By Jason Horowitz
ROME – 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 archconservative American cardinal, Raymond Burke, who had openly clashed with Pope Francis.
In one of the cardinal’s antechambers, amid religious statues and book-lined walls, Burke and Bannon – who is now President Trump’s anti-establishment eminence – 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.
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 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, 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 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 – 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.