Hanssen and Opus Dei  

Opus Dei Again in Movie Houses

Once again, Opus Dei members are featured in a movie entitled “Breach.”
Unlike the fictional Da Vinci Code, however, the movie is based on the true story
of convicted FBI spy and Opus Dei supernumerary Robert Hanssen.

Many wonder, how could a seemingly pious, dedicated and hard-working man be at
the heart of one of the worst security breaches in the history of the United States?
The answer can be partly found in the paradoxical nature not only of Hanssen, but also
of Opus Dei, both of whom share similarities such as elitism, superiority, secretiveness,
intelligence, detachment, and isolation.  For an in-depth article on this topic, see below.

Articles about Hanssen and “Breach”:

“‘Breach’ in the Burbs” by Tim Mann
The Journal News, February 16, 2007

“Opus Dei’s Secret Revealed: It Takes Spies in From the Cold,” by Eugene Kennedy, Religion News Service, 2001. The arrest of accused FBI spy Robert Hanssen shines a spotlight on Opus Dei, the enigmatic Catholic group he belonged to. “This intersection of secret group and secret agent, however, demands that Opus Dei either reveal itself and its operations more fully or find that questions and doubts about it will multiply in the future.”

CNN Transcript. This is a transcript of an interview conducted by Bill Delaney on May 18, 2001 after former FBI Agent Robert Hanssen, supernumerary member of Opus Dei, was indicted on charges of spying for Moscow. Both ODAN and Opus Dei were represented.

Spies, Spooks, and the Catholic Church?” by Catharine A. Henningsen, The American Catholic, April, 2001. Questions the secrecy surrounding Opus Dei, given its influence in the corridors of power.

Opus Dei and Hanssen: Masters of Paradox

by Tammy A. DiNicola

When the news media reported that alleged spy Robert Hanssen was a member of Opus Dei back in 2001, many wondered how Hanssen could provide sensitive information to communists, when Opus Dei has always seemed to be so vehemently opposed to communism.

However, on closer examination, the traditional profile we might associate with a spy and the traits common to members of Opus Dei are remarkably similar despite seeming paradoxical.   Several words come to mind: elitism, superiority, secretiveness, intelligence, detachment, isolation, fierce loyalty. All of these traits and attributes can generally be found in Opus Dei members as well as spies.

Robert Hanssen began his career in the Chicago Police Department as an internal corruptions investigator, a position that many found difficult as it required “spying” on one’s fellow officers. Hanssen then moved on to counterintelligence in the FBI’s New York bureau, quickly moving up into privileged positions.   Over the years, he was set apart from others in the FBI, where he was noted for his aloofness and distinctive dressing; FBI colleagues nicknamed him “Dr. Death” because of the black suits he wore.

On the outside, Hanssen seemed to be the ideal Catholic: pious and dedicated, a firm parent, a loving husband, a dedicated and thorough worker. Who would ever guess the secret and dark life within?  In a similar way, Opus Dei members on the outside can seem pious and dedicated, and as they repeatedly defend to the public, dedicated to living ordinary, godly lives.  Yet on closer examination, the reality is that Opus Dei members live in a system that disconnects the actual practices of the group – often manipulative and deceptive – from its lofty ideals – which in the mind justify actions and ways of thinking that would be clearly wrong if taken out of the context of the “higher goal.”  (For example, Opus Dei numeraries are required to develop strategies with their directors for drawing potential members closer to Opus Dei, even to the point of manipulating behind the scenes to make a humanly orchestrated plan look like a spontaneous vision from God.)  The result is a paradoxical, “Jekyll/Hyde” mentality that justifies abuses for the sake of the higher good.

One might ask, how could a person live in such a way and not see the disparities and the incongruities?  The answer is complicated and wrapped up in the complexities of mind control and cult-like totalitarianism, but much is due to the sense of group elitism and superiority, traits almost always associated with totalitarian groups.  Regarding Opus Dei members, and in particular numerary members, the lifestyle is so constrained and controlled, the only possible way that it can be lived is to believe that you are living a Divinely inspired vocation to which the rest of the world has not been called yet, or has rejected. 

Opus Dei’s founder, Josemaria Escriva, used to teach (in the Way) that members need to do and to disappear — both spies and members of Opus Dei live a life of setting wrongs right or manipulating the world with information to suit their own ideal of what the world should be like — and since there is a danger of public opinion disagreeing with you, the most effective manner of operation is in secret.  Even with all the exposure brought about by the publicity surrounding the “Da Vinci Code” book and movie, Opus Dei still has not revised its vocation process, which is couched in secrecy and the deliberate withholding of vital information to make an informed choice.  (To date, Opus Dei has not admitted to any problems in its vocation process, even though personal testimonies verify its cult-like tendencies.) 

This subtle thrill of secretiveness is another common vein between Opus Dei and Hanssen.  The approach of always seeming not involved, never admitting or never denying anything, creates a life of mystery.  Former members testify of being instructed by Opus Dei superiors that it was acceptable and even advisable under pain of disobedience to practice “mental reservation” when answering direct questions and in some circumstances lying outright regarding internal practices of Opus Dei members. And amid all the rumors that abound, there is a sense of “if they only knew the truth”.  In turn this feeling of possessing the truth and sharing it in secret with others further leads to the sense of superiority and elitism, while also increasing the isolation of the individual from all that is not of the group.  Perhaps this sense of secretiveness and isolation can be attributed to the early years of Opus Dei, when Escriva was forced into hiding during the Spanish Civil War, when priests and religious leaders were routinely executed. Perhaps this experience led to Opus Dei’s fiercely secretive nature and the tendency of its members to quietly move into leadership at the Vatican, government, the media, banking and other positions of influence and power.

Hanssen’s desires for flattery, passion and “being set apart” are evident in his communications with his Russian spyhandlers. Hanssen described himself as “insanely loyal” in a March 2000 letter, “complaining like a jilted lover when his handlers failed to respond to one of his signal marks -a piece of white adhesive tape on a sign post in Virginia. Flattery and paying tribute are common between spy handlers and their agents.

The life of detachment and isolation — knowing that you can at least confide in your handler, or Opus Dei director, as the case may be, is very similar to both types of life.  The sense that you are not a common person, and so must live these special burdens is there.

The sense of superiority in Opus Dei must have appealed to Hanssen, along with Opus Dei’s highly disciplined expectations and detailed regimen. Hanssen was highly critical of the United States in his communications with the Russians, calling it similar to “a powerfully built but retarded child, potentially dangerous but young, immature, and easily manipulated. But don’t be fooled by that appearance. It is one which can also turn ingenious quickly, like an idiot savant…”3.

Hanssen felt so disenfranchised about the United States that it justified the double life he led, even to the point of the betrayal of sensitive secrets to communists. The devastation brought about by Hanssen is evident in the fifteen years he acted as a spy; at least two men were executed in Russia as a result of Hanssen’s spying, not to mention the compromise of our nation’s defense brought about by the release of top secret information.

In a similar way, Opus Dei has also justified its own questionable practices with the result that thousands of former members now struggle with the effects of a cult-like, totalitarian experience.  Robert Hanssen now sits in jail, serving a life sentence for treason.  With the increased publicity over the last year especially, will Opus Dei ultimately grow and change, taking responsibility for the abuses of the past and taking steps to eliminate them in the present and future?  This remains to be seen – though it is my fervent hope and prayer that indeed Opus Dei will realize and amend the hidden problems of its paradoxical nature.


1. Saints and Schemers by Joan Estruch, Translated by Elizabeth Ladd Click, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995.

2. “Invisible on the Inside,” by Vernon Loeb and Walter Pincus, The Washington Post, February 21, 2001.

3. “Teenage thrill led to spycraft obsession,” by Patrick Smyth, The Irish Times, February 24, 2001.

4. Beyond the Threshold: A Life in Opus Dei by Maria del Carmen Tapia, Continuum, New York, 1997.

5. “Friends Recall Regular Guy, Secret Room,” by Tom Jackman and David A. Vise, The Washington Post, February 21, 2001.

6. Personal experiences and observations of former Opus Dei members Tammy A. DiNicola, Dennis Dubro and others.


Tammy A. DiNicola is a former numerary (celibate) member of Opus Dei who joined Opus Dei while attending Boston College in 1988. She left Opus Dei in June 1990 after a family intervention, and has since become active in the Opus Dei Awareness Network, Inc. (ODAN). She lives in Pittsfield, MA where she is happily married, an active practicing Catholic Christian and the mother of three boys.

About ODAN

The Opus Dei Awareness Network, Inc. (ODAN) was founded in 1991 to meet the growing demand
for accurate informationabout Opus Dei and to provide education, outreach and support to people
who have been adversely affected by Opus Dei. ODAN challenges many of Opus Dei’s
Questionable Practices because of the way they affect an individual’s personal freedom, choices
and family life.

Since 1991, ODAN has been in contact with countless individuals, families, the secular and religious
press, clergy,religious, cult awareness organizations, campus ministers, home-schooling parents and more.

ODAN is a worldwide community of people who have had painful experiences as a result of their
association with Opus Dei.

Contact Us

ODAN is a registered 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Donations are tax-deductible.

Opus Dei Awareness Network, Inc.
P.O. Box 4333
Pittsfield, MA 01202-4333

Telephone: 413-499-7168
Fax: 413-499-7860
Email: odan@odan.org

Executive Director: Dianne DiNicola

Revised December 13, 2010