Luminous Fallibility


“Spies, Spooks and The Catholic Church?”


By Catharine A. Henningsen


April 2001 issue



Twenty years ago, if you’d asked everyone around you in the pews at church what they knew about the Catholic organization, Opus Dei, the majority of Catholics would likely have responded, “Opus who?  Never heard of them.”  All of that changed several weeks ago, however, when Newsweek and other periodicals in this country revealed that accused spy, Robert Phillip Hanssen, who could face the death penalty for his acts of treason, is a member of Opus Dei who sends his children to Opus Dei schools.  Immediately following that revelation, stories began to surface in the press claiming that  FBI Director, Louis Freeh and Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are also Opus Dei members.  Opus Dei denies that Freeh, Scalia and Thomas are members, though Freeh sends his son to the Opus Dei School, The Heights, and Scalia’s wife is reported to regularly attend Opus Dei functions.   Robert Hanssen, Justice Scalia and Louis Freeh also all worship at St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia, where the Tridentine Latin Mass is offered, rather than the new order of the Mass declared by Paul VI.   What’s unusual in these stories is not that Opus Dei claims members in the corridors of power in this country--a rigidly class-bound organization, Opus Dei has always sought the majority of its members from the upper classes--but that the revelations were made at all, since Opus Dei has always been characterized by a secretiveness that would rival that of the CIA.  And yet, the organization runs its own schools and colleges and selects and trains its priests from within its own ranks. 


So why would a Catholic organization that by its own numbers is now 80,000 members strong still be largely unknown within the church itself?  And why the secretiveness?  Surely an organization this large within the Catholic Church would want to be well-known and attracting new members from parishes world-wide.  And yet we do not hear anything about them from within the church itself.  Several books have been written about Opus Dei in recent years and their content has been far from flattering.  Alleging that Opus Dei is a major player in the Eurodollar market engaged in speculation “in overnight francs and next week’s dollars,” financial journalist Robert Hutchison dubbed the organization “Octopus Dei.”  Hutchison chronicles the making of a financial empire that includes the major players in the Vatican Bank scandal. 


Founded in 1928 in Spain by Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, the stated purpose of Opus Dei is to “Spread throughout society a profound awareness of the universal call to holiness and apostolate through one’s professional work carried out with freedom and personal responsibility.”   One would be hard-pressed to argue with their mission statement.  The controversies that arise over Opus Dei stem from their practices, which may be the main reason that they prefer to cloak the majority of their activities in secrecy.  Among the more questionable practices of Opus Dei members are: The wearing of a spiked chain called a “Cilice” that breaks the skin around the upper thigh for two hours each day; beating oneself 33 times once a week with a cord-like whip known as a “Discipline” (many Opus Dei members ask permission of their superiors to engage in this activity more often.  Opus Dei Founder Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer was said to be so fierce in his use of it that he routinely splattered the bathroom walls with blood); recruitment through the use of front groups; lack of informed consent (practices such as opening all incoming and outgoing mail, corporal mortification such as that described above and the donation of entire salaries are not revealed until after an initial commitment has been made); a prohibition against telling family members and friends of one’s involvement in Opus Dei; and a prohibition against displaying photographs of loved ones.  Though some close to Opus Dei claim that the corporal mortification has been modified in recent years, the impenetrability of the organization makes that assertion impossible to verify.  Though it is a fact that corporal mortification was once more widely practiced within the church, modern psychology has long since brought an end to those practices since such behavior is now deemed sado-masochistic and inappropriate as an aid to spiritual development.  The combination of questionable forms of corporal mortification and the strict controls it imposes on its members have made many refer to the group as a cult, and much as the moonies gave rise to numerous organizations dedicated to “deprogramming” those who had become victims of Sun Myung Moon, Opus Dei’s activities have given rise to the Opus Dei Awareness Network (ODAN) which “provides education, outreach and support for those negatively affected by Opus Dei.”  Perhaps most damaging of all to the organization was the testimony of one of its most revered members, Maria del Carmen Tapia, who, in the autobiography of her experiences within Opus Dei, claims that she was held a virtual prisoner at the organization’s headquarters in Rome from 1965-66 and subjected to severe psychological abuse.  

Opus Dei has unfortunately discovered no better friend and ally than John Paul II.   The pope’s personal spokesperson, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who is widely credited with the creation of our “media pope,” is himself a member of Opus Dei.   In the 1980s, John Paul II granted Opus Dei the status of “personal prelature,” an entity that answers only to their prelate in Rome (in this case, Javier Echevarria).  Popes Pius XII, John XXIII and Paul VI had all refused to grant Opus Dei this status and Opus Dei is currently the only personal prelature within the church.   In practical terms, what this means, is that local church authorities have nothing to say about Opus Dei activities or its members.    John Paul II also beatifed Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer despite the fact that Tapia and others warned him against it and he is said to be bent on canonizing him.    Reportedly given to massive outbursts of temper throughout his life, Josemaria de Balaguer was hardly a model for Catholic imitation and yet members of Opus Dei are inculcated into a cult-like reverence for him and told both that they may not question his teachings and that he is to be revered even above the pope.


The status that Opus Dei currently enjoys within the church raises serious questions about who they are and what they’re about.  And given the large number of photo-opportunities our Protestant President Bush has been engaging in with high-ranking cardinals and bishops within our church, and his extremely surprising suggestion in mid-March that Americans put the teachings of Pope John Paul II into practice, it is probably a good thing that major news agencies are focusing attention on what role, if any, Opus Dei plays in the lives of prominent U.S. politicians.


More to the point, we need to ask what secrecy, class-bound caste systems and sado-masochistic abuse have to do with our church.   What possible activity could any Catholic group be engaged in that justifies secrecy?   If the work of Opus Dei is so vital to the Vatican, why not shout it from the rooftops and make both their membership lists and their practices public?  Is there something that the Vatican does not want us to know about them?   These are questions we’re long overdue in asking and it should be evident to all Catholics that any organization that claims the need to live under cover of darkness has nothing whatever to do with Jesus Christ.


Catharine A. Henningsen is an author and journalist who is currently working on a book about John Paul II’s legacy to women entitled: Breaking Adam’s Rib.  She is a co-editor of THE AMERICAN CATHOLIC.