Thursday, February 4, 2010

Shining new light on Opus Dei’s mission

By Erica Noonan, The Boston Globe, November 19, 2009

Opus Dei means “work of God’’ in Latin. At the Montrose School in Medfield, it means educating girls to be leaders with “faith, character, and vision,’’ said the independent Catholic institution’s head, Karen E. Bohlin.

For Mary Brennan, a Franklin mother of six, it is a search for divinity in everyday life as she cares for her children and works part time. “It’s faith in practice,’’ said Brennan, who prays several times a day, using a rosary, Latin readings, and the New Testament. “As Catholics, it’s making a connection between work and faith.’’

Eighty years after being founded in Spain by St. Josemaria Escriva, Opus Dei remains an under-the-radar extension of Catholicism that is often misunderstood, adherents say. Yet it maintains a thriving presence in Greater Boston, with about 300 members, centers in Chestnut Hill, Boston’s Back Bay, Cambridge, and Pembroke, and the affiliated school in Medfield for girls in grades 6 through 12.

It took an image crisis - spurred by a 2003 novel by Dan Brown, “The Da Vinci Code,’’ featuring a monk-assassin with ties to Opus Dei - to put the prelature front and center in popular culture, and not in a positive light.

Finding many misrepresentations in Brown’s book, particularly about how Opus Dei treats women, who make up more than half of its membership, Boston College graduate Marie Oates started work on her own book, a pioneering collection of essays by two dozen women proclaiming the group’s egalitarian nature.

“We realized we had to tell the world about ourselves,’’ said Oates, who co-edited “Women of Opus Dei’’ with Dr. Jenny Driver, a physician at Brigham & Women’s Hospital. “Saint Josemaria loved women, and had great respect for them and everything they do in the world.’’

About 20 percent of the organization’s 87,000 members worldwide are “numeraries,’’ who live celibate lives, primarily work in service to the church, and live in Opus Dei residences.

Roughly 2 percent of its members are priests, according to Opus Dei, and the remainder are regular churchgoers with secular jobs and families, like Brennan, who attends Mass daily when possible. But her deepest relationship with God, Brennan says, is outside the sanctuary while doing her everyday work “with great love’’ - raising children, doing freelance design at night, and in her part-time job in the cafe at Dean College in Franklin.

Opus Dei’s mission was also the inspiration behind the three-decade-old Montrose School, though today 25 percent of the girls and faculty are not practicing Catholics; several are Muslim, Greek Orthodox, or unaffiliated. The school is financially independent from Opus Dei and the Archdiocese of Boston, though it maintains a warm institutional relationship with both.

“I guess you could say our secret weapon is prayer,’’ said Bohlin, a scholar at Boston University’s Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character and an Opus Dei member. “We don’t have a corner on that market, but we do integrate it into all we do. And because we respect every person as a child of God, it’s easier to appreciate people, gain perspective under pressure, and laugh at ourselves.’’

The “Work,’’ as members call their faith, has historically been outside the direct purview of the Vatican, contributing to longstanding internal Church tensions between strict followers of papal hierarchy and Opus Dei, which some critics have called “a church within a church.’’

National Public Radio’s Vatican correspondent, John L. Allen Jr., described Opus Dei as an especially intense form of Catholicism, calling it “the Guinness Extra Stout of the Catholic Church.’’

“A strong brew, definitely an acquired taste, and clearly not for everyone,’’ Allen wrote in his 2005 book on the group, which he billed as “the most controversial force in the Catholic Church.’’

Opus Dei might have remained out of the limelight indefinitely if not for Brown’s novel, which in 2006 was made into a hit movie starring Tom Hanks. Suddenly tourists were appearing on the doorsteps of Opus Dei residences around the world, asking questions about medieval torture chambers and ancient corporal mortification practices like self-flagellation, as performed by a character in the novel.

“We didn’t think anyone could really think what was in the book could be true,’’ said Oates, a Duxbury native who lives in New York. “But so many people did.’’

The most devout men and women in Opus Dei do wear a cilice, a small metal chain, around their upper thigh under their clothing for a few hours per day, as a reminder of the pain endured by Jesus Christ during his crucifixion. Slightly uncomfortable, it does not draw blood or torture the wearer, Oates said.

Her book, put out this summer by Crossroad Publishing Co., features narratives of conversion and faith in practice from a variety of women - stay-at-home mothers, academics, business leaders - from around the country.

Both Oates and Driver said they were sure as young women that they wished to forgo traditional marriage and children and commit themselves to the church and Opus Dei. There are no regrets, they said.

“You feel loved. This is a family,’’ said Driver, who lives at Bayridge, the prelature’s Back Bay facility.

Being a numerary is not the same as being a nun, and they do not wear special garments or accept orders from the Archdiocese, they said.

“I guess you could say my heart dedicated itself to Jesus. He is my significant other,’’ said Oates, a public relations consultant who serves on Boston College’s Council for Women.

Because Opus Dei is a personal calling, without typical Vatican top-down hierarchy, its members have autonomy to teach, speak, lead small groups of discussion, and travel the world assisting the sick and needy as they see necessary, Oates and Driver said.

Free of traditional church structure, aside from the traditional morning Mass celebrated by a male priest, the umbrella of intellectual and spiritual opportunities offered by Opus Dei is especially empowering for women who may feel constrained by the church’s male-dominated bureaucracy, the co-editors said.

Their book has drawn praise from progressive religion writers and scholars, including Phyllis Tickle, author of “The Divine Hours’’ and “The Words of Jesus.’’

Tickle said longstanding suspicion toward Opus Dei’s emphasis on a personal relationship with God, especially within the Catholic Church in Europe, has hurt the group. “They have a bad rap not just among non-Catholics, but even among Catholics,’’ she said.

“There are many people out there asking how do you rein it in?’’ Tickle said in a telephone interview from her Tennessee home.

Yet Opus Dei has much to offer contemporary religious debate, said Tickle. Many faiths acknowledge the mundane and ordinary parts of life, but seeking the divinity within them, as experienced by women, is the “great strength’’ of Opus Dei, she said. “It takes life where it is, so that it may be lauded.’’

In Greater Boston, nearly 100 young women, mostly college students, live at Bayridge, a historic Commonwealth Avenue mansion designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Opus Dei also runs the Chestnut Hill Center on Hammond Street in Newton, and the Elmbrook Student Center in Cambridge, offering educational programming for young men in high school and college, as well as the Arnold Hall Conference Center in Pembroke, offering job training and retreats for adults.

The Montrose School was established 30 years ago in Brookline by Catholic parents and educators who were also Opus Dei members. This year it made Boston magazine’s list of the area’s best private schools, outranking Belmont Hill School, Concord Academy, the Rivers School, and Milton Academy.

Attendance at Montrose has been growing steadily, and three years ago the school moved from a rented building in Natick to the 14-acre campus, with an athletic field, in Medfield.

Religious education remains part of the school’s core curriculum. Students can choose between attending daily morning Mass or spending 45 minutes in quiet reading sessions, with a long list of approved books that include Plato, Jane Austen, and even Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink.’’

Montrose students travel to Rome to study Dante’s “Inferno,’’ are the only high-schoolers invited to present their writing and research on ethics and philosophy at a Notre Dame college competition, and are regularly accepted to Ivy League colleges.

“The most consistent feedback I get from visitors, community members, and parents is, ‘This is a happy place. Your students are genuinely happy,’ ’’ said Bohlin. “That’s refreshing.’’

The prayercard of the St Josemaria in English and in other languages.

The Wives, Mothers and Daughters Who Live the Charism

The Women of Opus Dei

By Miriam Díez i Bosch

NEW YORK, OCT. 19, 2009 ( We tracked down Marie Oates in Opus Dei headquarters in New York. Her desire to show how women live the Opus Dei charism resulted in her book “Women of Opus Dei: In Their Own Words."

Coedited with Linda Ruf and Jenny Driver (Crossroad Publishing, 2009), the book's profiles range from a Harvard doctor, to stay-at-home moms, to an MIT graduate; it aims to introduce "the women in Catholicism's most intriguing organization."

ZENIT: Finally someone is talking about women in the Opus Dei. Women make up half -- some believe more than half -- of the total number of members of Opus Dei in the United States and worldwide, but most people do not know you. Why this lack of protagonism?

Oates: As part of the Catholic Church, Opus Dei exists to help lay men and women find and love God through their work -- whatever that may be -- and the everyday events that fill a normal life. But having a vocation to Opus Dei does not change the fact that members are still simply lay faithful, the same as other lay faithful in the Catholic Church.

People in Opus Dei do not wear their vocation to Opus Dei on their sleeves. In general, they try to focus on being an "ordinary guy or gal" with their colleagues, family and friends, all the while trying to be more like Christ in their work and with everyone with whom they come in contact. In this way, each one strives to personally give glory to God and to give Christian witness through the way they do their work and through their personal relationships.

Readers will find that there is plenty of "protagonism" -- as well as human imperfections and defects too -- among the women featured in the book.

Each one is the protagonist of her unique and personal effort to live out her calling to holiness as a lay person.

ZENIT: Is there a prototype of a woman of Opus Dei?

Oates: No. As readers will see, the women featured in "Women of Opus Dei: In Their Own Words" are all unique.

The women in the book, just like all the women -- and men -- in Opus Dei, come from all walks of life. Four of the 15 women featured in the book are converts to Catholicism. Three of the women featured are of African American heritage; several come from Asian and Hispanic backgrounds. Several are stay-at-home mothers -- an important professional work esteemed as such by St. Josemaría Escrivá. Several are mothers who raise their families and have other professions they carry out.

There’s a scientist, a couple of medical doctors -- including one of the founders of the Hospice Movement in the United States, hospitality services professionals, a childcare professional, several educators, the president of a women’s college, the executive director of a non-profit organization, etc.

The majority of the women are married, some are single. What they share in common is their vocation -- which is the same calling regardless of their different circumstances.

Though they each have their own personal shortcomings and struggles like everyone, they all love their Catholic faith deeply and find that their vocation to Opus Dei helps them cherish, live and pass on that faith more readily.

Women (and men) in Opus Dei are normal Catholics who want to respond daily to God’s deep love and goodness.

ZENIT: Is there anything distinctive Opus Dei offers to women in terms of formation, ways of behaving?

Oates: The formation offered by Opus Dei, a personal prelature of the Catholic Church, simply echoes the Christian formation recommended by the Church for all the faithful -- men and women. The Christian programs are the same for men and women -- though they are carried out independently of
each other.

The independence of the women’s formation programs from the men’s primarily was part of the foundational charism St. Josemaría received from God. It works effectively for Opus Dei’s formational activities, but it might not for other Catholic organizations.

I guess one of the distinctive features of the formation is that it is offered by lay people and priests. It strives to be practical and to help people live the Christian virtues in their place of work, in their normal daily activities.

ZENIT: In your book it is impossible to find the political affiliation of the women featured. Was that done on purpose or is it simply not an issue?

Oates: That was done on purpose because it is not an issue. Let me explain. Members of Opus Dei, as free human beings, are encouraged to be responsible citizens, to vote, to take an interest in the public policies that affect them and others within their various countries and communities.

That said, members of Opus Dei are completely free in the realm of voting, public policies, political party affiliation, etc. Opus Dei is totally non-political. Its ends are completely spiritual. People in Opus Dei tend to be all over the map in their politics -- some are liberal, some are conservative, some are moderate, etc. As devout Catholics, they often share similar points of view on moral “hot button” issues like abortion, euthanasia, sexual ethics, social justice, bioethics, etc. -- all of which have political repercussions.

Still, they are encouraged to approach and decide on those and other issues of public policy in accord with their conscience. There’s no one approach that people in Opus Dei adopt when considering those and other public policy matters. As Christians, they pray about and ponder the matters, and then come up with their own political decisions based on the options available to them.

ZENIT: Do you think the Opus Dei these women represent is the Opus Dei the founder, St. Josemaría Escrivá, envisaged?

Oates: I like to think so. These women are all normal -- they are not perfect, but they are committed to struggle each day to keep Jesus front and center in their lives. We are all “works in progress” until we die.

Our existence on earth is a pilgrimage as we walk in time toward our definitive destiny: eternal life with God. God gives us time here on earth to cultivate the talents we have been given and to make the best of them in his service and the service of souls around us.

I think St. Josemaría would be happy with the dedication, focus and diversity of these women -- and the thousands not included in this book.

Probably, if he had them in a room all together, he would not congratulate them for being in Opus Dei, rather he would challenge them to be more valiant women. He would encourage them to try to be more generous in their love of God and spirit of service. He would urge them to dream apostolically with a world vision, to continue struggling to be better, to convert daily.

He often said that about himself, i.e., that he personally played the role of the prodigal son each day in his own life, and that most of us need to have little and big conversions each day, turning back toward God.

--- --- ---

On the Net:

"Women of Opus Dei: In Their Own Words":

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Young Women Participate in Service in the City - Boston 2009

The Joy of Giving to Those Who Cannot Give Back

August, 27, 2009

In Social Initiatives of the Opus Dei website

While summer is synonymous with TV reruns and midnight burritos for many high school students, fourteen girls from around the US gathered in Boston this summer to spend part of their vacation in service. Service in the City is a program for high school women that engages them in community service opportunities around the city, and teaches that true citizenship starts in everyday life among family and friends.

This year the girls spent many hours every day volunteering at different charitable organizations: playing with children at the Salvation Army day care; performing a talent show at the Vernon Hall nursing home in Cambridge; compiling clothing packages at Cradles to Crayons, an organization in North Quincy dedicated to providing children with the necessary items they need to flourish. After a full day around Boston, the high school girls returned to the residence in Back Bay for workshops on topics like human dignity, moral personality, identity and freedom.

When asked for the themes they thought inspired Service in the City, the participants volunteered: Love. Friendship. Perseverance. Service. Dignity. Respect. As one explained, “Service is not only work, but also the way you interact with the people you are working for.”

Service in the City is sponsored by Bayridge Residence, a student residence for young women in Boston’s Back Bay and a corporate apostolate of Opus Dei. Bayridge residents Emily Austin, a doctoral student at Boston University, and Helen Keefe, an undergraduate at Harvard, organized and led this year’s program.

“The goal is that these girls go back home with a greater sense of love and responsibility for those around them, manifested in little deeds of service,” said Emily, director of Service in the City. “I know we’re succeeding when one girl tells me that after her experience washing dishes at Rosie’s Place, a resource center for homeless women in Roxbury, she wants to work on not complaining at home when it’s her turn to do the dishes.”

More on the Movie on St. Josemaria

Filming starts on biography of Opus Dei founder Print E-mail

By Mark Pattison - Catholic News Service

Friday, 28 August 2009

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Filming has begun in Argentina on a biography of St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, the founder of Opus Dei. The movie, "There Be Dragons," is expected to be released in the summer or fall of 2010.

Directing the film is Roland Joffe, whose past films include "The Mission" and "The Killing Fields."

Joffe, who also wrote the screenplay, said he was not told what to write or how to present either the saint or the group, a personal prelature within the church, after earlier rejecting an offer to film a script provided by Opus Dei.

The film is set at the time of the Spanish Civil War, which tore apart the European nation during the second half of the 1930s.

And, likening it to his own creative freedom, Joffe said St. Josemaria "made no attempt to influence the people he worked with in terms of their politics." The director spoke at an Aug. 23 press conference in Argentina that was conducted in English, Spanish and Portuguese; U.S. reporters were allowed to listen in.

"At that time, that's pretty heroic. That's a time when almost all human beings were faced with making extraordinary choices," he said.

Charlie Cox, whose past film credits include "Stardust" and "Casanova," plays the priest. Wes Bentley, who had parts in "Ghost Rider" and "American Beauty," plays Manolo, a friend of Josemaria's who goes in and out of his life. Ukrainian actress Olga Kurylenko, who has acted in "Quantum of Solace," "Hitman" and "Max Payne," plays Ildiko, a Hungarian woman who casts her lot with the Republican movement, which falls to the Francisco Franco-led rightist rebels.

Other actors in "There Be Dragons" include Dougray Scott, Geraldine Chaplin, Derek Jacobi and Charles Dance.

"We found ourselves making a film about love -- human love and divine love. About hate -- which I guess is human -- about betrayal and mistakes," Joffe said. Further, "I don't know if there's anybody who wants to live his life without meaning. So it's also a story about people trying to find meaning about their lives, and that's a powerful kind of story."

Responding to a question about source material for the script, Joffe said, "I researched as much as any writer can. History is not available to us; attempts at history are available to us. As an artist, one takes a difficult step that fiction is a way of understanding the truth.

"There were certain liberties I could take if those liberties could take us to the personal issues that people felt," Joffe continued, saying he was taken with St. Josemaria's idea that "a way to God is found through everyday life. And that life is also found through the Spanish Civil War. That is still felt by Spaniards very much today."

"I've been to many Opus Dei centers, and met many Opus Dei members (in doing research for the movie). And I've yet to encounter anything odd-seeming," said Cox. "I've been brought up a Catholic. I'm not a great practicing Christian. I've been to church infrequently, but I've never stopped going."

Cox added there is "an inner journey I've been going on during this film. I don't know where it will lead. My relationship with the Catholic Church and with God has certainly been profoundly affected for the better throughout this process," he added.

Asked whether he thought St. Josemaria was really a saint, Cox answered, "It's an impossible question to answer. ... I have to leave that up to the Catholic Church and not to myself."

Joffe recalled that when he made "The Mission," which dealt with Jesuit missionary activity in South America at the time of the slave trade, he used two Jesuits as advisers: a "very, very right-wing Jesuit -- those things do exist -- and a left-wing Jesuit, Father Daniel Berrigan."

He said he asked Father John Wauck, an Opus Dei priest who is a professor of literature and communication of the faith at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, "whether he'd serve the same purpose as Daniel Berrigan -- explain to Charlie (Cox) what he knew about Josemaria ... in as open and honest way as he could, what it means to be a priest. That's what he gave up his rather precious time to do, and I'm grateful for it."

When one questioner asked whether he thought "There Be Dragons" was some kind of response to the movie "The Da Vinci Code," which characterized Opus Dei as a bizarre cult, Joffe replied, "Well, it'd be a very expensive response." The price tag of "There Be Dragons" is estimated at $30 million.

"'The Da Vinci Code' stands on its own legs, whatever they may be," he added. "I think they took a rather cliched view and created a character and said he came from Opus Dei, and that is a bit much. But it's a fine movie."

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Opus Dei to be in a movie again

August 22, 2009

Bringing a Saint’s Life to the Screen

The film director Roland Joffé, who has yet to regain the acclaim he won a generation ago for “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission,” is shooting a movie in Argentina focused on the founder of Opus Dei, an elite and powerful organization within the Roman Catholic Church.

The film, “There Be Dragons,” set during the Spanish Civil War, weaves fictional characters created by Mr. Joffé with the story of St. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, the Spaniard who founded Opus Dei and was canonized by the church.

The project was initiated by a member of Opus Dei, is partly produced and financed by the group’s members and has enlisted an Opus Dei priest to consult on the set. News of the project has set off criticism among some former Opus Dei members that the movie will be little more than propaganda for the organization. But Mr. Joffé, in the first interview he has given about the film, said that he had been given complete creative control and that Opus Dei never had any influence on the project.

He ditched the script he was originally given, he said, because he did not want to make what he called a “biopic” about Escrivá’s life. But, he added, he was intrigued by Escrivá’s ideas about the power of forgiveness and the capacity of every human being for sainthood. Opus Dei — the name is Latin for work of God — teaches that ordinary work can be a path to sanctity if the believer maintains a demanding regimen of religious practices intended to achieve holiness.

“I was very interested in the idea of embarking on a piece of work that took religion seriously on its own terms and didn’t play a game where one approached religion denying its validity,” Mr. Joffé said.

When pressed, he called himself a “wobbly agnostic” but added, “I do believe that rigid atheism is a rather intellectually short-sighted position.”

The Opus Dei members behind the project were delighted to enlist Mr. Joffé, whose reputation was that of a political leftist who made films that asked profound ethical questions.

In the 1980s Mr. Joffé was nominated for Academy Awards as best director for “The Killing Fields,” about the genocidal war in Cambodia, and “The Mission,” about Jesuit missionaries who try to defend a South American tribe from Portuguese slave traders. But his career has sputtered since, with movies like “The Scarlet Letter” and “Captivity,” a horror movie, earning him nominations for the Golden Raspberry Awards, which honor the worst of the film industry.

Mr. Joffé’s portrayal of Escrivá’s actions during the 1930s is likely to be provocative, especially in Europe. Some historians have accused Escrivá of collaborating with Franco. Mr. Joffé said he concluded after doing extensive research that Escrivá had been eager to avoid doing anything that would jeopardize the church’s position in Spain.

“Josemaría himself left Spain, and basically stayed out, and my sense is that he didn’t agree with and didn’t want to get involved in politics at the time,” he said.

Opus Dei has received tremendous publicity in recent years, most of it negative, from “The Da Vinci Code,” the 2003 novel by Dan Brown, and the 2006 movie based on the book. In both, Opus Dei, which claims more than 80,000 priest and lay members worldwide, is portrayed as a murderous cult whose members flog themselves with whips and wear barbed chains around their thighs.

Some members do practice what they call a mild form of “corporal mortification.” But what has made the group even more an object of suspicion is that some of its members do not readily identify themselves as such, and occupy influential positions in business, politics and other professions.

Heriberto Schoeffer, an independent film producer in Los Angeles and a member of Opus Dei, said he first conceived of a film dramatizing the life of Escrivá after reading a book about his escape over the Pyrenees during the Spanish Civil War. “All I wanted is for people to see a good side of him, because so many bad things are said about him and Opus Dei,” Mr. Schoeffer said.

With financing from a friend who is also an Opus Dei member, Mr. Schoeffer contracted a screenwriter, Barbara Nicolosi, a former nun and conservative Catholic who started a training program for Christians in Hollywood. She said in an interview that it took her two years, and three research trips to Spain, to write the script, an “Indiana Jones adventure story about a guy who was motivated by Jesus.”

Mr. Schoeffer said that he showed the script to Hugh Hudson, the director of “Chariots of Fire,” who thought the screenplay “smelled pro-Franco, so he didn’t want to do it,” and then brought it to Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Mexican director whose films include “Babel” and “21 Grams,” who found it too complicated.

Mr. Joffé also turned it down initially, but he said he reconsidered after he saw video of Escrivá answering a question from a Jewish girl who wanted to convert to Catholicism. Escrivá told her that she should not convert, because it would be disrespectful to her parents. “I thought this was so open-minded,” Mr. Joffé said.

In writing the new script, Mr. Joffé came up with a convoluted plot in which a young journalist discovers that his estranged father has a long-buried connection to Escrivá.

To perform research, Mr. Joffé traveled to South America, Spain and Italy. Mr. Schoeffer, who has since left the project, said they met in Rome with two prominent members of Opus Dei: Joaquín Navarro-Valls, who was the Vatican spokesman under Pope John Paul II, and the Rev. John Wauck, a priest who is a professor of literature and communication of the faith at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, in Rome. (Father Wauck is now the on-set adviser).

The British actor Charlie Cox (“Stardust”) plays Escrivá, and Wes Bentley (“American Beauty”) plays the journalist’s father. The ensemble cast also includesDerek Jacobi and Geraldine Chaplin.

The financing of about $30 million came from about 100 investors, and raising it was a struggle, said Ignacio G. Sancha, the lead producer, a Spanish financier and lawyer who is also a member of Opus Dei.

The film’s backers are not avoiding controversy, and may even be anticipating it. They have hired Paul Lauer, the publicist for Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” another religious epic with a no-name cast and a big-name director, which cashed in on all the attention it generated.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Inside Opus Dei's world headquarters

El Padre

Inside Opus Dei's world headquarters

By Dr. Robert Moynihan, reporting from Rome

In 2006, when The Da Vinci Code was released as a film, some high Church officials strongly objected to it because it was based on the idea that Jesus married and fathered children and because it depicted Opus Dei, a recognized Prelature within the Catholic Church, as a murderous cult.

.Angels & Demons, which came out this spring and also features the Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (played by actor Tom Hanks, photo) and is about Langdon's attempt to help the Holy See thwart a plot by the Illuminati, an ancient secret brotherhood, to kill four cardinals and bomb the Vatican as a new Pope is being elected.

This spring, the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, said in a review that Angels & Demons was historically inaccurate and filled with stereotypes, but the paper concluded it was "harmless" entertainment and not a danger to the Church. (The newspaper also praised director Ron Howard's "dynamic direction" and the "magnificent" reconstruction of locations like St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. Much of the film was shot on sets that painstakingly recreated Church landmarks....). To read, click here.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Mel Gibson, Marriage, Divorce and Christ

Torn Asunder: Divorced from His message, National Review (Online), April 24, 2009

Mel and Robyn Gibson's recently announced divorce proceedings set the gossip and entertainment pages abuzz. Many wondered how Mel Gibson, the producer of The Passion of the Christ and a professed Catholic (although the church he reportedly attends near Los Angeles is not recognized by the Catholic Church), would reconcile his divorce with his beliefs, which hold that divorce is wrong.Divorce among Catholics is not new, and divorce among movie stars is de rigueur.

What makes the Gibsons' story striking is that they had been able to buck the divorce epidemic for the past 28 years and raise seven children together. Their large family, the length of their marriage, and their apparent determination to live by the teachings of the Catholic Church in the Hollywood stratosphere make them an anomaly. Indeed, even as people try to paint Mel as a hypocrite, many describe the Gibson marriage as extraordinary for its endurance; some even describe it as a success. But if Mel and Robyn truly have been trying to live by the teachings of the Catholic faith, a divorce cannot and never will mean success.

Catholic teachings on marriage are rooted in several things Jesus said, including:

"From the beginning of creation, 'God made man male and female.' For this reason a man may leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and two shall become one. So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder." Mark 10:6-9

'"Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery." Luke 16:18

These unequivocal pronouncements stunned Jesus' disciples. "The disciples said to Him, 'If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.' " Matthew 19:10.

The early Church's emphasis on Christian marriage echoed what Jesus taught and played a key role in the spread of Christianity, according to renowned religion sociologist (and agnostic) Rodney Stark. In his best-selling book, The Rise of Christianity, Stark argues that Christianity's rapid expansion in the first few centuries A.D. had a lot to do with the countercultural mores of the early Christians regarding marriage, sexual ethics, and the value of human life. Drawing on a variety of historical resources, Stark describes the Mediterranean world at the time of Christ as a society in which promiscuity, prostitution, bisexuality, homosexuality, birth control, infanticide, and abortion were widely practiced and sanctioned. Moreover, a preference for sons at that time led to female infanticide. Marital infidelity was common - when men would acquiesce to marry at all.

According to Stark, the early Church especially attracted female converts precisely because its teachings emphasized the importance of marriage, family, marital fidelity, and chastity, and forbade divorce, artificial birth control (already practiced then), abortion, and infanticide - all practices that objectified the women of those times, making them second-class citizens. Stark argues that early Christian women enjoyed tremendous status, respect, and an improved quality of life compared with their contemporaries. Not surprisingly, Christian families soon began to outpace their counterparts in terms of progeny, and thus proceeded to expand their presence (and values) demographically.

On a practical level, if the Gibsons do divorce, Robyn, as a single mother of the Gibson children, will have few financial concerns other than the difficulties of managing a few hundred million dollars. But their situation is not the norm. Many women and children - and sometimes men - are much more vulnerable to harsh economic consequences and a lower quality of life after divorce. Also, research has shown that children of divorce frequently encounter emotional and educational setbacks.

The Catholic Church teaches that spouses can - and sometimes should - separate in cases of physical and emotional abuse, but, in the eyes of God, the marriage itself remains indissoluble. Its meaning is rooted in God's fidelity to his covenant, especially Christ's permanent union with His Church. Only God can judge the hearts of those facing difficult marital situations, but if we take Him at His word, quitting is not really an option.

- Marie T. Oates is a communications consultant and the lead editor of the book Women of Opus Dei: In Their Own Words (Crossroad Publishing, April 2009)