White House strate­gist Steve Ban­non has made com­mon cause with el­e­ments in the Ro­man Catholic Church who op­pose the di­rec­tion Pope Fran­cis is tak­ing them.

The Hamilton Spectator - - FOCUS - JA­SON HOROWITZ


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 arch­con­ser­va­tive Amer­i­can car­di­nal, Ray­mond Burke, who had openly clashed with Pope Fran­cis.

In one of the car­di­nal’s an­techam­bers, amid re­li­gious stat­ues and book­lined walls, Burke and Ban­non — who is now Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s anti­estab­lish­ment em­i­nence — bonded over their shared world­view.

They saw Is­lam as threat­en­ing to over­run a pros­trate a 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 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.

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 over a lunch of can­nel­loni.

“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 he founded, and in­sisted 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, who dropped by the car­di­nal’s res­i­dence af­ter lunch.

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 con­ser­va­tive Vat­i­can re­porter, as a po­ten­tial cor­re­spon­dent in Rome for Bre­it­bart, the web­site 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 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 — an ex­pe­ri­ence that Daniel Fluette, head of pro­duc­tion for Bre­it­bart, de­scribed as “in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful” for Ban­non — Trump’s ide­o­log­i­cal strate­gist has main­tained a fo­cus on Rome.

Burke — who has said the Pope’s ex­hor­ta­tion that 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 1,000year-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.

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, and he moves ahead very fast.”

He added Trump’s much-lit­i­gated 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, 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 is more to safe­guard the poor.

It is also, he re­minded his tra­di­tion­al­ist col­leagues, to serve St. Peter, whose author­ity is passed down through the popes.

“And to­day, Fran­cis is Peter.”

White House chief strate­gist Steve Ban­non has con­nec­tions in the Ro­man Catholic Church who op­pose the di­rec­tion Pope Fran­cis is tak­ing them. Many share Ban­non’s sus­pi­cion of Fran­cis as a dan­ger­ously mis­guided , and prob­a­bly so­cial­ist, pon­tiff.


Steve Ban­non has an ally in an arch­con­ser­va­tive Amer­i­can car­di­nal. Said a con­fi­dent who ar­ranged their meet­ing, “I’m not sur­prised there is a meet­ing of the hearts.”

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