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WASHINGTON • Steve Bannon disrupted American politics and helped elect Donald Trump as president. Will he disrupt the Roman Catholic Church by joining forces with right-wing Catholics who oppose Pope Francis?
Bannon's dark vision contrasts sharply with the sunny disposition of a pope who has chided "sourpusses" and "querulous and disillusioned pessimists."
Bannon believes that "the Judeo-Christian West is in a crisis." He calls for a return of "the church militant" that will "fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity" which threatens to "completely eradicate everything that we've been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years."
Where Francis has insisted on dialogue with Muslims, Bannon points to "the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam" and reaches as far back as the eighth century to praise "forefathers" who defeated Islam on the battlefield and "kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places."
"See what's happening," Bannon insists, "and you will see we're in a war of immense proportions."
Bannon offered these comments in 2014 to the Institute for Human Dignity, an ultra-traditionalist group based in Rome allied with some of Francis' sharpest internal critics. They include Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has been so tough on Francis that he had to deny he was accusing the pontiff of heresy.
The New York Times' Jason Horowitz put Bannon's Catholic project front and center this week with a Page One story reporting that during a 2014 visit to Rome for the canonizations of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII, Bannon met and "bonded" with Burke.
Neither Bannon nor Trump (nor, for that matter, Burke) is likely to dent Francis' immense popularity with American Catholics. But Horowitz's story brought into relief the struggle inside the church and particularly within American Catholicism over the pope's stewardship, his emphasis on battling poverty, his insistence on the importance of welcoming immigrants and refugees, and his relative openness to modernity.
Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University and a close student of the Vatican, argues that Francis has aroused a similar hostility among some on the Catholic right to that Barack Obama called forth on the right end of politics generally. Francis is the first pope from Latin America and his vision of economics is inflected by his experiences there. Moreover, Francis accepts the reforming Second Vatican Council in the 1960s "in its entirety and is not just paying lip service."
The vast majority of conservative American bishops and Catholic thinkers have, of course, pledged their allegiance to the pope. But Faggioli argues that many of them are often critical of Francis' attitude toward doctrine (the pope, he says, is "pastoral, not ideological") and toward Vatican II's reforms, which shifted church teaching toward a greater respect for religious pluralism.
On the surface, some of Bannon's economic views would seem to match Francis'. In his speech broadcast to the group in Rome, Bannon spoke against "a brutal form of capitalism that is really about creating wealth and creating value for a very small subset of people."
But as Faggioli notes, Bannon links his criticism of capitalism to nationalism, which makes his views more similar to those of far-right groups in the 1920s and '30s such as Action Francaise, a French nationalist group condemned by the Vatican. Francis' economics, on the other hand, focus on global concerns, including climate change.
Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and theology at Boston College, argues that Bannon's view is also at odds with Catholicism's tradition of rejecting an "apocalyptic" take on the world. The church, she said, has taught that "you don't get to God's Kingdom by blowing up what's here."
Trump won overwhelmingly among conservative American Catholics last year, and many of them likely sympathize with aspects of Bannon's nationalist outlook. But the tensions between Trump and Francis are likely to grow. Ironically, given the opposition to him among many American bishops, Obama's foreign policy was far closer to the Vatican's approach than is Trump's.
And Trump's moves against refugees and immigrants mobilized even conservative Bishops to loud condemnations. The fact that about a third of American Catholics are Latino weighs heavily in the church's thinking.
Bannon is unlikely to want Trump to force American Catholics to choose between their president and their pope. But the battle is on to define the meaning of both Americanism and Catholicism. Bannon's worldview could incite the same showdown in the church that he has already ignited in politics.