How Opus Dei Influenced Rick Santorum

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Rick Santorum sent two of his sons to a Washington, D.C. all-boys school affiliated with Opus Dei, the Catholic group whose members were portrayed as sinisterly weird in the sensationalistic Da Vinci Code but in reality only engage in some mild self-mutilation, "nothing traumatic," as the group's website says. Santorum says he's not a member of Opus Dei, though he did go to Rome in 2002 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding, and he belongs to the St. Catherine of Siena Parish, "a favorite of Opus Dei," the Washington Post says. Opus Dei has about 90,000 members, a third of which are "numeraries" who are celibate for life and wear a cilice -- a garter belt with spikes turned toward the skin -- every day. (The group is often criticized as elitist, but you can find a "three link, 1mm gauge, full-leg metal cilice with metal fastener" on sale for an affordable $69.) It might seem unfair to criticize Santorum for his religious affiliations, but Santorum wouldn't think so. He convincingly argued it was okay in December 2007, after Mitt Romney delivered a speech on his Mormon faith. "[Romney's] supporters say it is akin to rejecting a Barack Obama because he is black," Santorum wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer. "But Obama was born black; Romney is a Mormon because he accepts the beliefs of the Mormon faith. This permits us, therefore, to make inferences about his judgment and character, good or bad."

The New York Times' Mark Oppenheimer reports that many prominent conservative Catholics involved in politics send their kids to The Heights School, which is not run by Opus Dei, Oppenheimer reports. Instead, the group appoints "appoints the school chaplain and provides to the faculty a traditional reading of Catholicism to teach students." Sex ed is abstinence-only. That's a relief to many parents, Oppenheimer reports:

Linda Maher, the school’s director of communications, sent her three sons to The Heights. Where the mothers at her sons’ swim team practice “would put condoms in their sons’ Christmas stockings,” The Heights mothers were different.

Urban legends about the depravity of the secular world spread like viruses through a lot of religious communities. The spreaders are apparently so insulated from outsiders that they don't know that most secular people would find the idea of a mom giving her son condoms for Christmas to be extremely creepy. Some of that isolation is on display when Santorum says things that show a way of thinking pretty unfamiliar to most Americans. Example: On birth control: "lt's not okay. It's a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be." Another example, from Santorum's 2007 essay on Romney's religion:

Would the potential attraction to Mormonism by simply having a Mormon in the White House threaten traditional Christianity by leading more Americans to a church that some Christians believe misleadingly calls itself Christian, is an active missionary church, and a dangerous cult?

If that sounds a bit inflammatory, don't worry, Santorum explained that he's quite tolerant of Romney's faith. He writes, "I'm more concerned about losing our children to jihadis or a materialistic culture than losing them to Mormonism." It's not clear whether he meant to equate conspicuous consumption with terrorism, but he did once compare the Massachusetts' state supreme court's approval of gay marriage to 9/11.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.