Steve Bannon Aligns With Vatican Hard-Liners Who Oppose Pope Francis

Feb 8, 2017
Originally published on February 8, 2017 7:09 pm

White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is known to have cultivated ties with far-right parties in Europe, like the National Front in France. He also seems to have forged an alliance with Vatican hard-liners who oppose Pope Francis' less rigid approach to church doctrine. The New York Times reported this week on Bannon's connections at the Vatican.

Before becoming White House chief strategist, Bannon — who is Catholic — was the executive chairman of Breitbart News, which he called a "platform for the alt-right." That's a movement associated with white nationalism.

During a visit to Rome a few years ago, Bannon struck up a friendship with the American Cardinal Raymond Burke, a traditionalist who has emerged as one of Pope Francis' most vocal critics.

Bannon hired Thomas Williams, an American former priest, as Breitbart's Rome correspondent. Williams belonged to the conservative Legion of Christ, which was roiled by scandal when it was revealed its founder had been a pedophile.

Williams recently told his own story on an Italian TV talk show: In 2003, he fathered a child, but he kept it secret until he was outed by a news report. He then left the priesthood and married the child's mother — who is the daughter of the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Mary Ann Glendon.

In July 2014, Bannon addressed a conference that was held inside the Vatican but was sponsored by a conservative Catholic group. Speaking via Skype, Bannon painted an almost apocalyptic vision of the state of the Western world.

"We're at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which, if the people in this room, the people in the church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the church militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that's starting."

A barbarity, Bannon added, that would completely eradicate "everything we've been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years," and which he clearly spelled out a few minutes later: "We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it."

This is language that Pope Francis has never used. The pope has repeatedly urged European countries to welcome migrants — who are, in the majority, Muslim — and he has championed the rights of the poor.

A year ago, Francis criticized candidate Donald Trump for wanting to build a wall along the border with Mexico, saying, "A person who thinks only about building walls ... and not building bridges is not Christian."

But that's not Bannon's worldview. While most Breitbart reports on the pope have been neutral, headlines about the pope when Bannon was in charge included:

  • "Seven Ways Pope Francis Slapped Conservatives in the United States"
  • "A Vatican Expert: Pope Francis a 'Friend of Islam' "
  • "Pope Francis Slams Capitalism, Death Penalty, Immigration Law; No Real Mention of Abortion, Gay Marriage"
  • "Pope Francis Threatens Legacy of Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan"

While Breitbart and Bannon seem to be making common cause with Roman Catholics who are on the outs with this pope, these Vatican hard-liners are not very powerful.

Nevertheless, Pope Francis' supporters inside the Vatican worry that following Trump's election victory, the pope is a little more isolated — a lonely progressive on the global stage. They say this has emboldened his critics both within and outside the Vatican, who have become more vocal.

For example, just last week, mysterious anti-Francis posters cropped up around Rome. The photo showed the pope looking uncharacteristically very grouchy, and the unidentified author — using a Roman street dialect — accused him of acting in an authoritarian manner and showing lack of mercy, despite the fact that Francis has made "Mercy" the unofficial slogan of his papacy.

Francis has not reacted. But in a surprising move, on Sunday, he issued the very first papal blessing for the Super Bowl. It was a video message in his native Spanish — not in Italian, which he usually uses for official messages — in which he said such a sporting event "shows that it's possible to build a culture of encounter and a world of peace."

The Italian media labeled the message "anti-Trump."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

White House chief strategist Steve Bannon seems to have forged an alliance with hardliners in the Vatican, clergy who oppose Pope Francis' less rigid approach to Catholic doctrine. The New York Times reported this week on Bannon's Vatican connections. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has also been looking into this. And she joins us now from Rome. Hiya, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: How did these close ties between Bannon and conservatives in the Vatican come about?

POGGIOLI: Well, before he became White House strategist, Bannon, who is Catholic, was the editor of Breitbart News. He has called it a platform for the alt-right. That's a movement associated with white nationalism. During a visit to Rome a few years ago, he struck up a friendship with the American Cardinal Raymond Burke, a traditionalist who has emerged as one of Pope Francis' most vocal critics. Bannon also recruited as Rome correspondent for Breitbart Thomas Williams, an American who had left the priesthood after it was revealed he had fathered a child.

In July 2014, Bannon addressed a conference that was held inside the Vatican, but it was actually sponsored by a conservative Catholic group. Speaking via Skype, he painted an almost apocalyptic vision of the state of the Western world. Here's an excerpt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE BANNON: We're at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict of which if the people in this room and the people in the church do not bind together and really form what I feel is a aspect of the Church militant to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that's starting.

POGGIOLI: A barbarity, Bannon added, that will completely eradicate everything that has been bequeathed over the last 2,500 years and which he spelled out clearly a few minutes later.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BANNON: We are in an outright war against jihadists, Islamic fascism. And this war is I think metastasizing almost far quicker than governments can handle it.

SIEGEL: Sylvia, to put it mildly, this doesn't sound like the kind of language we associate with Pope Francis.

POGGIOLI: No, absolutely not. Francis has repeatedly urged European countries to welcome migrants who are in the majority Muslim. And he's always championed the rights of the poor. A year ago Francis criticized candidate Donald Trump for wanting to build a wall along the Mexican border, saying a person who thinks only about building walls and not building bridges is not Christian. But that's not Bannon's world view, apparently.

While most of Breitbart's reports on the pope have been neutral, here are some headlines about the pope when Bannon was editor - Seven Ways Pope Francis Slapped Conservatives In The United States, Vatican Expert Says Pope Francis Is A Friend Of Islam, Pope Francis Slams Capitalism, Death Penalty, Immigration Law, No Real Mention Of Abortion And Gay Marriage, and finally, Pope Francis Threatens The Legacy Of John Paul II And Ronald Reagan.

SIEGEL: So Breitbart and Steve Bannon seem to be making cause with Roman Catholics who were on the outs with the pope. How powerful is this faction, this conservative Catholic faction?

POGGIOLI: It's not very powerful. However, Pope Francis' supporters inside the Vatican worry that following Trump's election victory in the U.S., Pope Francis is a little more isolated, a kind of a lonely progressive on the global stage. And they say this has emboldened his critics within and outside the Vatican, and they've become much more vocal. For example, just last week there were these mysterious anti-Francis posters cropping up all over Rome. The photo showed the pope uncharacteristically grouchy. And the unidentified author accused Francis of acting in an authoritarian manner and of showing lack of mercy.

SIEGEL: And how is the pope reacting to all this?

POGGIOLI: He has not reacted. But in a surprising move on Sunday, he issued the very first papal blessing for the Super Bowl. It was a video message in his native Spanish in which he said, such sporting events show that it's possible to build a culture of encounter in a world of peace. The Italian media labeled the message anti-Trump.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. Thank you, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.