The Catholic Right: An Introduction To The Role Of Opus Dei

By Frank Cocozzelli | 16 May 2006
Talk to Action

Spanish priest Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer (1902-1975, the founder of Opus Dei. Three cardinals have emerged as the most powerful in Pope Francis’s papacy; all have close ties to Opus Dei. Two now control all Vatican finance. One of Opus Dei’s goals “was to control the Vatican’s wealth, now closer than ever to being realized” with Cardinal George Pell in charge of reforming the Vatican’s finances at the new Secretariat for the Economy. (Source: Opus Dei Influence Rises to the Top in the Vatican / Daily Kos.) (Credit: Fernando Arroyo / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This series began with a quote from the Jesuit priest Wilfrid Parsons. Using nineteenth century Spain as an example, he explained how it is often the powerful friends of the Catholic Church who are the primary cause of apostasy. It is those who exploit the less powerful by using the cloak of religion to disguise their pursuit of unjustifiable, disproportionate power and pecuniary gain who cause the working class and the intellectual to despise the Church.

In order to fully understand the heart of Catholic theological conservatism, one must understand an organization that exists within the Catholic Church, Opus Dei. When its core beliefs and strategies are fully examined, then the goals of ultra-conservative Catholicism can be better understood. Hopefully this installment will provide the reader with an introduction to this very secret society while refuting some the inaccuracies surrounding its workings, much of which is due to the publicity over Dan Brown’s book, The DaVinci Code.

Note: Since this subject of the Catholic Right is more complex than I had originally imagined, I’ve decided to expand the series beyond the originally intended four parts. Therefore, until I believe that all the major points of interest are covered, the series will continue.

Opus Dei, literally meaning “The Work of God” was founded in Spain 1928 by the priest Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer. He based its mission upon the idea that lay Catholics could achieve holiness without entering a religious order. Instead it could be extended to their everyday work, attaining it through a combination of prayer, principle and unquestioned adherence to Catholic teachings on all social issues—including those frowning upon religious dissent. Over the last twenty years its influence has grown significantly in the United States.  National Catholic Reporter correspondent John L. Allen has identified  Bishop Robert Finn of the Kansas City and St. Joseph, Bishop Nicholas DeMarzio of Brooklyn and Queens, Archbishop John Myers of Newark, and Archbishop José Gomez of San Antonio as having strong links to Opus Dei.

It is no accident that Opus Dei coalesced in Franco’s Spain. Even today rumors and stories persist about its involvement with Francisco Franco’s forces from 1936 through 1939. This should be no surprise since Iberian Catholicism has constantly flirted with extremism. It was fanatical enough to produce the Spanish Inquisition whereby all dissent was brutally stifled. It built and controlled a global empire that lasted until 1898. The Spanish monarchy had applied its particular brand of Catholicism with continued zealous fervor in its New World colonies. Native Americans who refused to accept conversion were often maimed and brutally murdered.

From the time of the expulsion of the Moors until the rise of the Republican government in the 1930s, a monarchy, often Carlist in nature ruled  (as later installments of this series will explain, how Carlist influences, with its opposition to modernism, figures prominently in the mindset of much of  the extremer elements of the American Catholic Right). The Moorish occupation left many Spaniards, especially the monarchy, with an almost fanatical brand of Catholicism that favored the wealthy while mostly ignoring the impoverished. These were the “nefarious friends of the Church” Reverend Parsons warned about. When Spanish democracy finally did emerge in the early twentieth century, it was plagued by communists trying to take power from the inside and fascists exerting pressure from the outside. It had no real chance to survive its growing pains: Franco, with help from Hitler and Mussolini, saw to that. On a parallel plane, Opus Dei’s ultra-conservatism and pro-monarchy views put it squarely in the Republicans’ line of fire. The group survived the war (mostly exiled in Rome) and was able to then grow unmolested under Franco’s fascist regime.

The danger that a politically active Opus Dei membership currently represents to liberal democracy is not from assassinations by imaginary albino monks (for the record, there are no Opus Dei monks), but in its very Plutocratic attitude in abhorring dissent. And just as it is with other Church friends that have caused apostasy, Opus Dei is openly more concerned with the economic self-interest of “friends” who already have superfluous wealth and power, often at the expense of the economically less powerful.  They are not ashamed of the organization’s wealth, but are actually conspicuous about it as evidenced by its new seventeen-story 243 Lexington Avenue, New York, New York headquarters. When it opened in 2001 The New York Daily News pegged its value at $42 million. It is the antitheses of the Catholic Worker beliefs of Dorothy Day as well as the liberal economics of distributive justice advocate Monsignor John A. Ryan.

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Despite protestations, wealthier Opus members use politics as the means to further its own financial as well as theological interests. As Damian Thompson, editor-in-chief of the British Catholic Herald correctly noted, “What no one can dismiss (because it is true) is the allegation that Opus Dei seeks the advancement not only of its message but also of its own interests: hence the endless courting of cardinals, bishops and even journalists.”

“The Work” has roughly 80,000 members worldwide with about 3,000 members in the United States. It maintains an internal caste-like class structure of “Numeraries” (unmarried, celebrate members), “Supernumeraries” (married members) and “cooperators (sympathetic non-members).” While it is true that their members practice a certain amount of self-inflicted corporal mortification, it is clearly not on par with what is shown in The DaVinci Code film trailer. National Catholic Reporter’s John L. Allen, in his recent book on Opus Dei, does not view the group as a threat to liberal democracy. Yet other authors, such as former Jesuit Michael Walsh have described an Opus Dei whose members are deeply involved in political and economic machinations, often with an ultra-conservative bent.

Allen may be correct that Opus Dei has no official political agenda for the secular world. But this seems to be more for purposes of plausible deniability. While Opus claims that its members are able to have any political belief they desire, the facts would indicate otherwise.

“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,” Santorum said. “But it is the corruption of freedom of conscience.”

Santorum went on to say 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.”

John L. Allen, Jr., who reported the comments observed, “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.”

Opus Dei’s formula for success is not based upon the quantity of its converts, but the quality of its converts. They seek out either the potentially influential  (college students) or the already influential (recent converts include CNBC supply-side economic pundit Lawrence Kudlow, Senator Sam Brownback and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas—converted by Justice Scalia’s son who is an Opus Dei priest). They seek out the elite and the wealthy for leadership with the goal of infusing the world with a pre-Vatican II view of the world.

Other American members or cooperators include the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court John Roberts, noted attorney Mary Ann Glendon, Judge Bork and his wife Mary Ellen, former US Solicitor General Ted Olson, Tom Monaghan (Domino’s Pizza), Robert Novak, and of course, possibly Senator Rick Santorum—many of whom are connected with both the Project for the New American Century as well as the Institute on Religion and Democracy, two groups with very far right political agendas. Yet Opus Dei’s goals are more “Theocon” than “Neocon” in nature. Nowhere in their membership is a Mario Cuomo or a Paul Begala or an Anna Quindlen.

All of the above followers of Escriva’—whether or not officially part of Opus Dei—would prefer a society where the Church and the state would exist in different, but still mutually reliant spheres, freed from the restraints of the Establishment Clause. In this scenario, both church and state both maintain an institutional authority in which the moral consensus they define is the glue that maintains order in society—as if it were a quasi-governmental institution itself. This is the model the Catholic Church had been gradually moving away from, starting in the middle of the nineteenth Century, further abrogated by Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, but somewhat again embraced by the more conservative Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Opus Dei also displays many other tendencies which are contrary to mainstream American Catholic thought. This is evidenced by its ignoring many of the changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council such saying Mass in the local language facing those attending instead of in Latin, back to the faithful.  Some of the founder’s beliefs besides being factually incorrect (such as on the creation of the Roman papacy and the concept of papal infallibility) reflect some disturbing rules for behavior. In two of Escrvia’s books, The Way and In Love with the Church, he urged secrecy in his apostolate (The Way, No. 839), defines compromise as laziness and weakness (The Way, No. 54), demands blind obedience to Church teachings (The Way, No. 617), calls non-Catholic schools, “pagan schools” (The Way, No.866), mocks Voltaire (The Way, No. 849). His book In Love with the Church cites such questionable authorities such as the openly anti-democratic Pope Pius IX (this was the same Pius IX who ordered a young Jewish child kidnapped from his parents in Bologna and raised him in the Vatican to become a priest, all against his family’s will).

These books also attack human sexuality (Opus Dei clergy such as Archbishop Myers of Newark are in the forefront of battles over biological issues such as choice and stem cell research). Escriva also taught his followers to put away their scruples (The Way, Nos. 258 and 259), seemingly teaching that the ends always justify the means. It must be remembered that Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are Straussians who are at the least Opus Dei “cooperators.” Perhaps maxims 258 and 259 might explain Scalia’s and Thomas’s ability to abandon both their states’ rights and strict constitutionalist constructionist principles in Bush vs. Gore. Clearly, much of what Escriva preached dovetails nicely with the neoconservative ideal of a society built upon religious orthodoxy.

The right of Opus Dei followers to speak out on issues of the day is not being disputed. Yet when they do so—especially those who are either in government or are political pundits with an agenda—they often hide their affiliation (the exception being the Opus  Dei priests who are members of the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, members). Instead they usually identify themselves only as “traditional” or “faithful” Catholics. An educated guess is that this is done to intentionally mislead their audience. They want to give the impression that they are speaking as a representative member of mainstream American Catholicism instead of as a member of an ultra-orthodox group of about 3000. If they were to reveal their Opus Dei affiliation at the outset of an interview or televised roundtable it might invite the immediate scrutiny of their motive by an alert media.

And now with the release of the film The DaVinci Code Opus Dei will use the debate over both the divinity of Jesus and how the organization is portrayed as a Teflon shield. Valid questions about the political activity of some its members may now be deflected by using the film’s inaccuracies to conveniently change the subject when more substantial questions are raised.

Just as it was with the economically powerful friends of the Spanish Church a century ago, the common secular theme of many highly visible Opus members is an economic self-interest that is autocratic and driven by a very corruptible will-to-power. Whatever issues of non-political catechism centrist conservative, moderate or progressive Catholics may have with the Opus Dei they are still internal Church issues worthy of discussion. But when the group seeks to selectively change catechism as a means to stifle dissent within the greater society shared with other faiths Catholics must then understand that religion is being cynically manipulated for political purposes. Then mainstream Catholics must take a stand against Opus Dei and other such similar groups not just for the well-being of the institution of the Church, but also for the preservation of “the common sense of democracy.” Reverend Parsons’ warning about the Church becoming affiliated with “nefarious friends” is just as valid today as it was in 1936.

In the next installment its member’ roles in the current American conservative movement politics will be examined in much greater detail.

Frank L. Cocozzelli is a private practice attorney who lives with his family in New York City. He is a director of the Institute for Progressive Christianity, on behalf of which he co-authored with Eve Herold the White Paper, “An Unholy Alliance: How Neoconservatives and the Religious Right Have Joined Forces to Fight Stem Cell Research.” He is also the author of a 2008 study published in The Public Eye magazine, “How Roman Catholic Neocons Peddle Natural Law into Debates about Life and Death.” He writes a weekly column on neoconservatives and the Catholic Right at Talk to Action, and is currently working on a book on contemporary liberalism.


Opus Dei Influence Rises to the Top in the Vatican
The Vatican: Opus Dei, Espionage, Death and Terrorism
Opus Dei: Neofascism Within the Catholic Church
Opus Dei: The Vatican-Pentagon Connection

Opus Dei: The Influential Ultra-Conservative Christian Sect (2002)

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