Breaking the Opus Dei Code
The Secretive Catholic Group’s Name Means ‘Work Of God,’ But In Washington, D.C., That Divine Task Has A Decidedly Political Bent
From the outside, the non-descript bookstore at 15th and K Streets in the heart of Washington, D.C., looks like any other shop selling religious literature and goods.
A small sign in the window reads “Catholic Information Center.” Visitors are advised that mass and confession are offered daily. Inside, one can pick up titles like How to Raise Good Catholic Children, Celibacy in the Early Church and A Catholic Homeschool Treasury.
But off in one corner is a special section of books dealing with the life and philosophy of Roman Catholic priest (turned saint) Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer and the controversial organization he founded: Opus Dei.
Far from being just another religious bookstore, the Catholic Information Center is, in fact, a prominent American outpost for Opus Dei, an organization much in the news lately. The center, within walking distance of the White House, serves as a rallying point for ultra-conservative Catholics eager for a voice in the secular halls of government power.
Opus Dei, Latin for “work of God,” has, according to media reports, at least 3,000 members in the United States but its influence, critics say, has been more substantial than its numbers would indicate. In 2002, an Opus Dei priest, the Rev. C. John McCloskey III, former director of the Catholic Information Center, converted U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) from evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism. Brownback’s conversion was shepherded by U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a conservative Catholic and Opus Dei booster.
Long the scourge of progressive Catholics, Opus Dei, with an estimated 80,000 members worldwide, has enjoyed a close relationship with the church’s conservative hierarchy, serving, as one writer put it in the mid 1980s, as a “holy mafia” to promote far-right views on “culture war” issues.
The organization has long had its own order of priests, and in 1982, Pope John Paul II granted Opus Dei special status known as a “personal prelature.” That means the group is overseen by its own bishop, who reports directly to the pope. Opus Dei is the only organization to enjoy such unique privileges.
For many years, Opus Dei remained secretive and mysterious. Rumors swirled that some members engaged in strange rituals, such as “mortification of the flesh” by wearing a cilice, a small, spiked chain worn around the thigh that pricks the skin. The group was accused of targeting impressionable college students and restricting their access to family members. Some critics labeled Opus Dei a cult.
Although these charges frequently resurface, it’s the group’s ties to reactionary politics and ultra-orthodox forms of Catholicism that generate most interest these days. Under the conservative papacy of John Paul II and his successor, Benedict XVI, Opus Dei is seen as an increasingly powerful organization dedicated to fending off liberalism in the church and advancing a hard-right political agenda.
The group’s reticence to discuss its beliefs and operations only added to the sense of mystery. A few years ago, things began to change and Opus Dei was forced a little more into the open by a most unlikely source: a best-selling novelist.
Writer Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has sold 15 million copies worldwide. The fictional mystery/thriller deals with a centuries-old plot to cover up inconvenient revelations about the origins of the Catholic Church and a frenzied search for the Holy Grail. Opus Dei figures in the book, and one of the characters is a crazed Opus Dei monk who, in order to preserve the church cover-up, murders four people.
Although the book is fictional, Brown has insisted that it is based in part on real historical events, and many readers have apparently taken that to heart. Amazon.com lists several titles purporting to tell the “real” story behind the code. With a film adaptation of the book due out this month, interest in Opus Dei is likely to increase.
In New York City, the American headquarters of Opus Dei, officials of the organization are trying to turn the publicity to their advantage.
“We want to use the current public interest to talk about the reality of Christianity, the Catholic Church and Opus Dei,” Brian Finnerty, Opus Dei’s American spokesman, told O’Dwyer’s PR Services Report, a trade journal.
Finnerty said Opus Dei officials recently agreed to sit for interviews with “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America,” “Meet the Press” and “Hardball with Chris Matthews.” Reporters are also being allowed to tour its New York headquarters.
A public-relations blitz is probably necessary, because Opus Dei clearly has an image problem. One of its prominent critics, Dianne DiNicola, runs the Opus Dei Awareness Network (www.odan.org) from Massachusetts. DiNicola was moved to begin investigating the group after her daughter joined while a student at Boston College in the late 1980s.
DiNicola accused the organization of urging her daughter to break off contact with her family, a charge Opus Dei officials firmly denied. Tammy DiNicola later left Opus Dei, saying it caused her to “shut down” all of her emotions.
Some of Opus Dei’s problems stem from its devotion to secrecy. In 1995, the Rev. James Martin, a Catholic priest, wrote a seminal piece on Opus Dei for the Jesuit magazine America. Although Martin found much of value in Opus Dei, he was clearly frustrated by his inability to obtain a copy of its governing constitutions a request that seemed non-controversial. An Opus Dei staffer gave the documents to Martin, but they were in an obtuse form of church Latin. He would not provide English translations.
When Martin pressed the issue, the staffer would only say, “The document belongs to the Holy See, and the Holy See does not want it translated. I’m sure there’s a reason.”
Martin found examples of secrecy in other contexts. He interviewed two priests (who asked to remain anonymous) who were involved with Opus Dei while studying at Princeton University in the mid-1980s. While working at a campus ministry, the priests came into conflict with an Opus Dei prelate.
One of the priests told Martin, “Opus Dei was rather defensive about being secretive. They’d say, ‘No, we tell it like it is.’ And, yes, they’d answer your questions, but it was like peeling away an onion. But if you didn’t ask the right question to peel away the next layer you simply weren’t told. You just never had the full picture. And I suppose it wouldn’t have been so annoying if they hadn’t been saying all the time how open they were.”
Ann Schweninger, a former Opus Dei member, told Martin, “Opus Dei plays by its own rules. If they don’t want to have something out in the open, they won’t make it accessible.”
Schweninger added that during her time with Opus Dei, members could not even read the group’s official catechism without the permission of a higher up.
“It’s kept under lock and key,” she said.
Opus Dei does not publish a directory of members but is known for its interest in targeting the rich and powerful. Over the years, rumors have surfaced that certain high-profile Catholics might be members. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito have been fingered as possibilities. There is no proof in either case, but Newsweek magazine reported in 2001 that Scalia’s wife has attended functions at the Catholic Information Center, and his son Paul, a Catholic priest, has spoken there.
Santorum is also pegged as a possible member. In 2002, Santorum attended an Opus Dei event in Rome, during which he attacked President John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 endorsement of church-state separation. Santorum said the Kennedy vow not to enforce Catholic doctrine through civil law has caused “much harm in America” and went on to describe President George W. Bush, a Methodist, as the nation’s first true Catholic president.
“From economic issues focusing on the poor and social justice, to issues of human life, George Bush is there,” Santorum told the National Catholic Reporter. He has every right to say, ‘I’m where you are if you’re a believing Catholic.'”
Further adding to the mystery, Opus Dei employs terms that sound odd to non-Catholics and even many church members who have never encountered them before. “Numeraries” are unmarried members who pledge a vow of celibacy and normally live in centers with other members. Numeraries work at secular jobs but turn their salaries over to Opus Dei and receive a stipend for living expenses. Male numeraries are often encouraged to enter the priesthood.
“Supernumeraries” are married members who support Opus Dei mainly through financial contributions. “Associates” are single members who do not live in Opus Dei centers. “Cooperators” are not full-fledged members but support Opus Dei financially and pray for its success.
The most lurid tales about Opus Dei focus on numeraries and some of the more exotic features of their daily routine. Much of what they do is non-controversial. For example, numeraries attend mass every day and set aside time for private prayer.
But some engage in mortification of the flesh essentially, inflicting discomfort on themselves. (Some Opus Dei critics assert that all numeraries engage in mortification for two hours daily.) On its Web site, www.opusdei.org, Opus Dei insists that for most members, the practice consists of “small physical mortifications occasionally, such as giving up certain items of food or drink” or sleeping on the floor.
But the site goes on to note, “Within this spirit, numeraries and associates (celibate members) sometimes practice traditional Catholic penances such as using the cilice and discipline.” (“Discipline” is a corded whip some members use to strike themselves on the back and buttocks. Escriva used both and practiced other forms of mortification, such as sitting in a special chair that put him in an uncomfortable posture where his feet could not touch the floor. He also often denied himself water and gave up salt and sugar.)
Continues the site, “These are practices that Catholics have used for centuries and are commonplace in the lives of the saints, for example: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas More, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Padre Pio and Blessed Mother Teresa.”
Practices like these were once common in Catholic orders during the Middle Ages but faded away as the church entered the modern era. Their reemergence today has led some critics to liken Opus Dei to a medieval movement that seeks to oppose liberalism and modernity in the church.
Opus Dei’s Washington operative McCloskey is certainly no fan of progressive movements within Catholicism. He once opined, “A liberal Catholic is oxymoronic. The definition of a person who disagrees with what the Catholic Church is teaching is called a Protestant.”
McCloskey, who is now a research fellow at the Faith & Reason Institute for the Study of Religion and Culture in Washington, D.C., spends a good deal of his time penning columns lamenting secular government and opposing dissent from church teachings.
Bemoaning the decline of Christianity in Europe in a 2005 column, McCloskey wrote, “Here in America, the increasing chasm between alternative worldviews evidenced by the election of November 2000 and the bitter battles over the confirmation of federal judges shows our need to learn from Europe’s lesson. Whatever the outcome, the United States is at most only decades away from taking a decisive turn one way or another either becoming a largely Christian nation, in keeping with our origins, or following Europe into a radical secularism on its way to obsolescence, overwhelmed by demographic shrinking and immigration.”
In a May 2004 column, McCloskey wrote, “As the sole remaining world power today, America’s influence is enormous, for good or evil. I believe that either America will become a largely Catholic country in the course of this century or America may well cease to be (at least in the form we now know)….”
McCloskey also celebrates the trend of church-going Catholics to closely identify with the GOP. In a column published earlier this year, he wrote, “Since the 1960s, there has been a clear shift towards the Republican party and away from the Democratic party by Catholic voters. When the polls differentiate between church-going and non-church-going Catholics, Republicans dominate by a wider margin among the church-going, and Democrats among the non-church-going.
“I would extrapolate,” he continued, “that the more orthodox in belief and regular in church attendance the Catholic American, the more likely he is to vote for Republicans, whose national platform, particularly on non-negotiable matters such as abortion, homosexual marriage, and embryonic experimentation, is more in sync with the Church’s teachings.”
In a Catholic World Report essay published in 2000, McCloskey outlines a futurist fantasy with chilling religious and political implications. Supposedly written in the year 2030 by “Father Charles” (McCloskey’s rarely used first name), it alludes to a brutal 21st-century persecution of the Catholic Church in America that results in “tens of thousands of martyrs.” This intense cultural conflict ultimately leads to the breakup of the country into the “Regional States of North America” after a “short and relatively bloodless” civil war.
Some states “worship at the altar of the ‘culture of death,'” says Father Charles, while others adopt Christianity as a governing principle. It’s the red states/blue states divide carried to the ultimate extreme.
While the prospect of religious persecution and civil war may sound horrific to most Americans, McCloskey sees a bright side.
“The outcome was by no means an ideal solution,” observes his fictional priest, “but it does allow Christians to live in states that recognize the natural law and divine Revelation, the right of free practice of religion, and laws on marriage, family and life that reflect the primacy of our Faith.”
In the essay, McCloskey foresees a smaller Catholic Church in the future, but he predicts that it will be much more obedient and will include “hundreds of thousands of Evangelical Protestants” who convert to Catholicism. (Other faiths will be targeted for proselytism as well; “We will convert those Moslems yet,” his fictional priest adds exultantly.)
Perhaps to help cement their bonds to the GOP, Opus Dei and other ultra-orthodox Catholic groups began sponsoring a “National Catholic Prayer Breakfast” in Washington in 2004. The annual event is essentially a feast for the Catholic right and features Republican Party operatives and elected officials. Bush spoke at the 2005 breakfast and appeared at this year’s gathering as well. (McCloskey served on the board of advisors for the inaugural breakfast.)
Religion News Service reported that at the 2004 event, only one Democratic lawmaker attended and noted its heavy partisan feel, writing, “At times it seemed the only thing missing was a Republican elephant.”
In Washington, Opus Dei relies on influential senators like Santorum and Brownback to advance its agenda. The two are known for frequently pushing “culture war” issues, including ardent opposition to abortion and gay rights and the promotion of “intelligent design” in public school science classes.
Since Brownback’s conversion, he has become even more vocal on social issues. A recent Rolling Stone profile titled “God’s Senator” notes that the Kansas Republican is co-sponsoring legislation called the Constitution Restoration Act.
Labeling the measure Brownback’s “most bluntly theocratic effort,” Rolling Stone described the bill like this: “If passed, it will strip the Supreme Court of the ability to even hear cases in which citizens protest faith-based abuses of power. Say the mayor of your town decides to declare Jesus lord and fire anyone who refuses to do so; or the principal of your local high school decides to read a fundamentalist prayer over the PA every morning; or the president declares the United States a Christian nation. Under the Constitution Restoration Act, that’ll all be just fine.”
McCloskey and other Opus Dei leaders deny any political agenda. They note that Escriva founded the group on Oct. 2, 1928, after what he said was a command from God. The son of a Spanish textile merchant was on a spiritual retreat at the time and claimed that God ordered him to establish the organization and to limit it to men only. Two years later, Escriva said, he received a revelation from God to open the group to women.
In 1946, Escriva moved to Rome and began traveling throughout Europe to spread the message of Opus Dei. Four years later, Pope Pius XII officially recognized the group.
Escriva died on June 26, 1975. In 1992, he was beatified, the first step to sainthood. His official canonization as a saint occurred on Oct, 2, 2002, during a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square in Rome attended by thousands of devotees.
Yet there has always been another side to Opus Dei. Escriva’s critics were less than pleased with his fast-track to sainthood, noting that in 1958, Escriva had written a fawning letter to Francisco Franco, the fascist dictator of Spain, congratulating him for extending official recognition to the Catholic Church.
The May 28, 1953, missive reads, “Although alien to any political activity, I cannot help but rejoice as a priest and Spaniard that the Chief of State’s authoritative voice should proclaim that, ‘The Spanish nation considers it a badge of honor to accept the law of God according to the one and true doctrine of the Holy Catholic Church, inseparable faith of the national conscience which will inspire its legislation.'”
The letter asks God to bestow on Franco “abundant grace to carry out the grave mission entrusted to you.”
Opus Dei members subsequently ingratiated themselves into important positions in the repressive Franco government. Alberto Moncada, a Spanish journalist who has researched the period, says Opus Dei operatives were entrusted with turning around Spain’s anemic post-war economy, but the effort collapsed after numerous scandals.
The group also flourished under dictatorships in Chile and Argentina during the 1950s and ’60s.
Opus Dei first appeared in the United States in 1949. Growth was initially slow, but its presence in the country today is far-reaching. Opus Dei runs 60 centers in 19 cities, among them Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and San Francisco.
The group runs Lexington College in Chicago, a women’s institute that offers degrees in the culinary arts, event planning and hotel hospitality. (The school’s emphasis on the domestic arts may reflect Opus Dei beliefs about women. At Opus Dei centers, women are usually tasked with cooking and cleaning; the organization does not encourage women to take leadership roles.)
In addition, Opus Dei runs five secondary schools, two near Washington, two in the Chicago area and one in Boston.
In the nation’s capital, the Catholic Information Center, now directed by the Rev. William H. Stetson, an Opus Dei priest ordained in 1962, serves as a clearinghouse for the Catholic far right and a bridge to the mostly fundamentalist Protestant Religious Right. Prominent Catholic thinkers often appear at the center. It has recently hosted Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute and the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, a journal that frequently attacks church-state separation.
Also appearing at the center last month was Bridget Maher, a Family Research Council analyst, who gave a talk titled “The Culture of Divorce and the Church.” Maher is perhaps best known for her extreme views on sex education. Last year, she opposed the use of a new vaccine to protect young women from the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes genital warts, arguing it would encourage promiscuity.
Globally, Opus Dei’s reach is significant. Harper’s magazine reported recently that the organization holds assets of $2.8 billion.
Wrote author Terry Eagleton, “[I]t runs fifteen universities, seven hospitals, eleven business schools, and a large number of primary, secondary, and technical schools. Assiduously courted by the late Pope John Paul II, it has become a formidable underground force for traditionalist values and political reaction within the Catholic Church.”
How far-reaching is Opus Dei’s political agenda? Officially, the group claims it does not have one. But critics like Eagleton assert that Opus Dei is by default linked to the far right, since its views on social issues are so reactionary. U.S. members, Eagleton writes, are “overwhelmingly conservative” and the “great majority” vote Republican.
More importantly, the group’s American arm, many of whose members are wealthy, influential and politically connected, promotes ultra-orthodox church views on matters of reproductive choice, human sexuality and “culture war” issues. (The group feels free to downplay the church’s more liberal positions on social justice and care for the poor.)
Frequently aligning with fundamentalist Protestants, far-right Catholics are an often-overlooked, but powerful, segment of the Religious Right. Their influence is felt nationally in battles to extend voucher subsidies to religious schools, block the funding of stem-cell research in Congress, persistent efforts to further restrict access to legal abortion or curb “right-to-die” statutes and laws that forbid federal funding of sex education programs if they so much as mention a condom.
In other policy areas, traditionalist Catholics take positions well beyond what even the Vatican holds. Several Vatican officials have recently spoken out against “intelligent design” creationism; many far-right Catholics back the idea.
Opus Dei’s political agenda is overlooked in the United States but is strongly felt in other parts of the world, says one progressive Catholic leader.
“The claim that Opus Dei is merely a humanitarian organization with no political agenda is simply not credible,” said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice. “While Opus Dei has been more circumspect politically in the U.S., its hand is all over European politics.”
Kissling notes that these overseas activities may provide a model for more American involvement by Opus Dei. In European nations, she notes, charities affiliated with Opus Dei often tap the public purse, a practice that could be emulated in the United States as “faith-based” initiatives continue to spread.
“Opus Dei frequently sponsors political meetings in the European parliament and seeks funding from governments for its charitable work, often incorporating charities that appear independent of Opus Dei,” Kissling said. “In the developing world, the number of Opus Dei members in government is noticeable, and their positions too often follow the agenda of the Vatican on critical health and social policy matters to be merely coincidental.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2006 edition of Church & State magazine, a publication of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.