During Sunday night’s “60 Minutes,” former White House senior strategist Stephen K. Bannon was described by Charlie Rose as “a good Catholic.” How then, Rose wanted to know, does Bannon feel about church leaders criticizing President Trump for ending a program that allows nearly 800,000 undocumented young people to live and work in the United States?
Bannon, who left the White House last month and returned to run the conservative website Breitbart, charged that Catholic leaders, who have been among the most vocal critics of the Trump administration on matters of immigration, have been unable “to come to grips with the problems in the Church” and so “they need illegal aliens to fill the churches. That’s — it’s obvious on the face of it.”
Plus, he continued, the Catholic leaders “have an economic interest in unlimited immigration, unlimited illegal immigration.”
Rose interjected, “That’s a tough thing to say about your church.”
Bannon did not back down. “I totally respect the pope and I totally respect the Catholic bishops and cardinals on doctrine,” he said. “This is not about doctrine. This is about the sovereignty of a nation. And in that regard, they’re just another guy with an opinion.”
Bannon being described as “a good Catholic” may have surprised some viewers. He rarely discusses his faith life, though in 2015 he told Bloomberg News, “I come from a blue-collar, Irish Catholic, pro-Kennedy, pro-union family of Democrats.”
But according to Joshua Green, the Bloomberg political writer whose new book, “Devil’s Bargain,” offers a glimpse into Bannon’s life, Catholicism was a constant presence during his formative years.
He frequented Mass each Sunday with his family in Virginia, and he attended Catholic schools, graduating from Benedictine College Preparatory School, a Catholic military academy in Richmond.
When the Church stopped using Latin at during services in the 1960s, Bannon’s parents, Green writes, were not keen on the changes. A few decades later, though, the Church began allowing some churches to celebrate the old Mass and Bannon’s family found a traditionalist parish in Richmond and began going there.
Later, according to Green, Bannon embarked on a decade-long exploration of world religions, while serving in the Navy, which included a brief stint practicing Buddhism. But eventually he returned to Catholicism and it was during this time that he became enamored with the Catholic idea of subsidiarity, the notion that social issues should be addressed at the most local level possible, which continues to drive him.
“My sense is that Bannon’s politics is driven more by his religious views than I think most people understand,” Green said, noting that Bannon says he considers himself a practicing Catholic.
“He’s captivated by this idea that the world is in decline,” he said, “which seems to be partially rooted in some medieval variant of Catholicism.”
Austin Ruse, the president of the Center for Family & Human Rights, who has supported laws restricting LGBT rights, said Bannon “is greatly motivated and interested in the things of the faith,” though he is unsure if Bannon prays or attends Mass regularly.
“I refer to him as a nonpracticing orthodox Catholic,” Ruse said, conceding the phrase is a bit of an oxymoron. “Some people think that’s not a possible thing to be,” he said, but he defined it as “somebody who for whatever reason is not practicing the faith but who does not dissent from any of its teachings.” He said he wonders if Bannon’s three divorces had put distance between him and the Church, which prohibits divorce and remarriage.
Bannon at one point had accepted an invitation to attend a Catholic spiritual retreat with Breitbart editor in chief Alex Marlow, though plans were eventually scrapped due to schedule issues, Ruse said.
A regular contributor to Breitbart, Ruse convinced Bannon to broadcast his Breitbart radio show from Rome during the 2014 canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. For two days, the two men interviewed Catholic thinkers, priests and theologians.
At that point, Pope Francis was about a year into his papacy, well along in his quest to pivot the Church’s public image away from opposition abortion and same-sex marriage toward promoting issues such as immigration, economic inequality and climate change.
During that visit to Rome, Bannon met with Cardinal Raymond Burke, a conservative critic of Pope Francis who, like Bannon, has been critical of Islam.
“That was actually the point that he determined that he wanted to have a Rome bureau,” Ruse said.
To anchor Breitbart’s Rome coverage, Bannon turned to Thomas D. Williams, a former Catholic priest who has known Bannon since 2003, when the pair met through a mutual friend who was working on “The Passion of the Christ.” (Bannon previously worked as a movie producer. A 2005 article in the New York Times described him as a “Roman Catholic filmmaker, conservative-film financier, Washington networker and Hollywood deal-chaser.”)
Williams, who had been a member of a conservative religious order that was disciplined by the Vatican after revelations that its founder had sexually abused young men, described Bannon as “a believing Catholic. I don’t know what his practice is.”
But, Williams said, Bannon is an adherent of a maxim popular at Breitbart — that politics is downstream of culture — “and at the heart of culture is morality, religion, faith, convictions, what people believe, worldviews.”
A few months after Bannon traveled to the Vatican for the canonization ceremony, he gave a speech via video feed to the Institute for Human Dignity, a conservative interfaith group based in Rome. During that speech, the transcript of which was first made public by BuzzFeed News, Bannon laid out his case that society is reeling from “a crisis both of our church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism.”
While Bannon was able to secure a meeting with Burke, the conservative cardinal critical of the pope, he has powerful critics in the Vatican. He was recently called out by two close associates of Pope Francis in an article published by an Italian Catholic journal critical of an alliance between U.S. Catholics and evangelicals. The article, which was vetted by the Vatican, described Bannon as a “supporter of an apocalyptic geopolitics.”
Like much of the content published under Bannon, Breitbart’s coverage of the Catholic Church is aimed at bolstering conservative ideas and undercutting progressive figures — including Pope Francis. (Though Williams says he usually just reports what the pope says and allows readers to read into it what they will. “I’m sure many Breitbart readers take that in a negative way, but it’s simply what the pope is saying or doing,” he said.)
Bannon’s accusations that the Catholic Church advocates for immigrants out of self-interest are not new. Breitbart has published articles in the past making similar accusations and Bannon himself said the same in 2016.
Polls show that Catholics in the United States tend to mirror the opinions of most Americans when it comes to questions of immigration, albeit with big gaps between white and Hispanic Catholics. But some of Bannon’s Catholic supporters agree with his assessment that the U.S. church is too involved with the government when it comes to politics.
“I don’t think that the [bishops are] doing immigration because of the money,” said Benjamin Harnwell, the head of the organization that hosted Bannon’s 2014 video presentation in Rome. “Though that said, it’s absolutely true that the Catholic Church in the states receives a lot of money for its refugee program — a lot of money. What Steve said is legitimate to ask in that situation, whether it’s still pure. I think he’s made a good point. I’m glad he said it.”
“It is big business,” he continued. “If the Catholic Church wants to avoid questions being asked of its motives, perhaps a period of introspection would be helpful.”
But Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York called the claims “preposterous and rather insulting.”
“The Bible is so clear, so clear, that to treat the immigrant with dignity and respect, to make sure that society is just in its treatment of the immigrant is [a] biblical mandate,” he said on the Catholic Channel last week after CBS released a clip of Bannon’s comments.
A spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also weighed in.
“Our pro-immigration stance is based on fidelity to God’s word and honors the American dream,” James L. Rogers, chief communications officer for the organization, said in a Sept. 7 statement. “For anyone to suggest that it is out of sordid motives of statistics or financial gain is outrageous and insulting.”
One of Bannon’s longtime friends is the Rev. Jonathan Morris, a priest in New York City and a contributor to Fox News. Last November, when Trump announced that Bannon would be one of his senior advisers, some of Bannon’s critics protested, pointing to articles published on Breitbart under his watch that they said were racist and anti-Semitic. At the time, Morris tweeted, “I’ve known Steve Bannon as a close friend for nearly fifteen years. I’ve never heard or seen a racist word or action from him.”
But when it came to Bannon’s “60 Minutes” comments, Morris was more critical.
“Steve Bannon is my good friend, but he is very wrong on this,” Morris wrote on his Facebook page. “Parishes with big Hispanic first-generation immigrant congregations are not rich parishes. Just the opposite. In fact, many parishes like my own spend more money taking care of immigrant populations than we get from them.”
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at large at America magazine, said Bannon’s assertion that the positions Catholic bishops take on immigration is not doctrine and that they are “just another guy with an opinion” is not true.
“Welcoming the stranger is Catholic doctrine,” Martin said, noting that papal encyclicals, the highest form of Catholic teaching, have repeatedly promulgated this part of the faith. “It also comes from the lips of Jesus himself, the foundation of Catholic doctrine.”
“Bishops are not just another group of guys,” he said. “They speak with the authority that comes by the virtue of their offices, so that’s doctrine too.”
As for Bannon’s assertion that the Church is invested in immigration for the money, Martin said he finds the charge “a cross between ridiculous and appalling.”
“Did Jesus help people because he wanted them to give him money?” he asked. “We help people who are struggling because it’s what Jesus asked us to do.”
Michael J. O’Loughlin is the national correspondent at America and author of “The Tweetable Pope: A Spiritual Revolution in 140 Characters.” You can follow him on Twitter: @mikeoloughlin