Pell, Opus Dei and signs of a new elitism

There is wariness about a controversial Catholic body's increasing influence in Sydney      
Sydney Morning Herald/January 22, 2002
By Chris McGillion

One indication of the growing power and prestige within the Catholic church of Opus Dei (or "Work of God") was the turnout at a congress in Rome this month to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the group's founder, Josemaria Escriva.

Among the 1200 participants at the four-day gathering were Pope John Paul II, a number of high-ranking Vatican officials and dozens of senior clerics from around the world including the Archbishop of Sydney, the Most Rev George Pell. The congress was sponsored by the city of Rome, and the Italian Government even marked the occasion by unveiling a postage stamp in honour of Escriva.

The congress was a testimony to the remarkable success of Opus Dei. After all, the group was formed only in 1928 (when Escriva is said to have had a vision that he should set up an elite movement of mostly lay people to set an example to other Catholics by leading exemplary lives - by which he meant intensely devotional, strictly theologically orthodox, and unfaltering in their loyalty to the pope) and has been dogged by controversy virtually ever since.

Critics accuse Opus Dei of being a fundamentalist sect intent on promoting a rigid form of Catholicism. They also say it has political aspirations of a distinctly conservative kind, citing the dominance of Opus Dei members in the post-1969 cabinet of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and the influence of the group in Chile under General Augusto Pinochet as examples.

But the most pointed attacks have come from several former members who allege that Opus Dei is a cult that brainwashes its members and conducts its affairs in secret. In 1981, allegations of this kind led the then head of the Catholic church in England, Cardinal Basil Hume, to forbid the group recruiting members under the age of 18 years and, in 1986, to the Italian parliament demanding a government inquiry into the group's operations. (The inquiry exonerated Opus Dei of any illegal conduct.)

But Opus Dei must be doing something right. In 1930, it had a membership of one lay person: today it boasts about 82,000 lay members and nearly 1800 priests worldwide. The group is flushed with funds and connections in important circles.

In recent years there have also been testimonies from people who have come into contact with Opus Dei that the experience has enriched their spiritual lives. If nothing else, these testimonies raise questions about the extent to which negative publicity in the past was exaggerated.

Pope John Paul II needs no such reassurances. His enthusiasm for Opus Dei dates from his days as a cleric under a communist regime in Poland when both Opus Dei's right-wing politics and its emphasis on strength in the church through strict unity in its ranks seemed sensible. In 1982 he elevated the status of Opus Dei by making it a "personal prelature" answerable to himself. Ten years later, he beatified Escriva and last month recognised the second miracle that ensures Escrivas sainthood.

With that kind of endorsement, Pell can hardly be criticised for his championing of Opus Dei, even if his gushing remarks to the Rome congress that the theological teaching of Escriva "goes beyond" that of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas would strike many theologians and church historians as bizarre.

Still, Pell represents all the Catholics in his jurisdiction, not just those whose ideas and practices sit comfortably with his. And he must be aware that many Catholics are uncertain about Opus Dei, suspicious that it is becoming too closely identified with the church, or simply keen to know more about its operations before they pass judgement. Nevertheless, before he left Melbourne, Pell overturned an understanding his predecessor had maintained with his diocesan clergy not to allow Opus Dei to gain a geographical foothold in the city.

Now several diocesan clergy in Sydney are privately expressing alarm that an even more ambitious push is under way here. Even the archbishop's council of priests is leaking with concerns that it is not being consulted about key appointments in Sydney, much less listened to for its advice.

Opus Dei's star is on the rise, it is said, and that of others - including other more established groups within the church - is sinking. A clerical culture is being encouraged in which there is a highly select "in" crowd around Pell and everybody else.

If these claims are true, the first casualty will be the morale of Sydney's clergy and the second, and much more serious, may be the pragmatic and inclusive character of Sydney Catholicism. The stakes are high enough to warrant much more disclosure and debate about the direction of the archdiocese than is the case.

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