Pre-smoke: Passive-voice info on Opus Dei

At a dinner last night with some journalists and scholars (not in Rome), I wisecracked that we all needed to head down to Jesuit headquarters to watch the conclave on live video. Someone else immediately quipped: No, we need to go to Opus Dei headquarters.

Bingo! In that spirit of pre-white smoke anticipation, let me note that I have actually been surprised that the MSM have, for the most part, been able to pass up the whole DaVinci Vote angle of the conclave preparation. Imagine all of those reporters having to look for story angles, day after day, after the silencing of the cardinals. You know that many reporters must have thought about playing the Opus Dei card.

Newsday did elect to go there, with reporter Matthew McAllester jumping straight into the sexy parts.

ROME -- Sure, Peter Bancroft said, he does use a small, cotton whip to lash his back or buttocks once a week (in private). And yes, most days he wears an abrasive metal chain around his thigh for a couple of hours that causes him discomfort but no lasting damage.

But no, neither he nor anyone in Opus Dei is a pain-loving murderer like Dan Brown's villain in the enormously successful novel "The Da Vinci Code."

"As soon as you meet an Opus Dei member," said Bancroft, sitting in an ornate room in the headquarters of the conservative Catholic lay group and showing no signs of self-mutilation, "it doesn't take long to figure out that not all Opus Dei members are masochistic monks."

The inside story, according to Newsday, is the possibility that the next pope will not be as friendly to the intense and mysterious Opus Dei franchise. While most reporters focus on what may happen to the left if a traditionalist is elected, few are focusing on what may happen to the Catholic right, and Opus Dei in particular, if a more European cardinal emerges as pope.

Newsday responds to the mystery with more mystery, using the usual device -- anonymous insiders -- to make sure readers know how strange this all is.

Critics within the Church usually prefer to speak anonymously about Opus Dei, citing fear of retribution and an unwillingness to make tense relationships worse. "They're very, very powerful. . . . They're so powerful it frightens people," said a priest in Rome who has regular contact with Opus Dei. Critics say the group deliberately sets out to recruit elites -- politicians, executives, journalists, lawyers and, of course, senior churchmen. Chief Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls is a member. Two of the 115 cardinals expected to vote in the conclave are members and two top candidates for pope -- Joseph Ratzinger and Dionigi Tettamanzi -- are said to be close to the group.

Ah, the dreaded passive-voice paraphrase quote! Mistakes were made, said special people in the know.

You just know that some of the TV reporters want to get this on the air, somehow. When is the sweeps season?

UPDATE: Lo and behold, I just opened up my morning email and learned -- push technology is a wonder -- that the Los Angeles Times has now played the Opus Dei card, complete with a DaVinci Vote reference.

Now with its papal benefactor gone, Opus Dei's influence under the next pope -- and its role in choosing the new pontiff -- have become hot topics in a city awash in speculation as the world's cardinals meet behind the closed doors of the Sistine Chapel to elect John Paul's successor. . . .

Officially, Opus Dei has stressed that it is above the fray. Its prelate, Bishop Javier Echevarria, has called for prayer, not politicking. He has also pledged the group's loyalty to whomever the cardinals elect.

Yes, this new story includes more than its share of passive-voice quotations and anonymous sources. We breathlessly await the next work in this opus. You know that, down in that crowd somewhere, the Da Vinci Code people are taking notes and perhaps even filming some background footage. If Tom Hanks shows up on CNN, please let me know.

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