The Vatican's Own Cult

Members of Opus Dei claim their organisation is concerned only with the spiritual well-being of its members. Critics, on the other hand, compare it to a Mafia shrouded in white. Robert Hutchison reports on the secretive organisation at the heart of the Catholic Church.

The Guardian (London)/September 10, 1997
By Robert Hutchison

Religion and politics have always been dangerous bedfellows. Christian fundamentalists have brought a backward looking, anti-scientific movement into US politics. The rise of militant Islamic parties has reintroduced theocratic notions that were thought to have died with the Dark Ages. But there is another, less publicised movement that has been quietly pushing at the doors of power on five continents. Opus Dei, the controversial organisation at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church, is seeking to recreate an alliance between the spiritual and secular worlds that was last attempted during the Renaissance - with catastrophic results.

In countries where it has a strong presence, Opus Dei labours silently and stealthily to align government policies with those of the Vatican. But its quest to introduce a neo-Renaissance to the Catholic world has so far produced mixed results.

Because they form a closed, disciplined group guided by an authoritarian ideology, Opus Dei strategists have been largely successful at the Vatican. Under John Paul II, the organisation has become the most dominant force in the Roman Curia, the body of 2,500 prelates and trusted lay people that governs the Catholic Church. Opus Dei's manoeuvrings evoke endless speculation in Rome, where getting on the wrong side of God's Work is not something to be lightly undertaken. But Opus Dei is a relative newcomer to the Vatican power structure. Founded in 1928 by Josemaria Escriva, the son of a bankrupt Aragonese mercer who found power and fame in the priesthood, Opus Dei's rise to influence and fortune has been nothing short of spectacular. As a socio-religious phenomenon, it was intricately bound up with the politics of Franco's Spain. Today, according to Annuario Pontificio (the Vatican yearbook), Opus Dei has 80,000 members around the world, of whom about 2,000 are priests.

As the Catholic Church's only floating diocese - known as a personal prelature - it is governed by a prelate-general, who holds the rank of bishop, and operates above and beyond the authority of local bishops. Said to be richer than many Third World states, Opus Dei publishes no financial statements, no membership lists, and it reports - once every five years - only to the Pope.

Although run from opulent headquarters in Rome's Parioli district, Opus Dei protests that it is 'poor' and does not possess the means of carrying out a political agenda. It claims that its only concern is the spiritual well-being of members. But this is highly deceptive, for the more one gets to know Opus Dei, the more one realises it is highly secretive and elitist. Its primary goal is to return the Catholic Church to the centre of society, as in medieval times.

That by itself may seem harmless enough, but Opus Dei possesses many of the characteristics of a dangerous sect. Members - there are basically two sorts: celibate and noncelibate - are subject to a secret initiation rite. Obedience is sworn to the prelate-general and 'other authorised persons of the prelature'. Once inducted, they must submit to what is known as the 'formative norms' - a manner of mind conditioning. These include reporting weekly to a 'director' who has a right of regard over all their activities, personal and professional. Confessing once a week to an Opus Dei priest is mandatory. Celibate oblates must regularly wear a cilis - a spiked thigh chain used by religious communities in the Middle Ages - and practice self-flagellation. Married members are encouraged to send their children to Opus Dei schools. The schools serve as recruitment centres.

Opus Dei has been accused of being a church within the Church. It has its own doctrine, which it claims was divinely inspired. Moreover, it is the only Roman Catholic organisation - other than the Church herself - that believes it was created by God.

Most sects practice the cult of the founder. In Opus Dei's case, it is determined to have Escriva, who died in 1975, declared a saint before the millennium. But a number of prominent Catholics have protested, claiming that canonisation would weaken the credibility of the Church. One of Spain's leading theologians, Juan Martin Velasco, remarked: 'We cannot portray as a model of Christian living someone who has served the power of the state and who used that power to launch his Opus, which he ran with obscure criteria - like a Mafia shrouded in white - not accepting the papal magisterium when it failed to coincide with his way of thinking'.

Such weighty protests have not moved John Paul II, whose views on Escriva's saintliness, and regard for Opus Dei in general, are well known. A few days before the first 1978 Conclave after the death of Pope Paul VI (which elected John Paul I, who died after only 33 days in office) the future pope paid a visit to the Villa Tevere headquarters and prayed at Escriva's tomb. After the death of the founder's successor, Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, in 1994, John Paul II returned to the prelatic church and knelt before the prelate-general's funeral bier. This bending of protocol - a pope only kneels before the earthly remains of a cardinal - was regarded by many as a sign of fidelity to the organisation that had done everything in its power to raise him to the papal throne.

In spite of opposition from Paul VI's closest adviser, Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, in November 1982 John Paul II elevated Opus Dei to the unique status of personal prelature. Benelli had died of a sudden heart attack the month before. Since then the papal household has increasingly come under Opus Dei's domination.

The Work and its allies control the papal purse strings and the Vatican, after years of piling up deficits, now runs at a profit. It is claimed that the papal secretary, Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz, is an Opus Dei associate. During papal travels, Dziwisz makes a point of exchanging the customary Opus Dei form of salutation with local members. Opus Dei Archbishop Julian Herranz, one of the most powerful members of the Roman Curia, is co-chairman of the Papal Council of Advisers. His two co-chairmen are strong Opus Dei supporters, one of them having given key testimony to the Roman tribunal investigating Escriva's saintliness. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, a celibate lay member, holds ministerial status in the papal entourage.

On the secular front, Opus Dei is well represented throughout Latin America, where it has penetrated all levels of government, the military, and the business and financial establishments. In Peru, for example, Opus Dei forged a coalition of business and banking leaders with high-ranking bureaucrats that gave its backing to President Alberto Fujimori. When Tupac Amaru rebels seized the Japanese embassy last December, creating the 126-day hostage crisis, Fujimori called upon Archbishop Juan Luis Cipriani, from the mountain diocese of Ayacucho, to mediate - over the head of the Archbishop of Lima, Cardinal Augusto Vargas Zamora, a Jesuit. Cipriani, one of seven Opus Dei bishops in Peru, is now favoured to succeed Cardinal Vargas, who is past the retirement age, as archbishop of Lima, which traditionally means promotion to the cardinalate.

Opus Dei's fortunes in Europe have been less certain. The exception is Spain, where its political influence regained considerable potency after last year's electoral victory of the conservative Jose Maria Aznar. A devout Catholic whose wife is close to Opus Dei, Prime Minister Aznar's government is laced with Opus Dei dignitaries.

Opus Dei's political ideology has changed little since the 1950s when two of its leading strategists, Rafael Calvo Serer, a former director of the Spanish Institute in London, and Florentino Perez -Embid, published their treatises on Opus Dei as a Catholic regenerator with worldwide reach.

They maintained that the emergence of a new Spain within the European Community presented a God-given opportunity to recreate a form of militant Catholicism initiated by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in the 16th century. Charles V was known as God's viceroy on earth. His imperial policies brought Spain to the height of her creative success, but they also aggravated the European rift between Catholics and Protestants and ended up bankrupting the empire. Nevertheless he placed on Peter's throne two popes of his choosing.

Calvo Serer and Perez-Embid reasoned that with galloping secularism overtaking the Western world, the only way to revitalise Christianity was to resume the Catholic crusade of Charles V - not this time with the resources of a single nation, but through a powerful and vital transnational Catholic movement, headed by Opus Dei. Like the Spanish empire of old, Opus Dei's new-look Holy League was to have large-spectrum antennae in Latin America and the United States.

Opus Dei's American influence blossomed during the Reagan administration. The prelature placed its agents inside the White House and recruited among the middle ranks of the Pentagon. Under Clinton, the situation is more ambiguous, with the exception of the FBI, whose director, Louis Freeh, is said to be a supernumerary (non-celibate) member. When asked for confirmation, Freeh declined to respond, having an FBI special agent reply in his stead. (The official FBI spokesman in Washington had never heard of Opus Dei.) 'While I cannot answer your specific questions, I do note that you have been 'informed' incorrectly,' John E Collingwood stated, without giving further details.

However it seems that Special Agent Collingwood was himself 'misinformed', as Opus Dei subsequently admitted that Freeh's brother, John, was indeed a celibate director of the Work's large centre in Pittsburgh.

In Belgium, France, Germany, and Italy, Opus Dei members are highly placed in the commercial and central banking sectors and within the government bureaucracy. Opus Dei was introduced to the Catholic aristocracy of Europe by former Queen Fabiola of Belgium, who is related through the House of Aragon to the Spanish Borbon family. One of Opus Dei's bitterest reversals occurred earlier this year when a Belgian parliamentary commission placed the organisation on a list of dangerous religious sects, proposing legislation to bring them under stricter control.

Opus Dei was handed another setback by the Socialist victory in France, where it has strong connections among the business establishment. President Chirac's wife, Bernadette Chodron de Courcel, although not a member, is a strong Opus Dei sympathiser. Under Alain Juppe, Opus Dei members held several important cabinet positions, controlling government policy on social communications, proposing legislation to repenalise homosexuality and playing a key role in the privatisation of TF1, a national television channel.

The presence of Opus Dei in the UK, though now w ell rooted, is nowhere near as pervasive. Its network of schools, subsidised with state funds, is concentrated in London, Manchester and Glasgow. Recently, however, Opus Dei established itself in Belfast. Opus Dei members run a youth club called Citywise, and have links with schools in Northern Ireland. A similar club exists in Dublin. Both have secured European Union support under the Youth for Europe programme.

It is part of Opus Dei's modus operandi never to spend - except as a last resort - its own money to finance 'good works', but always to dig into someone else's resources, public or private. Financial backers of Opus Dei projects are often private foundations, or public entities such as US AID, Adveniat in Germany, Unesco (whose director general, Federico Mayor, is Opus Dei) or the public instances of the European Union, where the Work is especially well represented.

Opus Dei schools in Kenya and Nigeria are partially financed by the British government. One former numerary, Dr John Roche, spent 10 years as a director of Strathmore College in Nairobi. During this time the British government paid a third of his salary into an account in London. But numeraries are required to turn their salaries over to the prelature. In this case, the amount totalled pounds 25,000.

After leaving Opus Dei, Roche - now a lecturer at Oxford - sued in the Chancery Division of the High Court of London to recover that part of his salary retained in the UK and other sums he loaned the prelature. Opus Dei successfully defended the case, claiming it owed him nothing. Afterwards Roche and his solicitors questioned the authenticity of certain documents placed in evidence by the defendants. Opus Dei's solicitors belatedly admitted that 'a number of the letters placed on exhibit were not written on the dates they bear but in 1976' - ie after the lawsuit was filed. Roche received an apology and recouped pounds 6,500 of the money as part of an out-of-court settlement.

If, as widely expected, Archbishop Cipriani receives a red hat in the next Consistory - the meeting of cardinals with the Pope - he will become Opus Dei's first cardinal. As a conservative Latin American, young (53 years old), and trimly sportive (a former Olympic athlete), this would make him an eminent papal candidate during the next Conclave. With the 77-year-old John Paul II ailing, many believe the next Conclave cannot be far off. Should an Opus Dei pope be elected, the sons of Josemaria Escriva will have successfully created a neo-Renaissance power structure with striking parallels to the one constructed by God's viceroy in the 16th century.

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