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Opus Dei prestige on display at centenary event


The extent of the power and prestige of Opus Dei in today’s Catholic church was on full display during a high profile Jan. 7-11 congress here marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of founder Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer.

The event drew 1,200 people from 57 countries, with an impressive number of church and state VIPs on hand, and was streamed live on the Internet. It occurred less than a month after Pope John Paul II recognized a miracle that clears the way for Escriva to become a saint.

One point that became clear during the Congress was how Opus Dei-inspired politicians tend to apply Escriva’s emphasis on finding holiness in work. A key theme of the gathering was the need for “coherence” between faith and politics, which in practical terms means taking one’s cues from the Catholic church on issues such as abortion, gay marriage and cloning.

American VIPs included Archbishop John Myers of Newark, N.J., a member of Opus Dei’s Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, and U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, Republican of Pennsylvania. Santorum told NCR he is not a member of Opus Dei, but an admirer of Escriva.

Escriva, a Spanish priest who died in 1975 and was beatified in 1992, launched Opus Dei in 1928. The idea was to encourage a lay spirituality through the sanctification of daily life, especially work.

The movement has grown rapidly. According to the 2001 Annuario Pontificio, the Vatican yearbook, there are today 82,443 lay members and 1,763 priests, although Opus also numbers scores of “cooperators,” people who are not members but who collaborate in various ways. In 1982, the pope granted Opus the status of a personal prelature, giving Escriva’s successor jurisdiction over the group’s internal life.

Over the years, Opus Dei’s rapid success has earned both friends and foes. While some Catholics admire Escriva’s spirituality, others regard the movement as too conservative and too powerful.

Italian politicians in attendance at the congress included ministers in the current center-right government, the leader of the center-left opposition, and a former prime minister. Prelates included Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope’s vicar in Rome, Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani of Lima, Peru (the world’s lone Opus Dei cardinal), Archbishop George Pell of Sydney, Australia, and Archbishop Carlo Caffarra, an Italian who exercises a strong influence on John Paul II’s moral teaching.

Opus Dei bishops present included Archbishop Julian Herranz, president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, sometimes called the Vatican’s Supreme Court, and Bishop Klaus Küng of Feldkirch in Austria.

The event was to conclude with an audience with Pope John Paul II Jan. 12.

Though the sprawling congress touched on many topics, one recurrent theme was the relationship between public life and faith. While speakers stressed that neither Escriva nor Opus Dei impose a particular political option, they also insisted that Catholicism must shape one’s approach to public policy.

Speakers cited a famous saying of Escriva: “Have you ever bothered to think how absurd it is to leave one’s Catholicism aside on entering a university, or a professional association, or a scholarly meeting, or a congress, as if you were checking your hat at the door?”

In contemporary Western debates, this idea of unity between faith and political allegiance often puts Opus Dei-inspired politicians on the right.

Santorum was a forceful champion of this view. He told NCR that a distinction between private religious conviction and public responsibility, enshrined in John Kennedy’s famous speech in 1960 saying he would not take orders from the Catholic church if elected president, has caused “much harm in America.”

“All of us have heard people say, ‘I privately am against abortion, homosexual marriage, stem cell research, cloning. But who am I to decide that it’s not right for somebody else?’ It sounds good,” Santourm said. “But it is the corruption of freedom of conscience.”

Santorum told NCR that he regards George W. Bush as “the first Catholic president of the United States.”

“From economic issues focusing on the poor and social justice, to issues of human life, George Bush is there,” he said. “He has every right to say, ‘I’m where you are if you’re a believing Catholic.’ ”

Other political figures echoed the call for unity between faith and politics.

Mariano Brito, a former minister in the government of Uruguay, described how he had blocked a health care program because it included funding for in-vitro fertilization. His stance, he said, was motivated by the desire to defend the right to life, a way of carrying his Catholic faith into public policy.

Brito is a “supernumerary” member of Opus Dei, meaning a layman who is married.

As for the pending canonization of Escriva, Cipriani told NCR that it marks “the official recognition of what the founder of Opus Dei put in the hands of the church” and would offer “special encouragement for priests in the Society of the Holy Cross.”

Cipriani said he does not see the canonization as signifying papal approval of Opus Dei, since that already occurred with recognition of the movement as a prelature.

Observers believe Cipriani became the first Opus Dei cardinal in February 2001 in part because of the high concentration of Opus Dei bishops in Peru. Cipriani said there are three Peruvian bishops who are full members, and four to five more who belong to the Society of Holy Cross.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

Related Web site

International Congress

National Catholic Reporter, January 18, 2002