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.”
“ ‘As long as you are making straight for your goal, head and heart intoxicated with God, why worry . . . ?’ ” Santorum said, quoting Escriva, according to a transcript of the speech.
Within the story of how Santorum grew up and decided to run for president, there is the story of a boy who grew up to become ever more devoutly Catholic, a journey all the more relevant as Santorum has vigorously asserted a role for religious conviction in the realm of governance.
On Tuesday, Santorum will face a showdown with Mitt Romney in the Illinois Republican primary, which comes after significant wins in Alabama and Mississippi. In his victory speech last week, Santorum — whose wife has said her husband believes “God is calling” him to seek the presidency — said what he hears most often from voters is “I’m praying for you.”
The man they are praying for was raised in the liberalizing church of the early 1970s and has since taken several turns toward the deeply conservative Catholicism that now anchors his worldview. There was his marriage to Karen Garver and the influence of her devoutly Catholic parents. There was the death of Santorum’s infant son Gabriel in 1996. All have been part of the candidate’s public narrative.
Less well known is Santorum’s embrace of the Catholicism of Opus Dei, a relatively small yet influential group within the church that is defined by the intensity with which followers are urged to live out church doctrine — in Escriva’s words, to “seek holiness” in all realms of life.
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.
Santorum, whose campaign declined several requests for comment, is not a member of Opus Dei, according to the group, and it is not clear to what degree he adheres to its tenets.