The Pope and the Populist
Sometimes one takes a step that starts one on a journey one would prefer not to set out upon.
I may have taken that step with my decision to publish, a few days ago, in my “Letter #31: Conflict, or dialogue,” the full text of an interview Edward Pentin did on June 4 with American political activist Steve Bannon.
As a long-time follower of Vatican affairs — from the days under John Paul II when the Soviet Union and its global networks labored to depict the Pope as a servant of the western capitalist powers, to the days under Pope Benedict XVI when Benedict was regularly, unfairly mocked by all “right-thinking” journalists and pundits — I learned (following Monsignor Ronald Knox in his profound book Enthusiasm) that ideology is a danger.
Ideology, not the non-ideological “good news” of Christ, which is a proclamation, the announcement of a Fact, not the presentation of a policy or program.
Ideology, a fascination with ideas, principles, slogans, not with persons (and in particular, not with the person of Jesus Christ), always distorts attempts to reason in good faith about difficult and divisive issues.
Ideology sets up rigid oppositions, then noisily defends them by artful propagandists of an “us” vs. “them” dialectic.
Ideology subsumes the saving message — the saving reality — of Christ into a political program, desiring to impose certain policy decisions at a certain time in history rather than to present Christ alone, now as always… which is the sole true mission of the Church.
The photo above was chosen today by the editors of La Croix (“The Cross”) International (link) to illustrate a “Letter from Rome” by Vaticanist Robert Mickens entitled “Pope Francis or Steve Bannon: Catholics must choose” (link). (Note: The entire text of Mickens’ article is included below.)
The look on Pope Francis’ face, chosen because he is looking toward his left, that is, toward Bannon, tells a story the editors wish to tell. The idea is that the Pope is sneering, that he can barely contain his contempt for the person he is looking at. But of course, these two men were never together in this way; the photo choice is a construct of editors. They are the ones speaking through this choice of images.
Several friends sent me a link to the Mickens article; otherwise I might never have seen it.
But having seen it, and having seen that I am cited at some length, I feel compelled to do something I would prefer not to do: to comment in order to clarify what I feel is a misunderstanding, though sensing from the outset that the effort may have no good outcome.
Because the situation has already become so polarized that any call for dialogue is now seen as a call to compromise with evil.
Still, I think a reasoned discussion between men with very differing positions is important, and perhaps the only way to ward off future divisions. Perhaps the divisions do not have to deepen and intensify…
Toward the end of the Mickens article he writes, referring to my Letter #31: Battle, or dialogue?, that I believe “that Pope Francis urgently needs to dialogue with the populists in order to avoid – now brace yourselves for this – a schism in the Catholic Church, just as Bannon warns.”
Mickens then continues: “Bob Moynihan is a bright guy. But he tends to be a bit apocalyptic, very much given to the more foreboding messages from Our Lady of Fatima. Not surprisingly, he is a Eurocentric Catholic who is deeply inspired and shaped by the writings and person of Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI. But I think he’s mistaken to take Bannon’s erratic and divisive rants seriously. Or, put it this way: to expect Pope Francis to rush to have a dialogue with Bannon and his supporters.”
Mickens says any dialogue between the Pope and the populists is not desirable because“the type of dialogue and discourse the pope is talking about is aimed at uniting or unifying people; integrating immigrants; striving for a more equitable distribution of wealth and the goods of the earth; working together to protect ‘our common home,’ all of God’s creation; breaking down misunderstanding among the various religions and building peace and harmony on the basis of our common humanity as children of the one God. Bannon and his ilk, on the other hand, are bent on dividing and excluding others. They accentuate the differences of race, religion and nationality. They favour social Darwinism that rewards the strongest and cleverest, to the detriment of the weak and the poor. And the list goes on…”
Is all this true?
Mickens tosses out many pejorative terms to describe positions he says Bannon holds, but there is nary a word explaining or defending his assertions.
He uses words like “alt-right,” “crazy,” “fear-mongering,” “fake,” “anti-immigrant,” “vitriolic,” “idiotic,” and “dubious,” without once explaining how these terms are valid.
But Bannon claims that what the so-called “populists” are trying to do is to try to save the West from being cut off from the source of its inner cohesiveness, from the texture of its annual cycle of life, its “seed-time” and “harvest-time,” punctuated with great feast and great holidays — great holy days.
Why should it be regarded as evil to wish to preserve such a Christian culture, a product of centuries of Christian faith?
Every man and woman of every race and ethnicity is created in the image and likeness of God. This is Catholic teaching. And this provides a basis for the respect due to every single person in the world, including every refugee, and every immigrant.
For myself, if I were able, and it were needed, I would dive into the sea to help any traveler, any refugee, in danger of drowning. Then I would do what I could to help every immigrant to build a life of sufficiency and security, peace and prosperity, in my country. But I would be disappointed and saddened if the immigrant were to disrespect and scorn my heritage, my ancestors, the graves of my forefathers and the places where they had lived out their lives, their faith.
Catholicism is the most inclusive institution in the history of the world; the Faith is universal like no other.
Why then should proponents of finding a reasonable way to support or maintain this traditional Christian culture be characterized with terms like “crazy” and “idiotic”?
It is not un-Christian, not cold and not cruel to desire to preserve one’s own nation and culture, making it a warm and welcoming space for others to enter and live in.
So I think it is wrong to demand tout court that Catholics “choose” between the proposals and policies (as they have been presented) of a Pope Francis and those of populists (as they have been presented) by a Steve Bannon.
Rather, I believe it may be important and necessary for a “third way” to be found, drawing on the idealism and Christian love preached by Pope Francis, but also addressing the concerns of those who feel a certain reverence and loyalty for the nations and cultures made by their ancestors, now universally facing challenges in a post-Christian globalizing world.
Guarding the Flame: A Conversation with Cardinal Peter Erdo
To purchase a copy of my new book with Cardinal Peter Erdo, you may do one of three things:
(1) Go to the publisher’s website (link)
(2) Go to the Amazon website and order the book there: (link)
(3) Write back to me by return email, including a complete mailing address and phone number, tell me how many copies you would like, and I will send you one or more signed copies at the cover price of $27.95, plus shipping and handling (about $5 inside the US, but considerably more, up to $26 or more, outside of the US).—RM
Here is the full text of Robert Mickens’ article.
Pope Francis or Steve Bannon? Catholics must choose
American alt-right leader enlists Catholic allies to turn people against the pope
By Robert Mickens, Rome
Vatican City, June 21, 2019
Among all the world’s political and social leaders, Pope Francis stands increasingly alone as the most powerful force for global peace and stability. Thank God – and the cardinals who elected him in March 2013 – that the Argentine Jesuit is the current Bishop of Rome.
In an age when alt-right populists are masquerading as Christians and using religious symbols to scare believers into embracing racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and ultra-nationalism – all so starkly at odds with the Gospel, by the way – Francis has played an indispensable role in preventing a dangerous spiral into a full-blown clash of civilizations.
This is because there are people as crazy as the populists in other currents, as well.
Another pope may not have had the courage, fortitude or deep and genuine faith to stand against all this and not allow himself to be co-opted to the Christian sovereigntists’ cause.
And while the 82-year-old Francis has not been able to convince enough voters to reject the populists, he has kept most bishops, cardinals and other Catholic leaders from publicly endorsing them. This is no small matter.
Populists state that their intention is to defend the Judeo-Christian heritage of the Western world. And, unfortunately, this is quite enticing to those for whom Catholicism is, in essence, a Eurocentric philosophical ideology and moral code.
Tribal Catholics of the “no salvation outside the Roman Church” type like the message.
And the man who has enlisted them is Steve Bannon.
The American millionaire populist who rails against the elites
Chief architect of Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency and co-founder of the far-right Breitbart News, the 65-year-old Bannon is now the most famous ringleader of the alt-right’s populist fear-mongering movement.
He’s been wildly successful at peddling news that is fake and convincing otherwise rational people that it’s actually true.
How else could a former Goldman-Sachs investment banker, whose personal wealth (according to Forbes) is between $9.5 million and $48 million, build an entire movement on the premise that his adversaries are “elites” out to crush the working class?
Bannon’s chief adversary right now is Pope Francis. He’s doing all he can to turn people against the pope. And he’s getting some help from fellow Catholics who don’t particularly like the current pope and who happen to be journalists.
One of them is Thomas Williams, a former Legionary of Christ who writes for Breitbart. He left the scandal-plagued religious order some time ago to marry the daughter of former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Mary Ann Glendon, with whom he secretly had a child while still a priest. Williams is a great friend and ally of Bannon’s.
And then there is Edward Pentin. He is probably the most prominent among Bannon’s journalist supporters, for no other reason than the fact that he serves as Vatican correspondent for the mainstream, though conservative National Catholic Register in the United States and often writes for a similar paper in Great Britain, the Catholic Herald.
The Bannon interview in the Catholic press
In a recent article in the Register (“Pope Francis and European Populism: Is More Dialogue Needed?”), Pentin gave Mr. Bannon free rein to slam the pope.
The sovereigntist leader criticized Francis for refusing to meet with Italy’s populist, anti-immigrant deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, mockingly saying the pope is always talking about dialogue, so why not with the populists?
In fact, Salvini has admitted that he’s never requested a meeting with Francis, which Pentin conveniently omitted.
Bannon also went after the pope for daring to criticize Trump’s wall policy on the Mexican-U.S. border during the 2016 presidential election campaign. “He has never really been called out for that,” charged Bannon.
Called out for what? Holding up Gospel principles and repeating what even John Paul II (a hero for Bannon) famously said: “Build bridges, not walls”?
Pentin records that what Mr. Bannon finds “most disturbing” about Francis is that he is “essentially siding with the global elites, not the poor.”
Evidently, that’s because of his accommodating stance on immigration, which Bannon says is hurting “working-class people” in southern Europe or in the southern United States.
There’s that fear card again. The immigrants are taking all our jobs. And if fear is the most potent weapon in politics, as just about everyone knows, it has no power against the seemingly fearless Pope Francis.
Pope Francis accused of being a Greens party politician and Marxist
Now we must give credit to Pentin, or perhaps his editors at the Register, for not printing the most vitriolic and idiotic parts of his June 4 telephone interview with Mr. Bannon. And there’s certainly a lot of vitriol, as well as dubious assertions.
But Pentin did, in fact, publish every bit of that interview – on his personal blog and on a site called the European Conservative, an online monthly magazine sympathetic to Bannon’s conservative political views.
The interviewer asks a few leading questions and is clearly of a similar mind with the interviewee.
“(Francis) has basically taken it upon himself to be the front man for the party of Davos, going against the sovereignty movement… He is lying about his actions in dealing with the most existential crisis I think the Church has ever been in (i.e. regarding sex abuse)… now inextricably linked with this pope,” said Bannon.
He mocked Francis for being “fixated on issues like climate change,” excoriated him for “cutting a secret deal with the Chinese Communist Party,” accused him of being a front man for the “far left” Greens party and basically branded him as a Marxist.
He also warns that Francis is leading the Church towards a schism.
There are all sorts of other garbage in this interview, so I’ll leave it at that.
I probably would have never even seen the whole thing because the National Catholic Register – which is not exactly the most enthusiastic pro-Francis publication – had the good sense not to publish or link to it.
More Catholic supporters of Bannon and the populists
It was another journalist that brought the full-length Bannon interview to the attention of many of us. That was Robert Moynihan, founder and editor-in-chief of Inside the Vatican, a conservative Catholic magazine published ten times a year.
Moynihan regularly sends out his “Letters” and in one of the recent editions he offered the Bannon interview, taking the view that Pope Francis urgently needs to dialogue with the populists in order to avoid – now brace yourselves for this – a schism in the Catholic Church, just as Bannon warns.
Bob Moynihan is a bright guy. But he tends to be a bit apocalyptic, very much given to the more foreboding messages from Our Lady of Fatima. Not surprisingly, he is a Eurocentric Catholic who is deeply inspired and shaped by the writings and person of Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI.
But I think he’s mistaken to take Bannon’s erratic and divisive rants seriously. Or, put it this way: to expect Pope Francis to rush to have a dialogue with Bannon and his supporters.
And, by the way, they include a number of cardinals. Some of them like Raymond Burke are openly supportive. Others, like Hungary’s Pèter Erdő (because of his own ambition, and those of others, that he succeed Francis as pope), are more discreet with their support.
Another Catholic figure who shares most of Bannon’s views is Newt Gingrich, a former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and one of the most divisive politicians of our times. His wife is Donald Trump‘s ambassador to the Holy See, but Newt is really the president’s eyes and ears (and de facto envoy) in the Vatican.
Catholics must choose
Pope Francis has made “dialogue” one of the most important principles of his pontificate and is trying to convert the entire Church to this method of engaging the world, dealing with others and resolving problems.
But the type of dialogue and discourse the pope is talking about is aimed at uniting or unifying people; integrating immigrants; striving for a more equitable distribution of wealth and the goods of the earth; working together to protect “our common home,” all of God’s creation; breaking down misunderstanding among the various religions and building peace and harmony on the basis of our common humanity as children of the one God.
Bannon and his ilk, on the other hand, are bent on dividing and excluding others. They accentuate the differences of race, religion and nationality. They favour social Darwinism that rewards the strongest and cleverest, to the detriment of the weak and the poor. And the list goes on…
Catholicism is at its best when it is not exclusionary — when it embraces both/and, rather than reducing everything to either/or.
But, in this case, Catholics must make a choice. Either they stand with Francis, or they can stand with Bannon. This time it really is either/or.
Where is the Catholic Church going?
Guarding the Flame: The Challenges Facing the Church in the Twenty-First Century: A Conversation With Cardinal Peter Erdő
By Robert Moynihan and Viktoria Somogyi
How will the Church face the challenges of the 21st century? Do the recent advances in modern technology pose a threat to the human soul?
In this wide-ranging, candid conversation, Cardinal Péter Erdő, Archbishop of Budapest, Hungary, one of the most respected cardinals in the Catholic Church, speaks with Dr. Robert Moynihan, founder and editor of Inside the Vatican magazine, about the Catholic Church’s place in an increasingly secularized world.
As the two-time president of the Council of the Episcopal Conferences of Europe, Erdő is the leading bishop of Europe. And as Europe has descended into a deep secularism—more pronounced and rapid even than in the United States—Erdő is uniquely positioned and qualified to identify and tackle the issues that secularism presents.
Here, for the first time in in one place, the cardinal speaks forthrightly about the need to “guard the flame” of the traditional Christian faith in the face of all temptations and obstacles. Guarding the Flame is a courageous call to remain faithful to the faith handed down from the Apostles, whatever the cost.
Cardinal Péter Erdő, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and Primate of Hungary, was born in Budapest on 25 June 1952, the first of six children. He was created Cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2003. He has published more 250 articles and 25 books on Canon Law, as well as other spiritual works.
Robert Moynihan (Harvard College, B.A.,1977 and Yale University, Ph.D., 1988) founded Inside the Vatican magazine in 1993. He has covered the Vatican and Church affairs for more than 30 years and is the author of books on Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
Viktoria Somogyi, born in Hungary, has lived and worked in Rome at the Hungarian language desk of Vatican Radio. She studied International Relations at the University of Rome.