Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Politics in religion, religion in politics

This is an unusual post for me because it’s an unapologetic critique of an international political organisation. This organisation claims a moral, canonical and, even Divine, legitimacy, yet, according to the one (well researched) book I’ve read, some of its activities have been as nefarious as any secret service organisation in the world. But, even if these accusations proved untrue, I would still oppose this organisation on philosophical grounds, because it’s the antithesis of everything I believe in, and its manifesto is to win the hearts and minds of the future world of humanity.

The book is Their Kingdom Come; Inside the Secret World of Opus Dei by Robert Hutchison (1997,2006). According to the back cover, Hutchison is a journalist, born in Canada, but now living in Switzerland. He’s been a correspondent for The Sunday Telegraph and The Daily Telegraph, and won 4 National Business Writing Awards for articles published in the Toronto Financial Post. Certainly, his knowledge and insights into the financial world is one of the book’s compelling features.

Opus Dei came to international attention when Dan Brown published his bestseller, The Da-Vinci Code, an elaborate work of fiction based on a conspiracy theory concerning the supposed lineage of Jesus. Before that, few people knew that Opus Dei even existed, and that’s probably the way Opus Dei preferred it. Hutchison’s book is partly an unauthorised biography of ‘The Work’s’ founder, Jose Maria Escriva de Balaguer (1902-1975), and partly an expose of Opus Dei’s numerous ‘corporate’ adventures. Opus Dei is Latin for ‘God’s Work’, which some found a pretentious title even when it was formulated in 1930, especially since Escriva was still a young Catholic priest in Spain. But according to the official version, it really started on the day of The Feast of Guardian Angels, 2 October 1928, when he had a vision of Opus Dei: “as He wanted it, and as it would become according to His wishes down through the centuries”, which, according to Hutchison, is ‘the postulation for Jose Maria Escriva’s sainthood unveiled to the world more than fifty years later.’

Hutchison, henceforth refers to it as ‘The Work’, which apparently was Escriva’s own terminology. Escriva’s vision was that the secular population achieved ‘sanctity’ through doing ‘work’. But central to this vision was that ordinary people required ‘instruction’ as they couldn’t be left to work things out for themselves, which Escriva saw as the real danger facing humanity. This particular doctrine is a central tenet of the Catholic Church, especially when one considers how Papal authority attempts to intervene in the most intimate matters of people’s lives, specifically their sex lives. The Vatican’s attitudes towards homosexuality and birth-control are anachronistic at best and just plain immoral at worst.

But this is only one theme of Hutchison’s book, even if it be the one that I find most abrasive. It goes directly against my own existentialist leanings, and even rubs against my own experiences of religion as a child, and is one of the reasons I rejected it.

But a man has no greater zeal than when he believes he has a specific mission from God, and Escriva lived up to that expectation in spades. According to Hutchison, and other commentators, there are 2 faces to Opus Dei, and they are incongruent if not downright contradictory. For example: on the one hand Opus Dei ‘teaches’ the virtue of poverty, humility and piety, yet it wields financial clout that gives the impression of an international banking institution. Hutchison exposes some of the financial schemes that he believes Opus Dei, or personnel linked to Opus Dei, have been involved in, and cites his sources. But, even in my home town of Melbourne, I’ve seen the results of Opus Dei’s financial largesse first hand.

In the April 1, 2001 edition of The Age, Erica Cervini reports on a little-known, in-house political skirmish involving 2 archbishops with philosophical divergent views on Opus Dei: ‘Under the previous archbishop, Frank Little, Opus Dei was unable to get a foothold in the archdiocese.’ In the same article: ‘Opus Dei… has been invited by Dr. Pel to supply a priest to run St. Mary’s Star of the Sea parish in West Melbourne.’ Archbishop Pel left this legacy to Melbourne, just before taking up his position as Cardinal George Pel, Archdiocese of Sydney. Pel is a well known Catholic conservative, who publicly defends even the most controversial statements and proclamations of the Pope in the Australian media.

I have personally seen the money spent on St. Mary’s Star of the Sea, and I recently quipped to someone it was like ‘a little bit of Rome in Melbourne’. Melbourne, I have to say, though I’m not that well-traveled, is one of the most multi-cultural and liberalised secular cities of the world. Before Opus Dei took over, one could find literature at St. Mary’s explaining all the religions of the world – I have a pamphlet explaining Buddhism, quite succinctly and eruditely, and there were many others. In more recent times, the only literature I’ve seen is on how to join the priesthood. So it’s a complete change of ideology, and I have no problem using that word in this context.

Money is an efficacious means to influence and control people; it opens doors and creates obligations. There are a number of religious institutions that appreciate and utilise this simple methodology. Hutchison quotes Javier Sainz Moreno, Professor of Law at Madrid University, and outspoken critic of Opus Dei: “Opus Die knows very well that money rules the world and that religious hegemony of a country or continent is dependent upon obtaining financial hegemony…”

Of course, St. Mary’s Star of the Sea is very small beer compared to the examples that Hutchison provides. On page 164, he writes: ‘…its only interest is the spiritual well-being of its members, and it never interferes with their lives. It doesn’t own anything, certainly not a bank, and it never plays politics.’ Hutchison then proceeds to do his best to demonstrate the contrary to all these claims. In particular, he dedicates a large part of his book, and provides considerable detail, concerning the political and financial machinations that occurred during the 70s in Latin America; in particular, Argentina and Chile.

To appreciate the origins of Opus Dei’s political leanings, if not its ambitions, Hutchison starts at the beginning. In Escriva’s formative years, he had to flee for his life over the Pyrenees during the Spanish civil war when priests were being summarily executed, and nearly lost his life in the attempt. This made Escriva a life-long enemy of Marxism and socialism, and led to Opus Dei members getting government positions under Franco. During the Cold War, according to Hutchison, Opus Dei formed links with American intelligence agencies both in Europe and in Latin America. Yet Escriva states in 1970: “If Opus Dei ever played politics – even for a moment – I would have left the Work at that very moment of error.”

But it is in proselytism that Opus Dei, not only sees its ‘Work’, but where it places its greatest emphasis, at least, to its members, if not the public. It’s this double-sided nature of Opus Dei that makes it most open to criticism and distrust. Hutchison quotes from ‘a dossier prepared by a former numerary (Opus Dei member) John Roche: The single most important activity in the life of a member of Opus Dei is recruitment or ‘proselytism’.

Roche quotes from Escriva’s own ‘manual’ called the Cronica: ‘None of my children can rest satisfied if he doesn’t win four or five faithful vocations each year.’

According to Hutchison, Opus Dei denies the existence of the Cronica, yet Hutchison quotes freely from a text, that he claims to be the Cronica, throughout the book.

In other parts of the book, Hutchison reports on the psychological stress that members suffered, resulting from cognitive dissonance that unquestioning obedience can demand, especially when that obedience requires almost constant deception. According to testimony of ex-members, Opus Dei is indeed a sect, by any definition, and its members suffer accordingly. (See footnote at end.)

But the most damning testimony comes from Miguel Fisac, an architect and Escriva’s 9th ‘Apostle’ who admonished himself when he finally left Opus Dei: “Now, Miguel, you will always tell the truth and you will try to be a good person, and nothing more.”

Fisac, who knew Escriva well, made the following revelation: “With the exception of Alvaro del Portillo, he never had a good word to say about anybody.” Alvaro del Portillo was Escriva’s personal confessor for 30 years, and became his successor when Escriva died in 1975. (The head of Opus Dei, as of 2001, was Bishop Jarvier Echeverria.)

Parts of Hutchison’s book read like an espionage thriller, that puts Dan Brown to shame, with at least two unsolved, yet related, murders, a number of suspicious deaths - most by heart attack and all opportunistic for their rivals – at least one suspected poisoning, and missing millions, involving banks with unknown stakeholders. Whilst Hutchison meticulously references his sources and carefully acknowledges what remains unknown or unproven, he leaves the reader in no doubt concerning his own opinions.

I have no need to add to the conspiracy theories concerning Opus Dei. Even at the most superficial level, Opus Dei is a political faction within an international political institution. The Vatican is effectively a ‘State’ within its own right; an oligarchy to all intents and purposes, and behaves like one. Opus Dei is the conservative faction of that state and has its own agendas that are far from transparent.

In 1982, Pope John Paul II officially proclaimed in an ‘Apostolic Constitution known as ut sit’ that Opus Dei was created ‘by Divine inspiration’, so it truly was a ‘Work of God’ and was now Canon law. As Hutchison points out, this makes Opus Dei ‘a state within the Church’ with its own authority to God independent of the Pope, which it could theoretically call upon if it ever saw fit. And what’s more it controls the Vatican finances, again, according to Hutchison, which makes it indispensable. The one consistent theme, that Hutchison maintains throughout his book, is the way Opus Dei uses financial muscle to get its own way.

Towards the end of the book, Hutchison deals with Islamic fundamentalism, which is perhaps the scariest part of the whole book. No Christian church will ever be able to have a dialogue with even moderate Muslims, while it insists that Jesus is the only path to spiritual salvation for the whole of humanity. One can see the distinct possibility of a collision between Christian and Islamic fundamentalism with the liberal, secular world caught in the middle, not only in Europe, which is Hutchison’s focus, but world wide. This doesn’t mean that atheism is the ideological answer to this collision; history shows that only moderates of both sides of any conflict can have a dialogue that will result in a pragmatic solution. I make this same point in a previous post (Left or Right, Feb.08).

In Hutchison’s last numbered chapter (I presume of the first edition), he reports on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Africa, Asia and Europe, and its inevitable collision course with the West, which I found amazingly prescient considering it was written prior to 9/11.

In the 2006 edition, he has written an epilogue that includes the canonisation of Escriva, as well as the most recent scandals and intrigues that have rocked the Church.

But its Opus Dei’s ‘opacity’ (Hutchison’s term) to the public and its firm belief that it is doing ‘God’s work’, quite literally, and therefore answers to no other law, that makes it so potentially dangerous. As Hugh Mackay points out in his book, Right & Wrong; how to decide for yourself, when you believe your personal morality is God’s law, you can justify any action, no matter how immoral that action may in fact be. ‘We are God’s chosen’ are the words of Opus Dei’s leaders in Rome, whom Hutchison claims he lived with for 4 years. “We have been chosen by God to save the Church”, Hutchison claims he was told ‘with utter conviction’.

You may wonder why I even bother to take an interest. There are 2 reasons: firstly, the philosophical premise that ordinary people should work things out for themselves is central to my own world view, and is the antithesis to Opus Dei’s philosophy; secondly, Opus Dei is a very secretive, almost clandestine organisation, commonly called the ‘White Mafia’, even by ordinary Catholics. And an institution - in particular - a religious institution that practices secrecy while feigning openness, must surely have hidden agendas, and therefore, repels trust.

In a much earlier post I talked about the importance of Trust (Apr.08) and how it was a requisite for the future beneficence of all humanity. Confucius (500BC) once contended that trust was the last commodity a leader could afford to lose. Opus Dei represents the complete opposite to trust, just through its very existence. A point that Hutchison makes as well.

I wish I could dismiss Opus Dei as a medieval anachronism, because that’s what I believe it is, but it plays a central role in Vatican politics. Its agenda is to infiltrate every institution of power in the Western World and the Developing World. The fact that it prefers this agenda to remain hidden is the real reason it should be exposed. Opus Dei and the Catholic Church both know this: if its real political ambitions were known, it would surely fail in today’s liberal, secular society.

As long as Opus Dei holds sway in the Vatican, the Catholic Church will remain a backward institution, out of time and out of place in the 21st Century.

Footnote: For testimonies from ex-members, refer and here.


The Atheist Missionary said...

Money is an efficacious means to influence and control people; it opens doors and creates obligations. There are a number of religious institutions that appreciate and utilise this simple methodology. Truer words have never been written.

Great post - thanks.

Paul Carlin said...

The whole concept and political of Opus Dei is critically instructive. It has a direct line to the Pope, bypassing the local Diocesan structure.

I am tempted to say that Spain is a hotbed of these types of organisations generally, and from a Insititutional Catholic dimension in particular. When you consider that there was La Convivencia in Spain where Jewish, Muslims and Christian scholars researched and learnt with and from each other and the hope that offered, only to be driven out and overtaken by Charles & Isabella in the name of RELIGION, and which was reinforced some time later by the INQUISITION and then in the 20th Century with the establsihment of OPUS DEI, it seems to me to be making a very explicit statement about the intensity and contradictory nature of Spanish politics and the culture. This underlying and ever-present cancer is of immense concern.

The other feature of OPUS DEI is how it perceives and treats women. It seems to me that they have two main functions - one is to be a human incubator and the second is to serve the male species. Other than that they have no identity or function.

Paul Carlin

Paul P. Mealing said...


I've heard of Islamic institutions using this principle. They invest in a community, who then feel obligated to follow their 'school'. In this way they export their doctrine, and they do this in Western countries as well as Developing ones. Geraldine Doogue (from ABC's Compass) commented on this in a book she wrote on Islam.

I know you wouldn't have heard of Geraldine Doogue or Compass, but it's a religious oriented programme on ABC TV, so liberal it even screened Dawkins' The Root of All Evil without blinking an eye.

Regards, Paul.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks Paul, for your comment.

You are more of a scholar in this area than I am, so I appreciate your contribution.

Regards, Paul.