Don’t judge Ruth Kelly’s spirituality by what The Da Vinci Code says

There’s nothing sinister about Opus Dei, says former member Christopher Howse

When I was a member of Opus Dei, a certain sort of person was beastly to me because they hated Opus Dei. “Aha,” they would say, if I made a mistake, “typical Opus Dei!” Opus Dei-baiting was like Jew-baiting.

Since I left, in 1988, the same kind of people have been much nicer, on the assumption that I loathe Opus Dei as much as they seem to. I don’t loathe it at all. My departure was to do with me rather than them. I didn’t like getting up early and things. But I have never since met a group who are kinder, more patient or less motivated by personal ambition.

I can understand, though, why Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, doesn’t want to be written off as a mere chip off the Opus Dei block. She should be condemned for her politics, if they are despicable, not for her choice of spiritual advisers.

Just at the moment, the serial on Woman’s Hour is a novel called The Gowk Storm, set in 19th-century Scotland. The village dominie or schoolmaster is driven out by the local elders because he is a Roman Catholic.

He is believed to be capable of anything. One old woman saw with her own eyes how he bewitched a fish in her frying-pan and made it jump on to the floor. Of course. And the vilification of Opus Dei is just like the routine disgust with Roman Catholics in Britain in the 19th century.

In fact, Roman Catholics can look pretty strange to outsiders. In their churches they display carvings of a dying or dead man with no clothes on, nailed to a cross. As they enter their pews, they make obeisance or curtsy towards a metal box under a veil which contains nothing but what looks like a round bit of bread. Ghosts figure large in Catholic belief. Until recently, they called one of the gods they worship the “Holy Ghost”.

All right, the preceding paragraph was a parody of ill-motivated observation. I know that Catholics only worship one God. The Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or Ghost) are three persons in one God. That’s what the C of E believes, too. But it is not easy to explain simply.

Similarly, it is not easy to explain to a post-Freudian secularist that ascetical practices – penance, fasting – are not exhibitions of self-hatred. The one thing everyone wants to know about Opus Dei is whether they beat themselves with knotted cords. The inquirers hope that this is a bit of kinky sex they can hear about.

Cardinal Newman (1801-90) used to beat himself a bit. “Taking the discipline,” he called it. Fr Faber, a fellow member of the Catholic congregation of priests called the Oratorians, made excuses about taking the discipline, saying it was bad for his health. Perhaps that sort of practice is impossible in the modern world.

I can’t say I go in for beating myself. All Catholics are, however, bound by their religion to do some penance every Friday in honour of the Passion of Jesus Christ on Good Friday – that dying man nailed to the cross. Catholics believe he isn’t dead. They talk to him, same as you’d talk to the cat, only they really think he understands.

I want to say what Opus Dei is really about, but there’s The Da Vinci Code to deal with first. The chief baddy in that bad book, you must know, is called Silas, an albino Opus Dei “monk” who kills people.

But no members of Opus Dei are monks, they are ordinary civilian women and men, and they seldom kill anyone. Albinos are admitted as members, as available. So are black people, and were welcomed a long time before a lot of other white churchy people recognised them as equals.

A few facts, then. Opus Dei was founded in 1928 by a Spaniard called Josemaria Escriva. He was recently declared a saint. The Catholic Church fully approves of Opus Dei, which has about 80,000 members round the world. Its chief function is to remind lay Christians that by their baptism they have a vocation to seek holiness, which is to say, friendship with God. Ordinary people, Opus Dei declares, do not have to become monks or nuns to find God; they can offer to him their daily work.

Most members are married folk. A very few are priests. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor has just asked Opus Dei to take on a parish in Hampstead, but the people who go to church there will not be Opus Dei members any more than people who go to a church run by the Jesuits are Jesuits.

What do members of Opus Dei do? They pray in the morning and in the evening. They go to Mass every day, as pious Catholics do. But most of the day is spent working, as anyone has to, and with their families. All the time, they are aware that they are in the presence of God and, as his children, inwardly offer him the things they do during the day, cheerfully. It sounds nice enough to me and almost makes me want to join up again. Perhaps they are too normal for me, though.

Anyway, because Opus Dei wants lay people to be responsible for their own actions, it never gives members any orders or advice about their professional or political lives. That was the great taboo when I was a member: you could ask for advice about praying but would never dream of asking about voting.

We wouldn’t just shop at a grocer’s because it was run by a member. So Opus Dei doesn’t boast of having a specific MP or plumber as a member. It’s up to the member. There is such a thing as privacy. Perhaps he might be hounded out of his job by those playground bullies.

I’ve noticed that when people leave organisations, they can make a hobby of slagging them off, thus proving their own superiority. But the Catholic Church is a big place, hence the name. Christians are meant to be seeking unity and loving one another, so the Bible says, not denouncing anyone who follows a slightly different way from their own.

Even the chief inspector of schools rather bafflingly called this week for us to be “intolerant of intolerance”, so I think multi-cultural tolerance should at least extend to a voluntary association of committed Catholics like Opus Dei.

There’s a lot of information about it at

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Telegraph, UK
Jan. 19, 2005
Christopher Howe

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday January 20, 2005.
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