ROME – Suppose you’re the kind of conservative Catholic frustrated with Pope Francis on a whole range of things, not just his handling of the clerical abuse crisis but his deal on naming bishops with Communist China, his continual critique of populist and nationalist movements, his ardent support for immigrant rights, and so on.
If so, that more or less puts you in the same boat with Steve Bannon, the architect of Donald Trump’s rise to power, and now Bannon has a proposition for you: How about spending a year in his new year-long institute in Italy, with the aim of emerging as a “gladiator” in the defense of Judeo-Christian civilization?
Bannon was in Rome in late March, in part to gear up for a pilot program this fall located at a medieval monastery in Trisulti, about an hour outside Rome. He told Crux March 30 that he expects the full version of the institute, with roughly 100 students and additional faculty, to open in 2020.
“The whole concept of the gladiator is the single-mindedness of it … gladiators weren’t just about technique or physicality or courage, their biggest thing was this amazing single-mindedness,” he said.
His new institute, he vowed, “is going to get you all the content of why this civilization, this culture, is special, what’s made it special – from understanding the Old Testament and its roots in Judaism and everything about the law, to everything up to modern times,” along with the ability to defend that legacy in a noisy and confrontational culture.
Who’s footing the bill?
“Unfortunately, right now funding for this is coming from Steven K. Bannon,” he said, while expressing confidence that “we’re going to have some pretty prominent Catholics put some money in.”
While Bannon was clear that the scope of the new institute is broader than simply a reaction to Pope Francis’s agenda, in his conversation with Crux he also didn’t back away from pointed criticism of the pontiff on three distinct fronts: The abuse scandals, China and populism.
Bannon predicted that without dramatic intervention, the entire American Catholic church could end up in receivership in 10 years, after being prosecuted under RICO statutes originally designed to combat organized crime.
“It’s so obvious that this thing is going to end in tears,” he said.
“They’re going to start treating the Church like the mob…the RICO statutes are set up so they can grab assets immediately, start to monetize those assets and give them to whoever. The victims and these lawyers are just going to plow on top of this.”
To prevent that, Bannon counseled the creation of some new panel or board that would allow qualified lay people to handle negotiations on behalf of the Church to attempt to protect assets.
“It’s almost like a pre-bankruptcy,” he said. “You need professionals, you need laity, you need people to do due diligence and to start to get into negotiations or whatever, to make sure that financially this doesn’t get out of control.”
Strikingly, one of America’s most politically polarizing figures insisted that such an effort would have to be apolitical.
“It has to be from conservative, traditionalist, Latin Mass Catholics to the most progressive,” Bannon said. “We have to put the politics of the Church aside and come together and help and work with the clergy, the hierarchy.”
Bannon said he has own personal purchase on the latest wave of scandals – especially those involving Theodore McCarrick, the former cardinal and now ex-priest accused of a wide range of sexual abuse and misconduct, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who resigned from Washington after being criticized in a Pennsylvania grand jury report for his handling of abuse cases.
“I’m the guy that got McCarrick and [Cardinal Donald] Wuerl into the Oval Office,” Bannon said.
“It’s traditional that the cardinal of the archdiocese of Washington meets the president the first week of his administration,” he said. “Wuerl was the guy but they both wanted to come, and I was the one who got them into the schedule, got them into the oval, sat in there, etc. Trump greeted them and spent an hour with them.”
“You feel like, wow, I wish I’d had a heads up!” Bannon said. “I feel kinda dumb right now, but that’s where a lot of laity are at.”
On China, Bannon was even more emphatic that Francis is on the wrong track.
“Pope Francis and the Secretary of State have signed a deal with the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese Communist Party is not the Chinese people … this is a radical cadre of President Xi and his henchmen, a totalitarian dictatorship whose number one focus in their pursuit of control is basically the destruction of religions,” he said.
“There’s a process in that deal … leading to full diplomatic relationships between the Vatican and the Chinese Communist Party, and that throws Hong Kong, it throws Taiwan, it throws a hundred million Catholics under the bus,” Bannon said. “This is outrageous. You can’t do this.”
Bannon expressed frustration that the details of the deal signed last September between the Vatican and China to regulate the selection of bishops have not been revealed, insisting that the Vatican is obligated as a signatory to the 1961 Convention of Vienna regulating diplomatic relations to avoid secret deals.
Bannon said he’s founded a $100 million “Rule of Law” funded back by expatriate Chinese billionaires, and he may use some of that cash to fund a lawsuit demanding the Vatican cough up the terms of the agreement.
“They are a signatory to an agreement which bans what it did. It’s very specific that you cannot do what they did,” he said, adding that the venue for a lawsuit might be New York, where the UN is located – though, he insisted, he’d prefer to get the deal through persuasion rather than litigation.
On today’s populist tides in global politics – from Trump in the U.S. to Italy’s Matteo Salvini, as well as Brazil’s new president Jair Bolsonaro – Bannon insisted that Francis needs to stop pointing fingers.
“What the pope and the people around him are doing is continually singling out that these are bad guys, this is where all the problems are coming from, this is only going to lead to disaster,” he said. “I think that’s got to stop.”
Finally, Bannon said he’s long been struck by a certain similarity between his former boss, Trump, and the pontiff.
“He and Trump are at the same level,” Bannon said. “He breaks news every day, and he’s also very sophisticated. He knows exactly how to drop the headline. They’re very similar … they’re honey-badgers.”
Francis, Bannon said, “is a fighter, and I have a lot of admiration for a lot of things.”