Pulling Back the Curtain: Opus Dei

Pulling Back the Curtain: Opus Dei

This post will alarm you–and it should. It’s also long than usual, so buckle your seatbelts. But it has a temporary, maybe even permanent, cheerful ending (sort of).

To understand what’s really happening today in this country, particularly in our legal system, we need to go deep inside the headlines, into identity issues, to religion.

A momentary aside: I am taking on the Roman Catholic Church here, as I frequently have before, but I don’t mean to let other religions off the hook, especially extremist evangelical Protestants. In fact, given the evidence of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention and the corruption and outrageous sexual behavior at Liberty University, etc., Americans these days tend to identify the word “evangelical” with scandal. In the SBC’s case, victims (almost always women) were ignored, intimidated, dismissed, and demeaned. Many of the most powerful Southern Baptist leaders betrayed the powerless and justified the coverup as essential to Christian evangelism. The FBI has finally been called in to examine the rampant sexual abuse.

But back to the Catholic Church–and to a group called Opus Dei, Latin for “the work of god.” Opus Dei has been termed at best “controversial,” and at worst “Santa Mafia,” a fascist organization inside the Church.

Many Catholics are familiar with Opus Dei, and most of them shudder at the name–but the general public much less so. You may think you know about Opus Dei from its affable public profile as an organization simply being a devout, “nonpolitical” Roman Catholic lay and clerical organization whose members strive to implement Christian values in their occupations and in society as a whole. Some of that is true. Or you may have come across it dramatized in the Dan Brown novel and subsequent film, “The Da Vinci Code” –a frighteningly unflattering depiction of Opus Dei as a secret society that encourages celibacy and practices brainwashing, intimidation of its members, cult-like aggressive recruiting practices, radical fasting, harsh rules, control of women, and mortification of the flesh. Distressingly, a great deal of that is true. Here are some facts you may not have heard.

Opus Dei is a powerful, secretive organization with members in political, economic, and church leadership throughout the world. Opus Dei reveals no details about its finances, maintains a high degree of control over its members, and censors their reading matter as “appropriate or inappropriate.” Women’s membership has been another source of criticism, due to rank misogyny in its teachings and practice: for example, women are supposedly treated as equals, but are separated from men in their personal spiritual training and in separate branches; in many male Opus Dei centers, women visit every evening to cook for the men, and then leave with no social interaction whatsoever. Sexual abuse cases in Spain, Mexico, Uruguay, Chile, and the United States have been investigated, with canonical sanctions (but not civil or criminal charges) applied to the perpetrators. These “controversies” include those above-mentioned, plus recruiting methods aimed at teenagers being separated from their families; illicit use of psychiatric drugs; misleading of the lay faithful about their status and rights under Canon Law; extreme fasting and mortification of the flesh practiced by celibate members; elitism; and support of authoritarian governments.

Defenders accuse critics of merely “misunderstanding” Opus Dei, or its mission.

The founder, Josemaria Escrivá de Balaguer, was an ally of Spanish dictator Franco and a falangist Spanish priest (literally–he was a member of the original Falangist Party, the fascist political party governing Spain after the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39). Escrivá conducted a personal spiritual retreat for Geralissimo Francisco Franco himself, and many of Franco’s cabinet ministers were from Opus Dei.

Founded in 1928, Opus Dei was formally approved by the Holy See in 1950 as a secular institute—a new form of religious association whose members “profess evangelical councils in secular life.” On November 28, 1982, Pope John Paul II, a staunch supporter of Opus Dei, designated it a “personal prelature,” the first and only independent and personal Prelature in the Church–under the sole jurisdiction of the pope and no other prelate, and with jurisdiction over persons rater than a geographic area. Later, John Paul II also allowed an unusually swift canonization of Escrivá–faster than any saint in history–because Opus Dei had bailed out the Vatican Bank with $250 million in 1985.

Opus Dei lists “General membership” thus: Supernumeraries, Numerary Assistants, Associates, Priests, and Cooperators. In brief:
Numeraries are celibate members who give themselves over in “full availability” for the Prelature’s official undertakings;
Numerary Assistants exist in the Women’s Branch of Opus Dei. Their full availability for the Prelature is lived out doing a specific type of work, such as looking after domestic needs of the conference centers and residential centers of Opus Dei; they live in housing run by Opus Dei and do not have jobs outside the centers;
Associates differ from Numeraries in not making themselves “fully” available to staff official undertakings, instead giving themselves over to “additional social realities, through their professions.” Because of this difference in availability for official activities, Associates do not live in Opus Dei centers like numeraries, but maintain their own housing. Their emotional and social support comes from Opus Dei centers, other Associates, and personal families and friends;
Priests always hail from among the male Numeraries and Associates and have typically lived as lay members for several years before their ordination. At ordination, the prelate of Opus Dei becomes their bishop. Priests of Opus Dei observe the same disciplines as Numerary and Associate members;
Cooperators, though not considered members per se, collaborate in some way: praying, charitable contributions, or by providing some other assistance. Cooperators are not required to be celibate or adhere to other special requirements. They are not even required to be Christian, though may attend training activities provided by Opus Dei. Many Cooperators are relatives, friends, colleagues, and neighbors of members. There are also numerous relationships worldwide with institutions, universities, and so-called “Corporate Works.”
A Corporate Work is an official organization or function of the organization, but because Opus Dei is a singular personal prelature, its corporate works are almost always independent of the territorial dioceses in which they operate, in contrast to almost all other operations of the Church, which must report to their diocesan bishop.

A Note: Please keep Associates, Cooperators, and Corporate Works especially in mind as you read on in this blogpost.

Controversies swirl around Opus Dei like sinkholes. They include those listed above, which have been the stuff of lawsuits and exposés, including testimonies by some of the more famous former Numeraries, like Maria del Carmen Tapia, Secretary to Escrivá in Rome and commissioned by him to found the Women’s Branch of Opus Dei in Venezuela. According to former members, the controversies are based on practices institutionalized while Escrivá was still alive, and are written into internal documents and transmitted orally —they are deliberately kept from being reviewed by the Church.

But what is nowhere exposed–because it isn’t even perceived as a problem–is Opus Dei’s unabashed encouragement of intense economic and political ambition.

Escrivá pursued prestigious people for membership, and established a military-style hierarchical authority structure, with an emphasis on obedience as a means of efficiency in the apostolate. In recent years (2017-2018), New York City Fellows were those employed in brokerages, law firms, leading publications, universities, medicine, industry, and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of N.Y. In other recent periods (2017-2018), Washington D.C. Fellows have included those employed in the White House, State Department, House of Representatives, U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Communications Commission, U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, plus prestigious law firms, conservative think tanks, higher education, and medicine.

Scattered lists of prominent Opus Dei members are available, if they’ve “outed” themselves first. These include the president of Spain’s largest bank in assets and the president of Spain’s third biggest bank, the chief financial officer of Ireland’s largest bank, and Juan Antonio Samaranch, former president of the International Olympic Committee. The group also targeted for conversion political and business leaders such as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich; former U.S. Senator Sam Brownback; Judge Robert Bork (Reagan’s failed Supreme Court nominee); Fox News host Laura Ingraham, and Larry Kudlow (Trump’s director of the National Economic Council, who wrote in 2016 that plutocracy is “just what America needs”).

The infamous “troika” that served Donald Trump’s regime so effectively was constituted of the arch-conservative, powerful, Federalist Society, the CIC (Catholic Information Center, an ultra right-wing think tank), and Opus Dei. Pat Cipollone, who served as Trump’s White House Counsel from December 2018 to January 2021, was listed as a member of the CIC Board until CIC stopped publishing their board list in October 2018; today, his daughter-in-law is a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. William Barr chaired the CIC board in 2014 and served there until 2017, when he joined Trump as Attorney General. Following his departure as AG in January 2021, Barr returned to the CIC as a senior fellow, and last October (2021) became the new “St. Thomas More Chair.”

Interlocking troika board members and officials are stunningly hidden in plain sight. Leonardo Leo, a self-declared Opus Dei operative, was also the executive vice president of The Federalist Society, and Chair of the Board of Directors of the CIC (which, by the way, is two blocks from the White House). Leo hits every base. All this is a matter of record.

Opus Dei encourages Catholic laypeople and priests to embody Catholic doctrine through their “chosen professions.” What do you think this means to people whose chosen professions are as Washington power brokers?

Today, we Americans are suffering the legacy of Trump’s troika. In January 2019, The Washington Post Magazine wrote that The Federalist Society had reached an “unprecedented peak of power and influence.” The CIC’s “members and leaders continue to have an outsize impact on policy and politics,” wrote Joe Heim in The Washington Post. Opus Dei’s influence is felt in all of Washington’s corridors of power, and together with the CIC it “advances a hard-right political agenda” and “a rallying point for ultra-conservative Catholics eager for a voice in the secular halls of government power,” stated Church and State, the magazine for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The NRA is also heavily involved, as is The Charles Koch Foundation, which donated $30 million to the cause of extreme right-wing political influence.

And the malevolent legacy lives on in the judgements of The Supreme Court of the United States, which we can shorthand as SCOTUS.

The extremely powerful man who forwarded five names to the Senate for approval as supreme court justices was Leonardo Leo. It was Leo who pushed Mitch McConnell to nominate Justices Roberts, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett. The troika’s role in installing Trump’s justices is also a matter of record. According to Church and State, “Of the Supreme Court members, six (Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Samuel Alito, and Amy Coney Barrett) are current or former members.”

Others have also identified the late Justice Antonin Scalia as an Opus Dei member; his wife attended Catholic Information Center events and his son has spoken there. Church and State Magazine writes that “Leo has been a longtime friend and champion of Justice Clarence Thomas,” and that when John Roberts was nominated for the Court, Leonard Leo “assured conservative Catholics that Roberts will not follow the same path as Anthony Kennedy” (who apparently went “squishy” and liberal). Leo, perhaps the most integral individual in the selection of Brett Kavanaugh, was present at the White House ceremony when Trump announced Kavanaugh’s nomination. Gorsuch was raised Catholic and went to the same elite Catholic prep school as Kavanaugh, but became an Episcopalian when he married an Anglican. Yet he speaks frequently at conferences of Catholic legal scholars seeking to expand their influence on policy, and he concurred with majority decisions in the SCOTUS cases of Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor (whose name always sounds to me like Hummel figurines).

The 2010 SCOTUS ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission reversed century-old campaign finance restrictions and enabled corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited funds on elections. (See Corporate Works above). The 5–4 majority in favor of Citizens United were the same Catholic justices who gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013: Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito. As for the decision that overturned Roe . . .

The current Supreme Court was “built” by The Federalist Society, with its “interlocking nonprofits working on media campaigns and other initiatives generating public support for conservative judges,” all coordinated by Leonard Leo, according to a report in The Washington Post. This has been going on for years, even pre-Trump.

So Opus Dei has become a powerful force in American political life–and a machine of high efficiency for achieving world power. Which starts with the Vatican.

Control of the Vatican is certainly worth the effort. The sovereignty of the Holy See—the name of government of both Vatican City State and worldwide Church—provides criminal and civil immunity from any other authority to Vatican residents and officials. Additionally, the Church has roughly 5,000 prelates around the world who are heads of dioceses. Each has the capacity for hidden bank accounts, investments, slush funds named for a phony charity or foundation. Under the guise of “freedom of religion,” those prelates in industrialized countries operate with no governmental oversight. In the U.S., there are 195 dioceses, and the bishops control around 40,000 organizations, agencies and foundations each with a 501(c)(3) tax code. That means they pay no taxes, provide a tax deduction to their donors, and have no legal obligation to produce financial statements showing truthfully where their money comes from or goes.

While we worry about “dark money” and SuperPACs, the Catholic Church can move unlimited funds—foreign and domestic—to think-tanks, media, voter suppression efforts, and every other means available to subvert democracy.

This was a–perhaps the–compelling reason for the deliberate creation of the Religious Right by neo-conservatives in the late 1970s.

But wait. It’s not an outright victory. But it decidedly is a temporary–and possibly permanent–change.

Francis I has ridden to the rescue.

Two months ago, on July 22, 2022, a seismic shake-up of Opus Dei, under a decree ordered by Pope Francis, came into effect; it seriously reduces Opus Dei’s power and independence. The reforms, announced by Francis in a Motu Proprio edict, are part of wider changes to introduce greater transparency in the government of the Church, and are in accord with Francis’s reform of the Roman Curia in the Apostolic Constitution.

From now on, the Opus Dei leader — the Prelate — will no longer be appointed a bishop, and the organization becomes dependent on the Dicastery (or ministry) of the Clergy. The Prelate will no longer wear the ring or the episcopal trappings.

“A form of governance based on charism [the spirit, grace] more than on hierarchical authority is needed,” Francis slyly wrote in his decree. He ordered the organization and its members to “safeguard its charism, to adopt a form of government based more on the charism than on hierarchical authority.”

Msgr. Fernando Ocariz, Opus Dei’s current prelate, was not ordained a bishop when taking office in 2017, during the current pontificate. His response to Francis grudgingly though diplomatically noted: “It is a concretization of the Holy Father’s decision to place the figure of personal prelatures in the Dicastery for the Clergy, which we filially accept. . . . The Pope’s desire to highlight the charismatic dimension of the Work now invites us to reinforce the family atmosphere of affection and trust: the Prelate must be a guide but, above all, a father.”

In his decree, Francis also changed some of Opus Dei’s constitution, which had formerly required a report on its apostolic work to be submitted directly to the pope and only every five years. Under the changes, the prelate is now ordered to submit a report to the Dicastery for the Clergy, and to do so every year.

“The government of Opus Dei must be at the service of the charism — of which we are administrators, not owners,” the organization states on its website, engaging in pseudo-humble, pretzel-like contortions of trying to explain why this earthquake isn’t really a drastic demotion at all.

Meanwhile, headlines around the world in the Christian press and in all Catholic countries blared such sentiments as: Opus Dei Downgraded! and No More Privileges or Independence for Opus Dei! El Pais, the major newspaper in Spain, noted that the new conditions Francis dictates force the organization to give explanations about the management of its educational centers and the way it trains its priests (including answering accusations from former members about abuse of power, secrecy, sectarianism, coercion, and overly aggressive proselytism).

Meanwhile, Opus Dei’s website has had to acknowledge that “The change is in the Prelature’s relations with the Holy See.”

The question for us is, what will we Americans do to reclaim our Supreme Court?