Burke was reduced to a ceremonial patron role at the Knights of Malta after a power struggle at the ancient chivalric order, won by the pope last month, following a spat over its humanitarian wing’s alleged distribution of condoms. Losing the leadership battle and prestige at the secretive society headquartered in Rome — Francis is appointing his own special delegate above Burke — was seen as a papal rap on the knuckles for the cardinal leading the charge against Francis’s writings on communion for divorcees. But the virulently anti-Islam (“capitulating to Islam would be the death of Christianity”), migrant-phobic, Donald Trump-defending, Vladimir Putin-excusing Burke is unrepentant and even defiant, continuing to preside over a far-right, neo-fascist-normalizing cheer squad out of the Holy See.
This Vatican operation, called Dignitatis Humanae, or the Institute for Human Dignity, whose advisory board includes two of the four cardinals openly challenging Francis on marriage and sexuality, is slavishly promoting Burke’s favorite American white Catholic nationalist, Bannon, with star billing on its home page. The institute’s top office-bearers, Burke and his henchman, the media-savvy Breitbart contributor Benjamin Harnwell, are also encouraging Benito Mussolini fan Matteo Salvini, of Italy’s Northern League, and Muslim-baiting far-right Catholic poster girl Marion Le Pen, the National Front “rising star” niece of party leader Marine Le Pen in France.
As the Italian press first revealed, Burke held a long meeting last week at his Vatican home with Salvini, a fierce critic of the pope who wants to push refugees back into the sea and close all mosques in Italy. It was a flagrant political intervention on the side of the extreme-right racist grouping ahead of the Italian elections. Mysterious posters also appeared around the Vatican decrying a sinister-looking pope’s “decapitation” of the Malta Knights order.
The situation facing the Catholic Church raises alarming parallels with the ideological warfare that split the Vatican in the 1930s when ethnic nationalism was sweeping Europe under Mussolini and Hitler and when fascist forces infiltrated the highest echelons of the church. In 1937, Pope Pius XI published an encyclical in German denouncing the Nazi regime and its racism. The diatribe infuriated Hitler, but the focus was more on Nazi persecution of Catholics than laws targeting Jews.
In Italy, the Vatican had long made accommodations with Mussolini for its own geopolitical gains, and Pius XI failed to quell widespread institutional anti-Semitism in the church before it was too late. When Mussolini decreed in 1938 that Italian Jews were to suffer a legal fate similar to those in Germany, Pius XI tried to prepare a fresh encyclical deploring anti-Semitism and racism, as revealed in historian David Kertzer’s book “The Pope and Mussolini,” he was double-crossed by pro-fascist forces in the Vatican working in tandem with Il Duce. Senior figures in the French Catholic Church also collaborated with fascism in France, where the Vichy regime aided the Nazis in deporting about 80,000 Jews to the death camps.
The lesson of history has not been lost on Francis. After President Trump’s inauguration, he warned that rising populism could produce a new Hitler. But now, as Europe faces historic elections that could bring extreme-right nationalists back into power across the continent for the first time since World War II, he must act. The bellicose anti-Islam invective being marshaled by figures such as Burke shares much in common with the vicious anti-Semitism many Catholic clerics adhered to in the 1930s, when they saw Jews as a danger to the Christian West whose rights must be restricted.
Burke, like Bannon, who says Islam is “the most radical” religion in the world, makes no distinction in his clash-of-civilizations frenzy between the Muslim faith’s diverse currents and interpretations, and violent jihadist movements derived mostly from Saudi-style Salafism. Unsurprisingly, Burke says he is “very satisfied” with Russian autocrat Putin’s “defense of life and family” and believes he may have “converted” since his KGB days. Yet, just as godless Communism posed an existential threat in the past, the Catholic Church has nothing to gain and everything to lose from cozying up to far-right extremists from the United States to Europe. They distort Christianity into an exclusionary ideology in defense of nation and race, and unite a new support base of Muslim-haters with historically anti-Semitic movements such as the National Front that are anything but Christian, and often neo-pagan.
The options open to the pope in dealing with Burke are limited. Excommunication isn’t in the cards; Burke is not a heretic denying the Catholic faith. Nor is Burke refusing to submit to the pontiff like French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was cast out by John Paul II after his ultra-conservative Society of Saint Pius X ordained its own bishops rather than take directions from the Vatican.
However, Francis, who has full authority over his cardinals, could fully remove Burke from his remaining sinecure with Knights of Malta, call him in for a pastoral correction on the issue of his unacceptable political interventions, investigate Dignitatis Humanae with a view to shutting it down for its subversive politicking, and send the rebel cardinal back home to the United States. As Burke tries to run an insurgency and rebukes the pope for his doctrinal “ambiguities,” with the backing of thousands of priests, Francis could seize the agenda. In time-honored papal tradition, he could write an encyclical on the burning questions of populism and nationalism, with specific reference to migrants, Muslims and Jews, so priests including Burke know they are in breach of church teaching when they try to act as power brokers for the international extreme right.
The stakes could hardly be higher, especially as the pope seems on a collision course with a Trump-Bannon White House that has imposed a form of a Muslim ban and disparaged him during the election campaign for daring to suggest that building a wall on the United States’ southern border was un-Christian. If the pope doesn’t put the reactionary elements such as Burke and his cronies back in their place, they could force a real schism during his papacy and leave the church open to justifiable accusations it failed to stand up to enablers of extremism and neo-fascism within its ranks.