The mysterious case of the missing saint

Gentle readers, when it comes to evaluating that recent Washington Post story about Rick Santorum and Opus Dei, I have some good news and some bad news.

So, you say you want the good news first? That’s OK with me.

Well, the good news is that this story does not contain a direct — repeat “direct” — reference to “author” Dan Brown or his infamous novel “The DaVinci Code.” More on this issue later.

The bad news? Check out the top of this story and tell me if you spot a rather strange hole in it.

In January 2002, prominent Catholics from around the world gathered in Rome to celebrate the Spanish priest who founded one of the church’s most conservative and devout groups, Opus Dei.

The event drew cardinals, bishops and other powerful Vatican officials. And among those invited to speak was a future presidential candidate: Rick Santorum, whose faith had become so essential to his politics that on federal documents he listed the trip, paid for by an Opus Dei foundation, as part of his official duties as a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.

In a speech at the gathering, Santorum embraced the ideas of Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escriva, who had urged ordinary Catholics to bring an almost priestly devotion to Catholic principles in every realm of life and work. During Senate debates about abortion, Santorum told the audience in Rome, he hears Escriva telling him that “it is not true that there is opposition between being a good Catholic and serving civil society faithfully.” In his public fight to uphold “absolute truths,” Santorum said, “blessed Josemaria guides my way.”

Perhaps you noted the reference to “Josemaria Escriva” and you thought to yourself: Wasn’t this man a priest? Shouldn’t that be “Father Josemaria Escriva?”

Actually, the answer to that question is “no.”

What is bizarre about this Post reference to this controversial figure in 20th Century Catholic history is that it fails to note that this is a reference to SAINT Josemaria Escriva and that one of the reasons these dignitaries gathered in Rome to honor him was that 2002 was the year in which the Catholic church formally hailed him as a saint.

By all means, Saint Josemaria Escriva remains a controversial figure, a saint beloved by traditionalists and fear and/or despised by most progressive Catholics.

Yes, it is also crucial to know that his work did in fact center on holiness and righteous living by laypeople. Ironically, the Post story does a pretty good job of handling that side of his life and work and its impact on many Catholics and their parishes, including the one attended by Santorum. That’s one of the reasons the story is so frustrating. Large parts of it are constructive, accurate and quite helpful.

But then there are the gaps and the gaffes.

For example, here we go again on a vague use of a variation on the dreaded “c-word.”

The speech was his first public embrace of the organization Escriva founded in 1928, which now has about 90,000 members worldwide, including 3,000 in the United States. The group has been criticized in the past by former members as “cult-like” and praised by other members and a succession of popes for its strong commitment to church teachings and loyalty to the Vatican.

First things first: The Post does make it clear that Santorum is not a member of Opus Dei and the newspaper does not even know the degree to which he does or does not live out any of the group’s traditions or teachings. The article also does a fair and accurate job of describing some of the ancient, and controversial, spiritual disciplines practiced by a minority of Opus Dei members, such as:

The group encourages “unity” between followers’ personal and public lives as Catholics, the rigorous practice of church sacraments and, to some degree, gestures of self-denial. Its most devoted members follow a daily two-hour ritual of wearing a spiked metal chain on their thighs to recall Christ’s suffering — a practice followed by Mother Teresa.

I have no idea why the word “unity” is framed by scare quotes and I also have no idea why Mother Teresa — who will almost certainly be canonized as a saint sooner, rather than later — is not called by her current title, which is the Blessed Mother Teresa.

Meanwhile, let me say once again what I stressed the other day, when discussing another story that used cult language to describe a group of conservative Catholics. Once again, the Post has offered readers:

… a classic example of why the word “cult” or “cultish” should never, ever, be used in news copy without (a) an adjective to describe how this word is being used (“personality cult,” perhaps, or “a doctrinal cult”) and (b) without strict and clear attribution to show who is hurling this epithet at the group in question.

Like I said, there is no question that Opus Dei remains a controversial group for many, many Catholics.

Yet there is no question that the Vatican has investigated years of critical commentary and then canonized the movement’s founder as a saint. In it’s rush to link Santorum to a “cult-like” group — no attribution needed for that label — the Post team neglected this rather important and symbolic fact. Perhaps Catholic leaders are not actually saints until the Post editors decide they are worthy of being called saints.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Brendan

    While I did appreciate the analysis of this post I felt you were a bit to picky about titles. I understand that Catholics give reverence to those who have been recognized by the Church as being close to God with titles such as “Saint” or “Blessed”. However, many non-Catholics do not use these titles nor do they understand their significance. Also many people of different faith tradition might be opposed to the titles while still having respect for the people who hold them. For example, St. Augustine is a popular figure in reformed evangelical circles but he is most often title just “Augustine” or “Augustine of Hippo”. In common and conversational language many non-Catholics do not use the monikers of “saint” or “blessed”. This is certainly true of Mother Teresa. While many people throughout the world have much respect for her, nearly all non-Catholics would simply refer to her as “Mother Teresa” without the title of “blessed”. I think this would also be true of Pope John Paul II.

    It is not the Post‘s job to give religious respect to religious figures. Simply referring to people as they are commonly known should be acceptable. Though I do think referring to Josemaria to “St. Josemaria” would fight against the “cult” notion the Post is trying to pass off on us.

  • Jerry N

    The cilice is not a spiked chain–you won’t bleed from it. From the descriptions I’ve heard, it has some ridges or the like that poke into you a bit, but don’t come remotely close to piercing the skin.

  • Julia

    Escriva wasn’t canonized until the fall of 2002, so he wasn’t a saint yet at the January meeting described.

  • Martha

    Okay, tmatt, this time round I was ready going in. You warned me, I gritted my teeth and got myself ready, and deliberately psyched myself up for it.

    So for this story I wasn’t in danger of apoplexy (though the reporters didn’t make it easy!) Third sentence in, I had to appreciate the subtle swipe: “And among those invited to speak was a future presidential candidate: Rick Santorum, whose faith had become so essential to his politics that on federal documents he listed the trip, paid for by an Opus Dei foundation, as part of his official duties as a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.”

    Nicely done, lady and gentleman reporter! Good way to intimate that there was a whiff of politicians’ expenses corruption mingled with theocracy; he (ab)used taxpayers’ money to fund a junket (like many another politician) but in this case it’s even worse as it was for a purely sectarian religious purpose, thus violating the sacrosanct separation of church and state!

    I don’t suppose it could possibly have been that Senator Santorum went on a state visit abroad to the sovereign state of the Vatican as a representative of his constituency, you know, the way local politicians go on trade delegations and attend conferences in agreeable foreign locales on town planning, renewable energy, leadership strategies and the like?

    Okay, once again, there was one good thing I liked about the story; how Rick Santorum became involved in his faith under the influence of your classic Spirit of Vatican II priest, which makes the development of his movement towards a more traditional understanding and practice all the more fascinating. There’s definitely a story there, and at least it got more than a few quick sentences to bring it up.

    But why do I get the impression that if Senator Santorum had gone on taxpayer-funded trips to conferences held by Catholics For A Free Choice, the “Washington Post” would have said nothing at all about it?

  • Martha

    I apologise to the reporters; they make it clear that the trip was paid for by “an Opus Dei foundation” and not publically funded.

    Though that makes the theocratic overtones even stronger; a religious group pay for a member of the national parliament to go on a religiously-themed visit abroad and he thinks its part of his politicial duties. Next stop: “The Handmaid’s Tale” is going to come true with the next election!

    And again, if Planned Parenthood or Catholics for Choice or WomenPriests or DignityUSA had paid for a politician to go on a junket, would we get any disapproving mention at all?

  • asshur

    I concur with Martha that the article is written with more than a bit of “twisted tongue”.
    And while the writer seems not to like Catholicism “comme il faut” and likes morthe 70′s “spirit of …” ;-) i would see more than a shade of internal doubt trying to understand Santorum’s way.
    The writer seems to have a hard time with the “discipline”. Perhaps he is not aware that it was very common (still is ? I doubt) in many religious orders …
    As for the term “cult”, i’m sadly bound to say, that this time its mention is on-spot. It has been a recurrent critic to the ways of the Opus Dei; not only by ”progressives”.

    Disclaimer: I have my -above average- share of relatives/friends with more than a passing relationship with the “Obra”, but they’re not my cup of tea …

  • asshur

    Self correction.
    Its the “Opus” as a personal option what is not my cup of tea, not the people …

    I do not endorse the accusation of cult (other modern lay movements would better fit the definition), but sometimes looks like it is designed to be a perfect “fifth column”, which is a very different beast

  • tmatt


    Personality cult?

    Doctrinal cult?

    A sociological cult built on what?

    And the Vatican approved the leader of the cult as a saint?

    Just checking to see what you are actually saying.

  • tioedong

    I’m old enough to remember when fundamentalists called Catholicism a “cult”…

    and Opus Dei has been helpful in South America in combatting the pro Marxist “liberation theology” types there. So giving a talk to them could be considered as promoting democratic reform in (the then) dictatorships, as an alternative to a socialist revolution.
    I mean, if the US Government can work with Islamicist groups, why not with Catholic groups?

  • Richard Mounts

    Maybe WaPo used “cult” because they don’t know what a “personal prelature” is. Nor do they want to try to explain it to their readers, who probably don’t care. (snark, snark)

    Or, maybe they are trying but failing to use the word “cult” or “cultus” in the way the Church does–the devotion or honor accorded to deceased persons because of their virtuous lives. Eg: the cult of St. Escriva, or the cult of St. Augustine (pronounced awe-GUS-tin, btw; AWE-gus-teen is a city in Florida.) The def. above is from Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Dictionary, 1993, Rev. Peter M. J. Stravinsks, PhD., S.T.L., Editor

  • Asshur

    tmatt, sorry for the belated answer.
    I mean sociological cult: a close, inward looking, ‘group thinking’ unit with religious basis, with an autoperception of “chosen ones”, and a bit -or more- of a sectarian (in the separatedness sense) attitude.

    To judge the Opus Dei in this regard it must be stressed that once one becomes a numerary member one is bound to the religious vows as much as any “normal” proffesed member of a religious order, but living in the world. This was a novelty then. And the “Obra” is very, very demanding on its numeraries.

    Obedience is taken for granted, and unconditional fidelity to the Magisterium is expected. Not exactly what was current in the catholic world in the 60′s and beyond …

    The strong recruiting activities and an exagerated desire for discretion about membership (read secrecy) did not help either to dispell the sectarian aftertaste (I’m thinking in the 70′s and 80′s when I had the most exposure)

    A degree of personality cult of the Founder is not uncommon in even perfectly orthodox religious movement. The case of St Francis is more than paradigmatic.

    It’s obvious that Rome sees the “Opus Dei” as a religious order of a new type. And one of the most loyal (not that difficult after the self-exclusion of most of the traditional ones)

  • Maureen

    Opus Dei is pretty much a Third Order/lay oblate group (layperson in the world version of a religious order, with the chance for some members to live in religious community) crossed with the Knights of Columbus (the fun of getting to be in a “secret” group with other lay Catholics living in the world, but with craziness prevented by being monitored by local priests who know all the “secrets”), and some of the more demanding sorts of penitential sodalities and confraternities in Spain.

    So the group itself is “new” (ie, less than a century old), but the structure is made out of old, well-tested parts.

  • Julia

    Rick Santorum, whose faith had become so essential to his politics that on federal documents he listed the trip, paid for by an Opus Dei foundation, as part of his official duties as a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.

    Just occurred to me: Congressmen/women are expected to disclose every year any funds received from outside sources. There are lots of free junkets congress persons take to fact-find in foreign countries that they must report. This trip to Rome was probably included in that kind of reporting. He probably was just indicating that there was nothing nefarious about going on this junket and it would be appreciated by some of his constituents – not that it was part of his duties as Senator.

    Another similar trip I particularly remember is a fact-finding trip Senate Whip Durbin took to Lithuania in the 1990s. He just happens to have a mother born in Lithuania – so there’s a personal interest as well as a national interest in how Lithuania was getting along after the Iron Curtain fell. So the trip is not essential to US interests, but not detrimental and probably appreciated by some of his constituents.