Rise of Opus Dei under Pope has liberals concerned over succession

Financial Times (UK)/March 5, 2005
By Tony Barber

According to Roman Catholic Church rules, the choice of the next Pope will rest with the cardinals, currently numbering 118, who are under the age of 80 and who will hold a conclave in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel after John Paul II's death.

But some Church-watchers are asking to what extent the cardinals' decision will be guided by a conservative Catholic movement that has steadily increased its influence at the Vatican in the twilight years of John Paul's papacy.

Opus Dei, a movement founded in Spain in 1928, is often criticised by liberal Catholics for being secretive, elitist and tolerant of seemingly bizarre acts of physical self-punishment on the part of its devotees.

"One of the most powerful and reactionary organisations in the Roman Catholic Church today" is how Catholics For a Free Choice, a Washington-based liberal group, describes the organisation.

No one in the Church doubts Opus Dei's support for John Paul's theological conservatism and his hard line on sexual ethics, but the accusation of being a subversive "church within a church" cuts little ice with the organisation's 85,000 members.

They stress their movement's spirituality and commitment to work and duty, and they take immense pride in the fact that Josemaria Escrivá de Balaguer, their founder, was made a saint by John Paul in October 2002.

It is, however, precisely John Paul's support for Opus Dei that has put the liberals' nerves on edge. Pope Paul VI, who reigned from 1963 to 1978, was famously cold towards Opus Dei, but all that has changed during John Paul's 26-year papacy.

Not only was Escrivá canonised a mere 27 years after his death - an unusually speedy path to sainthood by Church standards - but in 1982 John Paul gave a special canonical status to Opus Dei. By making the movement a "personal prelature", he effectively stripped local bishops of control over Opus Dei's activities.

In the past four years, two Opus Dei churchmen have been awarded a cardinal's hat: Juan Luis Cipriani of Peru, and Julián Herranz, the Spanish-born president of the pontifical council for legislative texts.

Cardinal Herranz has emerged as one of the five or six prelates closest to John Paul during his recent illnesses, which have confined the 84-year-old Pope to hospital and have at times prevented him from communicating except by means of short handwritten notes to his immediate entourage.

Cardinal Herranz convenes occasional meetings with other cardinals at an Opus Dei-owned villa in Grottarosa in the Roman countryside, a practice that may assume more importance if it continues in the days before the next conclave.

Another of those in frequent close contact with the Pope is Joaquin Navarro-Valls, John Paul's ultra-loyal spokesman and a prominent Opus Dei layman.

Opus Dei's influence in the Church was on open display at Escrivá's canonisation, which was attended by 42 cardinals. Not all will take part in the next conclave, and those who do may not vote as a bloc, but it was a striking demonstration that Opus Dei's star was on the rise.

According to one Church-watcher, it is also noteworthy that the prelate who will be the most powerful figure in the Vatican between John Paul's death and the election of his successor has connections to Opus Dei. He is Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo, the Vatican's Spanish-born "camerlengo", or chamberlain.

The cardinal, whose nephew is an Opus Dei priest, will have the responsibility of administering the Holy See's money and property until the next Pope is elected.

He will also arrange John Paul's funeral and prepare the conclave.

Some Catholic academics in Rome caution against reading too much into Opus Dei's influence at the Vatican. The outcome of conclaves, they emphasise, is all but impossible to predict, and Opus Dei is not especially powerful in the Italian Church, which will provide 20 of the 118 cardinal-electors.

"The Jesuits were strong under Pius XII, but now that is less true," noted one theologian, referring to the Pope who reigned from 1939 to 1958.

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