JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away today. Coming up, we dig into our mailbox and hear feedback from you on interviews we did throughout the week.
But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about issues of religion and spirituality. There's been a lot of recent press connecting GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum to the controversial Catholic group Opus Dei. The group says its mission is to promote the sanctification of work, but critics call it a highly secretive organization that promotes an extreme political agenda, and the group is back in the headlines because of Republican candidate Rick Santorum.
Although he's not a member of Opus Dei, the connection that Santorum and others draw between his political beliefs and conservative Catholicism has raised new questions about the organization.
We'll speak to a member of Opus Dei in a few minutes. First, we've called on John Allen. He's a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and the author of the 2005 book "Opus Dei."
Welcome to TELL ME MORE.
JOHN ALLEN: Hi-ya, Jacki.
LYDEN: First of all, for those who might not know, could you explain what Opus Dei is?
ALLEN: Sure. Well, the Catholic church is pretty big. There are 1.2 billion Catholics in every nook and cranny of the planet, 67 million or so in the United States. And they tend to be organized into subgroups. Opus Dei is one such subgroup. This is a group that is devoted to the idea of the sanctification of ordinary work, so whether you're a barber or a bus driver or a Supreme Court justice, the idea is that you see the details of your ordinary daily work as your opportunity to make yourself holy and to make the world holy.
LYDEN: Why has Opus Dei caused concern in some people? Why do people look askance?
ALLEN: Well, I think there are two things. One is Opus Dei was founded in 1928 and sort of grew up initially in Franco-era Spain, and it sort of attracted around itself a lot of what you might call black legends or pieces of mythology, things like its spiritual practices. Members wear a kind of spiked chain around their leg called a cilice. You know, some have argued that it tends to subjugate women and so on. And some of this stuff, of course, showed up in Dan Brown's potboiler "The Da Vinci Code."
I think the other is that it's an undeniable fact that Opus Dei, over the years, has attracted a number of very successful professionals, lawyers, academics, politicians, businesspeople who tend to move in very conservative political circles. And so for liberals both inside and outside the Catholic church, Opus Dei just simply isn't their cup of tea.
LYDEN: So what do we know about candidate Rick Santorum's connections to Opus Dei? He has referenced it a couple of times. His in-laws are members of Opus Dei. What else?
ALLEN: Yeah. I mean Opus Dei is actually a fairly small group. It's only got about 85,000 members worldwide, including 3,000 in the United States, but then there's this sort of much wider network of people who may not be formal members, but who, from time to time, will go to Opus Dei events. They will read the writings of the founder of Opus Dei, a Spanish priest by the name of Josemaria Escriva, who is now a saint of the Catholic church. They may know priests or lay members who belong to Opus Dei who are their friends who give them either formal or informal kinds of spiritual direction.
And Santorum would be part of that larger galaxy of people who have never formally signed on the dotted line, but clearly kind of move in Opus Dei circles and find something of value in its spiritual teachings.
LYDEN: John Allen, what role do you see, if any, this group playing in American politics over the last decade?
ALLEN: Well, formally speaking, they don't play any role. I mean, Opus Dei will tell you that officially they have no political line, and that's true as far as it goes. I mean, it's certainly the case that there's no war room in Opus Dei headquarters in Rome where people gather around a table at 8:00 in the morning and then issue marching orders to Opus Dei affiliated politicians in various parts of the world.
But look, I think it's a plain fact that Opus Dei forms a kind of important set of resources and sort of base of support, if you like, for more conservative Catholic circles in the States, including conservative Catholics who are engaged in politics.
LYDEN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking to author and reporter John Allen about the controversial Catholic group Opus Dei, and their connections with Rick Santorum.
John F. Kennedy had a great deal of influence in defining the image of the Catholic politician, and it's an image that Rick Santorum has outright rejected. He pointed to a 1960 speech by JFK saying that the separation of church and state is absolute, and Rick Santorum said that this is a speech that made him - not to put too fine a point on it - want to throw up. Here's a clip from him "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK")
LYDEN: What do you make of the fact that he's basically renouncing the separation that not only the Constitution but of course JFK enshrined?
ALLEN: Yeah. And, in that sense, Santorum is really doing nothing more than articulating what would be the kind of standard conservative Catholic line in American politics. I mean, basically they would argue that your values have to shape the way you approach political life, and that doesn't mean, you know, imposing Sunday mass attendance as a matter of civil law. But it does mean the kind of basic values that are part and parcel of Catholic teaching, such as respect for human life, respect for the traditional family, have to have some consequence for the way you think about politics.
LYDEN: Just one last question, John. Where would you say Opus Dei stands among the larger Catholic community in America?
ALLEN: Well, its sociological footprint is pretty small. I mean, it's only got about 3,000 members in the United States, but it would be one of the most important players on the Catholic right. You would be hard-pressed to find a prominent Catholic conservative in the United States these days who didn't have some kind of interest in and probably some kind of informal tie to Opus Dei people. So in that sense it has an influence that goes well beyond its actual size.
LYDEN: John Allen is a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and the author of the 2005 book "Opus Dei." He joined us from member station KUVO in Denver. John Allen, I want to thank you so much.
ALLEN: It was a great pleasure, Jacki.
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