After weeks of speculation, the education secretary Ruth Kelly admitted this week that she receives ‘spiritual support’ from the secretive Catholic sect Opus Dei. But even if reports of bizarre rituals are exaggerated, why would she be involved with the controversial group in the first place? Andy Beckett investigates

Friday January 28, 2005
The Guardian

Just over half a century ago in Spain, a new kind of politician began to appear. As government ministers, they were young, energetic and highly competent. They were confident without being overbearing. And they seemed relatively free of fixed political ideas, except for a general desire to turn their old country into a modern, business-driven one.

During the 50s and 60s they opened up its economy to foreign trade and its poor southern coastline to lucrative tourism. They made themselves potential role models – complete with a suggestive group name used by some of their associates: the”third force” – for future generations of reforming European politicians.

Yet two things about the Spanish modernisers have hindered their reputation since. First, they did their work as part of the dictatorship of General Franco. Second, many of them were members of a new, highly conservative and highly controversial Roman Catholic movement: Opus Dei.

Since 1997, Ruth Kelly has been a similar modernising presence in British politics. As a Labour MP, Treasury minister, and now education secretary at the precocious age of 36, she has been busy, effective and – working closely with both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – seemingly undogmatic. But being a British social democrat is rather different from being one of Franco’s lieutenants. And so the revelation over the past five weeks, via a series of distinctly grudging admissions, that Kelly is also “in contact” (the organisation’s words) with Opus Dei, and (in her words) receiving “spiritual support” from them, has been one of the stranger political shocks of recent British history.

All this has happened, moreover, at a time when, for non-political reasons, the notoriety of Opus Dei has been massively magnified. In Dan Brown’s bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code, the organisation is famously portrayed as a murderous secret society whose crimes include concealing the truth about the Holy Grail. For all the exasperated reminders on the Opus Dei website that the book is “a work of fiction and not a reliable source of information on these matters”, it is now even more awkward for Kelly to be the organisation’s sole known representative in the House of Commons. As a prominent woman, with an assured manner, unmarked until now by any hint of political vulnerability or scandal, Kelly has had to watch her religious leanings being probed and dramatised with a certain relish in some quarters.

But a more interesting question perhaps than whether Ruth Kelly chafes herself with metal instruments or follows other Gothic-sounding practices ascribed to Opus Dei, is why a clever young politician, whether in modern Britain or Spain under Franco, would join the movement at all.

Before she became an MP, Kelly worked as an economist at the Bank of England and as a financial journalist at this newspaper. She studied at Oxford and the London School of Economics. Such a background in rational inquiry and the ambiguities of statistics, you might think, would not make someone receptive to a particularly unquestioning form of Roman Catholic faith.

Yet Opus Dei was founded, at least in part, to attract the ambitious professional classes. In Spain in the early 20th century, as in similar Roman Catholic countries, the church was anxious about a growing anti-religious scepticism. “Their great fear was losing the bourgeoisie,” says John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, one of the few relatively balanced authorities on Opus Dei. Around 1928 (the date is disputed), Josemaria Escriva, a young priest and law student with a pale, intense face and wire-rimmed glasses, decided to start a new Catholic movement. Opus Dei was not the first of its kind – new Catholic groups combining traditional theology with modern methods of spreading it already existed in Spain and France – but Escriva’s scheme had a novel element. Opus Dei would, as its website puts it, promote “holiness in and by means of one’s ordinary work”.

Members of the movement would not withdraw from everyday life, like monks, but would pursue their secular careers – only now they would be “working according to the spirit of Jesus Christ”. And Escriva had a particular kind of career in mind. “He wanted to reach the elite, those who shape culture,” says Allen.

In 1939, Escriva published a book to guide these converts called The Way. It remains an intriguing read. Arranged in 999 short fragments, each a saying or instruction, its tone is by turns intimate, fierce and stiffly formal. How to behave at work is one preoccupation: “25 – Avoid arguments.” “343 – Work! When you feel the responsibility of professional work, the life of your soul will improve.” How to behave towards Opus Dei is another: “941 – Obedience [is] … the sure way. Blind obedience to your superior … the only way.” “627 – Yours should be a silent obedience.”

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