When Steve Bannon was still heading Breitbart News, he went to the Vatican to cover the canonization of John Paul II and make some friends. High on his list of people to meet was an American cardinal, Raymond Burke, who had openly clashed with Pope Francis.
In one of the cardinal’s antechambers, Burke and Bannon — who is now President Donald Trump’s top aide —bonded over their shared worldview. They saw Islam as threatening to overrun a prostrate West weakened by the erosion of traditional Christian values, and viewed themselves as unjustly ostracized by out-of-touch political elites.
“When you recognize someone who has sacrificed in order to remain true to his principles and who is fighting the same kind of battles in the cultural arena, in a different section of the battlefield, I’m not surprised there is a meeting of hearts,” said Benjamin Harnwell, a confidant of Burke who arranged the 2014 meeting.
While Trump, a twice-divorced president who has boasted of groping women, may seem an unlikely ally of traditionalists in the Vatican, many of them regard his election and the ascendance of Bannon as potentially game-changing breakthroughs.
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Just as Bannon has connected with far-right parties threatening to topple governments throughout Western Europe, he has also made common cause with elements in the Roman Catholic Church who oppose the direction Francis is taking them. Many share Bannon’s suspicion of Francis as a dangerously misguided, and probably socialist, pontiff.
Until now, Francis has marginalized or demoted the traditionalists, notably Burke, carrying out an inclusive agenda on migration, climate change and poverty that has made the pope a figure of unmatched global popularity, especially among liberals.
Yet in a newly turbulent world, Francis is suddenly a lonelier figure. Where once Francis had a powerful ally in the White House in Barack Obama, now there is Trump and Bannon, this new president’s ideological guru.
For many of the pope’s ideological opponents in and around the Vatican, who are fearful of a pontiff they consider outwardly avuncular but internally a ruthless wielder of absolute political power, this angry moment in history is an opportunity to derail what they see as a disastrous papal agenda. And in Trump, and more directly in Bannon, some self-described “Rad Trads” — or radical traditionalists — see an alternate leader who will stand up for traditional Christian values and against Muslim interlopers.
“There are huge areas where we and the pope do overlap, and as a loyal Catholic, I don’t want to spend my life fighting against the pope on issues where I won’t change his mind,” Harnwell said. “Far more valuable for me would be spend time working constructively with Steve Bannon.”
He made it clear he was speaking for himself, not for the Institute for Human Dignity, a conservative Catholic group that he founded, and insisted that he shared the pope’s goals of ensuring peace and ending poverty, just not his ideas on how to achieve it.
Bannon publicly articulated his worldview in remarks a few months after his meeting with Burke, at a Vatican conference organized by Harnwell’s institute.
Speaking via video feed from Los Angeles, Bannon, a Catholic, held forth against rampant secularization, the existential threat of Islam, and a capitalism that had drifted from the moral foundations of Christianity.
That talk has garnered much attention, and approval by conservatives, for its explicit expression of Bannon’s vision. Less widely known are his efforts to cultivate strategic alliances with those in Rome who share his interpretation of a right-wing “church militant” theology.
Bannon’s visage, speeches and endorsement of Harnwell as “the smartest guy in Rome” are featured heavily on the website of Harnwell’s foundation. Trump’s senior adviser has maintained email contact with Burke, according to Harnwell. And another person with knowledge of Bannon’s outreach said the White House official is personally calling his contacts in Rome for thoughts on who should be the Trump administration’s ambassador to the Holy See.
During Bannon’s April 2014 trip he courted Edward Pentin, a leading Vatican reporter, as a potential correspondent in Rome for Breitbart, the website that is popular with the alt-right, a far-right movement that has attracted white supremacists.
“He really seemed to get the battles the church needs to fight,” said Pentin, author of “The Rigging of a Vatican Synod?” a book asserting that Francis and his supporters railroaded opponents. Chief among those battles, Pentin said, was Bannon’s focus on countering a “cultural Marxism” that had seeped into the church.
Since that visit and the meeting with Burke, Trump’s ideological strategist has maintained a focus on Rome.
Bannon returned to direct the documentary “Torchbearer,” in which “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson contemplates the apocalyptic consequences of an eroding Christendom. Bannon also reunited with old friends, including Breitbart’s eventual Rome correspondent, Thomas Williams.
A former priest, Williams said that he used to have arguments with Bannon about whether the pope subscribed to a hard-left brand of liberation theology, with Bannon calling the pope a “socialist/communist.” Williams said he usually defended the pope, but that recent statements by Francis convinced him “Steve turned out to be right. That happens more often than not.”
Bannon’s private thoughts about the pope have at times surfaced in public. On May 23, Bannon and Williams spoke about Francis on the radio program “Breitbart News Daily.”
Discussing a Breitbart article about the new mayor of London titled “Pope Hails Election of Sadiq Khan, Celebrates Mass Muslim Migration Into Europe,” Bannon suggested that the pope “seems almost to be putting the responsibility on the working men and women of Italy and Europe, et cetera, that they have to go out of their way to accommodate” migration.
Was the pope a global elitist, Bannon asked, “two or three steps removed from this?”
Many critics of Francis express similar views, but they are often scared to express it for fear of retribution from the pope, who, they say, has eyes and ears all over the Vatican.
Instead, the pope’s critics anonymously papered Rome over the weekend with posters of Francis above complaints about his removing and ignoring clerics and cardinals.
“Where’s your mercy?” it asked.
Conservatives and traditionalists in the Vatican secretly pass around phony mock-ups of the Vatican’s official paper, L’Osservatore Romano, making fun of the pope. Or they spread a YouTube video critiquing the pope and his exhortation on love in the family, “Amoris Laetitia,” which many traditionalists consider Francis’ opening salvo against the doctrine of the church. Set to the music of “That’s Amore,” an aggrieved crooner sings, “When will we all be freed from this cruel tyranny, that’s Amoris,” and “It’s the climate of fear engineered for four years, that’s Amoris.”
Burke — who has said that the pope’s exhortation, which opened the door for divorced Catholics remarried outside the church to receive communion, might require “a formal act of correction” — has been unusually outspoken in his criticism of Francis. Burke and Bannon declined to comment for this article.
Just weeks ago, the pope stripped Burke of his remaining institutional influence after a scandal exploded at the Knights of Malta, a nearly 1,000-year-old chivalrous order where he had been exiled as a liaison to the Vatican. The pope had removed the order’s grand master after he showed disobedience to the pope. There was a sense in the order that the grand master followed the lead of Burke because he projected authority, a power that stemmed in part from his support by the Trump administration, one influential knight said.
Burke has become a champion to conservatives in the United States. Under Bannon, Breitbart News urged its Rome correspondent to write sympathetically about him. And at a meeting before last month’s anti-abortion March for Life rally in Washington, Burke received the Law of Life Achievement, or Nail award, a framed replica of the nail used to hold the feet of Christ to the cross. According to John-Henry Westen, editor of Life Site News, who announced the award, the prize is awarded to Christians “who have received a stab in the back.”
Despite Bannon’s inroads in Rome, Burke and other traditionalists are not ascendant in the Vatican.
The Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest who edits the Vatican-approved journal La Civilta Cattolica and who is close to the pope, dismissed their criticism as the stuff of a noisy but small “echo chamber.”
He also played down the effect of Trump’s ascent on the standing of Francis’ opponents in the Vatican, saying it was only on a “level of image” and “propaganda.”
The pope will maintain his direction and not be distracted by fights against those trying to undercut him, Spadaro said.
“He moves forward,” Spadaro said, “and he moves ahead very fast.”
He added that Trump’s ban on immigrants from certain Muslim countries was “opposite” to the pontiff’s vision for how to foster unity and peace. The pope, Spadaro said, is doing everything he can to avoid the clash of civilizations that fundamentalist Muslims and Christians want.
Indeed, the pope does not seem to be slowing down.
Days after the election of Trump, in St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican officially elevated new cardinals selected by Francis who reflected the pope’s emphasis on an inclusive church — far from the worldview of Bannon and Burke.
“It’s not that he is just bringing new people in that think maybe like him,” Cardinal Blase Cupich, the influential new cardinal of Chicago, said after the ceremony. “He is transforming the church in making us rethink how we have done things before.”
That transformation was evident later in the evening, when the old conservative guard came to pay their respects to the new cardinals.
João Braz de Aviz, a powerful cardinal close to the pope, walked around in simple cleric clothes, the equivalent of civilian dress among all the flowing cassocks. Asked whether the ascent of Trump would embolden Bannon’s allies in the Vatican to intensify their opposition and force the pope to take a more orthodox line, he shrugged.
“The doctrine is secure,” he said, adding that the mission of the church was more to safeguard the poor. It was also, he reminded his traditionalist colleagues, to serve St. Peter, whose authority is passed down through the popes. “And today, Francis is Peter.”