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Ancien régime meets high finance in Opus Dei


By Robert Hutchison
Doubleday, , 1998 (not available in the United States)


Priests were being shot in the streets. The bishop had already been in jail for 17 days. The cathedral was looted by men in red bandannas who traveled with harlots dressed in overalls and the riffraff from big city jails. The main altar, dragged out in the street, was stripped of its silver; the enormous baptismal font was thrown into the river.

Those held in the jail were being executed in batches. An agitator known as “the Undertaker” would hand a guard a piece of paper marked “good for 20,” and 20 men at random would be selected, sent out and shot.

Now the bandanna wearers had the bishop captive.

“Don’t be afraid,” they told him. “If you’ve prayed well, you’ll go to heaven.”

He ignored their questions. They kicked him, then castrated him. He told them, “I’ll pray for you in heaven.”

A guard said, “Here, take Communion,” and hit him in the mouth with a brick.

The bishop was lined up with the others and shot. Not quite dead, he was thrown onto the pile of corpses. It was not until more than an hour later a guard pulled a trigger and freed his soul.

Meanwhile, a little priest, José María, who hadn’t worn clerical garb since the civil war began, was escaping by quick-witted deception -- traveling at night and eventually taking refuge in the Honduran legation. He lived for five months with five other people in an 8-by-10 foot room with a single window.

The furtive José María was 36, had been ordained at 23 and early on had conceived in the sketchiest form the idea of a religious organization that would have its own identity within the Catholic church.

The priest had discovered this possibility of a prelatura nullius -- bishops who had no diocese yet their own priests and congregation -- in the floor stones of the Abbey of Santa Isabel in Madrid, Spain. The abbey’s status, which continued into the 19th century, was a leftover, the vestigial remains of an era when popes obliged kings and emperors and their kin with special favors.

For the rest of his life, Fr. José María Escrivá de Balaguer wanted the prelatura nullius revived and applied to his own organization. It would take another half-century. He would need money. He would succeed, despite three popes in a row -- Pius XII, John XXIII and Paul VI -- who said no.

The ransacked city was Barbastro, José María’s home town. Its coat of arms was a severed Muslim head surrounded by five shields under the crown of Aragon, a Catholic Spanish royal house.

All the foregoing information is from a tale of considerable sweep. Weaving these happenings together in his mammoth 1997 book on Opus Dei, Their Kingdom Come: Inside the Secret World of Opus Dei, Robert Hutchison gives us a complex and convoluted account. Published in London, it is not an easy read.

“I first heard of Opus Dei in the 1960s,” writes Hutchison, a Canadian financial journalist who resides in Switzerland, “when a Swiss banker friend informed me it was one of the major players in the Eurodollar market. A religious organization speculating in overnight francs and next week’s dollars? That did not sound right at all.”

Hutchison, well-known to British newspaper readers, kept watch.

The result is this highly detailed account of a driven, haunted and, in the author’s hands, rather vainglorious little man who -- through converting dedicated individuals to his cause, through financial shenanigans and organizational dexterity -- led Opus Dei to jubilant arrival at the right hand of Catholic power.

Here, as detailed as we’ve yet read, is the story of José María Escrivá de Balaguer, from his father’s failed business, the family’s humiliation and slide down the lower middle-class social scale and the personal spiritual quest.

We read of the quest’s roots in myth -- and its early boost from Spanish fascism’s money; of the secretive, speculating financial network that Hutchison, a financial journalist, dubs “Octopus Dei”; of Escrivá’s facility for ingratiation with useful high church officials; of paranoia -- a food taster sampled every meal in front of him; and of simple snobbery, secrecy and deception. These are the warp of Hutchison’s tapestry.

The woof is something alien to the modern, Western -- especially American -- mind.

Many Europeans (French and Spanish Catholics in particular) are fixated on a romantic and chivalric past (an ancien régime) when the pope crowned kings and arbitrated justice, mercy and goodness, and single-handedly attempted to create the Kingdom of God on earth.

This is the woof, this longing for and acceptance of a particular social order (as captured in the old Anglican hymn: “Rich man in his castle, poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate”).

Order. Social strata. Each in his place. Control. Discipline. Obedience. Unquestioning obedience -- as in fealty, as in chivalry. As in crusades.

Franco used it. Escrivá used it.

Escrivá himself, while pitying such vanity in others as “puffs of pride,” dug up a long-dead, family-related noble title and appended ‘de Balaguer’ to his name. Hutchison describes how Escrivá -- in this and other matters, such as his doctorate -- padded his resumé all the way to his beatification in 1992, with which Hutchison opens the book.

Opus Dei has grown rapidly: From one lay member in 1930 to an expanding “educational” organization in the 1940s and ’50s, to 10 out of 19 new ministers in Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s 1969 cabinet, to 18 prelates and nine lay members in the Roman curia, including the pope’s spokesman, Joaquín Novarro-Valls, by 1996. This latter arrival explains the book’s hype. Across the cover is emblazoned, “The book the Catholic church won’t want you to read.” Apparently Doubleday USA doesn’t want us to read it, either. Doubleday New York told NCR they’ve no North American publishing plans.

Americans mentioned in passing include former Vatican Bank head Archbishop Paul Marcinkus (who “realized he had an ally in Opus Dei”), Sargent and Eunice Shriver (“active Opus Dei cooperators”), and Camden, N.J., Bishop James McHugh (who as No. 3 man at the U.N. Cairo Population Conference “deferred to Joaquín Navarro-Valls”).

Hutchison’s Opus Dei is “an organization every bit as fundamentalist on the Christian side as [some branches of Islam are] on the Islamic side.”

It is the sort of fundamentalism that makes the well-funded 80,000-member cult attractive to this pope, the only person to whom the prelatura nullius answers.

“Opus Dei,” writes Hutchison, “covers its activities with a mantle of religious arrogance” and while “many fine people belong, they are programmed not to question the intentions of the internal hierarchy and to obey their superiors rigorously.”

Opus Dei is a middle- and upper middle-class entity with strong preferences for those in academia, business and church circles. And it ministers in the main to others like itself. Hutchison’s conclusions are that Opus Dei has hefted its halberd to battle Jesuits, radical anti-Christian Islam and the Vatican II church (in all its works and many of its people), plus anything Escrivá suspected was remotely tainted with Marxism, and all from a sense of carefully cultivated superiority rooted in its fascist soil.

To do that it created the financial empire Hutchison does his best to untangle. It is replete with offshore accounts, financial scandal and nefarious names -- among them that of Sicilian financier Michele Sindona and of Roberto Calvi, whose “suicide” under Blackfriars Bridge in London followed the spectacular collapse of his Banco Ambrosiano. Included is a description of Opus Dei’s present considerable wealth.

On its tightening church ties, Hutchison sketches in how John Paul as archbishop of Cracow, Poland -- and many other bishops -- were brought into Opus Dei’s network, or net, through its Roman operation. The Centro Romano di Incontri Sacerdotali was Escrivá’s “forum for putting across to the hierarchy with as much tact as possible Escrivá’s fears for the church.”

Strident anti-Marxism the archbishop of Cracow understood. And of Escrivá he approved.

“John Paul II,” writes Hutchison, “was said to be determined to push through Escrivá’s canonization during what remained of his pontificate. But why such haste? The record for speedy canonizations is held by Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in 1170 and made a saint 26 months later. ‘But that was a political job if ever there was one,’ commented Professor Terence Morris of Winchester, a student of fast sainthoods. The same could be said of the Escrivá affair,” continues Hutchison. “It was another ‘political job.’ ”

Hutchison is at his worst when all he provides by way of overall setting is the John Paul pontificate and a pope who “believed without exaggeration that the church of Rome was confronted with its most serious crisis since the Protestant Reformation ... papal authority under attack ... dissension blamed on the Second Vatican Council.”

What the reader could use is a succinct compare-and-contrast exposition of how other movements in the Catholic church got their leaders, their starts, their pontifical approval at times of Catholic upheaval. For, examined in the clinical light of secular day, many people who founded religious movements appear nutty. With such a canvas for comparison, we’d have been better equipped to place Escrivá in the range of bizarre, blessed, overly scrupulous and unscrupulous activities carried on in the name of bringing people to God -- whether they want to come or not.

And there’s the rub: coercion.

It is on that charge, if Hutchison makes it stick, and he appears to, that Opus Dei denies its claim to be God’s Work.

By those deeds you shall know them.

The events of the Spanish Civil War and the sack of Barbastro are legends now. Everything is mist. Opus Dei likes the mist. A reveal-nothing, polished and urbane Opus Dei public relations approach smooths away the murky parts of its own past and dubious present under flawless good manners. Hutchison acknowledges that and blows away the mist.

At times a fluid read, at times hard work, Their Kingdom Come is quite worth the effort of thumbing through the Rolodex or E-mail address book to see who you know with access to a British book store.

Arthur Jones is NCR’s editor at large.

National Catholic Reporter, October 23, 1998