William Barr and Opus Dei, the Secretive Ultra-Conservative Catholic Organization That Poses an Existential Threat to Democracy and Pluralism

August 2, 2019

Attorney General William Barr being sworn in ( Wikipedia )

Attorney General William Barr being sworn in (Wikipedia)

By Bill Berkowitz

It is no secret that Attorney General William P. Barr has ties to Opus Dei, the highly secretive, ultra-conservative Catholic organization. Opus Dei, which literally means "The Work of God," “is known for recruiting very influential members, especially those simpatico with culturally conservative causes,” veteran journalist Frank Cocozzelli recently explained. Barr’s connections to Opus Dei – it is unclear how deep it runs -- might in part explain, as Cocozzelli pointed out in an early May story headlined “Did Opus Dei Teach A.G. Barr to ‘Puts Away His Scruples’?,” Barr’s “apparent ‘ends justifies the means’ strategy” regarding his testimony about the Mueller Report before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Before his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing in January, Barr had completed a questionnaire,” Betty Clermont reported. “On page 4, he listed positions he’s held as director of the Catholic Information Center [which is managed by priests from Opus Dei], (2014-1017), director of the [decidedly right wing think tank] Ethics and Public Policy Center (2004-2009) and director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (1994-2015).

In her blog, The Open Tabernacle, Clerment, the author of The Neo-Catholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America, wrote: “the Opus Dei Catholic Information Center’s ‘members and leaders continue to have an outsize impact on policy and politics. It is the conservative spiritual and intellectual center … and its influence is felt in all of Washington’s corridors of power,’ the Washington Post stated recently.”

“As Cozocelli points out,” researcher D. Cary Hart told me in an email, ”Barr was on the board of Catholic Information Center. The priests who manage CIC are all Opus Dei members and it is generally believed that membership is required of the board of directors. [However] [y]ou will never be able to prove it, [since] Supernumeraries and Cooperators keep their identities secret.”

“The Attorney General has in the past spoken with language that is in line with the goals of both Opus Dei’s and the EPPC’s [the Ethics and Public Policy Center where Barr was director from 2004-2009] overlapping agendas,” Cocozzelli suggested. “This past December Americans United’s Rob Boston reminded us of Barr’s past theological screeds. These run the gamut from condemning public schools (they had undergone a ‘moral lobotomy’); in a 1992 address to Bill Donohue’s Catholic League, he called for the imposition of ‘God’s law’ in America. In that same address he went after contemporary supporters of the separation of church and state (‘The secularists of today are clearly fanatics’).”

“In 1995,” Laura Murray-Tjan wrote in late May, “Barr wrote that he was troubled by the ‘steady erosion of the Judeo-Christian moral system’ in the United States, and argued that law should aid in the restoration of the ‘traditional moral order.’ Roe v. Wade has contributed to the nation’s ‘permissiveness,’ Barr argues, by causing fewer people to view abortion as ‘evil.’ In short, the ‘character of the judiciary’ is crucially important because, Barr believes, our morals track what judges say is legal.”

The Rev. C. John McCloskey, who was a member of Opus Dei, became director of the Catholic Information Center in 1998. He helped drive CIC from a little known organization to becoming a major player in DC politics; he was described as “Catholic Church’s K Street lobbyist.” After a few years of growing his and CIC’s profile, he suddenly disappeared. In early January of this year, it was disclosed that McCloskey had victimized “a woman who had gone to him in 2002 for spiritual guidance,” The Washington Post’s Joe Heim reported.

“The global Opus Dei community confirmed … that it ordered McCloskey to leave Washington in 2003 and said his priestly duties were restricted. Subsequent reports have raised questions about whether his duties were restricted and in which ways. He was later sent to Chicago and California. Opus Dei paid the woman a $977,000 sexual misconduct settlement in 2005,” Heim pointed out.

The priest Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, who believed “that lay Catholics could achieve holiness without entering a religious order”, founded opus Dei in Spain in 1928. According to Cocozzelli, among other things, “Escriva also taught his followers to put away their scruples (The Way, Nos. 258 and 259), seemingly teaching that the ends always justify the means. Perhaps maxims 258 and 259 might explain the Attorney General’s prior misleading House testimony as well his unwillingness to answer questions that merely required a yes or no response. Much of what Escriva preached dovetails nicely with the William Barr’s ideal of a society built upon religious orthodoxy. That being the case, it also seems that Escriva’s means for realizing that goal similarly dovetails.”

“Opus Dei has historically worked to purge progressives from church ranks, notably in Latin America, and infuse Catholicism with right-wing principles,” Cocozzelli pointed out in a 2009 story posted at Political Research Associates titled The Politics of Schism in the Catholic Church. “John Paul saw Opus Dei and other authoritarian-minded groups such as the Legionnaires of Christ and Communion y Liberacíon as a means to a more conservative Church.” 

In a 2006 article posted at Talk to Action titled “The Catholic Right, Part Two: An Introduction To The Role Of Opus Dei” Cocozzelli noted that “The danger that a politically active Opus Dei membership currently represents to liberal democracy is not from assassinations by imaginary albino monks (for the record, there are no Opus Dei monks), but in its very Plutocratic attitude in abhorring dissent.” 

Cocozzelli ended his Daily Kos story writing: “What is it about Republicans such as William Barr who are willing to destroy the norms of both justice and American democracy; what drives men such as him? To this observer, it seems it is the overwhelming desire to impose both a theocratic cultural agenda coupled with a laissez-faire-tinged brand of capitalism rapidly devolving into a new feudalism.”