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There has been a brief flurry
of news stories speculating about the ideological affinities, or
possible political alliance, between Stephen Bannon, the White House’s
disrupter in chief, and traditionalist Catholic figures opposed to Pope
Francis, especially Cardinal Raymond Burke (see Massimo Faggioli, “It’s Not Just Cardinal Burke,” at dotCommonweal). Bannon, the former head of the alt-right website Breitbart News,
is a cradle Catholic educated (sigh) in Catholic schools. Thrice
married and divorced, Bannon has nevertheless been described by at least
one conservative Catholic polemicist as a “non-practicing orthodox
Catholic,” someone whose “weakness” should not be mistaken for anything
as boring as “dissent.”
Much of this fevered speculation was spurred by articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Both stories note that Bannon and Burke share a distrust of
secularization, a loathing of liberal cultural and political elites, and
an unapologetic hostility toward Islam. Bannon and Burke met in Rome in
2014, when Bannon was covering the canonization of Pope John Paul II
and John XXIII. Reportedly, they established an immediate rapport.
Speaking later that year to a Vatican conference sponsored by the
conservative Dignitatis Humanae Institute, on whose advisory board Burke
sits, Bannon struck predictable populist but also traditionalist
Catholic themes, allegedly ingratiating himself with alienated Vatican
insiders. According to the Times, Bannon has cultivated
opponents of Francis in the Vatican, convinced that the pope is a
“socialist/communist” who must be exposed. Truth be told, there is more
innuendo than solid reporting on Bannon’s Vatican connections in the Times story (“Steve Bannon Carries Battles to Another Influential Hub: The Vatican”).
The Washington Post’s opinion piece, written by Emma-Kate Symons,
is even more inflammatory, describing Burke as a “Donald
Trump–defending, Vladimir Putin–excusing” leader of a “far-right,
neo-fascist-normalizing cheer squad out of the Holy See.” Got that?
Symons goes on to equate Burke and Bannon’s “anti-Islam invective” with
the “vicious anti-Semitism many Catholic clerics adhered to in the
1930s.” She urges Pope Francis to purge the church of Burke and his ilk
or face the threat of schism from the left (“How Pope Francis Can
Cleanse the Far-right Rot from the Catholic Church”).
Why do dubious stories like these get traction? Part of the answer
has to do with the extreme polarization of our politics, a divide that
is increasingly evident within the U.S. church as well, and one that the
USCCB’s litigation regarding religious freedom and Obamacare has sadly
exacerbated. The news media’s fixation on the papacy, which is often
given Wizard of Oz–like treatment, obviously also plays a role. The
actions of popes and presidents are relatively easy to report on,
compared with the complexities and varied personalities at work in the
local church or in Congress. All too quickly storylines collapse into
battles between villains and heroes, with precious little context to
guide the reader.
There is no doubt that the sort of change, in emphasis if not
doctrine, that Francis is bringing to the church has alienated a small
but influential group of conservative Catholics. Improbably, in the Times
story those who disagree with the pope’s actions cast him as “a
ruthless wielder of absolute political power,” complaining that the wily
Jesuit will brook no opposition. Yet the opposition has faced few
obstacles in getting its complaints heard or in mobilizing supporters.
How effective the resistance to Francis will be is unclear, but there is
no evidence that it has been ruthlessly suppressed. And that is how it
should be. Conscientious “dissent” has an indispensable place in the
church’s development of doctrine, as so-called liberal Catholics have
What the brouhaha over Bannon and Burke fails to recognize is that
the fate of Catholicism, as Francis himself constantly reminds us, is
not being decided in Rome or Washington, but in thousands of parishes
and Catholic ministries across this country and the world. It is there
that both Catholics drawn to Francis and those disquieted by him will
either find a way to forge real communion or not. This is a difficult
but not unprecedented challenge. Cardinal Burke and his followers
believe the church has the answers to nearly every moral dilemma, and
that doubt of any sort is tantamount to heresy. Pope Francis, it is
clear, very much wants to make room for doubters, or at least seekers,
when it comes to questions such as Communion for the divorced and
remarried. Our first task, as the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor
sees it, is to “hold together in one sacramental union modes of living
the faith which have at present no affinity for each other, and even are
tempted roundly to condemn each other.” As Taylor suggests, holding
that sacramental union together is now every Catholic’s responsibility.