Washington's Quiet Club

"We are here to keep Catholics from living double lives," says Father C. John McCloskey, an Opus Dei priest. In the case of Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent accused of spying for the Russians, Opus Dei apparently failed spectacularly.

During the 15 years he was allegedly working for the Kremlin, Hanssen was a devout member of Opus Dei, a superorthodox and deeply anti-Communist order. It may be years, if ever, before Hanssen's soul and psyche reveal the true nature of his perfidy. In the meantime, his case has put a spotlight on Opus Dei and the role played by conservative Catholics in Washington.

Unlike Pat Robertsen, Jerry Falwell and the evangelical religious right, Washington's conservative Catholics are reticent and low-key. "Our faith is personal, not political," says McCloskey. But Catholic conservatives (and reputed Opus Dei members) like FBI Director Louis Freeh and Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are nonetheless an intriguing and sometimes misunderstood spiritual force in the deeply secular capital.

To some liberal Catholics and disgruntled former members, Opus Dei is at the heart of a spooky and sinister plot to take the Catholic Church back to the Dark Ages. On Web sites and in books and articles, Catholic opponents call the order "Octopus Dei" and "the Holy Mafia." The wealthy order is trying to infiltrate secular elites, say these critics. They note that Opus Dei maintains houses just off campus at Harvard and Princeton to recruit future leaders (who may be in for a shock when they discover that "numeraries" of the order-lay people who take vows of chastity and live in Opus Dei residences-are supposed to practice "self mortification," including wearing a chain with spikes strapped to their thighs for two hours a day).

It's not surprising that the FBI's Hanssen, who had a longtime fascination with wiretapping and avidly read Orwell's "1984" and Huxley's "Brave New World," would have been drawn to an organization that permits superiors to open the mail of new "numeraries." Hanssen's haughty attitude, expressed in his letters to his KGB handlers, was characteristic of Opus Dei's sense of superiority, say the Opus Dei bashers, who note that the order is the only one in the Catholic Church that reports directly to the Pope.

At the Opus Dei-run Catholic Information Center two blocks from the White House, McCloskey dismisses these conspiracy theories. "Opus Dei is the most open order in the Catholic Church," he says. Of Hannsen's connection, he says, "Only a very twisted mind would join Opus Dei seeing it as a cover or a mysterious secret organization, because it isn't." He dismisses the rumors that Freeh and Scalia are secret Opus Dei members as "completely false." Indeed, he says, "I can't think of any Opus Dei members in government."

Nonetheless, he says, "we are interested in people who can have an influence." He numbers as his personal friends the widely read conservative columnist Robert Novak, who converted to Catholicism three years ago, and supply-side economic guru Lawrence Kudlow. Describing McCloskey as a "very engaging man," Kudlow recently detailed how the priest helped him discover Christ. Smooth and handsome, ascetic but worldly, McCloskey (who declined to have his photo taken) says he plays squash at the University Club with Washington Post reporters and regularly appears on MSNBC. McCloskey is familiar with wealth and power: an Ivy Leaguer (Columbia), he worked for Merrill Lynch and Citibank before becoming a priest.

Opus Dei cares about attracting Ivy League grads. Its Tenley Learning Center in upscale Northwest Washington has a highly regarded SAT-program.

The order is closely affiliated with two well-regarded Catholic schools in the Washington suburbs, The Heights (all-boys) and Oakcrest (all-girls). "We're out to change the world," says Barbara Faulk, the headmistress of Oakcrest. "But we're not shrouded in something weird." Louis Freeh-like Bob Hanssen-sends a son to the Heights. Many parents of the Opus Dei schools worship at St. Catherine of Siena in Great Falls, Va., an orthodox Catholic church that still offers a Latin mass. Parishioners include Freeh and Justice Scalia.

Scalia is regarded as the embodiment of the Catholic conservatives. He is careful not to be seen mixing politics and religion, but his faith clearly influences his work on the high court. While he is not a member of Opus Dei, his wife Maureen has attended Opus Dei's "spiritual functions," says an Opus Dei member. Scalia's son, Father Paul Scalia, helped convert Clarence Thomas to Catholicism four years ago. Last month, Thomas gave a fiery speech at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, to an audience full of Bush Administration officials. In the speech, Thomas praised Pope John Paul II for taking unpopular stands. The conservative Catholics in the audience agreed with every word Thomas said. It's just that this elite Washington club wasn't entirely comfortable about the very public airing of a normally private agenda.