Member: Opus Dei Focused On Religion Not Politics

Rick Santorum's ties to the Catholic group Opus Dei have been recently highlighted in news reports. Guest host Jacki Lyden continues the conversation about Opus Dei with long-time member, John Coverdale. They discuss the role of religion in politics and address claims that the group promotes a conservative political agenda.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Next we go to a member of Opus Dei. John Coverdale is a Seton Hall University law professor and he joins me now. Mr. Coverdale, thank you very much for being here.

JOHN COVERDALE: Well, thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

LYDEN: You've written two books about Opus Dei and you've been associated with Opus Dei as a member for over 50 years. You've worked at the Vatican. How would you explain the mission of Opus Dei to a lay audience?

COVERDALE: Well, I think John Allen actually had it exactly right, that the mission of Opus Dei is to spread the message that God calls everyone to holiness, not just to kind of keeping your nose clean and maybe going to church on Sunday, but to really trying to put into practice in your life Christ's challenge to love God above all things and love your neighbor as yourself.

LYDEN: As you've heard in our interview with Mr. Allen, he told us that almost every conservative Catholic politician is in some way associated with Opus Dei. Would you agree that the organization is assuming a more visible dimension in American politics?

COVERDALE: You know, I found that a kind of astounding statement, quite frankly. I don't think there's any very large number of prominent politicians who are in connection with Opus Dei one way or the other.

LYDEN: Catholic politicians, I was...

COVERDALE: Catholic politicians. Yes.

LYDEN: Well, Rick Santorum has been associated with Opus Dei. As you know, he visited the Vatican in 2002 and he's been very vocal about putting very conservative Catholic positions forward as he campaigns.

Are you concerned that having a high profile politician this closely identified with the group in some way makes it liable for what he has to say?

COVERDALE: Well, of course, I can't do anything about what conclusions people want to draw. I can only say that Opus Dei neither endorses nor rejects Mr. Santorum or his principles, that we really are concerned about this message of trying to help people sanctify their daily life, and we don't tell the garbage man how to pick up garbage and we don't tell the politicians how to vote on political issues.

LYDEN: Would you say that you, in general, fear that religion is getting too politicized?

COVERDALE: No. I don't think I would. I think that our whole national life is, in some ways, getting too polarized. I guess I'd like to just comment a little bit. Both you and John Allen kind of repeatedly used the word conservative with regard to Opus Dei.

Now, as a group within the church, Opus Dei, I think, is in many ways quite revolutionary. Certainly at the time that our founder, Saint Josemaria, began preaching this message that everyone is called to sanctity, people looked askance at him and said, no, no, no; if you want to be really dedicated to God, you have to be a priest or a nun, you can't be out there as a banker or a lawyer or something like that.

On the political spectrum, I think what happens is that, you know, we all tend to put people in cubbyholes. So for instance, I'm a tax professor and I am very much in favor of ending the preferences for capital gains. I'm very much in favor of much more steeply progressive taxation than we now have. On the issue that's being so much debated these days about health care, I would favor a single provider system. All of those, I think, are liberal positions.

On the other hand, I am a pro-life person and I do support traditional marriage and the majority - perhaps all the members of Opus Dei would stand fairly firm on pro-life issues, on marriage. And you then get kind of put into the box and say, oh, well, then you're conservative. Well, but what about the rest of my positions? I'm not conservative on those.

LYDEN: Do you find it difficult to vote for either a Republican or a Democrat?

COVERDALE: As a matter of fact, I do. I kind of hold my nose at the end of the day and make my choice.

LYDEN: I want to go back in history a little bit to a time when many Americans were leery of the Vatican influence associated with Catholic candidate JFK, John F. Kennedy. And he made this iconic speech about the separation between church and state, a speech that, again, Mr. Santorum publicly rebuked.

What would you say today about the space between church and state?

COVERDALE: I think that, obviously, we do have a principle of separation between church and state. I certainly don't think it meant in the minds of the founders that there was to be no public dialog influenced by belief or by religion or anything like that. I think what it meant was we were not to have an official church, we're not to have excessive entanglement of the government with churches and church institutions. Certainly I think the founders would have been dumbstruck to be told that religious voices shouldn't be heard in the political sphere.

The most important issues that we and every other society face are ultimately moral issues. How do we treat other people? What rights derive from our conditions as human beings? Many of us derive our values and our positions on those kinds of questions from a religious tradition. Other people don't, and I certainly don't deny their right to speak up and to try to implement the values that they hold dear, but I don't see why my voice should not be heard simply because I turn to the Catholic tradition for at least part of the backing of my positions.

LYDEN: I wanted to know, Mr. Coverdale, if Opus Dei's role is seen to be associated with a very partisan view of the American political process, if you do worry that that could compromise or undermine this religious mission, which you clearly care very passionately about.

COVERDALE: Yes. I mean, I certainly - we do not wish to be understood as a political group or a group that's somehow bent on carrying out conservative political agendas. But Opus Dei doesn't say, well, you should join the whole conservative cause. It says you should take your faith seriously and that should influence your political decisions, but how you work that out, how you balance those, is up to you.

LYDEN: John Coverdale is a professor of law at Seton Hall University. He's also a member of Opus Dei, the Catholic organization. And he joined us from member station WVGO in Newark, New Jersey.

Professor Coverdale, thank you very much for being with us.

COVERDALE: Thank you for having me.

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