Agent Hanssen

The spy who came in from the fold

Kim Philby’s My Silent War disclosed how he rose to head the British Secret Service’s counterespionage operation while working as a Soviet spy. In the introduction to that book, Graham Greene compared Philby to "Catholics, who, in the reign of Elizabeth, worked for the victory of Spain."

Greene, of course, had a soft spot for those committed to duplicity or betrayal, especially if belief or passion rather than ego or greed motivated their crimes.

Greene, Philby, and the ambiguities of religious belief come to mind in trying to make sense of the life of Robert Philip Hanssen, the FBI counterintelligence expert now accused of spying for the Soviets and Russia. In explaining his motives to the Russians, Hanssen is reported to have mentioned Philby’s book. One wonders if he read Greene’s introduction. Hanssen was not only apparently a serious convert to Catholicism, he is a member of Opus Dei, the secretive Catholic organization much praised by Catholic conservatives and favored by the current papacy.

To many non-Catholics, especially religiously skeptical ones, belonging to Opus Dei means nothing more than being a high-octane Catholic of a certifiably orthodox sort. Whatever oddity they find in such membership being conjoined with treason is ultimately only a variation of the strangeness of Catholicism itself, or possibly of any religious belief at all.

To Catholics like myself, however, Opus Dei is hardly coterminous with Catholicism. Indeed, Opus Dei and similar groups often give the impression that liberal Catholicism barely qualifies as genuine Catholicism. So I must confess to some unchristian feelings of schadenfreude over Opus Dei’s current public-relations nightmare.

Of course, Hanssen’s motives are likely to have been greed, wounded professional pride, or the result of some darker psychological malady. Still, just as certain forms of liberalism may have provided fertile soil for Communist sympathies, something in the Manichaean worldview and hothouse atmosphere of groups like Opus Dei seems mirrored in Hanssen’s alleged acts. If he fit into the organization with an ulterior motive, it looks like the fit was not a difficult or uncomfortable one. Hanssen’s rigid piety and reactionary views remind us that the rejection of American democracy is as likely to come from the right as from the left these days.

Members of Opus Dei and similar groups are becoming more visible as the so-called "countercultural" agenda of Catholic conservatives becomes more influential in the church. In Rome, devotional zeal and organizational success seem to override concerns about authoritarian structures and cult-like attitudes. In 1992, Pope John Paul II beatified Opus Dei’s charismatic founder, Josémaria Escrivá de Balaguer (1902-75). Escrivá founded the organization, called "the Work of God," in the 1930s in response to the disestablishment of the church in Spain. Long associated with Franco’s government and with right-wing movements throughout Latin America, Opus Dei, its critics argue, is littlemore than the latest wrinkle in the old integrist dream of establishing an "organic" and wholly Catholic social and political order.

Hanssen is reported to have preferred the Latin Mass and to have kept to Opus Dei’s ascetical routines. "The work," as the group’s adherents call it, has taken the traditional pre-Vatican II devotional practices of a religious order like the Jesuits or Franciscans and adapted them for lay Catholics, including married couples-minus, of course, the public acknowledgment of living in a separate community and by a disciplinary rule. At the same time, worldly success is encouraged (it’s called the sanctification of work), and Opus Dei is known for its recruitment of intellectual and social elites. Members lead a kind of double life; to the world, they are successful doctors or lawyers, distinguished only by their professional skills and autonomy; off the job they must not only engage in an intense life of prayer (all to the good) but be strictly accountable to those above them in "the work" (more problematic).

Perhaps it was this double-agent aura that appealed to Hanssen, whose career in law enforcement has been devoted to counterespionage of one sort or other. Professionally, he seems to have put great stock in his intellectual and moral superiority over those around him. Hanssen’s contempt for the bungling of his fellow FBI and CIA agents seems to have been linked to his disdain for the godlessness, materialism, and sexual license of American society. Perhaps betraying what some insist is a "culture of death" to its atheistic enemy may not have caused as great a crisis of conscience as first appears. Both societies, Hanssen may have reasoned, are hopelessly corrupt. His ultimate allegiance was to a grander, purer truth far above the disorder of democratic politics.

But that’s all speculation-we will probably never know the whole truth about Hanssen. What we do know is that Opus Dei is one of the more baroque alternatives embraced by those outraged by the loss of moral and spiritual discipline in both the church and society. Yes, something surely has been lost. But too much easy talk is now heard about the necessary connection between religious belief and moral virtue. There is no going back to a time when moral and religious beliefs were free from all ambiguity. Moreover, there is good reason to distrust any faith, whether secular or religious, that is held as single-mindedly and uncritically as some self-proclaimed "orthodox" Catholics now hold theirs. Whatever the courts decide about Hanssen, enough has surfaced to remind us that religion is no guarantee of morality; in too many cases, it’s not even a good predictor. 

Published in the 2001-03-23 issue: 

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

Also by this author
Take a Left at George Carlin

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads