Everyone loves a conspiracy theory, and of late English-language media have been giddy with speculation that Trump mastermind Steve Bannon and American Cardinal Raymond Burke, seen as a leading traditionalist critic of Pope Francis, have formed a pact to “legitimize extremist forces that want to bring down Western liberal democracy,” in the words of the Washington Post.
(What the specific aim of this alliance may be isn’t terribly clear, since nobody seriously believes a Trump-backed Vatican palace coup is in the offing. Presumably, the idea is to encourage and embolden one another.)
Because we’re talking simultaneously about one of the most polarizing figures in American politics and an equally polarizing presence in the Catholic Church, a disclaimer is obligatory: Nothing that follows is intended as either a defense or an indictment of the views Bannon and Burke represent. Instead, it’s designed as a dose of reality about their rumored meeting of minds.
Five such points seem worth making.
First, so far as we know, there has only been one face-to-face encounter between Bannon and Burke, which came before Trump’s election and even before the release of Pope Francis’s controversial document Amoris Laetitia … in other words, before the raw material of any potential alliance was actually in place.
Second, there’s no clear evidence Bannon and Burke have become BFFs, beyond a suggestion from Ben Harnwell, the Rome-based head of a conservative group called the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, that they’ve kept in contact.
Even if the two men do occasionally swap emails, in itself there would be nothing extraordinary about it. I’ve covered the Vatican for twenty years, watching scores of American politicians wash through Rome, all hoping to establish contacts – either because they see the Vatican as an important global player, or because they think there could be domestic political value to being seen as having Catholic friends in high places, or both.
American politicians tend to seek out the Vatican’s fellow Americans, first because many don’t speak other languages, and second, because those are the people they’re likely to know about. Generally they gravitate first to Americans they believe might share at least some of their views, which makes Bannon reaching out to Burke, whose combative rhetoric on Islam is well known, completely natural.
From a very different point of departure, Bernie Sanders did the same thing when he came to Rome, as have John Kerry, John Bolton, Newt Gingrich, and any number of others I’ve watched in action.
Third, there’s no evidence of Bannon having any close Roman contacts beyond Harnwell and Thomas Williams, a theologian and ex-Legionaries of Christ priest who writes for Breitbart. (Williams also has contributed to Crux.)
While both Harnwell and Williams are well-informed about Roman happenings, both probably would be the first to concede they’re no kind of Vatican heavyweights in a position to broker backdoor deals between the White House and a cabal of dissident cardinals. With respect to this Vatican administration in particular, both are definitely outsiders.
Fourth, Bannon and Burke are different personalities with distinctly different agendas.
For one thing, Burke’s idée fixe at the moment is defending classic Catholic doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage, an issue brought to the fore by Amoris Laetitia and its cautious opening on Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. Given that Bannon has been divorced and remarried three times, as has his boss, Burke probably wouldn’t regard them as his most natural partners.
Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, whatever else you want to say about Bannon, he’s not a political idiot. If his goal truly were to influence the direction of the Francis papacy somehow, away from potential conflict zones with his boss, he surely would have to know that Burke is hardly positioned to be helpful.
Indeed, if one were to compile a list right now of figures on the Roman landscape least likely to influence whatever Pope Francis says or does, Burke would be a great candidate for the top spot.
Granted, some of the protagonists in this storyline seem to be going out of their way to make a conspiracy theory almost irresistible.
For instance, on Monday Williams used his platform on Breitbart to deliver a reply to Jesuit Father James Martin, who had gone on MSNBC on Sunday to comment on reports about an alliance between Bannon and what Martin termed Catholic “radical traditionalists.”
Readers can look at what Martin said and then Williams’s response, and judge the merits of the exchange for themselves. In terms of the optics, however, it’s easy to assume that Williams equals Bannon and Bannon equals Burke, and therefore to conclude that Williams was executing a play designed by the cabal.
Under the law of Occam’s razor, however, the simplest explanation is different.
What’s probably going on is this: Bannon is a ferocious cultural conservative, and thus when he was in Rome he reached out to people he suspected might be friendly. Without any need for coordination, in the meantime, he’s continued to pursue his agenda, and Catholics such as Burke have pursued theirs.
In other words, the most plausible explanation is that the people who figure in this narrative are simply doing what they do, and the fact their activity sometimes overlaps shouldn’t be a surprise.
Bottom line: We don’t need a new “axis of evil” to account for what’s happening, simply the usual clash of competing ideologies and worldviews. That may not make anyone feel better, but it at least has the virtue of being closer to reality.