SANTA FE, Argentina – Although most have never heard of her, Isabel Sanchez, a 50-year old Spaniard, is arguably one of the most powerful women in the Church.
She is the head of the Central Advisory Council of Opus Dei, the Church’s only “personal prelature.”
Sanchez says being called one of the most “powerful women in the Church” is a “marketing definition,” but still not necessarily untrue: “I am in a position with decision-making capacity in a body of the Church.”
However, she defines her role as one of “service,” and has issued an invitation to “de-clericalize” the role of leadership in the Church.
Opus Dei – usually called “The Work” by its members – is organized with a prelate, the primary governing authority, at the top, assisted by two councils: The General Council made up of men and the Central Advisory Council made up of women.
When a new prelate is elected – today it is Monsignor Fernando Ocariz, a Spaniard – the terna of candidates is presented by the Central Advisory Council. The women don’t actually vote in the process, but they do have a role in the process.
Sanchez is a numerary, meaning a lay member of Opus Dei who has promised not to marry, dedicating instead her whole life to evangelization. A lawyer, she’s been in Rome for two decades, and heading the Central Advisory since 2010, leading the more than 50,000 women from 70 countries who are members of Opus Dei.
Days after the presentation of her first book, Compass Women in a Forest of Challenges, currently available in Spanish, she spoke with Crux via Zoom about what it means to be a woman in a position of leadership in the Church; the challenges facing the world in the post-COVID-19 era; and the 80 “compass women” she presents in her book, whom she’s had the opportunity to meet during her trips to more than 50 countries.
Crux: Who is Isabel Sanchez?
Sachez: She is a Spaniard from Murcia, who has been living in Rome for 20 years, who for 10 years has directed this council of Opus Dei women, and who, at the age of 50, had the chance to write her first book, at the initiative of a Spanish publishing house.
You direct the central consultancy of the Work. You’re often defined as one of the highest-ranking lay women in the Church. Do you agree?
I think it is a marketing a definition, but still true. I am in a position with decision-making capacity in a body of the Church, where a prelate shares his government with lay men and women.
But, as in any relevant position within the Church, it is a service position that does not give rise to headlines. With great pride I can say that my position is about serving and promoting the growth of people so that they can do a lot of good around them.
When you entered the Work, did you expect to get to a position like this?
I had hoped to be who I am: A citizen of the world, interested in those around her and the challenges facing the world, and contributing whenever I could. What I did not expect was for the “wherever I could” was going to be on the advisory board of an ecclesiastical body.
Today it is very much in vogue to speak of women in positions of power or of empowered women. Having a position of leadership within the Church, something many women aspire to have, do you feel it gives you tools or opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise have?
I believe that any position is an opportunity to serve and do good. But the truth is that the role I have is very enriching, because it gives me the opportunity to be at the service of people from all continents, who come from very varied professional and social fields, which otherwise might not have happened to me.
Being in Rome, all those global realms are yours too, and you see life from perspectives that you would not have been able to otherwise.
Rome gives one a unique opportunity to experience the universality of the Church. How important would it be for the Catholics from around the globe to somehow experience that universality, to understand the realities of others?
That is the most enriching part of my job: To be able to think and make decisions knowing the perception of people who have very different contexts, live in situations very different to mine. This is something that I try to think when I communicate too: Who is my interlocutor, what are their needs or challenges?
Pope Francis speaks of spiritual accompaniment as a charism of the laity. Do you agree?
It seems to me that it is in fact a response to clericalism. In the Work there is a great tradition of spiritual accompaniment on the part of the laity, and I think lay people have a lot to offer. A Christian — anyone — by their baptism, can reach an enormous intimacy with Jesus Christ and thus guide others.
The title of your book speaks of compass women in a world of challenges. What are those challenges, and what does it mean to be a “compass woman”?
I chose a few challenges out of the many there are, but it seems to me that they are the most transversal, shareable with everyone, and in turn, in most need of our attention today: Education, peace, work, caring for people, leadership, solidarity, sustainability, transcending — wanting to make the world in which we live a better one, but at the same time, aspiring to the other world that awaits us, that openness to God.
I found these to be very interesting challenges that arose from news articles, reports, the cinema, literature, but also from the hearts of the women I know best: My family, my friends — what is in their heart, that keeps them awake at night, what worries them.
As to who are these compass women: To me, they are people who have been able to do something great, each one from their place. And the greatest thing they have done is to improve themselves, to become better people. I am convinced that if we want to make the world a better place, the battle begins in our own heart, in growing inside, in becoming a person with solid convictions, committed to justice, and with the moral strength to live according to their belief while being able to speak with those who think differently or who have other perspectives.
Part of the economic profit from the book will go to the training of women in Africa. Why specifically African women?
Part of the profit will go to scholarships for African women, because, having seen the world, it seems to me that Africa has a spectacular human potential, but it needs resources to develop it. The project I chose is being carried out by a Spanish NGO, Harambee, that had planned on giving 100 grants for African women in the next 10 years. This was a very concrete project that was already up and running, that brought together three of my dreams: Women, Africa and science.
In the first chapter, you begin by talking about the “childish pride” you feel for having been born in the year in which man landed on the moon. Projecting into the future, what would you say to people who were born in 2020?
The year of the pandemic? I would tell them that the inner wealth they have is the realization that we are all vulnerable. In this culture that we had created of perfection, where the weak are discarded or thrown away, those born this year will know that not everything in life is accessible to us through a click.
Some of the challenges of the future will be solidarity, knowing that we are interdependent beings, in need of others, and that, despite living in a world full of limitations, we can still be happy. This year has proven that we don’t have to build a world of perfection where we can discard those who have a flaw.
So, if we are conscious of our vulnerability when building a post-pandemic society, I believe we’ll be able to focus on caring for others, on building relationships, on forgiveness. And we’ll make the world much more human, full of mercy and full of this great thing that is gratuity.
The message you transmit is very aligned with that of Pope Francis. However, many within the Church have a notion that the Work and this pope do not get along. Do you agree?
The Work gets along very well with any pope, because we see in him Peter, that is, the Vicar of Jesus Christ, and to that we must be attached, because otherwise we will not go forward as a Church.
Beyond that, what you say is true: There may be people, within the Work, as there are in the whole Church, who empathize more or less with Pope Francis, and that is legitimate. That they empathize – or not – with his way of speaking, with his way of facing certain things, and that is very good.
Personally, I have been very inspired by him when I wrote the book. I have used many of his phrases because they seem very communicative and relatable to me.
When the pope was in Paraguay, he said that he would give the Paraguayan woman the Nobel Peace Prize. If someone asked Isabel Sánchez who deserves the Nobel Peace Prize, who would you give it to and why?
I have not thought about it … but I think that a pope like Francis would deserve a Nobel Peace Prize. He is sowing wishes for peace at all levels: International peace, social peace and also inner peace. I don’t know if that is what those who give the award are looking for, but he is a very clear agent of peace.
And if you don’t have inner peace, you can’t give it or spread it.
Today there is much talk about the “new reality” or the post-pandemic world. How do you imagine the role of Christians in this unique opportunity to do things in a different way?
I imagine the next years will be complicated and painful. But in this new “order” I imagine the role of Christians as committed to their time, to their world. We cannot stay on the sidelines, we too have to be constructors, hand in hand with others.
I suggest that the new name for charity may be “social commitment:” Loving more of the world in front of us, learning to work with others who do not think like us. If we have not yet learned to walk with others who think differently, I think we will have to do it, because it will be important.
And I imagine the role of Christians as sowers of hope. Because a Christian knows that they have a God who is a father, who cares for them, who waits for them. And Christians are good at presenting a context of positivity, because we know that, in the end, things will be well. This hope of humanity in a God who will help us is something important for us to share.
And finally, the scenario of friendship as a social value. Knowing each other well, being real friends to those around us, building a strong social fabric, with more lasting relationships that can help mend wounds. Hopefully, we’ll be able to contribute with homes, families and friendships that help mend wounds.
How do you explain Opus Dei to someone who knows little about it, or who only knows what Dan Brown wrote in The Da Vinci Code?
I believe I tried to explain in the introduction of the book what the Work is: A Christian organization within the Church, that tries to promote among many people to do good around them, trying to make others understand that more God in your life does not mean less of us. God is not a “spoilsport” here, he’s not here to annoy us. On the contrary, he’s everything for us: He’s the father, the origin and the destination. He’s who gives our life a meaning and an inheritance. Inspiring others to include God in their lives is a good part of the work of Opus Dei members.
In some interviews that you have recently done, it’s been argued that what you say is “too controversial” for the hierarchy of the Work, and that they’ve tried to limit what you say. Is this true?
That they’ve limited me? Not at all! I have felt a lot of freedom, both when I was writing the book and in the interviews I give.
I have always made it very clear that I speak in my own name — and the truth is, I love that there are people who think differently. I think that this diversity is something very rich, and shows the plurality that you find in the Work, much like you fund in the world.
Some of the “controversies” might have more to do with headlines, or people reacting to them without reading the article in full. But, regardless of that, I love the fact that on issues that are debatable, not everyone thinks the same.
But to answer your question, no, no one has tried to control me. In fact, I asked the prelate if he had any comments on the interviews I’ve given so far, and he simply told me to continue speaking freely.
What does Isabel Sánchez think about some of these “controversial” issues, such as, for example, the ordination of women to the priesthood?
I think what the Church thinks. It seems to me that to value women in the Church we do not have to look for them to be at the altar, or in “shocking” roles in the institutional Church: It’s about what they do on the street, in the world where we live, transforming society for the better, and being innovative at it.
Of course, we deserve many women theologians, women recognized as saints and in parish councils and other places where, until now, only priests have worked, even though these positions do not correspond to their ministry.
But I think we need to de-clericalize things a bit.
Most of this interview aimed at making you speak about women in the Church and Opus Dei, as they are topics “obvious” to ask you about. But, if you could choose any topic where you think you have something relevant to say based on your experience and knowledge, what would you chose?
In a way, it’s what talk about about in the book: The need to build a society of care. We are at a crossroads: Either we go to a society of “throwaway,” or to a society of care, where the person comes first, where we commit ourselves to life, in whatever way it comes, no matter its state. A society where we make others visible. And I believe that women have a lot to contribute in a society that is nurturing, where we can be compasses.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma