Murderous cult? Or not?

Cardinal Mahony Announces San Antonio Archbishop Jose Gomez As Successor

In a different media environment, I suspect that the big Catholic news of the week would be the Opus Dei affiliation of Archbishop Jose Gomez, named to succeed the archbishop of Los Angeles.

This story about the move, in the Los Angeles Times, actually isn’t that bad. I’m particularly pleased that it includes a discussion of how unhelpful the labels “conservative” and “liberal” are when it comes to religious life. To be sure, that discussion comes after the use of the labels, but it’s better than nothing.

The story explains that Gomez, born in Monterrey, Mexico, was ordained an Opus Dei priest in 1978 and was named archbishop of San Antonio in 2004. Here’s how the story explains what Opus Dei is:

Opus Dei was founded by Saint Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer in Spain in 1928. Escriva held that sainthood could be achieved by anyone by carrying out everyday tasks extraordinarily well.

We could have used a bit more description, I think. But it’s the next paragraph that’s just spectacularly awful:

The movement, which enjoys a unique status at the Vatican, was depicted as a murderous cult in Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” which Opus members and the Vatican have denounced as defaming the church.

Wow. I mean, yes, I guess that Opus Dei was depicted as a murderous cult in an inexplicably popular work of bad fiction. And yes, members did object to that depiction. But, well, this isn’t really the best time to bring out the journalistic “he said, they said” is it. Or, as the folks over at Catholic Culture opined:

There are only two possibilities here. Either Opus Dei is a murderous cult, or Dan Brown’s portrayal is defamatory. To say that “Opus members and the Vatican” object to the portrayal is to suggest that other people– more objective people– don’t see a problem with the depiction.

Just a bit of harmless entertainment: I’m going to tell the world that you belong to a murderous cult. You won’t object, will you? C’mon, be a sport! Where’s your sense of humor?

It’s OK to present alternative views of Opus Dei, but one of them shouldn’t be self-proclaimed fiction.

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  • Tyson K

    I agree with the basic criticism here, but this is a tricky matter because the only reason most (non-Catholic) Americans have heard of Opus Dei (if they have) is because of The Da Vinci Code. So it seems as though it has to be mentioned somehow.

  • Mollie

    Good point, Tyson. Acknowledging the Da Vinci Code is not the problem — just presenting it as was done in the story isn’t ideal.

  • CV

    As I recall, on the rare occasion that Opus Dei did issue a public statement around the time the Da Vinci Code film was released, that statement was measured and thoughtful. The following statement, a direct response to public comments by director Ron Howard, is a good example (what if, they point out, the film’s distributor Sony Corp. had been the subject of a similar aesthetic slur?):

    “ROME, MAY 15, 2006 ( The press office of the Opus Dei Prelature sent this statement to ZENIT on Friday in response to comments by the director of the soon-to-be-released film “The Da Vinci Code.”

    * * *

    On Thursday the Italian press published interviews with Ron Howard, director of “The Da Vinci Code” film. In statements attributed to him, Howard said that “to deny the right to see the film is a fascist act,” and also “to tell someone not to go see the film is an act of militancy and militancy generates hatred and violence.” Opus Dei is mentioned several times in these interviews. The phrases seem to refer to recent statements by Church authorities.

    I would ask Ron Howard to keep calm and express himself with respect.

    It is not wise to lose sight of the reality of the situation: This film is offensive to Christians. Howard represents the aggressor, and Catholics are victims of an offense. The one offended cannot have his last right taken away, which is to express his point of view. It is not the statements of ecclesiastics or the respectful request of Opus Dei — to include a notice at the beginning of the film that it is a work of fiction — which generates violence. It is rather the odious, false and unjust portrayals that fuel hatred.

    In his statements, Howard also repeats that it is simply a film, an invented story, and that it must not be taken too seriously. But it is not possible to deny the importance of the movies and literature. Fiction influences our way of seeing the world, especially among young people. It is not right not to take it seriously. Artistic creativity certainly needs a climate of freedom, but freedom cannot be separated from responsibility.

    Imagine a film that says that Sony was behind the attacks on the Twin Towers, which it promoted because it wanted to destabilize the United States. Or a novel that reveals that Sony paid the gunman who shot the Pope in St. Peter’s Square in 1981, because it was opposed to the Holy Father’s moral leadership. They are only invented stories. I imagine that Sony, a respectable and serious company, would not be happy to see itself portrayed in this way on the screens, and that it would not be satisfied with an answer such as “Don’t worry, it’s only fiction, it mustn’t be taken too seriously, freedom of expression is sacred.”

    In any case, those who have taken part in the film’s project have no reason to be concerned. Christians will not react with hatred and violence, but with respect and charity, without insults or threats. They can continue to calculate tranquilly the money they will make on the film, because the freedom of financial profit seems to be in fact the only sacred freedom, the only one exempt from all responsibility. They will probably make a lot of money, but they are paying a high price by deteriorating their prestige and reputation.

    I hope the controversy of these months will not be sterile but serve to reflect on the relative character of financial profit when high values are involved; on the importance of fiction; on responsibility, which always supports and protects freedom.

    [The statement added:]

    The plan of Opus Dei’s Communication Office in regard to this case may be found on the Web page, which explains in detail its position over these months.

    [From] Manuel Sánchez Hurtado, in charge of relations with the international press, at the Opus Dei’s press office in Rome”

    I especially love the kicker in that statement: responsibility always supports and protects freedom.

    There is a sort of poetic justice in seeing Archbishop Gomez, who is by all accounts a thoughtful, humble and brilliant priest, land in the middle of Los Angeles. I hope Ron Howard runs into him at Starbucks.

  • Passing By

    Escriva held that sainthood could be achieved by anyone by carrying out everyday tasks extraordinarily well.

    This is pretty much all I’ve heard about the charism of Opus Dei, and, from a Catholic perspective, it’s a fairly complete statement. In fact, it’s not unlike Cistercian spirituality, although Opus Dei moves it from the monastery into ordinary life. Oh, and they don’t don’t have monks, although some of their members do live celibate lives in community.

    After all the bile aimed at us over the past few weeks, Dan Brown seems tame. I will say it’s shocked me just how much we are hated.

  • Dan

    Opus Dei seems to be an example of holiness provoking slander in proportionate degree — the greater the holiness, the greater the slander. The press’s coverage of Pope Benedict is another example.

  • Dan

    Passing By, I’ve suffered the same shock over the last couple of weeks. I find what is going on in the press spooky. So much so that I went out and bought Phillip Jenkins’ book “Anti-Catholicism.” I’m an anti-victimhood type, and so I was embarrassed to buy it. But it does put things in context. What is going on presently in the press has a long history in the United States.

  • John D

    Okay, okay, Opus Dei is not a murderous cult. I’m well aware of that. I see this article from the perspective of someone whose group is often the recipient of similar slanders.

    This seems to be standard journalistic practice. Okay, some people think that Opus Dei is a murderous cult. They’re wrong. Are journalists obligated to refute them? If that’s the case, every time a Catholic describes gay people as “intrinsically disordered,” then journalists should be noting whether the speakers are qualified to speak of anything as disordered and that the Catholic Church has no objective criteria for claiming that gay people are disordered.

    Until then, if they don’t like claims that Opus Dei is a murderous cult (even though they’re not, fine), they can just lump it.

  • str

    John D,

    “This seems to be standard journalistic practice. Okay, some people think that Opus Dei is a murderous cult. They’re wrong. Are journalists obligated to refute them?”

    No, but the only legitimate reason (in terms of journalism as opposed to bigoty) to actually address that claim (not simply made by “people” but by a single novel and then believed by people) is to refute it.

    “If that’s the case, every time a Catholic describes gay people as “intrinsically disordered,” then journalists should be noting whether the speakers are qualified to speak of anything as disordered and that the Catholic Church has no objective criteria for claiming that gay people are disordered.”

    Your comparison is nonsensical. I guess you haven’t understood what “disordered” actually means. It is a value judgement depending on the moral principles one adopts. “Objective criteria” (as in quite very many things) do not exist for this!

    The matter with Opus Dei is totally different: they are not accused of being “disordered in their spirituality” and not even of “being a cult” – that I would deem a legitimate point to raise – but of being “murderous”. That’s a claim actually testable: how many people have been murdered by Opus Dei?

    The same would apply for homosexuals if they were described as murderous people (let alone, cult), but alas, they are not!

    So as it turns out – assuming you are a homosexual – your initial claim of being “someone whose group is often the recipient of similar slanders” turns out to be false and hyperbole.

  • str

    PS. Quite apart from the fact that “group x shouldn’t complain about mistreated as long as my group is mistreated too” is a really shallow argument.

  • Martha

    Um, John D, I would say that the only reason that some people may think Opus Dei is a murderous cult is precisely because of the Dan Brown book and subsequent film; most people outside of Catholicism never even heard of Opus Dei and a lot of Catholics don’t know much more than the name.

    So the introduction to Opus Dei for the vast majority of people was a book/film which presented a sadomasochistic albino assassin who somehow was a monk as a member of Opus Dei – not exactly the ideal presentation.

    It’s a bit like getting an impression of Judaism from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Works of fiction are not necessarily the same thing as accurate factual documents.

  • Passing By

    As a point of clarity, the Catholic Faith does not teach that homosexual person are “intrinsically disordered”.

    CCC 2357 -
    Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity,140 tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.”

  • Tom

    ‘Murderous cult’ is a great media exaggeration to get attention and attract viewers/readers/ratings. There is no doubt the Opus Dei is an extremely conservative wing of the Catholic Church. It is fair for the media to question the motives of this faction, especially with a church whose base is primarily of southern hemisphere, third world countries.

  • str


    it is fair for the media (or anyone else) to question, though it would be better first to question the behaviour and doctrine and not begin with motives. The passage in question does neither.

    However, I don’t understand the relevance of, OD being “an extremely conservative” group (actually not a wing) and of Catholic Church being based “primarily of southern hemisphere, third world countries”.

    There is no reason for special scrutiny for conservative groups or religions with ties to – gasp – foreign countries.