Breaking the Opus Dei Code: The Secretive Catholic Group's Name Means 'Work of God,' but in Washington, D.C., That Divine Task Has a Decidedly Political Bent

By Boston, Rob | Church & State, May 2006 | Go to article overview

Breaking the Opus Dei Code: The Secretive Catholic Group's Name Means 'Work of God,' but in Washington, D.C., That Divine Task Has a Decidedly Political Bent


Boston, Rob, Church & State


From the outside, the non-descript bookstore at 15th and K Streets in the heart of Washington, D.C., looks like any other shop selling religious literature and goods.

A small sign in the window reads "Catholic Information Center." Visitors are advised that mass and confession are offered daily. Inside, one can pick up titles like How to Raise Good Catholic Children, Celibacy in the Early Church and A Catholic Homeschool Treasury.

But off in one corner is a special section of books dealing with the life and philosophy of Roman Catholic priest (turned saint) Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer and the controversial organization he founded: Opus Dei.

Far from being just another religious bookstore, the Catholic Information Center is, in fact, a prominent American outpost for Opus Dei, an organization much in the news lately. The center, within walking distance of the White House, serves as a rallying point for ultra-conservative Catholics eager for a voice in the secular halls of government power.

Opus Dei, Latin for "work of God," has, according to media reports, at least 3,000 members in the United States--but its influence, critics say, has been more substantial than its numbers would indicate. In 2002, an Opus Dei priest, the Rev. C. John McCloskey III, former director of the Catholic Information Center, converted U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) from evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism. Brownback's conversion was shepherded by U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a conservative Catholic and Opus Dei booster.

Long the scourge of progressive Catholics, Opus Dei, with an estimated 80,000 members worldwide, has enjoyed a close relationship with the church's conservative hierarchy, serving, as one writer put it in the mid 1980s, as a "holy mafia" to promote far-right views on "culture war" issues.

The organization has long had its own order of priests, and in 1982, Pope John Paul II granted Opus Dei special status known as a "personal prelature." That means the group is overseen by its own bishop, who reports directly to the pope. Opus Dei is the only organization to enjoy such unique privileges.

For many years, Opus Dei remained secretive and mysterious. Rumors swirled that some members engaged in strange rituals, such as "mortification of the flesh" by wearing a cilice, a small, spiked chain worn around the thigh that pricks the skin. The group was accused of targeting impressionable college students and restricting their access to family members. Some critics labeled Opus Dei a cult.

Although these charges frequently resurface, it's the group's ties to reactionary politics and ultra-orthodox forms of Catholicism that generate most interest these days. Under the conservative papacy of John Paul II and his successor, Benedict XVI, Opus Dei is seen as an increasingly powerful organization dedicated to fending off liberalism in the church and advancing a hard-right political agenda.

The group's reticence to discuss its beliefs and operations only added to the sense of mystery. A few years ago, things began to change and Opus Dei was forced a little more into the open by a most unlikely source: a best-selling novelist.

Writer Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code has sold 15 million copies worldwide. The fictional mystery/thriller deals with a centuries-old plot to cover up inconvenient revelations about the origins of the Catholic Church and a frenzied search for the Holy Grail. Opus Dei figures in the book, and one of the characters is a crazed Opus Dei monk who, in order to preserve the church cover-up, murders four people.

Although the book is fictional, Brown has insisted that it is based in part on real historical events, and many readers have apparently taken that to heart. Amazon.com lists several titles purporting to tell the "real" story behind the code. With a film adaptation of the book due out this month, interest in Opus Dei is likely to increase. …

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