Each Saturday evening, in the privacy of his modest bedroom in north London, he removes his shirt and reaches for a five-tailed whip. Quietly intoning a recitation, he starts to scourge his back.
The cords bite painfully into his flesh, but again and again the erect figure lashes himself.
A devout Shíite? A sado-masochist? No, not at all. This is John Henry, a former professor of accident and emergency medicine at St Mary’s hospital in west London and an expert on drug abuse.
Henry has given evidence to parliamentary inquiries and is a regular commentator in the media. His spiritual life has been a more private affair but he confirmed last week that — like Ruth Kelly, the cabinet minister — he is a member of Opus Dei, the controversial Roman Catholic society.
There are tiers of membership. Kelly is a “supernumerary”, the second tier, who are allowed to marry. Henry is one of the “numeraries”, who make Opus Dei their family. They live with other members, remain celibate and practise “corporal mortification”.
Henry was recruited by Opus Dei in his twenties while living at one of its London student residences. He has given it most of his earnings throughout his working life.
His devotion entails not only the weekly whipping but also daily acts of self-denial, such as refusing a glass of water when thirsty. He wears a spiked chain, which Opus Dei calls a cilice, around his thigh for about two hours a day. “Pope Pius XII said it’s important to be a Christian and have the cross in your life,” he said. “It means you have to suffer in some way.”
All this would have remained a private matter were it not for the sudden revival of a decades-old controversy about the purpose and influence of Opus Dei.
Transferred in the cabinet reshuffle to a job that includes responsibility for implementing the equality act, which bans discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, Kelly faces flak for her membership of an organisation that condemns homosexuality.
More melodramatically, the imminent release of the film of The Da Vinci Code has put the spotlight sharply on Opus Dei and what some say are its suspect beliefs and practices.
Even Opus Dei’s most bitter critics agree that The Da Vinci Code book — which depicts it as a murderous cabal that conceals the true story of Jesus — is nonsense. But the bad publicity has spurred the organisation to come out fighting.
What is the truth? Is Opus Dei a secretive, reactionary cult or is it a well-meaning group of Christians who deserve credit for their good works and spirituality?
– Colossians 2:20-3:2
OPUS DEI means “God’s work”. With 86,000 members worldwide, it describes itself as “a personal prelature of the Catholic church that helps people seek holiness in their work and ordinary activities”.
There was no sign of whips and cilices when it ran an open evening last Thursday at one of its student residences, Netherhall House in north London. In a book-lined meeting room a video was played. It was intended to demonstrate that life in Opus Dei is not what Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, imagined. Members were shown playing football, going to the fair, giving Power Point presentations.
Jack Valero, Opus Dei’s UK spokesman, took the floor. “We’re not allowed to murder — not even Dan Brown,” he said. “In fact, thanks to Dan Brown, I’m now getting 50 e-mails a month asking about joining.”
Moritz Gudenus, 20, a student at the London School of Economics, said Opus Dei offered support and structure: “I love having a daily plan for life. I have my prayer, I have my rosary, I have my mass. Life can be difficult today so this constructs my life.”
To Opus Dei’s critics, however, the friendly image is just spin. John Roche, a lecturer at Linacre College, Oxford, left Opus Dei more than 30 years ago. He has accused it of “double-think and internal and external deception”.
Roche is backed by the Opus Dei Awareness Network (Odan), based in America. Dianne DiNicola, its executive director, said: “The biggest problem we have with Opus Dei is that a person is not free to make their own decisions. They live in a controlled environment and all the while Opus Dei hides behind the Catholic church.”
Much of the criticism arises from the character of Opus Dei’s founder, Josemaria Escriva, a Spanish priest. He was both an ardent supporter of the Franco dictatorship and a zealous proselytiser. Opus Dei strongly influenced ultra-conservative politics in Spain. But it is the recruitment code that causes concern now.
An internal newsletter published three years before Escriva’s death in 1975 urged his followers to go out to “the highways and byways and push those whom you find to come and fill my house, force them to come in . . . we must be a little crazy . . . you must kill yourselves for proselytism”.
A network of institutions was set up to attract the young and religious who were then encouraged to join Opus Dei. In Britain it has more than 25 centres and charitable ventures, including a mansion in Sussex. Its assets are worth more than ?40m. It even runs a teenage magazine, Tamezin.
References to Opus Dei in its operations are so low-key as to be almost invisible. Tamezin’s magazine website does not even mention religion. Netherhall House calls itself an “intercollegiate hall of residence”. It takes several clicks on its website before these words appear: “Netherhall House is a corporate undertaking of Opus Dei.”
William Stewart, a television producer and presenter, is a patron of the popular Kelston Club for boys in Wandsworth, south London. He was furious to to be told last week that it is operated by Opus Dei. He said he would now resign as a patron. “If I’d known that it was connected with Opus Dei, I’d have steered well clear,” he said.
To be fair, the homepage of its website does mention Opus Dei. Another patron, Edward Leigh MP, chairman of the Commons public accounts committee, is happy with the connection to Opus Dei.
“I support their spiritual work. I don’t think they are a sect or there is anything wrong with them. I know people in Opus Dei and they are all perfectly nice. I have been to some of their prayer meetings but I have never been asked to join,” he said.
NONE of this eases Kelly’s key problem: the criticism of her for being the government’s guardian of gay rights while belonging to a faith organisation that condemns homosexuality.
Gudenas, the student at Netherhall House, explained the organisation’s attitude: “Being gay is not the sin; the sin is if you live your life that way. They just shouldn’t have sex.”
Gerhard van den Aardweg, a Dutch psychotherapist and influential member of Opus Dei, believes homosexuality is a disorder that can be “cured”. He said: “I have changed several militant gays and now they are happily married. It is a big step to leave their homosexual practices, but their fantasies slowly dwindle over the course of time.”
Kelly has missed 12 votes on homosexuality and equality since 1997. Last week she insisted that her religious beliefs did not exclude her from her new role on equality, saying it was the job of politicians to govern rather than to sit in moral judgment.
Stephen Hough, one of Britain’s most celebrated concert pianists, is in a perhaps unique position to challenge her reassurances: he is both gay and a former Opus Dei supernumerary. He thinks Kelly will find it almost impossible to separate her Opus Dei membership from her political life — she cannot leave her views “in the cloakroom”.
He said: “She could be a fantastic chancellor or whatever else, but it just seems difficult for her and the government on this one issue. She’s going to really have a problem.”
Hough does not criticise Opus Dei itself: “It’s a particular kind of Christianity, rather muscular, a little bit old-fashioned in some ways. There are wonderful people in Opus Dei, people with tremendous generosity, horrified with the idea of brainwashing.”
John Allen, a Rome-based journalist who travelled the world writing a book on Opus Dei, reached similar conclusions. He said it was now a more relaxed and moderate organisation: “They have learnt from bitter experience that the last thing they want is to churn out embittered ex-members. From their point of view, there are plenty of those people out there already.”
THE SECRET SOCIETY ON A RELIGIOUS MISSION
1928 Josemaria Escriva, a 26-year-old Spanish priest, creates Opus Dei. His vision is to extend the Sunday religiosity of working people into their everyday lives. He is initially seen as a heretic by the church hierarchy
1933 The first Opus Dei centre opens in Madrid, an academy teaching law and architecture
1936 The Spanish civil war unleashes anti-clerical persecution and Escriva goes into hiding
1939 Escriva supports General Franco’s victory and starts to proselytise throughout Spain
1946 Opus Dei extends to Britain, Portugal and Italy. Escriva regularly visits Britain and calls it a “crossroads of the world”
1950 Opus Dei’s secretive constitution is published. It states: “No one must reveal to anyone that they themselves belong to Opus Dei.” Opus Dei is given final and complete approval by Pope Pius XII
1975 Escriva dies, leaving behind a thriving and affluent movement with about 60,000 members
1981 Revelations in The Times about Opus Dei’s practices, such as corporal mortification, prompt Cardinal Basil Hume to ban it from recruiting members under 18 in Britain
1982 Pope John Paul II establishes Opus Dei as a personal prelature, confirming its growing status in the Catholic church
2002 Thousands of supporters pack St Peter’s Square for the canonisation of Escriva
2003 The Da Vinci Code is published, linking Opus Dei to murder
2006 Opus Dei deftly exploits The Da Vinci Code movie to promote its work. A website competition offers the chance to meet a genuine Opus Dei member