Pope election: Opus Dei pulls strings

By Barry James in Vatican City, Sify.com
Monday, 11 April , 2005

One of the unanswered questions about next week’s secret conclave to elect the next pope is how much influence will be wielded by “the Work,” the conservative Roman Catholic organisation called the Opus Dei.

Only two cardinals among the 115 electors belong to the organisation, which counts more than 80,000 followers around the world and has often been referred to in Spain, the country where it was founded in 1928, as “God’s Octopus.”

But it had an extraordinary degree of access to Pope John Paul II, and enjoys the support and encouragement of many of the most powerful cardinals, including Camillo Ruini, the prelate deputed to run the diocese of Rome, who is seen as a strong contender to become the next pontiff.

Ruini last year opened proceedings to declare the Opus Dei’s second leader, Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, a saint.

John Paul II canonised the Opus Dei’s founder, Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, in 2002, an extraordinarily brief 27 years after his death, at a Vatican ceremony attended by more than 40 cardinals.

The late pope promoted several conservative groups, such as the Legion of Christ and Communion and Liberation. But he was extremely indulgent toward the Opus Dei, which he gave the unique status of personal prelature, enabling it to operate anywhere in the world outside the control of local bishops and making it accountable only to the Vatican.

In 1998, the pope gave the Opus Dei’s theological school in Rome the title of pontifical university, putting it on the same level as the prestigious Gregorian University run by the rival Jesuits.

Such signs of approval and support have enabled the Opus Dei more authoritatively to counter criticism that it is a manipulative, secretive and sectarian ultra-conservative Church within the Church, and that it has erected a stifling personality cult around its founder.

Most of the criticism comes from other, less conservative sections of the Roman Catholic Church.

Most Opus Dei members are encouraged to seek spiritual perfection in their daily life and work. Its core members, known as numeraries, also hold down jobs in civilian life but take vows of chastity and obedience, whip themselves at least once a week and live in gender-segregated communal houses where their lives and thoughts are closely monitored.

In the past, some bishops have sought to prevent the Opus Dei from “fishing” too aggressively for new members on university campuses and alienating them from the affection of their families.

Although the Opus Dei calls itself a lay organization, it has its own order of priests to whom members are obliged to turn for confession and spiritual advice.

The Opus Dei numeraries are invariably highly educated and polished, and often influential in their respective fields. The organization is wealthy — it has a 17-story headquarters building in central New York with separate entrances for men and women and segregated parking.

Opus Dei priests and laymen hold high office in the Vatican bureaucracy known as the Curia. They include Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican’s powerful press spokesman.

One of the two Opus Dei cardinals, Julian Herranz (the other is Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne of Lima, Peru) is known to invite other prelates to frequent discussions at a Roman villa owned by the organisation.

Most of the members of the immediate circle around the late pontiff and many of the metropolitan bishops have close links with the Opus Dei, which some observers say is the only group well-organised and powerful enough to have a significant influence on the conclave.

The Vatican recently confided Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, archbishop of Genoa, with the task of combating heresies contained in Dan Brown’s best-selling The Da Vinci Code, in which an Opus Dei bishop orders an Opus Dei monk (there is no such thing) to carry out a murder.

The thriller certainly made people aware of the organisation, but other books, such as Beyond the Threshold by Maria del Carmen Tapia, who said she was Balaguer’s secretary, claim to give a more accurate if highly critical account of life inside the Opus Dei.

The views expressed in the article are the author’s and not of Sify.com.

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Posted April 12, 2005