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Recently, the ever-annoying Stephen Schwartz made an interesting proposal.
During the mass for Saint Josemaría, I pondered an idea I have long considered. Opus Dei is well known for its positive role in reforming the economy of Spain, late in the Franco era, when it acted to energize entrepreneurs as well as to promote transparency and accountability in the Iberian business environment. This modernization was predicated on defense, rather than destruction, of traditional and conservative Spanish Catholic religious culture. Escrivá incited his acolytes to ridicule leftists and secularists for their attachment to 19th century ideas, comparing belief in them to insistence on traveling by stagecoach. Similarly, Opus Dei has become associated with the improvement of Catholic university education, especially schooling in management, in Latin America as well as in Spain.
How would a Muslim equivalent of Opus Dei -- reinforcing a conservative and traditional view of faith while embodying contemporary capitalist principles, modernizing education, and fostering the common good -- affect the world of Islam? The more one examines Opus Dei the more it resembles, in a broad way, a Sufi order; it is a voluntary association of fervent believers who have come together with a common dedication to refinement of their spiritual understanding and strengthening of religious ideals in the public square.
One can leave aside the whole question of whether or not Opus Dei is in fact a dangerous cult within the Roman Catholic Church, while keeping an open mind on whether or not the order's friendliness to the fascist regime of Francisco Franco was forced or not. The order emerged from 1930s Spain to play a decidedly mixed role.
In truth, the context for Opus Dei's creation was as much political as religious. In Spain in the 30s, hostility between the Catholic church and the left was one of the causes of the civil war; Escriva spent the war on the run from leftwing forces. When Franco and the right emerged victorious, Opus Dei survived the bloodletting and paranoia that followed - fighting off allegations that it was a Jewish sect with links to the Freemasons - to work its way steadily into the upper levels of the dictatorship.
This involvement remains a sensitive subject. "Opus Dei is filed under F for Franco," concedes Jack Valero, the organisation's spokesman in Britain. "Some members worked in Franco's Spain, became ministers of his. But Opus Dei people are free to do whatever they wish politically. Other members were against Franco." He cites the dissident Rafael Calvo Serer, who was driven into exile in the early 70s and saw the newspaper he published closed by the government.
Allen confirms that by the latter stages of the Franco era, Opus Dei in Spain was divided "50/50" over the regime. Yet during the same period, Opus Dei was less than critical of other dictatorships. Escriva visited Chile in 1974, only months after Pinochet seized power, at a time when most international figures were staying well away. From Chile to Peru to Venezuela, allegations have followed Opus Dei, as it has recruited across south America, that its members have been senior participants in authoritarian coups and governments.
It exceeds the limits of my generosity, I fear, to think that the Opus Dei example is one that should be encouraged in democratizing countries trying to modernize socially and economically. Secretive religious groups as a rule tend not to have the mixed results of Spain's Opus Dei--a 50/50 division between supporters and opponents of Franco's order doesn't exactly suggest a strong commitment to the ideals of democracy or social pluralism. If they saw what happened to Spain by the early 21st century, I suspect that the order would have turned out to be massively opposed to democracy. After all, souls lie in the balance.