MADRID, Spain – As cardinals prepare to elect a new pope, one Catholic community in particular has much at stake – Opus Dei, the ultraconservative movement at the center of the furor generated by “The Da Vinci Code.”
Founded in Spain in 1928, the movement has more than 80,000 members worldwide, many of them lay people but also hundreds of priests, bishops and even two cardinals among those who will be casting votes in Rome.
Its mission, to give lay people a dynamic role in spreading the word of God, enjoyed firm support from John Paul II who championed the movement as a means of confronting the secularization of society and reinforcing his conservative doctrine.
But Opus Dei – Latin for “God’s work” – has also been accused of secretive, cult-like practices, brainwashing of members into blind devotion and murky financial dealings.
“There is obviously some concern over whether the next pontiff will be open to something like Opus Dei,” said Anthony Figueiredo, a priest and professor of theology at Seton Hall University near New York who was once based at the Holy See.
“I can be sure in this pre-conclave period, this is one of the areas they are discussing,” he said, referring to the secretive gathering of cardinals that begins Monday.
Opus Dei is what is known as a “personal prelature,” which in practical terms means its leader, Monsignor Javier Echevarria, does not answer to any diocese, only to the pope himself.
It plays a central role in Dan Brown’s runaway bestseller, which has provoked unprecedented protest among Roman Catholic and Protestant conservatives. “The Da Vinci Code” depicts the movement as a mysterious center of political and economic power that tries to hide the historical truth on Jesus and Mary Magdalene – namely, that they married and sired a bloodline. An Opus Dei devotee commits the murder that sets the plot in motion.
Source: Dismantling The Da Vinci Code By Sandra Miesel, Crisis, Sep. 1, 2003
Theologians in Spain and elsewhere say Opus Dei is well ensconced in Rome and will probably emerge unscathed from the conclave, although this is far from certain.
Figuereido said Opus Dei has “enormous influence” in the Vatican through those cardinals and other sympathetic clergy members who staff Vatican offices. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls is also a member. But he has no guarantee of being reappointed.
Nor do cardinals who held jobs as heads of Vatican offices. They automatically lose their jobs with the death of the pope, and it is up to the next one to rename them or appoint someone else.
“I can be sure that someone like the prelate of Opus Dei is probably talking to his cardinals now who are from Opus Dei,” Figuereido said. Officials at Opus Dei’s office in Madrid declined to be interviewed for this article.
Juan Maria Laboa, a priest and Catholic church historian in Madrid, said Opus Dei is so well established the new pope might not be able to curb it even if he wanted to. “In the life of the church, when a religious congregation is already very established, popes clearly have their preferences but they have a hard time influencing how it is run,” said Laboa, a professor emeritus at Comillas Pontifical University in Madrid.
The two cardinals known to belong to Opus Dei are the archbishop of Lima, Peru, Juan Luis Cipriani, and Julian Herranz, a Spaniard based at the Vatican.
Another cardinal, the archbishop of Milan, Dionigi Tettamanzi, is known to be sympathetic to Opus Dei and is a possible papal candidate, according to Figuereido and Spanish theologian Enrique Miret Magdalena.
Figuereido cited three reasons to watch Tettamanzi: he played a prominent role at a bishops’ meeting called a synod that was dedicated to Europe and in 1993 he was influential in the writing of a major papal encyclical on morality that was called the Splendor of Truth.
But most importantly, a few years ago John Paul II transferred Tettamanzi from Genoa to Milan, one of the world’s largest Catholic diocese. And such a shift is rare for a church leader who was already a cardinal, Figueiredo said.
“That is very significant,” he said. “He was almost saying, ‘this is my man.’”