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After weeks of speculation, the education secretary Ruth Kelly admitted this week that she receives 'spiritual support' from the secretive Catholic sect Opus Dei. But even if reports of bizarre rituals are exaggerated, why would she be involved with the controversial group in the first place? Andy Beckett investigates
Friday January 28, 2005
Just over half a century ago in Spain, a new kind of politician began to appear. As government ministers, they were young, energetic and highly competent. They were confident without being overbearing. And they seemed relatively free of fixed political ideas, except for a general desire to turn their old country into a modern, business-driven one.
During the 50s and 60s they opened up its economy to foreign trade and its poor southern coastline to lucrative tourism. They made themselves potential role models - complete with a suggestive group name used by some of their associates: the"third force" - for future generations of reforming European politicians.
Yet two things about the Spanish modernisers have hindered their reputation since. First, they did their work as part of the dictatorship of General Franco. Second, many of them were members of a new, highly conservative and highly controversial Roman Catholic movement: Opus Dei.
Since 1997, Ruth Kelly has been a similar modernising presence in British politics. As a Labour MP, Treasury minister, and now education secretary at the precocious age of 36, she has been busy, effective and - working closely with both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - seemingly undogmatic. But being a British social democrat is rather different from being one of Franco's lieutenants. And so the revelation over the past five weeks, via a series of distinctly grudging admissions, that Kelly is also "in contact" (the organisation's words) with Opus Dei, and (in her words) receiving "spiritual support" from them, has been one of the stranger political shocks of recent British history.
All this has happened, moreover, at a time when, for non-political reasons, the notoriety of Opus Dei has been massively magnified. In Dan Brown's bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code, the organisation is famously portrayed as a murderous secret society whose crimes include concealing the truth about the Holy Grail. For all the exasperated reminders on the Opus Dei website that the book is "a work of fiction and not a reliable source of information on these matters", it is now even more awkward for Kelly to be the organisation's sole known representative in the House of Commons. As a prominent woman, with an assured manner, unmarked until now by any hint of political vulnerability or scandal, Kelly has had to watch her religious leanings being probed and dramatised with a certain relish in some quarters.
But a more interesting question perhaps than whether Ruth Kelly chafes herself with metal instruments or follows other Gothic-sounding practices ascribed to Opus Dei, is why a clever young politician, whether in modern Britain or Spain under Franco, would join the movement at all.
Before she became an MP, Kelly worked as an economist at the Bank of England and as a financial journalist at this newspaper. She studied at Oxford and the London School of Economics. Such a background in rational inquiry and the ambiguities of statistics, you might think, would not make someone receptive to a particularly unquestioning form of Roman Catholic faith.
Yet Opus Dei was founded, at least in part, to attract the ambitious professional classes. In Spain in the early 20th century, as in similar Roman Catholic countries, the church was anxious about a growing anti-religious scepticism. "Their great fear was losing the bourgeoisie," says John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, one of the few relatively balanced authorities on Opus Dei. Around 1928 (the date is disputed), Josemaria Escriva, a young priest and law student with a pale, intense face and wire-rimmed glasses, decided to start a new Catholic movement. Opus Dei was not the first of its kind - new Catholic groups combining traditional theology with modern methods of spreading it already existed in Spain and France - but Escriva's scheme had a novel element. Opus Dei would, as its website puts it, promote "holiness in and by means of one's ordinary work".
Members of the movement would not withdraw from everyday life, like monks, but would pursue their secular careers - only now they would be "working according to the spirit of Jesus Christ". And Escriva had a particular kind of career in mind. "He wanted to reach the elite, those who shape culture," says Allen.
In 1939, Escriva published a book to guide these converts called The Way. It remains an intriguing read. Arranged in 999 short fragments, each a saying or instruction, its tone is by turns intimate, fierce and stiffly formal. How to behave at work is one preoccupation: "25 - Avoid arguments." "343 - Work! When you feel the responsibility of professional work, the life of your soul will improve." How to behave towards Opus Dei is another: "941 - Obedience [is] ... the sure way. Blind obedience to your superior ... the only way." "627 - Yours should be a silent obedience."
Opus Dei has always insisted that its teachings do not have political implications for its members. But sections of The Way seem to contradict this. There is 353: "Have you ever stopped to think how absurd it is to cease being a Catholic on entering a university, a professional association ... or parliament, like a man leaving his hat at the door?" And there is 46: "Don't you think that equality, as it is understood today, is synonymous with injustice?"
In truth, the context for Opus Dei's creation was as much political as religious. In Spain in the 30s, hostility between the Catholic church and the left was one of the causes of the civil war; Escriva spent the war on the run from leftwing forces. When Franco and the right emerged victorious, Opus Dei survived the bloodletting and paranoia that followed - fighting off allegations that it was a Jewish sect with links to the Freemasons - to work its way steadily into the upper levels of the dictatorship.
This involvement remains a sensitive subject. "Opus Dei is filed under F for Franco," concedes Jack Valero, the organisation's spokesman in Britain. "Some members worked in Franco's Spain, became ministers of his. But Opus Dei people are free to do whatever they wish politically. Other members were against Franco." He cites the dissident Rafael Calvo Serer, who was driven into exile in the early 70s and saw the newspaper he published closed by the government.
Allen confirms that by the latter stages of the Franco era, Opus Dei in Spain was divided "50/50" over the regime. Yet during the same period, Opus Dei was less than critical of other dictatorships. Escriva visited Chile in 1974, only months after Pinochet seized power, at a time when most international figures were staying well away. From Chile to Peru to Venezuela, allegations have followed Opus Dei, as it has recruited across south America, that its members have been senior participants in authoritarian coups and governments.
A charitable interpretation of these associations is that they are a consequence of Opus Dei's practice of seeking converts among "the elite", who are more likely to side with the generals when social turmoil threatens. In Britain, the movement opened its first "residences", for recruiting and supervising members, in university towns and cities in the 50s. Escriva, an Anglophile, saw the country as an international crossroads from which his message could be widely disseminated. He had a particular fondness for Oxford; a residence was established there in 1958. Kelly went to Oxford University from 1986 to 1989.
According to The Way, "the search for fellow apostles ... is the unmistakable sign of true zeal". One favoured method is to invite likely converts to a meeting. The Anglo-Italian writer and cartoonist Barry Fantoni has attended several. It started on the way to a restaurant one evening in Salerno in southern Italy, when a colleague at the university where Fantoni teaches part-time asked him if he wanted to go to an unspecified meeting. Intrigued, Fantoni agreed.
He found himself in a flat owned by a local lawyer. Sitting on chairs were "30 to 40 doctors and lawyers ... the influential people of the city of Salerno", and a young Spanish priest. There was no food or drink. For the next two hours the priest gave strident, conservative answers to questions from his audience about abortion and homosexuality and sex before marriage. "Some of the people there were not convinced by what the priest said," Fantoni remembers, "but there were no sharp intakes of breath."
The priest also mentioned repeatedly that "more people are needed". It gradually dawned on Fantoni that this was an Opus Dei meeting, and that his colleague was already a member. Although Fantoni did not speak at the gathering, he was invited again. "I'm thought to be influential, especially as I live in England."
He decided not to join. But he could see the draw: "If you're intellectual, it's appealing on paper. You're being called on to do the work of God. And if you're an active English Catholic, there isn't really that much [like it] for you to do."
Father Alban McCoy, the Roman Catholic chaplain at Cambridge University, sees "an appeal for certain temperaments. People with high energy levels, ambitions. Sometimes they want to channel these. Opus Dei gives them a clear identity, a disciplined approach to life." The religious historian Stephen Tomkins adds: "There is an element of flattery in being asked to join a group of intelligent, successful people." The fact that membership involves "many commitments", in Valero's words, gives Opus Dei further status. "Part of the appeal," Tomkins says, "is that it is demanding."
The movement currently has about 80,000 members. Its value to the Vatican can be gauged by the fact that Escriva was canonised in 2002, barely a quarter of a century after his death, an exceptionally short interval in the view of many commentators, and despite vigorous protests. The internet teems with assertions, often backed up with convincing evidence, about the extent of Opus Dei's financial and political leverage.
Allen says all this can be overplayed. "The Roman Catholic diocese of Hobart in Tasmania has more members than Opus Dei. There are 19 members of Opus Dei in the Curia [the powerful Vatican bureaucracy] out of a total of 2,600." These are statistics that Ruth Kelly may find herself deploying in the future.
Her voting record in the House of Commons on matters likely to be of interest to Opus Dei is ambiguous. Usually loyal to the government, she did not vote on a government proposal for unmarried and gay couples to be allowed to adopt, nor on two government-sponsored motions to lower the age of consent for gay sex. But she did not vote against them.
In a sense, all the mists of rumour and menace around Opus Dei, however troublesome for its members from time to time, are actually useful for the movement. "The magic is destroyed if they lose their secrecy and mystery," says McCoy. Then Opus Dei would be just one religious subgroup among many. I suspect they're not ready for that role quite yet.
Friday January 28, 2005
Michael Walsh (The secret life of Opus Dei, January 26) writes about Opus Dei with his usual innuendo about political influence and covert group action. "Opusdeistas" are of a mould, being rightwing. But according to him, Ruth Kelly is an exception.
And so were Antonio Fontan and Calvo Serer, who publicly opposed Franco in Spain. How long will it take for him to accept the truth? That all members of Opus Dei are completely and utterly free in all social and political matters, as well as in how to implement their religious beliefs in their own lives, countries or societies. That Opus Dei does not take credit or blame for the professional activities of any member.
He ends the article with the snide remark that Kelly's spiritual advisers may have suggestions about education. If I were a politician and my spiritual director in Opus Dei made even a veiled suggestion as to how I should do my job, I would immediately leave Opus Dei. And so would any other member, because personal freedom is one of the key tenets of life in Opus Dei.