I've been meaning for a while to comment on Johann Hari's column last month in The Independent on 'Catholofascism', by which he means the influence of the Opus Dei organisation:
Anybody who has studied the history of the Vatican knows that it has long harboured totalitarian elements, manifested from the Spanish Inquisition to Pope Pius XII's complicity in the Holocaust. Do we really think those dangerous instincts have vanished from Christianity? Opus Dei emerged from this tradition, and it is growing stronger every day. If we do not discuss this, we risk feeding the Islamophobic idea that Islam is uniquely prone to fanaticism.
So Johann does indeed discuss it at length, concluding:
Given the sect's track record, we can assume that an Opus Dei-picked Pope would take John Paul's social conservatism even further into the political stratosphere, and ditch all the admirable criticisms of extreme capitalism. Catholofascism and Islamofascism resemble each other. At the United Nations Cairo Conference on Population and Development, for example, the Opus Dei-dominated Vatican delegation made an alliance with Islamic fundamentalist representatives to oppose the distribution of contraception and abortion to the world's poorest women. A far-right Vatican is the last thing the developing world needs. The Da Vinci Code is right, at least, about one thing: there are a lot of people out there who should be frightened of Opus Dei.
I am as far removed from the doctrines of Opus Dei as an Enlightenment rationalist can be. I am not a Roman Catholic, or a Christian, or a theist. I consider that the influence of the Roman Catholic Church on matters of population, contraception, and abortion causes much needless suffering in the developing world. I strongly disagree with the present Pope's views on innumerable social issues, from the Iraq war to gay marriage. But Johann's argument is overwrought. The parallel he draws with totalitarian Islamist forces is strained. I fear that he may have been temporarily disoriented by the experience of having been right about the Iraq war, in contradiction to most of his newspaper's readership and contributors, and that he is now seaching for ways to demonstrate that he is a disinterested defender of human rights against theocratic totalitarianism. There is no need for him to try so hard.
First, the term Catholofascism is not accurate. There was in the 1920s a group known as clerico fascisti in Rome and Northern Italy, which aimed at a synthesis between Catholicism and fascism. This movement stressed a renewal of both the spirit and the nation. What Opus Dei stands for is extreme clerical reaction. The difference is comparable to that between the Croat state of the Ustasha and the Catholic authoritarianism of Engelbert Dollfuss in Austria. One is totalitarian and expansionist state-terrorism; the other is bigoted and repressive reaction, but without the connotation of expansionism. This is more than a semantic difference if you're drawing parallels with Islamist totalitarianism. Opus Dei is not clerical-fascist: it comes from the older Catholic tradition of Ultramontanism.
Secondly, while there may be ostensible parallels between Ultramontane Catholicism and Islamism concerning proper authority, they are misleading. Opus Dei and other ultra-orthodox movements (the main ones are the Focolare, founded in 1943, Communion and Liberation, founded in 1954, and the Neocatechumenate, founded in 1964) are in effect secret societies outside the normal diocesan structure of the Roman Catholic Church and thereby giving unmediated allegiance to the papacy. But the papacy is not a political authority (other than in the nominal sense that there is a Vatican state). Allegiance to it and a belief that it is above secular dominion is not at all the same as the Islamist insistence that the faith is both a political and a religious system, whose true expression will be found in a restored Caliphate. Even Opus Dei does not yearn for the return of the papal dominions.
Thirdly, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church over its flock is not quite as firm as Johann believes. If, after the present Pope's death, the Church becomes still more dogmatic in its demands on the social and political allegiances of the faithful, then the faithful will not necessarily follow. Whatever happens in the Roman Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council has taken place and has had a fundamental impact in the way lay Catholics regard religious authority. Johann declares:
All members [of Opus Dei] must report and fully confess to an Opus Dei official at least once a month. The group prescribes strict hierarchy and unquestioning obedience. Maxim 941 of The Way demands "unreserved obedience to whoever is in charge" of the sect.
Contrast that discipline with what the Church itself says in promulgating its views on birth control. Pope Paul VI's encyclical Gaudium et Spes enjoins:
It is the spouses themselves who ultimately must make this judgement in the sight of God.And so they do, and will continue to do, despite the clear teaching of the Church.
Johann's views on the social influence of the Church are a caricature, with repressive pro-capitalist reaction on one side, enlightened liberation theologians on the other, and in between a Pope whose views on sexual morality are "lethally reactionary" but are counterbalanced by his position on fair trade and poverty. In reality, there is much less controversy within the Church than Johann supposes. Pope John Paul II is extending a papal tradition of social teaching that is highly critical of free markets, and the direction of his criticism is one that Catholic orthodoxy would readily assent to. Pius XI's encyclical Quadragesimo Anno was so suspicious of market forces that it was mistakenly assumed by some to be a statement of support for the notion of a corporate state (this was shortly after the Vatican's concordat with Mussolini in 1929), whereas in the US it was more widely and accurately interpreted as being consistent with Roosevelt's New Deal. Catholic orthodoxy is exactly as Johann would wish, comprising what he apparently regards as "admirable criticisms of extreme capitalism".
Those criticisms are, in fact, highly questionable, reflecting an illiberal suspicion of the voluntary social co-ordination created by a system of shifting relative prices. They are powerfully presented in the social thought of Jacques Maritain, whose influence on post-war European Christian Democracy marks an early 'Third Way' between capitalism and socialism. More to the point, they are accepted both by Catholic reactionaries and by the heroes of Johann's article, the liberation theologians who have been responsible for a strongly anti-capitalist tone in Latin American Catholicism since the Medellin Bishops' Conference of 1968. If Johann looks again at the writings of these theologians (such as Gustavo Gutierrez, whom he cites) he will find some fairly uncritical assumptions about the supposed scientific character of Marxism and dogmatic assertions such as (from A Theology of Liberation) "the class struggle is a fact and neutrality in this question is not possible". This is not the place for a detailed examination of Liberation Theology, but if, unlike Johann, you believe Marxism has a record of accurate social and economic analysis and offers a plausible political alternative to the social-democratic and liberal Left, than you'll find it appealing. What you won't find in it is a discussion of why proclaimed Marxist regimes have invariably failed to be as free as the constitutional democracies and welfare-capitalist states of the United States and Western Europe.
In short, Johann has presented a picture of modern Catholicism that bears little relation to the facts. The Roman Catholic Church is less monolithic than he supposes. Ironically, the one point on which its various branches are largely consistent in social teaching is the one in which Johann believes there are stark divisions. The extreme reactionary elements that he deplores have a reputation that exaggerates their significance. There is no parallel between the shifting forces within modern Catholicism and the genuine theocratic-totalitarian threats to the western democracies.