The mysterious case of the missing saint

Gentle readers, when it comes to evaluating that recent Washington Post story about Rick Santorum and Opus Dei, I have some good news and some bad news. So, you say you want the good news first? That's OK with me.

Well, the good news is that this story does not contain a direct -- repeat "direct" -- reference to "author" Dan Brown or his infamous novel "The DaVinci Code." More on this issue later.

The bad news? Check out the top of this story and tell me if you spot a rather strange hole in it.

In January 2002, prominent Catholics from around the world gathered in Rome to celebrate the Spanish priest who founded one of the church’s most conservative and devout groups, Opus Dei.

The event drew cardinals, bishops and other powerful Vatican officials. And among those invited to speak was a future presidential candidate: Rick Santorum, whose faith had become so essential to his politics that on federal documents he listed the trip, paid for by an Opus Dei foundation, as part of his official duties as a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.

In a speech at the gathering, Santorum embraced the ideas of Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escriva, who had urged ordinary Catholics to bring an almost priestly devotion to Catholic principles in every realm of life and work. During Senate debates about abortion, Santorum told the audience in Rome, he hears Escriva telling him that “it is not true that there is opposition between being a good Catholic and serving civil society faithfully.” In his public fight to uphold “absolute truths,” Santorum said, “blessed Josemaria guides my way.”

Perhaps you noted the reference to "Josemaria Escriva" and you thought to yourself: Wasn't this man a priest? Shouldn't that be "Father Josemaria Escriva?"

Actually, the answer to that question is "no."

What is bizarre about this Post reference to this controversial figure in 20th Century Catholic history is that it fails to note that this is a reference to SAINT Josemaria Escriva and that one of the reasons these dignitaries gathered in Rome to honor him was that 2002 was the year in which the Catholic church formally hailed him as a saint.

By all means, Saint Josemaria Escriva remains a controversial figure, a saint beloved by traditionalists and fear and/or despised by most progressive Catholics.

Yes, it is also crucial to know that his work did in fact center on holiness and righteous living by laypeople. Ironically, the Post story does a pretty good job of handling that side of his life and work and its impact on many Catholics and their parishes, including the one attended by Santorum. That's one of the reasons the story is so frustrating. Large parts of it are constructive, accurate and quite helpful.

But then there are the gaps and the gaffes.

For example, here we go again on a vague use of a variation on the dreaded "c-word."

The speech was his first public embrace of the organization Escriva founded in 1928, which now has about 90,000 members worldwide, including 3,000 in the United States. The group has been criticized in the past by former members as “cult-like” and praised by other members and a succession of popes for its strong commitment to church teachings and loyalty to the Vatican.

First things first: The Post does make it clear that Santorum is not a member of Opus Dei and the newspaper does not even know the degree to which he does or does not live out any of the group's traditions or teachings. The article also does a fair and accurate job of describing some of the ancient, and controversial, spiritual disciplines practiced by a minority of Opus Dei members, such as:

The group encourages “unity” between followers’ personal and public lives as Catholics, the rigorous practice of church sacraments and, to some degree, gestures of self-denial. Its most devoted members follow a daily two-hour ritual of wearing a spiked metal chain on their thighs to recall Christ’s suffering -- a practice followed by Mother Teresa.

I have no idea why the word "unity" is framed by scare quotes and I also have no idea why Mother Teresa -- who will almost certainly be canonized as a saint sooner, rather than later -- is not called by her current title, which is the Blessed Mother Teresa.

Meanwhile, let me say once again what I stressed the other day, when discussing another story that used cult language to describe a group of conservative Catholics. Once again, the Post has offered readers:

... a classic example of why the word “cult” or “cultish” should never, ever, be used in news copy without (a) an adjective to describe how this word is being used (“personality cult,” perhaps, or “a doctrinal cult”) and (b) without strict and clear attribution to show who is hurling this epithet at the group in question.

Like I said, there is no question that Opus Dei remains a controversial group for many, many Catholics.

Yet there is no question that the Vatican has investigated years of critical commentary and then canonized the movement's founder as a saint. In it's rush to link Santorum to a "cult-like" group -- no attribution needed for that label -- the Post team neglected this rather important and symbolic fact. Perhaps Catholic leaders are not actually saints until the Post editors decide they are worthy of being called saints.

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