It started with a drunken run-in with an Opus Dei member. Before he knew it, Damian Thompson had learnt some unsavoury truths about the Catholic sect – and become one of its ‘secret enemies’
Who said this? “Wives, you should ask yourselves whether you are not forgetting a little about your appearance. Your duty is, and will always be, to take as good care of your appearance as you did before you were married – and it is a duty of justice, because you belong to your husband.”
You may not know the answer, but I bet the new Secretary of State for Education does. It is one of the sayings of St Josemaria Escriva (d. 1975), founder of Opus Dei, the fearsomely ascetic yet socially ambitious Catholic sect to which Ruth Kelly belongs. Several parliamentary sketch-writers noted how sleek and glossy Ms Kelly was looking for her first Commons appearance since her promotion. Perhaps she had been re-reading the writings of “The Father”, as he is known.
OK, so that was a cheap shot: Escriva did also say that wives owned their husbands. But I don’t care. Although Opus Dei is nowhere near as sinister as the ludicrous Da Vinci Code makes out, it is maddeningly slippery – as anyone trying to get a straight answer about Ms Kelly out of its press office has discovered. Its usual line is that its enemies are confined to a small clique of liberals, and it has certainly managed to work its magic on both Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. Only last week we learned that Opus had been given its first London parish, St Thomas More in Swiss Cottage.
But the truth is that many conservative Catholics heartily dislike “the Work”, as it calls itself. A traditionalist acquaintance of mine was recently given a prayer card of St Josemaria. “Where do you keep it?” I asked. “In the bin,” he said. “It’s the Opus Dei front organisations that drive me mad. You get involved in an innocent-sounding Catholic initiative, and you only discover by accident that the Work is behind it. And they have the nerve to claim that they’re not secretive.”
A priest I know once heard the confessions of primary school children whose spiritual director was a member of Opus Dei. “I was horrified by what these little boys and girls regarded as serious sins, such as doubting the validity of this or that complex doctrine,” he told me.
My own first encounter with Opus Dei was 15 years ago. A boozy Irish friend asked me to supper to meet Marjorie, a senior member of the organisation. She was dressed in the Opus women’s uniform of expensive dark dress and Hermes scarf. My friend and I drank ourselves silly; Marjorie did not. The next morning I was at my desk, longing for death, when the phone rang. “It’s Marjorie,” said a bird-like voice. “I want you to know that I haven’t forgotten what you told me last night, and I’m praying for you.” “Thank you,” I replied, panic-stricken. What the hell had I told her?
Soon afterwards, The Spectator commissioned me to write an article about the way Opus Dei was fast-tracking Escriva through the process of canonisation. I interviewed Monsignor Vladimir Felzmann, a former confidant of Escriva who told me about the old boy’s filthy temper and Nazi sympathies. “Vlad, Hitler couldn’t have been such a bad person,” the Father apparently said. “He couldn’t have killed six million. It couldn’t have been more than four million.” Mysteriously, Felzmann was not called to give evidence to the Vatican’s saint-making tribunal.
My article described the members’ practice of self-mortification (men across the buttocks, women across the back); I also mentioned the peculiar rule that states that single men, including priests, are not allowed to travel in a car with an unchaperoned woman. (I wonder how Ruth Kelly gets round that one as she goes about her ministerial business.) But, on the whole, the tone of my piece was respectful. Alas, The Spectator decided to have a bit of fun, heading it “Beating a path to sainthood”. Worse, Nick Garland drew a cartoon of a man with his trousers around his ankles, merrily scourging his fat bottom while holding a halo over his head.
That was the moment I was added to Opus Dei’s secret enemies list. You might think it unlikely that a pious movement would be capable of anything so Nixonian. Think again. One of the things Felzmann told me – off the record, but he has since said it in print – is that Escriva tape-recorded his visitors as they sat in his waiting-room. “How do you know?” I asked suspiciously. “Because I helped him install the microphones,” he replied.
Now, the Church teaches that saints do not have to be perfect, but that is surely taking things a bit far. Can you imagine Mother Teresa indulging in a little discreet bugging – or, for that matter, suggesting to a dowdy woman that she would benefit from a new hairdo, a touch of lipstick and a trip to Harvey Nicks?
One thing is for sure: Marjorie doesn’t need a makeover. I saw her at a book launch the other day, and she looked magnificently spruce. “You won’t remember me, Damian,” she smiled. “But I’m still praying for you.”