One is a political stategist and the other a senior prelate but both are fierce critics of the reforms of the Pope. So why have they now fallen out? Our Rome correspondent reveals all
It was on Twitter that Cardinal Raymond Burke dropped the bombshell news that he was cutting ties with Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, who has become one of Pope Francis’ fiercest critics.
The manner of the announcement felt appropriate, given that Twitter has become the platform of choice for opinionated Catholics of various stripes debating Church affairs, and there was something Trumpian about a cardinal revealing a major decision on social media without prior warning or consultation with those involved.
Mr Bannon and his advisers were caught off guard. Cardinal Burke, one of the Church’s pre-eminent canon lawyers and an outspoken critic of the Pope, had suddenly decided to break ties with the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI), a pro-life group designed to support Christians in public life, which had become the vehicle through which Bannon was proposing to set up a “gladiator” training school for populists.
Bannon, a Catholic from proudly working-class Irish immigrant stock in Virginia, had formed an unusual alliance with Burke, the son of dairy farmers in Wisconsin who has risen to be the leader of the traditionalist wing of the Church, resolutely opposed to the Pope’s loosening of restrictions forbidding divorced and re-married Catholics to receive Communion. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s Interior Minister and leader of the far-right League, and whom Bannon advised as he rose to power, was also on board.
The Burke-Bannon-Salvini axis combined political and ecclesial muscle to take on Francis. Inside the Church, it vigorously opposed the synod gatherings on the family and the forthcoming one on the Amazon. From the outside, it relentlessly attacked the Pope for his forthright criticism of narrow, populist nationalism, stoking fear of outsiders (particularly Muslims) and the Italian government’s closed-door policy to migrants.
That alliance was dealt a blow last week when the cardinal announced that he was resigning as honorary president of the DHI, because it had become too closely identified with Bannon’s political agenda. The decision left opponents of Francis a “house divided” and, as one Roman source told me, “looking as if they have set up a circular firing squad”.
On the face of it, the cardinal’s complaint about the DHI being too close to Bannon was baffling, given that, only a month earlier, at a pro-life, pro-family event at the Pontifical Angelicum University in Rome, he had argued that resisting large-scale Muslim immigration was “a responsible exercise of one’s patriotism”. The cardinal had also cited No Go Zones: How Sharia Law Is Coming to a Neighborhood Near You, by Raheem Kassam, which argues that some places in the US have effectively been taken over by Muslims. Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK’s Brexit Party, wrote the Foreword.
Then there are Burke’s links with Salvini and the League. In February 2017, the cardinal spent an hour with Salvini in his flat off the Via della Conciliazione, while his remarks at the Angelicum were read as an endorsement of Salvini’s policy of turning away illegal migrants.
So what caused the sudden breach?
Step forward Frédéric Martel, the French author whose book, In the Closet of the Vatican – Sodoma in Italian – caused a stir in Rome. It paints a picture of dysfunctional sexual identity among the Church’s senior clerics, overwhelmingly gay but hiding their sexuality (sometimes in plain sight) through nods, winks, and secret codes – and, in some instances, by a suspiciously vehement condemnation of same-sex relationships.
Martel is merciless in his treatment of Cardinal Burke, whom he describes as “unstraight”. He details the plush furnishings of the cardinal’s apartment, which he examined while waiting for the US prelate to arrive for a meeting that was eventually cancelled, and even quotes a drag artist to comment on Burke’s elaborate vestments. Criticised by reviewers for dealing in gay stereotypes, Martel responded: “Raymond Burke is one of those figures who distorts Catholicism: an effeminate, ultra-conservative creature who criticises the feminisation of the Church, and who is, in my view, profoundly ridiculous. Those who defend him do not serve the Church: they value pastiche and fakery.”
Hardly surprising then that Burke was perturbed to see himself mentioned in a report on the Canadian conservative Catholic website LifeSite News (since taken down) of a 19 May meeting between Martel and Bannon in the five-star Hotel Bristol in Paris to discuss the film rights to the book. In the Closet was “the book of the year”, Bannon told LifeSite News. “It is both extremely powerful and completely damning of the Church hierarchy,” Bannon continued, adding that his own independent sources in the Vatican had verified many of Martel’s claims, including that most of the clergy in the Vatican were homosexual. In his statement, Burke said that he “does not in any way agree with Mr Bannon’s assessment of the book in question”, and was “not at all of the mind that the book should be made into a film”.
Martel and Bannon are unusual allies. Liberal and secular in outlook, the smooth-tongued and well-connected French writer has been critical of those inside the Vatican who are attacking Francis. But his exposure of the double lives led by gay cardinals and senior clergy is also fodder for Bannon’s “drain the swamp” line of attack, and for his desire to whip up a leadership crisis.
For many conservative Catholics – especially in the US – the real demon in the Church is homosexuality, and this, they argue, is behind the clerical sex abuse crisis. Martel’s point is that it is not homosexuality but “the lie about the sexuality of priests, the concealment of the majority of the clergy’s repressed or active homosexuality, and the organised cover-up of these lies” that is at the root of the abuse crisis in the Church. However, conservative Catholics have seized on Martel’s book, unhappily published on the eve of the Vatican’s child abuse summit, to support their narrative.
Martel reported that Bannon told him during their encounter that, “if the majority of bishops are either homophile or gay”, there are “no solutions to change the Church without changing profoundly her doctrine on celibacy, chastity and marriage”. Bannon has since clarified that he does not believe married priests are the solution to the vocations crisis or the abuse scandal. But Burke said he found it “objectionable” for Bannon to call into question “the Church’s discipline of perpetual continence for the clergy”.
Here we come to another division between the opponents of Francis. On the one hand, there are those led by Cardinal Burke, concerned about the reforms taking place in the Francis pontificate. He is, at heart, a vigorous defender of the law, and is one of the four cardinals who submitted dubia (“doubts”) to the Pope about his family and marriage teaching. His supporters in the US – not all of them fans of Trump and Bannon – might feel that by becoming too closely associated with the former White House strategist, Burke was politicising his theological and doctrinal criticisms. It is notable that the cardinal now has a spokeswoman based in Washington, rather than in Rome.
But there are other Catholics who have formed something of a cult around Bannon, and who enthusiastically endorse his anti-Islam populist nationalism. Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, President of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the EU (COMECE), wrote in La Civiltà Cattolica magazine this year that Bannon had become one of the “priests” of populism. A charismatic straight talker, Bannon is revered by sections of the English-language Catholic media in North America that are hostile to Francis, and they regularly offer him an uncritical platform. LifeSite News is one of those close to Bannon. Martel also confessed to a “certain fascination” with the him, writing in the French edition of the online magazine, Slate: “What a political animal! What a tactician! What a man!” Some argue that it is to Burke’s credit that he has refused to be taken in by Bannon’s charms.
Bannon’s tactics now are to push for greater involvement by the laity in the Church, while pressing the idea that there is corruption – sexual, financial and political – among the bishops and in the Vatican. Like his use of the “drain the swamp” analogy, a phrase popular in the US among those campaigning to clean out corruption in Washington, and urging ordinary Catholics to “take back control”, his strategy is straight out of the populist playbook. While Bannon repeatedly talks about “lay leadership” in the Church, some suspect that this is code for seizing power and control of the assets.
Whatever his real motives, Bannon seems to relish talking up a sense of crisis and disarray in the Church under Francis’ reforming papacy. “The Pope is walking on a razor’s edge. If this continues, we are on the road to a major schism in the Church,” he told Edward Pentin, the Rome correspondent for the US-based National Catholic Register, who published a question and answer with Bannon on his website. The Register is part of the Eternal Word Television Network, among the most hostile media to Francis. Bannon has regularly appeared across its platforms.
Bannon has correctly identified Pope Francis – whose commitment to applying the Gospel to the contemporary world through the promotion of Catholic Social Teaching, stinging critiques of unregulated capitalism, and passionate defence of the environment are forceful and eloquent – as one of the most coherent voices on the world stage against the rise of populist nationalism. In April 2016, the website Source Material reported that during a meeting with Salvini, Bannon advised him to attack the Pope, describing him as “The Enemy”.
But where now for Bannon? He is due in Italy again later this month and is still hoping to open his academy to defend Judaeo-Christian values. The plan had been to turn an old Carthusian monastery in Trisulti, 47 miles south-east of Rome, into a boot camp for culture warriors but that project has hit the buffers after the Italian government decided to revoke the €100,000-a-year lease due to non-payments and breach of the terms of the contract. It might have to be housed elsewhere.
Aside from bureaucratic headaches and deep internal divisions among his supporters, Bannon’s greatest obstacle remains Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the 82-year-old Pontiff, a seasoned campaigner who seeks to witness to the Gospel with a mixture of steel, passion and self-discipline. Such a commitment has helped Bergoglio see off various figures of power and authority over the years. Few will be betting against him this time.