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Soft-focused Opus

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

But it may, some say, have led to the elevation of a controversial Spanish monsignor to sainthood, just 27 years after his death.
The process that led to the canonization of Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer was described as a “scandal” by Newsweek religion correspondent Kenneth Woodward and others. And there certainly have been plenty of scandals associated with the group that Escriva founded when a precocious 26-year-old priest in 1928. Unfortunately, some of the best-known don’t warrant a mention in John L. Allen’s “Opus Dei.”
Allen is the respected Rome correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter, a weekly headquartered in Kansas City. His books include a 2000 biography of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who last year became Pope Benedict XVI. On previous form and reputation, one might have expected him to take the critical line on Opus Dei of the Jesuit priest James Martin (whose latest book was the subject of Terry Golway’s column in last week’s Echo), and writers Michael Walsh and the late Peter Hebblethwaite, themselves both former members of the Society of Jesus.
Allen, however, was given unprecedented access to the group, and that, it seems, went a long way towards convincing him that it was capable of change, and that perhaps it has learnt or can learn from its mistakes, even if it doesn’t quite characterize them as such.
The journalist traveled the world and was presented with perfectly decent, well-adjusted and intelligent members of Opus Dei, which no doubt helped soften for him its rather fearsome reputation. Certainly, the group has sometimes gotten a raw deal from the media, and it hasn’t helped that an unsavory character in the most popular novel in years, Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” is a member. (The film version directed by Ron Howard will be get its first screening at the Cannes Film Festival in May.)
Allen, then, was in the perfect position to write an even-handed account; instead he opted to give Opus Dei an even break.
It can detected clearly in his treatment of the group’s relationship with Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco, which is shoddily researched. He writes: “A charge of being ‘pro-Franco’ cannot be sustained [against Escriva],” which is, quite frankly, ridiculous.
We might have hoped for a rather livelier engagement with the Personal Prelature of Opus Dei, which is its official title; instead Allen sounds like a conservative academic or judge who’s been asked to look into a controversial subject. He’s scrupulously fair, there’s to be no cover-up, but the official version is in before he even starts and it’s in favor of the establishment. He even issues some recommendations at the end.

‘Lost’ children
Allen talks to a brave Western Massachusetts woman named Dianne DiNicola who went to extreme measures to extract her college student daughter from the group and afterwards established the Opus Dei Awareness Network. He makes reference to J.J.M. Garvey, an orthodox American Catholic who in 1989 wrote “A Parent’s Guide to Opus Dei,” after he’d “lost” his two daughters to the group.
But it’s the stories of Opus Dei’s loyal members that are much more likely to be told in a narrative format. The same applies to people who detached themselves from full commitment while remaining on good terms with the group. They emerge from the printed page as more fully rounded human beings, while the detractors tend not to.
Allen says neither side is lying, but suggests that “[b]oth the critics and the supporters may be describing the same reality, but seen from two different perspectives.”
He puts some of this down to down to the different style of directors at Opus Dei residences: some, in the past at least, could be “heavy-handed and authoritarian” and others “understanding and flexible.”
The author doesn’t explore the idea that maybe Opus Dei itself is two different realities.
Allen says “there is a basic psychological fact that some people have a greater tolerance for structure than others.”
This may be more relevant when discussing those whose experience with the group was relatively brief. But there’s a whole category of people who joined as students and left in early middle age, 15, 20 or 25 years on – and then further down the road, came out as vocal opponents.
They include Miguel Fisac, an architect who was the 9th person to join the group in the 1930s; Raimundo Panikkar, a priest who was considered a brilliant recruit in the 1940s and later became an academic and theologian in California; Vladimir Felzman, who is a priest in the Westminster diocese in London; Alberto Moncada, a Spaniard who helped establish the group in Latin America and went on to a career as a sociologist; another Spaniard with long Latin American experience was Maria del Carmen Tapia, who later became a university administrator in California; and John Roche, an Oxford academic who joined in University College Galway.
All of them knew Monsignor Escriva; but their voices were marginalized — sometimes by their being demonized — in the canonization process
Their individual life stories are in a certain sense heroic, not that it was a quality the man they once revered was looking for.
Escriva wrote: “You talk of dying ‘heroically.’ Do you not think that it is more ‘heroic’ to die a bourgeois death, in a good bed, unnoticed…than to die of love-sickness.”
The quote gives some hint of the Opus Dei ethos. Escriva created of corps of militant Catholics who would take monastic vows but then go out into the world to take leadership positions in banking, industry, politics and the media. (Initially the main type of member was the numerary who was celibate, lived in an Opus Dei residence and had a full-time job. Later, Escriva added the “supernumerary” level of married membership, as well as “associates, “cooperators” and others.)
They reached tremendous heights in Franco’s Spain. But more than 20 years before that, the young Fr. Escriva fretted about the rapid spread of liberal and republican ideas through Spain’s intellectual elites and its middle classes generally. He was a supporter of Carlism, a traditionalist monarchist faction strong in his own native part of northern Spain.

Catholic rebellion
Escriva was also reportedly influenced, too, as was the rapidly rising military officer Francisco Franco, by Accion Espanola, an obscure group that was modeled on the much more powerful Action Francaise, active in interwar France. It espoused authoritarian monarchy, Catholic traditionalism and nationalism. It believed in the fusion of sorts between church and state known philosophically as “integralism.”
Meanwhile the rebellion of Spanish nationalists in 1936 was explicitly Catholic in its ideology. Franco, the caudillo, emerged as the strong man of the regime-in-waiting, shocking even his German and Italian allies with his ruthlessness — even after military victory was secured, his forces executed tens of thousands in a mopping up operation.
The regime was still in siege mode, when in the mid-1940s, Escriva was asked to supervise a week-long retreat for the dictator at his official residence, the Pardo Palace. Allen places the date at 1946, and says it was a one-off occasion; according to Franco biographer Paul Preston, perhaps the leading expert on 20th century Spain in the Anglophone world, Escriva’s spiritual retreats “had begun” in 1944. (Preston’s works also include “The Triumph of Democracy in Spain [1987] and “Juan Carlos”[2004].)
In any case, it was clear that Opus Dei ingratiated itself quite early in the life of the regime.
Allen mentions that Escriva was assigned to do the retreat by the Spanish bishops’ conference and that it was arranged by Madrid’s bishop, Leopoldo Eijo y Garay, Opus Dei’s first important patron. He doesn’t question why an obscure cleric would be honored in this way. One clue, though, is Eijo y Garay, who elsewhere has been described as a right-wing fanatic.
Ultimately, Escriva would spend the years 1946 until his death in 1975, also the last year of Franco’s life, in residence in Rome, working on the canonical status of his movement.
Nonetheless, that didn’t stop him being involved in intrigue at court. Unlike the more fascist-leaning Falange, many Spanish conservatives and reactionaries believed in some form of authoritarian monarchy, and hoped the regime would evolve in that direction.
Don Juan de Borbon, the third son of the deposed King Alfonso XIII, was considered the heir to the throne; he had a privy council, most of whose members were deeply conservative; but this one-time officer in the British Royal Navy was considered too close to the Allies and personally too liberal. For one thing, he said often that he would be “king for all Spaniards.” This didn’t sit well with the Francoists, who believed the Civil War was the last crusade, and always maintained that the principles of the ruling Movimiento Nacional were predicated on their military victory.

Official patronage
Some Francoists in the late 1940s, however, plotted to have Juan agree to his young son being educated inside Spain. In would win them time and keep some of the monarchists happy.
The Francoists and Juan de Borbon’s own more prudent advisers had to convince him he didn’t have much leverage – that he risked other claimants being considered . One of those involved in the persuading was Escriva, who met Juan de Borbon in Rome to convince him of the benefits of a patriotic education. According to Preston, “Escriva’s notes of the conversation were dutifully forwarded to Franco.” Opus Dei was later given a role in the education of the young prince, Preston adds.
And it was in education, but particularly at college level, that Opus Dei made its first advances in Franco’s Spain, helped by the patronage of key government officials. Opus Dei was something definitely new. Other lay organizations like Catholic Action were clerically led, but tended to be much less militant, less elitist and more loosely organized.
Opus Dei itself began to move into government by the late 1950s, as leaders of the so-called “technocratic wing.” Their most powerful and durable figures in the Francoist establishment were Laureano Lopez Rodo and Gregorio Lopez Bravo (whom Preston says was known as the “regime pin-up”). They were protected by Admiral Luis Cerrera Blanco, Franco’s right hand man, who had his own close personal ties to Opus Dei.

‘Perfect gentlemen’
Opus Dei members (including business school graduates taking charge in key policy sectors) achieved great things in Franco’s Spain in the first half of their period of greatest influence, 1957 through 1973. The economy made huge strides. The Opus ministers, though, were authoritarian in their outlook, believing that a complex modern society was incompatible with democratic rule. There is one respectable academic, albeit minority, view (supported by one well-place former member) that Opus hoped one day to take full control of the Francoist state.
And what was Franco’s view? He was satisfied that Opus ministers and those close to them didn’t operate as a faction. To complaining Falangists who wanted them booted out of government, the dictator said: “Their loyalty to the regime and to me personally is absolute, and above all, they are perfect gentlemen.”
Franco’s gentlemen ministers were also fanatically loyal to the spirituality and worldly ethos of Monsignor Escriva, who, it seems, gave them a certain latitude.
It’s certainly true that a smattering of Opus Deistas took a more critical stance of Franco’s rule in his later years, but as Preston has suggested, even early on, the group was good at hedging its bets.
When most moderate Catholics (some known as Christian Democrats) and even one or two Falangists were abandoning the regime, Opus Dei was still clearly identified with it.
Allen says that the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Giovanni Benelli asked Escriva to throw his group’s weight behind a new Christian Democratic Party. That the latter refused is offered as evidence that he was somehow above politics. In fact, Opus Dei, always regarded to the right of Christian Democracy, was refusing to give up on the regime.
Opus Dei’s ministers were long-time continuistas: that is, they supported Admiral Blanco’s plan to continue authoritarian rule under a monarchy. There would be no monarchical “restoration;” instead a Francoist heir would be “installed.” The movimiento would live on after the caudillo. Prime Minister Blanco, though, was assassinated by ETA in 1973, and Opus’s star waned in the dying days of the regime.
The military hardliners took over in the short term, but the Spainish people had outgrown authoritarianism. It helped the transition that King Juan Carlos, even more than his father Juan de Borbon, was a constitutional democrat by instinct.

Lessons of Spain
The Spanish experience overall showed that Opus Dei members weren’t automatons (few of its serious critics claim they are, so Allen wastes a lot of time proving some diversity of viewpoints); that they do best under authoritarian government; that they have a flair for the jugular (all’s fair in love and war, said Escriva); and that they believe strongly in a Catholic state.
This integralism still can be detected in the speeches and essays of those close to the group. Rick Santorum, the Pennsylvanian GOP senator, attacked John F. Kennedy’s distinction between private religious conviction and public responsibility as something that has done “much harm in America.” It was at the same symposium held in honor of Saint Josemaria, Allen reports, that he called George W. Bush, the “first Catholic president” of the U.S.
The Rev. C. John McCloskey III, an Opus Dei priest who has converted many prominent right-wingers to Catholicism, has said he would like the president to embrace the faith, just like his brother Jeb. And in a piece of speculative fiction set in 2030, McCloskey has written about the break-up of the United States and the creation of an area in which orthodox Catholics (as he defines them), with some like-minded others, are in a majority. Clearly such a worldview owes more to the reactionary Catholic traditionalism of old Europe and less to Joe McCarthy’s (or for that matter Eugene McCarthy’s) Catholic Americanism.

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