.The Opus Dei - Latin for Work of God - has 76,800 members around the world, twice as many as the Jesuits at their peak. It commands wealth and influence. It enjoys the confidence of Pope John Paul II.
.But the Pope's plan to beatify the founder of the Opus Dei, a Spanish priest named Josemaria Escrivá de Balaguer, on May 17 in St. Peter's Square is driving a wedge between conservative and liberal Catholics.
.Many Catholics, particularly in Father Escrivá's homeland, Spain, oppose the beatification, which is the last step before canonization or sainthood.
.Within a few years, Father Escrivá could enter the select company of Spanish saints, along with Juan de la Cruz, Teresa de Avila and Ignacio de Loyola.
.His critics, however, say he was irascible, vain and intolerant, hardly a good example. They question the haste of the beatification process, one of the quickest on record. Father Escrivá died in 1975.
.The critics also decry what they call an intense personality cult surrounding the founder. They accuse the Opus Dei of being sectarian, a church within the church. And they say its members are brainwashed.
.The organization, which has its headquarters in Rome but half its members in Spain, does not directly reply to such criticism. Individual members, though, are quick to respond to negative comment. They accuse critics of using attacks on the organization to mount an indirect campaign against the conservative policies of the Pope.
.In Spain, Cardinal Vicente Enrique y Tarancon, the former primate, who helped lead the country into democracy, is among those who have criticized the haste to beatify Father Escrivá.
.All 16 parish priests in Palma, Majorca, de Mallorca petitioned for the beatification to be postponed. They said the Opus Dei has wrapped Father Escrivá's life in myths.
.In Germany, Austria and Switzerland, the nomination of bishops sympathetic to the Opus Dei has intensified division between liberal and conservative Catholics.
.Ninety-five percent of Opus Dei's members are laypersons, many of them in professions such as banking, teaching and journalism. Elite members, known as numeraries, vow poverty, chastity and obedience.
.The organization usually does not allow them to reveal their membership. Outsiders call this secrecy and deception. Opus Dei speaks of "discretion." The Jesuits are now regarded by the Pope's entourage as incorrigibly liberal. In contrast, the Opus Dei - founded in 1928 and forged in the Spanish Civil War - is theologically conservative, militant and obedient. Members believe that Father Escrivá was divinely inspired to create the organization. The Pope has given the Opus Dei the responsibility, once entrusted to the Jesuits, of winning former Communist lands for Catholicism. The organization also is strong in education.
.Before his election, the Pope prayed at Father Escrivá's tomb. In 1982, he gave the Opus Dei the status of personal prelature, meaning the organization reports directly to him - just as the Jesuits do - rather than coming under the authority of local bishops.
.The Opus Dei is believed to have played an important role in underpinning Vatican finances through its network of banking and investment contacts. The Pope's spokesman, Joaquín Navarro Vals, is an Opus Dei member.
.But nothing so illustrates the organization's ascendancy as the beatification, which has been supported by the group's worldwide financial and organizational resources.
.More than 100,000 Opus Dei members and sympathizers are expected to be there on May 17.
.But some who knew Father Escrivá well are avoiding the celebration. One, the Reverend Vladimir Feltzmann, now an assistant to Cardinal Basil Hume at Westminster, England, said Father Escrivá was sympathetic toward Hitler, and called the haste to beatify him a sign of "emotional immaturity." Miguel Fisac, an architect who worked with Father Escrivá in the early years of the organization, said he never heard him say a good word about anyone.
.Father Escrivá's former secretary, María del Carmen Tapia, asked in an interview with the Spanish magazine Tiempo why those who knew allegedly darker aspects of Father Escrivá's character were not invited to testify at the process leading up to the beatification. Most of the witnesses were Opus Dei members.
.The difference between the many hagiographies about Father Escrivá and the critical biographies, according to Luis Carandell, an author of one of the latter, is in the interpretation.
."To give an example," Mr. Carandell wrote recently, "Escrivá was an extremely irascible and choleric man. Some would describe this trait of character - which led him to insult his collaborators, kick the furniture and implacably persecute people who left the Opus - as a defect. But the official biographies speak of this defect as a virtue and adopt Escrivá's description of his 'holy anger.' "