by Mike Whitney
January 17, 2004
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"After I joined they gave me a barbed wire chain to wear on my leg for two hours a day and a whip to hit my buttocks with."
-- Sharon Clasen, former member of Opus Dei
"Blessed be pain. Loved be pain. Glorified be pain."
-- Josemarie Escriva, Founder, Opus Dei
(Commentary on Ron Grossman's article in the Chicago Tribune; Covert Catholics)
Whether or not an alleged member of Opus Dei, like Justice Antonin Scalia, enjoys a touch of the lash on his prodigious derriere from time to time, is certainly no business of ours. However, the affiliation of a Justice on the highest court in the land to an organization that, for all appearances, is nothing more than a right-wing cult should arouse not only suspicion, but an investigation.
Opus Dei is a clandestine Catholic organization based in Chicago, Ill. In size, it is insignificant, a mere 85,000 members (only 3,000 members in the US) compared to the one billion Catholics worldwide. But, its membership boasts of some of the most powerful and wealthy people in the country. The group catapulted to national attention when spymaster, Robert Hanson, was arrested and convicted in what turned out to be the greatest act of treachery in the history of the FBI. Hanson's arrest drew immediate and unwelcome notoriety to the secretive group.
Opus Dei came under the microscope again when it was featured rather unflatteringly in the popular mystery novel, The Da Vinci Code. The novel did a great deal to support the notion that the organization had a sinister underlying purpose. If their purpose, however, is to acquire as much power as possible within the Church, as many believe it is, then they have succeeded quite nicely. For one thing the Pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, is an active member, which indicates that a devoted party loyalist is as close as possible to the seat of authority in the Church.
The secrecy surrounding the group has generated widespread curiosity. "Former members claim it is a cult that pressures psychologically vulnerable college students into joining." opines Ron Grossman of the Chicago Times.
Grossman goes on to add, "Critics are put off because, as part of their devotional regimen, some Opus Dei members inflict pain on themselves that seems to border on masochism. Supporters respond that mortification of the flesh is an ancient and honorable Christian practice that puts them spiritually in touch with the great saints of the past."
One of the former members, Sharon Clasen remembers, "After I joined they gave me a barbed-wire chain to wear on my leg for two hours a day and a whip to hit my buttocks with." (Again, reported in the Ron Grossman article)
We can only wonder what the Senate hearings might have been like if they suspected that Scalia's attitudes towards self-inflicted punishment might be dramatically out of the mainstream? It certainly may have called his sense of judgment into question.
Grossman recounts some of the details related to Opus Dei's founder, Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, who was a young priest in Spain during the 1930's. "Because the Church was identified with the ruling class, many priests were killed, a fate Escriva narrowly escaped by going into hiding. When Gen. Francisco Franco won the war, Escriva allied his movement with Franco's authoritarian regime, with several Opus Dei members occupying key positions in his government," avers Grossman.
What Mr. Grossman conveniently leaves out, is that he has just provided a detailed description of an ultra-conservative group that has its roots in European fascism.
Their ideology must have been attractive to the rightward-tilting Pope John Paul 2, who bestowed on the group a "personal prelature", which is tantamount to virtual autonomy. (Rather than being under the control of the regional Bishop) This suggests that Opus Dei operates independent of the traditional Church hierarchy and outside its conventional jurisdictions. If it is a cult, it is a cult that "marches to its own drummer".
And, there is much to imply that Opus Dei is a religious cult. Its members are targeted for recruitment, (preferably, impressionable college-age idealists) sworn to secrecy, told they are the "elite guard of God", trained in isolation, censored in their reading and, indoctrinated in the group ideology.
O, and did I mention those blissful evenings at home alone with the cat-o nine-tails?
It is precisely these bizarre rituals of physical abuse that elicit the most negative curiosity to Opus Dei. Apart from the self-inflicted whipping, (a practice that was apparently perfected by the founder, Escriva, who would lock himself in a small room until the blood was splattered on all four walls. Its doubtful that today's devotees practice with such unbridled zeal) members are expected to wear "cilices" (a necklace similar in character to two strands of barbed wire) around their upper thigh for two hours a day. The degree to which this accoutrement produces is pain depends on how tight the penitent fixes it to his leg. Somehow, this suffering is assumed to be pleasing to the Almighty.
Members are also required to sleep on rough-hewn boards, dress simply and avoid physical adornments; most of which is reasonably consistent with many of the monastic traditions.
The old saw, "Beat the body and train the mind" is a custom that is enthusiastically maintained throughout the ranks of Opus Dei. Or, as Escriva put it, "If you realize that your body is your enemy, and an enemy of God's glory, why do you treat it so softly?"
The larger issue surrounding the group, however, relates to its recruiting regimen. The aggressiveness of their approach has led some to refer to them as "Catholic Mormons". By situating their facilities around college campus's Opus Dei has a steady stream of young, idealistic candidates for potential enlisting. They target "attractive and impressionable" students, offering friendship, without revealing any ulterior motive. Then, when they suspect the time is right, (or when the candidate is most vulnerable) they make their pitch for them to engage in "God's Work", which is the meaning of Opus Dei in Latin.
The long-range affects of these recruitments has been varied. Members conform to a strict regimen while in the group so, a strong degree of dependency is formed. Control is exerted over everything from reading material (no Balzac or Marx) to hairstyle. Needless to say, the corrosive affects of coerced behavior can have some lasting affects.
Groups such as ONAN (Opus Dei Awareness Network) have sprung up to address the need for "de-programming" practitioners who require intervention to escape the group's emotional and psychological attachments. Their methods are not measurably different from those used to restore Moonies or Hare Krishna's to the warm embrace of planet earth. Their web site chronicles the disturbing stories of those who have broken the Opus Dei addiction. (Also check; "How Opus Dei is Cult-Like" by Sharon Clasen)
Our central question in this essay is to determine whether or not a Justice on the Supreme Court should be challenged on the basis of his alleged involvement in a religious cult. It is our belief that, however benign the goals of the organization may be, the public needs a full accounting the objectives of secret societies to evaluate if nominee's views are compatible with the workings of the justice system. Details of the group's activities and motives were absent from the Scalia hearings.
Our reading of the Constitution suggests that individuals should enjoy limitless freedom unless it threatens or harms someone else. We apply that same standard to Antonin Scalia regarding his life as a private citizen. The question is whether Scalia's understanding of the Constitution could be seriously maligned by his involvement in a religious cult. For this we need to determine whether his ability to arrive at an impartial rendering of the law is impaired by his commitment to a radical orthodoxy. As clever as Scalia's rulings are, they are entirely predictable, never veering from his narrow perspective. This implies that rather than being the result of a reasoned deliberation of the law, they are nothing more than the logical extension of a particular dogma. This guarantees that his rulings will be an upshot of his religious affectations instead of an unbiased reading of the facts. We see this as an illustration of his judgment being overshadowed by a competing ethic; an ethic that disparages our fundamental understanding of the law.
Moreover, the consistency of Scalia's rulings suggests that there is really no deliberation at all, just a summarizing of his personal ideology so it coincides with the details of a particular case. This alone, suggests that his position on the bench should be challenged. In everything from gay relations to defending the fundamental principle of democratic society, the counting of votes in a presidential election, Scalia has openly ignored the guidance of the law, choosing to stand firm in his doctrinal positions. Again, this indicates that his religious feelings precede the need for impartiality and evenhandedness.
The deleterious affects of cults on an individual's ability to think clearly cannot be overstated and should be part of the debate to determine whether Scalia is fit to serve on the court. If Scalia is not a member of this Byzantine group, let him say so publicly and dispel the rumors. Had he been properly vetted prior to his appointment, the allegations of his involvement in this clandestine organization would have generated much greater interest. Nominees need to come clean about the groups to which they belong, and the nature of those groups. This applies doubly to organizations like Opus Dei that are shrouded in secrecy. If a nominee refuses to be straightforward, he simply should not be considered.
We count on the Supreme Court to rule on basic issues of civil liberties and justice. If it's clear that one's judgment is impaired by extremism, he should either step down or be removed. We don't need radicals on the High Court.
Mike Whitney can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org