Shar­ing de­tails of his faith life is a rar­ity for Ban­non

Hints of Trump’s for­mer chief strate­gist as ‘a good Catholic’ may partly be rooted in his for­ma­tive years

The Washington Post - - RELIGION - BY MICHAEL J. O’LOUGHLIN

Dur­ing Sun­day night’s “60 Min­utes,” for­mer White House se­nior strate­gist Stephen K. Ban­non was de­scribed by Char­lie Rose as “a good Catholic.” How then, Rose wanted to know, does Ban­non feel about church lead­ers crit­i­ciz­ing Pres­i­dent Trump for end­ing a pro­gram that al­lows nearly 800,000 un­doc­u­mented young peo­ple to live and work in the United States?

Ban­non, who left the White House last month and re­turned to run the con­ser­va­tive web­site Bre­it­bart, charged that Catholic lead­ers, who have been vo­cal crit­ics of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies, have been un­able “to come to grips with the prob­lems in the church” and so “they need il­le­gal aliens to fill the churches. That’s — it’s ob­vi­ous on the face of it.”

Plus, he said, the Catholic lead­ers “have an eco­nomic in­ter­est in un­lim­ited im­mi­gra­tion, un­lim­ited il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion.”

Rose in­ter­jected, “That’s a tough thing to say about your church.” Ban­non did not back down. “I to­tally re­spect the pope, and I to­tally re­spect the Catholic bish­ops and car­di­nals on doc­trine,” he said. “This is not about doc­trine. This is about the sovereignty of a na­tion. And in that re­gard, they’re just an­other guy with an opinion.”

Ban­non be­ing de­scribed as “a good Catholic” may have sur­prised some view­ers. He rarely dis­cusses his faith life, though in 2015 he told Bloomberg News, “I come from a blue-col­lar, Ir­ish Catholic, pro-Kennedy, prounion fam­ily of Democrats.”

But, ac­cord­ing to Joshua Green, the Bloomberg po­lit­i­cal writer whose new book, “Devil’s Bar­gain,” of­fers a glimpse into Ban­non’s life, Catholi­cism was a con­stant pres­ence dur­ing his for­ma­tive years.

He fre­quented Mass each Sun­day with his fam­ily in Vir­ginia, and he at­tended Catholic schools, grad­u­at­ing from Bene­dic­tine Col­lege Prepara­tory School, a Catholic mil­i­tary academy in Rich­mond.

Later, ac­cord­ing to Green, Ban­non em­barked on a decade-long ex­plo­ration of world re­li­gions, while serv­ing in the Navy, which in­cluded a brief stint prac­tic­ing Bud­dhism. But even­tu­ally he re­turned to Catholi­cism, and it was dur­ing this time he be­came en­am­ored with the Catholic idea of sub­sidiar­ity, the no­tion that so­cial is­sues should be ad­dressed at the most lo­cal level pos­si­ble, which con­tin­ues to drive him.

“My sense is that Ban­non’s pol­i­tics is driven more by his re­li­gious views than I think most peo­ple un­der­stand,” Green said, not­ing Ban­non says he con­sid­ers him­self a prac­tic­ing Catholic.

“He’s cap­ti­vated by this idea that the world is in de­cline,” he said, “which seems to be par­tially rooted in some me­dieval vari­ant of Catholi­cism.”

Austin Ruse, the pres­i­dent of the Cen­ter for Fam­ily & Hu­man Rights, who has sup­ported laws re­strict­ing LGBT rights, said Ban­non “is greatly mo­ti­vated and in­ter­ested in the things of the faith,” though he is un­sure if Ban­non prays or at­tends Mass reg­u­larly.

“I re­fer to him as a non­prac­tic­ing or­tho­dox Catholic,” Ruse said, con­ced­ing the phrase is a bit of an oxy­moron. “Some peo­ple think that’s not a pos­si­ble thing to be,” he said, but he de­fined it as “some­body who for what­ever rea­son is not prac­tic­ing the faith but who does not dis­sent from any of its teach­ings.” He said he won­ders if Ban­non’s three divorces had put dis­tance be­tween him and the church, which pro­hibits di­vorce and re­mar­riage.

Ban­non at one point had ac­cepted an in­vi­ta­tion to at­tend a Catholic spir­i­tual re­treat with Bre­it­bart ed­i­tor in chief Alex Mar­low, though plans were even­tu­ally scrapped due to sched­ul­ing is­sues, Ruse said.

A reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to Bre­it­bart, Ruse per­suaded Ban­non to broad­cast his Bre­it­bart ra­dio show from Rome dur­ing the 2014 can­on­iza­tion of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II.

For two days, the two men in­ter­viewed Catholic thinkers, priests and the­olo­gians.

At that point, Pope Fran­cis was about a year into his pa­pacy, well along in his quest to pivot the church’s pub­lic im­age away from op­po­si­tion to abor­tion and same­sex mar­riage to­ward pro­mot­ing is­sues such as im­mi­gra­tion, eco­nomic in­equal­ity and cli­mate change.

Dur­ing that visit to Rome, Ban­non met with Car­di­nal Ray­mond Burke, a con­ser­va­tive critic of Pope Fran­cis who, like Ban­non, has been crit­i­cal of Is­lam.

“That was ac­tu­ally the point that he de­ter­mined that he wanted to have a Rome bureau,” Ruse said.

To an­chor Bre­it­bart’s Rome cov­er­age, Ban­non turned to Thomas D. Wil­liams, a for­mer Catholic priest who has known Ban­non since 2003, when the pair met through a mu­tual friend who was work­ing on “The Pas­sion of the Christ.”

(Ban­non pre­vi­ously worked as a movie pro­ducer.)

A 2005 New York Times ar­ti­cle de­scribed him as a “Ro­man Catholic film­maker, con­ser­va­tive-film fi­nancier, Wash­ing­ton net­worker and Hol­ly­wood deal-chaser.”

Wil­liams, who had been a mem­ber of a con­ser­va­tive re­li­gious or­der dis­ci­plined by the Vatican af­ter rev­e­la­tions its founder had sex­u­ally abused young men, de­scribed Ban­non as “a be­liev­ing Catholic. I don’t know what his prac­tice is.”

But, Wil­liams said, Ban­non is an ad­her­ent of a maxim pop­u­lar at Bre­it­bart — that pol­i­tics is down­stream of cul­ture — “and at the heart of cul­ture is moral­ity, re­li­gion, faith, con­vic­tions, what peo­ple be­lieve, world­views.”

A few months af­ter Ban­non trav­eled to the Vatican for the can­on­iza­tion cer­e­mony, he gave a speech via video feed to the In­sti­tute for Hu­man Dig­nity, a con­ser­va­tive in­ter­faith group based in Rome.

Dur­ing that speech, the tran­script of which was first made pub­lic by Buzz Feed News, Ban­non laid out his case that so­ci­ety is reel­ing from “a cri­sis both of our church, a cri­sis of our faith, a cri­sis of the West, a cri­sis of cap­i­tal­ism.”

While Ban­non was able to se­cure a meet­ing with Burke, the con­ser­va­tive car­di­nal crit­i­cal of the pope, he has pow­er­ful crit­ics in the Vatican. He was re­cently called out by two close as­so­ci­ates of Pope Fran­cis in an ar­ti­cle pub­lished by an Ital­ian Catholic jour­nal crit­i­cal of an al­liance be­tween U.S. Catholics and evan­gel­i­cals. The ar­ti­cle, which was vet­ted by the Vatican, de­scribed Ban­non as a “sup­porter of an apoc­a­lyp­tic geopol­i­tics.”

Like much of the con­tent pub­lished un­der Ban­non, Bre­it­bart’s cov­er­age of the Catholic Church is aimed at bol­ster­ing con­ser­va­tive ideas and un­der­cut­ting pro­gres­sive fig­ures — in­clud­ing Pope Fran­cis.

Ban­non’s ac­cu­sa­tions that the Catholic Church ad­vo­cates for im­mi­grants out of self-in­ter­est are not new. Bre­it­bart has pub­lished ar­ti­cles in the past mak­ing sim­i­lar ac­cu­sa­tions, and Ban­non him­self said the same in 2016.

Polls show Catholics in the United States tend to mir­ror the opin­ions of most Amer­i­cans when it comes to ques­tions of im­mi­gra­tion, al­beit with big gaps be­tween white and His­panic Catholics. But some of Ban­non’s Catholic sup­port­ers agree with his as­sess­ment the U.S. church is too in­volved with the govern­ment when it comes to pol­i­tics.

“I don’t think that the [bish­ops are] do­ing im­mi­gra­tion be­cause of the money,” said Ben­jamin Harn­well, the head of the or­ga­ni­za­tion that hosted Ban­non’s 2014 video pre­sen­ta­tion in Rome.

“Though that said, it’s ab­so­lutely true that the Catholic Church in the states re­ceives a lot of money for its refugee pro­gram — a lot of money. What Steve said is le­git­i­mate to ask in that sit­u­a­tion, whether it’s still pure. I think he’s made a good point. I’m glad he said it.”

“It is big business,” he said. “If the Catholic Church wants to avoid ques­tions be­ing asked of its mo­tives, per­haps a pe­riod of in­tro­spec­tion would be help­ful.”

But Car­di­nal Ti­mothy Dolan of New York called the claims “pre­pos­ter­ous and rather in­sult­ing.”

“The Bi­ble is so clear, so clear, that to treat the im­mi­grant with dig­nity and re­spect, to make sure that so­ci­ety is just in its treat­ment of the im­mi­grant is [a] bib­li­cal man­date,” he said on the Catholic Chan­nel last week af­ter CBS re­leased a clip of Ban­non’s com­ments.

A spokesman for the U.S. Con­fer­ence of Catholic Bish­ops also weighed in.

“Our pro-im­mi­gra­tion stance is based on fidelity to God’s word and hon­ors the Amer­i­can Dream,” James L. Rogers, chief com­mu­ni­ca­tions of­fi­cer for the or­ga­ni­za­tion, said in a Sept. 7 state­ment. “For any­one to sug­gest that it is out of sor­did mo­tives of statis­tics or fi­nan­cial gain is out­ra­geous and in­sult­ing.”

One of Ban­non’s long­time friends is the Rev. Jonathan Mor­ris, a priest in New York City and a con­trib­u­tor to Fox News.

Last Novem­ber, when Trump an­nounced Ban­non would be one of his se­nior ad­vis­ers, some of Ban­non’s crit­ics protested, point­ing to ar­ti­cles pub­lished on Bre­it­bart un­der his watch that they said were racist and anti-Semitic.

At the time, Mor­ris tweeted, “I’ve known Steve Ban­non as a close friend for nearly fif­teen years. I’ve never heard or seen a racist word or ac­tion from him.”

But when it came to Ban­non’s “60 Min­utes” com­ments, Mor­ris was more crit­i­cal.

“Steve Ban­non is my good friend, but he is very wrong on this,” Mor­ris wrote on his Face­book page. “Par­ishes with big His­panic first-gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grant con­gre­ga­tions are not rich par­ishes. Just the op­po­site. In fact, many par­ishes like my own spend more money tak­ing care of im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tions than we get from them.”

The Rev. James Martin, a Je­suit priest and ed­i­tor at large at Amer­ica mag­a­zine, said Ban­non’s as­ser­tion that the po­si­tions Catholic bish­ops take on im­mi­gra­tion are not doc­trine and they are “just an­other guy with an opinion” is wrong.

“Wel­com­ing the stranger is Catholic doc­trine,” Martin said, not­ing pa­pal en­cycli­cals, the high­est form of Catholic teach­ing, have re­peat­edly pro­mul­gated this part of the faith. “It also comes from the lips of Je­sus him­self, the foun­da­tion of Catholic doc­trine.”

“Bish­ops are not just an­other group of guys,” he said. “They speak with the au­thor­ity that comes by the virtue of their of­fices, so that’s doc­trine too.”

As for Ban­non’s as­ser­tion the church is in­vested in im­mi­gra­tion for the money, Martin said he finds the charge “a cross be­tween ridicu­lous and ap­palling.”

“Did Je­sus help peo­ple be­cause he wanted them to give him money?” he asked. “We help peo­ple who are strug­gling be­cause it’s what Je­sus asked us to do.”

Michael J. O’Loughlin is the na­tional correspondent at Amer­ica and au­thor of “The Tweet­able Pope: A Spir­i­tual Revo­lu­tion in 140 Char­ac­ters.”

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Stephen K. Ban­non, sec­ond from left, is a for­mer ad­viser to Pres­i­dent Trump. The au­thor of “Devils’s Bar­gain: Steve Ban­non, Don­ald Trump, and the Storm­ing of the Pres­i­dency” says that “Ban­non’s pol­i­tics is driven more by his re­li­gious views than I think most peo­ple un­der­stand.”

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