The First Sin

The case of Robert Hanssen continues to mystify.

How could it be that a person could live such a deeply divided life: Embracing the most “conservative” Catholic lifestyle, including active membership in Opus Dei at the same time as he was betraying his country, his wife, and causing the deaths of others through his spying?

It is, indeed a puzzle, the complete answer to which is securely locked up in Robert Hanssen’s now-imprisoned self.

But just as mysterious is the reaction of those around Hanssen to hints of his spying, particularly those who shared his proclaimed faith : his wife and his fellow Opus Dei members.

A recent article in the Weekly Standard takes a look at this question. In “The Spy Who Went to Mass,” writer Justin Torres refuses to let Hanssen’s wife, Bonnie, off the hook:

“…nothing points more clearly to Bonnie's complicity than a remarkable incident in 1980, when Bonnie came upon Bob counting out more than $20,000 in cash in the basement. He admitted he had sold information to the Soviets…,Bonnie dragged Bob to confession with an Opus Dei priest, Father Robert Bucciarelli, who according to Bonnie's later testimony exhorted Hanssen to pray, made him promise never to do it again, and had him donate the money to charity….”

“It is too much to expect that any wife would turn in her husband. But if anything pointed to the need for a separation of some sort, or at least a serious turn to counseling, confessed espionage would seem to be it. One of the duties of Catholic marriage is, after all, to help your spouse attain heaven. Yet Bonnie, the daughter of a psychiatrist who had worked as an asylum nurse, did nothing.”

And then there’s the Opus Dei question. Torres is fair in his treatment of the group, but points out the completely different way Hanssen was perceived by his FBI colleagues and his Opus Dei brothers. His co-workers saw Hanssen as a humorless, dour, cynical man, obviously, in retrospect, bearing the tremendous burden of moral duplicity. None of the Opus Dei folks seemed to catch this:

“Yet this joylessness, and the spiritual torment it indicates, never registered with his associates in Opus Dei--an organization whose founder once warned his followers, ‘Long faces, coarse manners, a ridiculous appearance, a repelling air. Is that how you hope to inspire others to follow Christ?’ “

Torres has an interesting answer:

“They would not have been surprised to discover that Robert Hanssen's co-workers didn't like him; from the start Opus Dei has been dogged by the suspicions of people who misunderstood what it was trying to do…Opus Dei acts as though the world has nothing to teach it, as though the world merely waits for The Work to enlighten its ignorance. “

However, “[I]n this case, the world had something to say about the character of Robert Hanssen that should have troubled the spiritual elders within Opus Dei who accepted some measure of authority over his spiritual development. That message was not received because Opus Dei never expects to be instructed, even in practical matters, by those it hopes to instruct. “

Hanssen’s case raises many questions, some of them spiritual and some of them even applicable to the rest of us, questions that are particularly appropriate to consider as we begin the season of Lent.

Robert Hanssen was enmeshed in all sorts of evil. Those supposedly closest to him could not or would not see it.

In recent weeks, another situation drenched in sin has caught our attention: the awful fact of the Archdiocese of Boston settling child-abuse accusations brought against priests, keeping those priests' names secret, hidden from the civil authorities and other potential and actual victims, and then, in many cases, continuing to support those priests in some way and even continuing to employ them in positions in which those priests would come into contact with children.

And we've seen the aftermath, in which plenty of "mistakes" and "misjudgments" are acknowledged by the Church bureaucrats, but "sin" never is.

What blinds us to the sin in our own lives?

Is it arrogance? Defensiveness? A fear of finding out who we really are, behind the carefully-constructed self-image? Self-righteousness? Is it a mistaken perception of what love is and what it involves?

Whatever the obstacles, Lent is the perfect time to commit to removing them and seeing ourselves for who we are, praying – without guile or self-deception - with the Psalmist on Ash Wednesday, “Create a clean heart in me, O God.”

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