Opus Dei's influence promotes a sainthood

Financial Times (London)/October 6, 2002
By Leslie Crawford

Madrid -- The Euros 480,000 (Pounds 302,000) campaign to canonise the founder of Opus Dei, the deeply conservative, secretive and powerful organisation within the Catholic Church, reached its climax yesterday when he was declared a saint by Pope John Paul II.

The canonisation of Monsignor Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer comes a mere 27 years after his death, an unusually brief interlude that indicates Opus Dei's financial clout and its influence within the Vatican. One member is Joaquin Navarro-Valls, a former bullfighter and a Spaniard like Escriva, is the Pope's official spokesman. Opus Dei, whose name means "Work of God", was founded in 1928 and is perhaps best known for providing Gen Francisco Franco with the economic blueprint that modernised Spain in the 1960s and 70s. Several members of the dictator's government belonged to Opus Dei, as did many bankers, businessmen, judges and academics who supported the regime.

But the order, which boasts some 80,000 lay members worldwide and 1,800 priests, is arguably even more influential today. In Spain, Opus Dei has enjoyed a revival since the election of a centre-right government six years ago. Several present and former members of Jose Maria Aznar's government, including Frederico Trillo, the defence minister, are close to Opus Dei.

Opus Dei followers are said to control some 150 companies in Spain: they are sometimes known as the "Holy Octopus" or the "Holy Mafia". After his accession in 1978, Pope John Paul II saw Opus Dei as a natural ally in his fight against liberation theology and liberal Catholicism.

Escriva preached a conservative line favoured by the Pope, including strictures against homosexuality and birth control, mixed with a strong, personal antipathy towards "Godless" Communism born from his experiences during the Spanish civil war.

Opus Dei has a strong presence in academia, such as the elite University of Navarre and its IESE business school in Barcelona. The professions in which it is strongest, particularly in Europe and South America, are the media, medicine, the judiciary, education, and, above all, high finance and politics.

"Opus Dei's strategy of influencing the influential explains the organisation's focus on recruitment of students, intellectuals, professionals, and the wealthy," said Gordon Urquhart, a writer on religious affairs. "It pursues the Vatican's agenda through the presence of its members in secular governments and institutions and through a vast array of academic, medical, and grassroots pursuits."

Books written by former members describe humiliating rituals such as forced confessions, the censorship of personal letters and reading material, and the encouragement of flagellation and self-mutilation.

Escriva's canonisation was controversial, like the organisation he founded.

Leftwing Spaniards think the Vatican should not be making saints out of collaborators of fascist regimes, while liberal Catholics remain suspicious of Opus Dei's power-building within the hierarchy.

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