The secret life of Opus Dei
Ruth Kelly says the Catholic group’s support is a private matter, but it is surrounded by a reactionary miasma
by Michael Walsh, January 26, 2005, The Guardian, UK
Rocco Buttiglione, the erstwhile Italian EU commissioner, must have some sympathy with Ruth Kelly. Instead of getting on with the job to which Silvio Berlusconi had advanced him, he was closely questioned by European parliamentarians about his religious beliefs. His candidature was eventually withdrawn, and he departed to found a new Catholic political alliance.
Now here is Ruth Kelly, eager to get stuck into her new role as secretary of state for education, and yet all everyone wants to know, apart from how she copes with a cabinet rank and four small children, is where Opus Dei fits in. If indeed she is a member. No one is saying. She has spiritual support from them, but that is a private matter, she told David Frost on Sunday.
Maybe, but her answer is rather disingenuous. Opus Dei comes surrounded by a political miasma. It was founded just before the Spanish civil war, but came fully into being in the heady Catholic days of Franco’s cruzado. Camino (The Way), the handbook that guides the spiritual life of Opus Dei adherents, was published in its final version just as the civil war ended. When Opus came to prominence in the late 1960s it was because Franco’s cabinet contained a remarkably large number of Opusdeistas – far too many for commentators to believe it a coincidence. Senior members, including Opus’s founder St. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, Marqués de Peralta, were involved in negotiating the handover of power to the then Prince Juan Carlos, rather than to his father, Don Juan.
Opus members were powerful operators in 1960s Spain and again, it was alleged, during the Aznar government. The organisation’s public persona in Spain wasn’t helped by the discovery that adherents helping to fund its remarkable growth were involved in two of that country’s major financial scandals. The sinister, secretive image was boosted in the US when an FBI agent was convicted four years ago of spying for the Russians. He was an Opus member, and his brother-in-law an Opus Dei priest. The lurid picture in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, of an Opus Dei “monk” wreaking mayhem around Europe on the instructions of his religious superior, has only added to their curiosity value.
If a member, Ruth Kelly would have been a typical recruit, the sort of person targeted by the organisation as a potentially influential member of society. They tend to recruit from the middle class, give adherents a traditional theological education, and subject them to an old-fashioned spiritual training – including wearing spike bracelets, and beating oneself with a cat o’nine-tails. Given this conservative background, it is scarcely surprising that many Opusdeistas turn out to be supporters of rightwing regimes. Kelly, on the left of centre, is therefore something of an exception.
Their moral views, however, are more of a piece, and highly unlikely to deviate from those espoused by the Vatican. And these, as Buttiglione and US presidential contender John Kerry both found, can be something of a handicap in public life, especially when the Vatican tells politicians to toe the Catholic line on matters such as abortion. From the status of women to the teaching on stem-cell research to the recognition of same-sex unions, Pope John Paul II has resolutely followed a path at odds with the modern world. Catholic parliamentarians have too often to struggle between their faith and the convictions of the vast majority of their constituents. As Aidan O’Neill QC put it in a recent debate at Lincoln’s Inn presided over by Cherie Booth, should they attempt to enact a form of Catholic Sharia? Many Catholics would say no, but Opus members are fiercely loyal to the present Pope. He has not only canonised their founder, but has also given them a new juridical structure which, they believe, fits their particular way of life.
For Opus is one of a kind. Within Roman Catholicism it has a unique status as a “personal prelature”, a kind of diocese without geographical boundaries, with which all its members are associated, but to which its full-time members belong. They are priests and lay people. That makes it different from traditional religious orders which are usually one or the other. Opus embraces all classes of society, married and single, priests and lay people, men and women – though in the last case, never the twain shall meet. The recently constructed US HQ in New York has separate entrances for men and women. There are even, according to the authors of The Rough Guide to the Da Vinci Code, gender-specific parking lots.
In this country, Opus’s HQ is in Bayswater, west London. Its members run university halls of residence and youth clubs – fertile territory for new recruits. In the US and elsewhere there are Opus Dei schools, hot on traditional values. But not yet in Britain. In a variant of the postcode lottery, devout British parents have been known to relocate to Ireland where such colleges may be found. The education secretary says she wants more independent state schools, strong on discipline. Her spiritual advisers may have suggestions.
· Michael Walsh is a Catholic scholar and the author of Opus Dei: An Investigation into the Secret Society Struggling for Power within the Roman Catholic Church.
Here is the original link to the article: http://politics.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,9115,1398731,00.html
Posted January 28, 2005