Meet the Catholofascists and seize the Dei

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The Independent - 12/08/2004

Islam isn't the only religion to spawn deadly sects. Look at the Roman Catholic Church and Opus Dei

This summer, the beaches of the world are awash with The Da Vinci Code. It's a daft, mediocre thriller - but it contains two words that matter: Opus Dei. The novel depicts this strange sub-strata of the Catholic Church as the Pope's secret police. According to the author, Dan Brown, they are a mad, murderous mob who pick off the enemies of their own brand of ultra-conservative Catholicism.

Big deal: it's fiction. But Brown has performed a valuable service. He has reminded the public about the existence of an authoritarian, ultraconservative cult that will play a key role in picking the next Pope - one of the world's most powerful men - and has been intimately involved with some of the ugliest fascist regimes since the Second World War. They want to make the Vatican an even more hardline campaigning force, battling the "evils" of contraception, homosexuality and divorce. In developing countries, their influence will mean the difference between life and death for thousands of poor people.

There has been much discussion over the past two years (rightly, in my view) of the totalitarian strains within the Muslim world. The word "Islamofascism" was coined by Christopher Hitchens to describe the fanatics who seek to repress moderate Muslims and demonise secular democracies. Unfortunately, there has been far less discussion about the totalitarian strains - just as real - within other faiths.

Anybody who has studied the history of the Vatican knows that it has long harboured totalitarian elements, manifested from the Spanish Inquisition to Pope Pius XII's complicity in the Holocaust. Do we really think those dangerous instincts have vanished from Christianity?

Opus Dei emerged from this tradition, and it is growing stronger every day. If we do not discuss this, we risk feeding the Islamophobic idea that Islam is uniquely prone to fanaticism.

The group preaches a brand of Catholofascism. If this sounds like a piece of journalistic hyperbole, then you should peruse the history of Opus Dei. Founded by Josemaría Escrivá, an obscure Spanish lawyer-priest, in 1928, it immediately targeted the rich and powerful for recruitment, because they are "more important" and "more influential". The sect quickly became a supporter and key power player within General Franco's fascist Spain, with its members holding (amongst several other cabinet positions) the finance portfolio.

As Opus Dei spread beyond Spain throughout South America, it became a player in a string of fascist tyrannies, most notoriously Augusto Pinochet's murderous Chilean junta. They opposed trade unions and were used as a tool by the Vatican to suppress more democratic and socially concerned strands of Catholicism.

Its religious philosophy is described by Robert Hutchison, an award-winning journalist who studied the movement for many years, as "totally authoritarian". The founder's strange book The Way - the inspirational text for Opus Dei - encourages members to keep their membership entirely secret, even from their families. "Remain silent, and you will never regret it," Escrivá declared.

All members must report and fully confess to an Opus Dei official at least once a month. The group prescribes strict hierarchy and unquestioning obedience. Maxim 941 of The Way demands "unreserved obedience to whoever is in charge" of the sect.

Opus Dei has consistently sided with the powerful against the weak, theologically and politically. It revels in wealth, and is strongly involved in corporate trading. (It was, for example, one of the world's main traders in eurodollars in the 1970s.) Escrivá once said: "Ask the Lord for money ... but ask him for millions! He owns everything anyway. To ask for five million or 50 million requires just the same effort, so while you're at it ..." Throughout the 20th century, there was a battle within the Catholic Church about whether the Vatican's power should be used to help the poor by advocating social change, or whether they should tell the poor to self-flagellate and think of the next world.

Opus Dei has been a major force on the Catholic right opposing social change. When liberation theology emerged in the 1960s - a movement saying that Catholics should be free to think out their own faith and change their social conditions - Opus Dei was appalled.

Escrivá had taught that the poor should remain meek - all the better to leave his fascist friends in power.

Liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez preached against the "Church of the Rich", the corrupt Catholicism which encouraged the poor to defer to their "superiors". Opus Dei replied with what Robert Hutchison calls a "moneybags theology". Opus Dei represents the ugliest of religious tendency - it coats the rich with a thick syrup of self-justifying superstition, while telling the poor to pray patiently for salvation.

There are still a billion Catholics in the world (most of them in poor countries), and the direction of this battle within their Church - however distasteful atheists like me might find it - will have a massive impact on global politics. (Imagine how different the world would look today if Vatican II, the 1960s reform process, had culminated in approving contraception - a decision that was expected by many experts and theologians.)

Opus Dei is winning. It has established itself as the praetorian guard of hard-right Catholic doctrines, and - because they target only the elite - they have an influence far beyond their 80,000 strong membership.

When Pope John Paul II dies, it will be a key force in choosing his successor, and therefore the direction of the Vatican for decades.

Giancarlo Zizola, one of the world's leading Vaticanologists, explains: "Opus Dei is the only group well-organised enough, working within the power structure of the Roman Curia [the central Vatican administration], that can make a difference in swaying the decision over the next Pope."

The Pope has been lethally reactionary on issues like contraception and homosexuality, but this has to some extent been balanced by his brave arguments for fair trade and anti-poverty strategies.

Given the sect's track record, we can assume that an Opus Dei-picked Pope would take John Paul's social conservatism even further into the political stratosphere, and ditch all the admirable criticisms of extreme capitalism.

Catholofasicsm and Islamofascism resemble each other. At the United Nations Cairo Conference on Population and Development, for example, the Opus Dei-dominated Vatican delegation made an alliance with Islamic fundamentalist representatives to oppose the distribution of contraception and abortion to the world's poorest women. A far-right Vatican is the last thing the developing world needs. The Da Vinci Code is right, at least, about one thing: there are a lot of people out there who should be frightened of Opus Dei.

POSTSCRIPT: In the comments box on the Harry's Place blog following this piece, David Osler says, "Johann, in your casual use of language you are rendering the concept 'fascism' meaningless." A couple of e-mailers have made the same point.

I just want to get this straight. Identifying as fascist a group that held some of the key cabinet positions in the explicitly fascist regimes of General Franco and General Pinochet is devaluing the term?

I don't think it's me who has forgotten what fascism is.

And I find it disturbing that so many readers commenting on the Harry's Place blog - which opposes Islamofascism very strongly and eloquently - don't seem to think that the decision by Official Allies to subject South American peoples to fascism is as heinous as the decision of Official Enemies to subject Arab peoples to fascism. Uh, can I mention an old-fashioned concept - human equality? Do you imagine the tens of thousands of 'disappeared' people - in fact murdered by Opus Dei-backed fascists - are worth less than the tens of thousands murdered by the Taliban? How can you profess to care about one group and not the other?