlying assumption that language like all other human products can be owned and operated by the Movement.

Finally I do not want to withhold from you Lifton's conclusion here that gives a brilliant insight into the psyche of people who are exposed to that aspect of "thought reform":

As in other aspects of totalism, this loading may provide an initial sense of in sight and security, eventually followed by uneasiness. This uneasiness may result in a retreat into a rigid orthodoxy in which an individual shouts the ideological jargon all the louder in order to demonstrate his conformity, hide his own dilemma and his despair, and protect himself from the fear and guilt he would feel should he attempt to use words and phrases other than the correct ones. Or else he may adopt a complex pattern of inner division, and dutifully produce the expected cliches in public performances, while in his private moments he searches for more meaningful avenues of expression. Either way, his imagination becomes increasingly dissociated from his actual life experiences and may even tend to atrophy from disuse.

1.7: Doctrine Over Person

Mister Escriva built his organisation according to the model of an army. Every individual must follow the commands and most of all: be replaceable like a soldier. So the single person is nothing within the whole machinery. What counts is following the commands and the doctrine. We see, we again have a criterion that can be identified in Opus Dei.

What Lifton means by that point here goes even further. The idea here is that the doctrine creates, to quote Lifton:

. . . stock characters like capitalist imperialists from abroad, feudal and semi-feudal reaction at home, and the resistance and liberation movements of "the people" enact a morality play.

Of course that is the diction that was heard in the Chinese prisons. The Opus Dei diction uses different terms and characters. The pure and angel like Opus Dei "warrior" that saves the world from the hordes of swines.. and stuff like that. (terms used from Escriva, the "Way").

Lifton writes:

The inspiring force of such myths cannot be denied; nor can one ignore their capacity for mischief. For when the myth becomes fused with the totalist sacred science, the resulting "logic" can be so compelling and coercive that it simply replaces the realities of individual experience. Consequently, past historical events are retrospectively altered, wholly rewritten, or ignored, to make them consistent with the doctrinal logic.

About the History: A teacher from Italy who was teaching in one of the Opus Dei schools tells ( see here ) us that he was not allowed to teach about the Inquisition in history. About the rewriting: Carmen Tapia tells us how she had to edit past editions of the printings they had done.

Lifton explains:

The same doctrinal primacy prevails in the totalist approach to changing people: the demand that character and identity be reshaped, not in accordance with one's special nature or potentialities, but rather to fit the rigid contours of the doctrinal mold. The human is thus subjugated to the ahuman. And in this manner, the totalists, as Camus phrases it, "put an abstract idea above human life, even if they call it history, to which they themselves have submitted in advance and to which they will decide quite arbitrarily, to submit everyone else as well."

Both ideas: the non-importance of the individual human and the historic mission they have submitted themselves too can be found in the Escriva's teachings (e.g. Way #777, #709, #7, etc ..)

The underlying assumption is that the doctrine including its mythological elements is ultimately more valid, true, and real than is any aspect of actual human character or human experience. Thus, even when circumstances require that a totalist movement follow a course of action in conflict with or outside of the doctrine, there exists what Benjamin Schwartz has described as a "will to orthodoxy" which requires an elaborate facade of new rationalizations designed to demonstrate the unerring consistency of the doctrine and the unfailing foresight which it provides. The public operation of this will to orthodoxy is seen in the Party's explanation of the Hundred Flowers Campaign. But its greater importance lies in more hidden manifestations, particularly the totalists' pattern of imposing their doctrine-dominated remolding upon people in order to seek confirmation of (and again, dispel their own doubts about) this same doctrine. Rather than modify the myth in accordance with experience, the will to orthodoxy requires instead that men be modified in order to reaffirm the myth.

If you have heard a Opus Dei person speak about "orthodoxy" then you know what Lifton means here. Being "orthodox" in the Opus Dei diction means to stick to the Opus Dei ideology. But since they have always been criticised on the grounds that their ideology has nothing much to do with Christian believes, they do not get tired of declaring that what they do is "Catholic". Nonetheless the majority of sound Catholics would not want to have anything to do with a group that promotes censorship, intolerance, and opposes the principle of an open society.

Some people inside Opus Dei might also have troubles in conforming with the weird doctrine. What could happen then, is again explained by Lifton:

The individual person who finds himself under such doctrine-dominated pressure to change is thrust into an intense struggle with his own sense of integrity, a struggle which takes place in relation to polarized feelings of sincerity and insincerity. In a totalist environment, absolute "sincerity" is demanded; [...] The totalist environment, however, counters such "deviant" tendencies with the accusation that they stem entirely from personal "problems" ("thought problems" or "ideological problems" ) derived from untoward earlier influences.

From Mister Escriva, the "Way" #777 Your own will, your own judgement: this is what disturbs you.. or #662: No happiness? -- Immediately think: here is something between myself and God. -- Most of the time it is like that.. (Note: when they speak of God they mean also mean "the work of God" that is the Opus Dei). etc..etc.

1.8: The Dispensing of Existence

Lifton writes:

The most literal example of such dispensing of existence and nonexistence is to be found in the sentence given to certain political criminals: execution in two years' time, unless during that two-year period they have demonstrated genuine progress in their reform.

Opus Dei does not threaten people with death. Their threat of "dispensing of existence" is a bit different but nonetheless effective. It is that they threaten people with Hell. What is at stake is not life but eternal life and happiness!

Furthermore, Lifton found that the Chinese called the people who did not agree with their ideology "non-people". Orwell used the term "unperson". Escriva uses the names of animals for those instead.

I want to close with the words of Robert J. Lifton because the relevance with regard to Opus Dei should be clear:

For the individual, the polar emotional conflict is the ultimate existential one of "being versus nothingness." He is likely to be drawn to a conversion experience, which he sees as the only means of attaining a path of existence for the future (as did George Chen). The totalist environment, even when it does not resort to physical abuse thus stimulates in everyone a fear of extinction or annihilation much like the basic fear experienced by Western prisoners. A person can overcome this fear and find (in Martin Buber's term) "confirmation," not in his individual relationships, but only from the fount of all existence, the totalist Organization. Existence comes to depend upon creed (I believe, therefore I am), upon submission (I obey, therefore I am) and beyond these, upon a sense of total merger with the ideological movement. Ultimately of course one compromises and combines the totalist "confirmation" with independent elements of personal identity; but one is ever made aware that, should he stray too far along this "erroneous path," his right to existence may be withdrawn.

While the Catholic Church had some problems with this point in the past too, today sound Catholics demand a "message of joy" instead of condemnation in the teachings of the Church. In this is certainly in the intention of Jesus Christ since we should act out of love and not out of fear. Jesus died for our sins.

2: Conclusions

Lifton writes:

The more clearly an environment expresses these eight psychological themes, the greater its resemblance to ideological totalism; and the more it utilizes such totalist devices to change people, the greater its resemblance to thought reform (or "brainwashing"). But facile comparisons can be misleading. No milieu ever achieves complete totalism, and many relatively moderate environments show some signs of it.

We see that 8 out of 8 criteria for "thought reform" are fulfilled by the Opus Dei. So what does that mean? The aim of this comparison was not to give a proof that they are "brainwashing", but to provide some insight into the psychological "mechanics" of what is going on inside people under the influence of Opus Dei. Especially for people who had to suffer under that influence or are still members there. The honour for this insight goes to Dr. Lifton for his ingenious article. All I did was to point to the similarities that are more then obvious.

Another thing to keep in mind for those readers of this document who want to simply abuse it as a kind of proof that Opus Dei is "brainwashing" is, that this totalist environment is not only a bad thing; but has some valuable sides too. Lifton writes:

Then too, some environments come perilously close to totalism but at the same time keep alternative paths open; this combination can offer unusual opportunities for achieving intellectual and emotional depth. And even the most full-blown totalist milieu can provide (more or less despite itself) a valuable and enlarging life experience if the man exposed has both the opportunity to leave the extreme environment and the inner capacity to absorb and make inner use of the totalist pressures.

So in the case of the Opus Dei people have, in principle, the opportunity to leave - even though this is not made easy for the members, and there is the inherent danger that leaving the organisation causes even more damage in the soul and leave the people in a state of uncertainty, doubt and guilt. (see Can I leave any Time? from my FAQ).

An even more important and somehow positive effect is the "peak experience" that this

Also, ideological totalism itself may offer a man an intense peak experience: a sense of transcending all that is ordinary and prosaic, of freeing himself from the encumbrances of human ambivalence, of entering a sphere of truth, reality, trust, and sincerity beyond any he had ever known or even imagined.

Such peak experiences are rather common at Opus Dei, especially among those who newly entered the organisation.

ARANCHA, numerary member

- Would you say you are a happy person ?

Totalmente feliz. (I'm totally happy.)

(From TV documentation about Opus Dei )

The problem with this experience is that this is kind of playing with fire. Lifton writes:

But these peak experiences, the result as they are of external pressure, distortion, and threat, carry a great potential for rebound, and for equally intense opposition to the very things which initially seem so liberating. Such imposed peak experiences as contrasted with those more freely and privately arrived at by great religious leaders and mystics are essentially experiences of personal closure. Rather than stimulating greater receptivity and "openness to the world," they encourage a backward step into some form of "embeddedness" a retreat into doctrinal and organizational exclusiveness, and into all-or-nothing emotional patterns more characteristic (at least at this stage of human history) of the child than of the individuated adult. And if no peak experience occurs, ideological totalism does even greater violence to the human potential: it evokes destructive emotions, produces intellectual and psychological constrictions, and deprives men of all that is most subtle and imaginative under the false promise of eliminating those very imperfections and ambivalences which help to define the human condition.

3: Don't we find the Lifton's 8 criterions in every organisation - and especially in the Church too?

As already stated above it is a gradual thing. Some elements can be found anywhere. In some environments we find more in some less. Here I want to give a short overview of why i think that there is a huge gradual difference between the occurances of this criterions in Opus Dei compared with the Catholic Church, where they claim to be part of.

  1. Milieu Control - Of course this can be found to a certain degree in all parts of a society. Even the most liberal and free society creates a "milieu", a "milieu" of freedom, but it does it by not trying to control it. Futhermore it is not true that it is a typical sign of any religion to claim to be in possession of an absolute truth. Most big religions are very tolerant towards other religion. For the catholic faith this is IMHO best expressed by Mother Theresa: Mother Teresa speaking about Conversion to her biographer, Desmond Doig:

    "What we are all trying to do by our work, by serving the people, is to come closer to God. If in coming face to face with God we accept Him in our lives, then we are converting. We become a better Hindu, a better Muslim, a better Catholic, a better whatever we are, and then by being better we come closer and closer to Him. If we accept Him fully in our lives, then that is conversion. What approach would I use? For me, naturally, it would be a Catholic one, for you it may be Hindu, for someone else, Buddhist, according to one's conscience. What God is in your mind you must accept." [Desmond Doig, "Mother Teresa: Her People and Her Work", William Collins Sons & Co., Ltd., Glascow, 1976, page 136]

    Sure the Catholic Church a wholehas still some way to go to reach such tolerance as stated by Mother Teresa, but the direction shown in the second vatican council gives much hope for the future.

  2. Mystical Manipulation

    While the "mystical" element is present in any religion, the major religions will not use "manipulation" to win people, while on the other hand Mister Escriva thinks it is allowed to take advantage of people who are easy to manipulate: ("Way" #851: Let us lead the "providential fooleries" of youth into the right tracks.) Let's compare that with what Vatican II states:

    "Religious communities have the further right not to be prevented from publicly teaching and bearing witness to their beliefs by the spoken or written word. However, in spreading religious belief and in introducing religious practices everybody must at all times avoid any action which seems to suggest coercion or dishonest or unworthy persuasion especially when dealing with the uneducated or the poor. Such a manner of acting must be considered an abuse of one's own right and an infringement of the rights of others." from "Dignitatis Humanae"

  3. The Demand for Purity

    That is a point that, at first glance, seems to be in all religions. But it is not there to introduce guilt (even thought it has been abused for that in history), but "purity" there is just the sum of all postivive ideals (like love, compassion, mercy, non-seflishnes, for typical religions), and there is no need for exaggerated "purity" that goes beyond striving towards the good ideals or that would even detract people from the real ideals. e.g Escriva's idea that the body is our enemy ("Way" #227) on which most of their demand for purity is based is not a christian idead, but, as Helmut Meier, a catholic Priest from Germany, rightfully pointed out, based on some Greek Philosophy that sees the body a jail for the soul, while contrary to that the bible sees it as a temple for the soul (1cor 6:19). "For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church" (eph 5:29). ".. therefore glorify God in your body..." (1cor6:20).

  4. The Cult of Confession

    In the Catholic Church of today Confession is meant as a gift to help people free them self from feelings of guilt. Regular confession is recommended but not mandatory, while in the Opus Dei members have their spiritual direction once a week (and that is not necessarily a priest). Again we find a huge difference between Opus Dei and real Christianity where confession is meant to help people and not to control them.

  5. The "Sacred Science"

    Lifton mentions the combination of rationally and non-rationally. If we compare this with real religions we find that rational and non rational thinking are often combined there too (after all "love" e.g. is not a rational thing). What makes the difference here is that the big religions can survive a critical analysis: It is easy to see that if all people would really take the ideals of Christianity, Buddhism, etc serious then we would have heaven on earth. So they make sense from a rather pragmatic point of view. On the other hand if Opus Dei would rule the world we would soon have a hell of a theocratic dictatorship here..

  6. Loading the Language

    Every social group has a own language with own technical terms etc.. An The Catholic Church is not exception here. The Huge difference here is that the Catholic Church is not opposed to our open society and thus has no need to redefine the language in order to make it seem compatible with society on a first glance.

  7. Doctrine Over Person

    To show that this point is not valid for real Christianity, I think it is sufficient to mention that it was the Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who is usually seen as the founder of existentialism - the antipode to totalism. His idea is that the single person and his conscience in front of God is what counts.

  8. The Dispensing of Existence

    This is maybe one point which also lightly applies to real Churches as well, but the Catholic Church does not really use threatening people with hell anymore. Since the second vatican council she acknowledges that there is salvation (and thus not dispensing of existence) outside her bounds too.

All in all we see that Lifton's point can be applied to anything and certainly to the big religions too there is still a huge difference in how much this points can be applied.

4: What is the source of ideological totalism

Lifton also deals with the question of where this totalism is coming from:

Behind ideological totalism lies the ever-present human quest for the omnipotent guide for the supernatural force, political party, philosophical ideas, great leader, or precise science that will bring ultimate solidarity to all men and eliminate the terror of death and nothingness. This quest is evident in the mythologies, religions, and histories of all nations, as well as in every individual life.

I think this just expresses that these movements usually have a very good intent: They all want to save the world and make it a better place. This was the fact for communism and of course this is also the case with religious movements. As readers of my FAQ already know I am a Catholic Christian myself. And I think it would be bad and completely unfair to condemn any of this movements without honouring the idealistic goals behind it. Unfortunately this often happens today when people show a dull atheism or anti socialism. Concerning fascism: I think the things are a little bit different here. Pure fascism itself does not have any idealistic goals. Its sole purpose is power. (When they want to underline their ideology with some sense of mission they usually draw that from the lowest corner of human emotion. Selfishness, nationalism, patriotism, etc.. ). The case of Opus Dei is a bit different here. They have mixed their fascism with Christian religion. (Or their religion with fascism - however you want to see it). Even thought the Christianity in the case of Opus Dei is very much degenerated their own perception of having the ultimate answer as always there.

But let's go back to Lifton's conclusions. Focusing on the individual motives that attract people towards totalism he finds:

suspected the roots can be found in the childhood:

The degree of individual totalism involved depends greatly upon factors in one's personal history: early lack of trust, extreme environmental chaos, total domination by a parent or parent-representative, intolerable burdens of guilt, and severe crises of identity. Thus an early sense of confusion and dislocation, or an early experience of unusually intense family milieu control, can produce later a complete intolerance for confusion and dislocation, and a longing for the reinstatement of milieu control.

What can be added here is that the beginnings of Opus Dei where in a time of war, with its pervasive chaos and this could act as an excuse for Mister Escriva's bad ideology. It is of course not excuse that this ideology is still present in the Opus Dei of today.

Furthermore he suspected the roots can be found in the childhood:

It may be that the capacity for totalism is most fundamentally a product of human childhood itself, of the prolonged period of helplessness and dependency through which each of us must pass. Limited as he is, the infant has no choice but to imbue his first nurturing authorities his parents with an exaggerated omnipotence, until the time he is himself capable of some degree of independent action and judgement....

So I think, the results Lifton finds are mostly identical to what I was writing in my FAQ about the question: What attracts people towards the Opus Dei?. Our world seems to be too complicated for a lot of people and they are searching to find the easy live of their childhood. Or as Lifton expresses it:

... we cannot speak of it as simply a form of regression. It is partly this, but it is also something more: a new form of adult embeddedness, originating in patterns of security-seeking carried over from childhood, but with qualities of ideas and aspirations that are specifically adult.

I hope this study can provide help to people who are under the influence of this organisation. If you have comments about it please email me: schaefer@mond.at.

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