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Controversial Opus Dei Has Stake in Papal Vote


By Lar­ry B. Stam­mer and Tra­cy Wilkin­son

ROME — When Pope John Paul II arrived at Opus Dei head­quar­ters one March day 11 years ago, even mem­bers of the ultra­con­ser­v­a­tive lay reli­gious move­ment long accus­tomed to Vat­i­can favor saw the vis­it as a sin­gu­lar moment in the group’s ascen­dan­cy with­in the Roman Catholic Church.

The pope had come to pay his respects to Bish­op Alvaro del Por­tillo, the prelate of Opus Dei, who had died that day.

“He came over to pray before the body of Don Alvaro, which is a very unusu­al thing, to have a pope come over to your house to pray,” said Father John Wauck, a pro­fes­sor at the Pon­tif­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty of the Holy Cross, an Opus Dei insti­tu­tion in Rome.

Now with its papal bene­fac­tor gone, Opus Dei’s influ­ence under the next pope — and its role in choos­ing the new pon­tiff — have become hot top­ics in a city awash in spec­u­la­tion as the world’s car­di­nals meet behind the closed doors of the Sis­tine Chapel to elect John Paul’s suc­ces­sor.

Opus Dei, or “Work of God,” was found­ed in Spain in 1928. It is based on the idea that Catholics, male and female, can live a sanc­ti­fied life with­out being priests or nuns. Many of its 85,000 world­wide mem­bers work in legal, med­ical, finan­cial and media pro­fes­sions and pro­fess unques­tion­ing fideli­ty to the church’s teach­ings and loy­al­ty to the pope. But crit­ics have called the group elit­ist, and it was depict­ed as a vil­lain­ous secret soci­ety in Dan Brown’s best­selling nov­el, “The Da Vin­ci Code.”

Offi­cial­ly, Opus Dei has stressed that it is above the fray. Its prelate, Bish­op Javier Echevar­ria, has called for prayer, not pol­i­tick­ing. He has also pledged the group’s loy­al­ty to whomev­er the car­di­nals elect.

“We already love with our whole soul the suc­ces­sor of John Paul II, who­ev­er he may be,” Echevar­ria wrote to the orga­ni­za­tion’s mem­bers. “Let us renew our desire to serve the pope, for it was only to serve the church that God want­ed Opus Dei.”

Oth­ers note that for the first time, two of the 115 vot­ing car­di­nals — Julian Her­ranz of Spain and Juan Luis Cipri­ani Thorne of Peru — are mem­bers of Opus Dei, giv­ing the group the abil­i­ty to work inside the con­clave.

“They have a chance to lob­by the oth­er car­di­nals from an inside posi­tion,” said an offi­cial with a lay orga­ni­za­tion that has close ties to the Vat­i­can. “Opus Dei has inter­na­tion­al con­nec­tions, they know many car­di­nals, are appre­ci­at­ed by some. They are enti­tled to talk to car­di­nals, to invite them to din­ner, all with author­i­ty.”

Sev­er­al Euro­pean car­di­nals are sym­pa­thet­ic to Opus Dei, among them Car­di­nal Camil­lo Rui­ni, the Ital­ian prelate who runs the Dio­cese of Rome on behalf of the pope, and a con­tender to suc­ceed John Paul. Rui­ni last year opened pro­ceed­ings to declare Opus Dei’s Del Por­tillo a saint.

But recent­ly, sev­er­al Ital­ian news­pa­pers breath­less­ly report­ed that the two Opus Dei car­di­nals were throw­ing their sup­port behind the can­di­da­cy of Car­di­nal Joseph Ratzinger, a Ger­man-born tra­di­tion­al­ist who has served as chief enforcer of church doc­trine for two decades.

Opus Dei flour­ished dur­ing John Paul’s pon­tif­i­cate. In 1982, he took the unprece­dent­ed step of mak­ing Opus Dei a per­son­al prela­ture of the church, answer­able not to local bish­ops in the dio­ce­ses where it oper­at­ed, but to the pope alone.

In anoth­er sign of the group’s influ­ence, the pope placed Opus Dei’s founder, the Span­ish priest Jose­maria Escri­va de Bal­a­guer, on the fast track to saint­hood in 1992, leapfrog­ging over Pope John XXIII. In 2002, Escri­va was can­on­ized before a crowd of 300,000 in St. Peter’s Square, becom­ing St. Jose­maria a mere 27 years after he died.

Father James Mar­tin, a Jesuit priest and asso­ciate edi­tor of his reli­gious order’s mag­a­zine, Amer­i­ca, says it is unde­ni­able that Opus Dei has a stake in the elec­tion of the new pope.

“They would not have grown so quick­ly and have gained the influ­ence they have were it not for John Paul,” he said. “Giv­en that they’re … respon­si­ble only to the pope, that is a sword that cuts both ways. If you have a pope who is favor­able to you, that’s ter­rif­ic. If you have a pope who does not see things the way Opus Dei does, that’s more prob­lem­at­ic.”

Opus Dei offi­cials have greet­ed the spec­u­la­tion about its role in choos­ing a new pope with a mix­ture of polit­i­cal real­ism and amuse­ment.

“Opus Dei has no can­di­date,” Wauck said in an inter­view in the sub­dued light of an ante­room at the group’s head­quar­ters here. He said that he thought the inter­est had been due in no small part to “The Da Vin­ci Code,” whose depic­tion of Opus Dei is dis­put­ed by the group as inac­cu­rate and mis­lead­ing.

In an inter­view before the pope’s death, Her­ranz, one of the Opus Dei car­di­nals, was asked whether an Opus Dei mem­ber could become pope, giv­en its neg­a­tive rep­u­ta­tion in some quar­ters. Her­ranz said the orga­ni­za­tion had been sub­ject­ed to bad pub­lic­i­ty, but that such attacks are attacks on Chris­tian­i­ty as a whole, not just Opus Dei.

“Opus Dei has become a vic­tim of Chris­t­ian-pho­bia,” Her­ranz said. But in fact, he said, “more peo­ple today love Opus Dei than don’t. And we have a saint now, our founder Escri­va, so more peo­ple under­stand the good works and spir­i­tu­al doc­trine of Opus Dei.”

Crit­ics of the move­ment have said the church’s deci­sion to make Escri­va a saint was dis­turb­ing in view of his friend­ship with Spain’s late fas­cist dic­ta­tor, Fran­cis­co Fran­co. Opus Dei spokesman Bri­an Finner­ty said that mem­bers of Opus Dei includ­ed both back­ers and oppo­nents of Fran­co.

Escri­va hewed to the the­o­log­i­cal­ly con­ser­v­a­tive stance shared by John Paul II, includ­ing strict adher­ence to the church’s teach­ing on sex­u­al and moral issues. He also spoke out against “god­less” com­mu­nism.

Sev­en­ty per­cent of Opus Dei mem­bers are mar­ried men and women. Known as super­nu­mer­aries, they com­mit to be guid­ed by spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines such as prayer, recit­ing the rosary, and attend­ing Mass.

Sin­gle mem­bers are known as numer­aries. Most live in gen­der-seg­re­gat­ed Opus Dei res­i­dences. They prac­tice celiba­cy, but do not take a vow.

Some mem­bers wear a cil­ice, which can range from a belt of prick­ly cloth to a band with dull spikes, around their thighs as a reminder of Christ’s suf­fer­ings, just as saints and monks often did in the past. They con­tribute all their income to Opus Dei beyond what they need for their imme­di­ate liv­ing expens­es.

The group has 1,875 priests, accord­ing to a Vat­i­can report this year. Nine­teen of its priests have been ordained as bish­ops.

About 3,000 of the group’s 85,000 mem­bers live in the U.S. It has 1,875 priests world­wide, accord­ing to a Vat­i­can report this year. One of its bish­ops, Jose H. Gomez, now heads the Dio­cese of San Anto­nio. Opus Dei has opened a $42-mil­lion, 17-sto­ry head­quar­ters in Man­hat­tan, and oper­ates stu­dent out­reach cen­ters through­out the coun­try, includ­ing one near UCLA.

In 1998, John Paul grant­ed the title “uni­ver­si­ty” to Opus Dei’s athenaeum in Rome, mak­ing it the Pon­tif­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty of the Holy Cross, one of six such insti­tu­tions in the city.

As for the future, Opus Dei offi­cials said they were not wor­ried. Their sta­tus in the church as a per­son­al prela­ture is cast in canon law. To alter Opus Dei’s sta­tus, a new pope would have to change the canon law, and that is not expect­ed.

“From the pope’s van­tage point, what’s not to like?” Mar­tin, the Jesuit priest, asked. “First, you have all these ded­i­cat­ed lay Catholics. Sec­ond­ly, you have Opus Dei’s afflu­ent mem­bers donat­ing mon­ey to the Vat­i­can. And you have Opus Dei mem­bers adher­ing to the mag­is­teri­um [offi­cial church teach­ings] as strict­ly as pos­si­ble.”


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