Is Judge Samuel Alito a member of Opus Dei?
If so, does it matter? If it matters, why?
A Senate staffer confirmed that the Judiciary Committee received numerous “notes and letters” stating that Judge Samuel Alito is a member of Opus Dei.
A controversial Catholic organization*, Opus Dei is now widely known from the bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, a novel by American author Dan Brown, soon to be a major film starring Tom Hanks that will premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
In 1928, a Catholic priest who acquired a doctorate in law, Josemaría Escrivá founded Opus Dei in Spain. Escrivá’s juridical attitude to religious doctrine permeates Opus Dei and is the source of its attraction to members of the legal profession. Opus Dei received massive political support after the fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War. Generalissimo Francisco Franco protected and fostered conservative elements within Opus Dei by appointing eight ministers to powerful positions in his government. In Spain, Opus Dei is still regarded as a potent political force. In 2002, Escrivá was canonized.
Why, then, is an Alito membership in Opus Dei of major significance? In addition to his activist record on the federal bench and his conservative ideology, Alito is deemed to be a menace to the balance of power as well as the constitutional rights of Americans. Judge Alito’s affiliation with Opus Dei may be a factor in the strident opposition from Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, both progressive Roman Catholics who do not approve of the influence of religious dogma on political ideology. The majority of Americans believe in the separation of church and state, while many religious conservatives such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell would transform America into a theocratic state. Robertson and Falwell are staunch supporters of Judge Alito.
While the Moral Majority, the 700 Club and a growing bloc of Christian Conservatives have wielded a great deal of political influence in America, two years ago these protestant fundamentalists formed a coalition with conservative Catholics to re-elect President George Bush. In 2004, the Vatican intervened directly into the US presidential election to endorse their champion, George Bush. The back-story is both fascinating and compelling, for it illuminates the political dynamics taking shape in the nomination, possible confirmation and conflict centring on Alito.
In June, 2004, soon after Bush’s papal audience with the late pontiff, Pope John Paul II, a letter signed by Former Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, who now reigns as Pope Benedict XVI, threatened to excommunicate any Catholic politician in favour of abortion as well as any Catholic voters who would support Kerry at the polls. At that point in the presidential campaign George Bush was trailing John Kerry by double digits in the polls, and Bush seemed doomed to become a one-term president like his father.
During his papal audience with the late Pope John Paul II, Bush is reported to have complained to the pontiff and other members of the curia, including Former Cardinal Ratzinger, that he did not have the total support of all of the US Bishops. Ratzinger’s letter swiftly resolved that dilemma for the politically beleaguered president.
In a perceptive article titled “Holy Warriors,” Sidney Blumenthal, a former advisor to President Clinton, ascribed Bush’s narrow victory over Kerry directly to the political impact of the Ratzinger letter. During his long career at the Vatican, Former Cardinal Ratzinger’s decisive handling of complicated problems had become a matter of record. His official investigation of the priestly child abuse scandal involving Catholic clerics gave him the knowledge and understanding of the political and legal dynamics prevalent in Bush’s America.
During 2002 and 2003, Former Cardinal Ratzinger had been the Prefect of The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). In previous centuries, the CDF was known as the Inquisition. In his official capacity as Prefect, he was largely responsible for the Vatican’s ecclesiastical investigation into thousands of cases of priestly child sexual abuse. Former Cardinal Ratzinger’s handling of that scandal has been the subject of substantial analysis and criticism.
At the height of the scandal, Former Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a letter that altered official procedure by reserving all cases of priestly child sexual abuse to the CDF. Prior to Former Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter, cases of priestly sexual abuse were not restrained in the exclusive purview of the CDF. Attorneys for victims of priestly child sexual abuse in Texas argued in court that Former Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter was an obstruction of justice. In a public statement, Former Cardinal Ratzinger told the Catholic News Service, “Less than one percent of priests are guilty of acts of this type.” Many Catholics view this statement as callous and an attempt to cover-up the scandal. Former Cardinal Ratzinger’s apparent indifference to the scandal shocked many Catholics. Many members of the College of Cardinals harkened to his message of minimizing the importance of the scandal. One Cardinal attempted to place the blame for the scandal on America’s reputation for excessive litigation. He stated that attorneys were merely seeking “to make money” from the scandal. In 2005 shortly after his election to the papacy, Cardinal Ratzinger appeared to promise to make amends for earlier miscalculations in handling the charges of priestly child sexual abuse when he made a public commitment to ‘attend’ to the scandal. How he intends to resolve the scandal remains to be seen.
The Department of Justice under former Attorney General John Ashcroft, himself an ardent born again Christian, took no action in that case, or, more accurately, those cases. Ten thousand victims of priestly child sexual abuse were discovered in America alone, and the Catholic Church identified four thousand four hundred and fifty (4,450) of its own priests who had been incriminated in the United States. As a direct result of the scandal, the Catholic Church is known to have paid out more than $1 billion in settlements to the victims of priestly child sexual abuse. During the past two years many new reports of priestly child sexual abuse have surfaced in the United States as well as in other nations. For instance, in Brazil a recent report identified over 1,400 priests incriminated in child sexual abuse. Whether any members of Opus Dei were involved in the scandal or the handling of it is obscured by the secrecy screening the organization’s membership from public scrutiny. Whether members of Opus Dei wield significant influence in the Vatican’s ongoing attempts to resolve the scandal through negotiations with American government, law enforcement and criminal justice agencies may never be made public.
What adds additional interest to the role of Opus Dei and the Catholic Church in US political life is that for many years unconfirmed reports have linked Supreme Court Justices Scalia and Thomas to Opus Dei. In March, 2001, Newsweek reported that the wife of Justice Scalia, “attended Opus Dei’s spiritual functions.” Justice Scalia’s son, Father Paul Scalia, personally mediated the conversion of Justice Clarence Thomas to Roman Catholicism following his confirmation to the Supreme Court.
In recent years, the ultra-conservative jurist Robert Bork has converted to Roman Catholicism. In Washington, speculations about Bork and Opus Dei are relatively common. Other conservative Catholic politicians associated in the popular media with Opus Dei include Senators Sam Brownback and Rick Santorum. While the names of priests and officials of Opus Dei are made public, the identities of the lay members are not matters of public record, making it appear to be a secret organization. This situation leaves a question mark over those markedly conservative Catholics with political prominence.
Opus Dei purports to be apolitical, but its members have been associated with right-wing political causes since its inception. While the vast majority of America’s Catholics are moderate to progressive in their views like Senators Kennedy and Kerry and Justice Kennedy, there is a small but vocal minority who adhere to ultra-conservative doctrine and dogma and consistently support neoconservative political candidates and their causes.
The rise to power of religious dogmatists in the guise of an Opus Dei clique on the Supreme Court through the rulings of Scalia, Thomas, and potentially Alito is a legitimate cause for concern not only on Capitol Hill, but also throughout America. Just imagine the outcry if the Supreme Court had four radical Islamicists, four zealous Zionists or four fixated followers of Reverend Sun Myung Moon. The case of Samuel Alito raises a serious question: is George Bush attempting to pack the Supreme Court with religious extremists?
If Alito is confirmed, his presence will create a majority of five Catholic justices on the US Supreme Court. Justice Anthony Kennedy is a liberal Catholic, while the recently appointed Chief Justice, John Roberts, is another deeply conservative Catholic jurist whose devout religious views have also given rise to speculation involving Opus Dei. Alito would bring to four the total of ultra-conservative Catholics on the US Supreme Court, forming an alliance that would be legal, judicial and religious.
In his infamous text, The Way, Saint Josemaría Escrivá wrote,
“Nonsectarianism. Neutrality. Those old myths that always try to seem new. Have you ever bothered to think how absurd it is to leave one’s Catholicism aside on entering a university, or a professional association, or a scholarly meeting, or Congress, as if you were checking your hat at the door?”
There can be little serious doubt that the progressive Catholic members of the Senate are well aware of this famous tenet of Opus Dei. That may well be why they are stridently opposing the confirmation of the arch-conservative and dogmatic Catholic jurist, Judge Samuel Alito.
*Opus Dei, in full Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei, was founded in 1928 in Spain by Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer y Albá (canonized in 2002). It is theologically conservative and accepts the teaching authority of the church without question. It was granted special status as the first and only personal prelature in the church by Pope John Paul II in 1982. Opus Dei is the subject of a growing body of academic papers, articles, books, documentaries and films surveying trends in western religion probing its political influence and its connection to fascist regimes.
MICHAEL CARMICHAEL has been a professional public affairs consultant, author and broadcaster since 1968, . In 2003, he founded The Planetary Movement Limited, a global public affairs organization based in the United Kingdom. He has appeared as a public affairs expert on the BBC’s Today Programme, Hardtalk, PM, as well as numerous appearances on ITN, NPR and many European broadcasts examining politics and culture. He can be reahced through his website: www.planetarymovement.org