The Church has endured far worse than firebrand Bannon

The Catholic Church has endured far worse than firebrand Bannon
5 min read
08 Sep, 2017
Comment: Bannon suggested this week that the Catholic Church favours unlimited migration in order to swell congregation numbers. Pope Francis is unlikely to take this lying down, writes Andrew Leber.
In May, Pope Francis gave Trump a 183-page encyclical letter on climate change [Getty]
In a forthcoming 60 Minutes interview show, Steve Bannon - once and future chief executive of Breitbart News and former chief strategist for the Trump White House - touches on one of the more shadowy fronts in his wide-ranging culture war: efforts to make common cause with conservative clerics inside the Catholic Church

"They have an economic interest in unlimited immigration, unlimited illegal immigration," he said, attacking the US Conference for Catholic Bishops (USCCB) for denouncing President Trump toying with the lives of hundreds of thousands by ending the Deferred Action Childhood Arrival (DACA) scheme.

The struggles within the Church hierarchy go largely unnoticed by most of its 1.2 billion parishioners spread across the globe, save when major changes are afoot - yet few can have escaped the fact that the Church under Pope Francis feels very different than just five years ago.

Protestant churches are cut loose from the historical traditions of the old Churches; the Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Churches are rarely called to explain how their precepts mesh with the challenges of the 21st century. Only the Catholic Church, like no other faith, must keep one foot in the distant past and one foot stretching ever towards the future as a unified entity.    

Under Pope Benedict XVI, a "Hermit Church" would have hunkered down with its traditions and shrinking numbers to wait out the apocalypse. Pope Francis however, chose another way, and has pulled out all the stops to make a more engaged Church a reality.

Pope Francis has pulled out all the stops to make a more engaged Church a reality

Even those far removed from the Church are aware that the Pope has championed a robust response to climate change, sent a critique of unfettered capitalism to the World Economic Forum in Davos, visited an active war zone to meet with his flock, and has cultivated an image of humility through genuine actions that would put the most dedicated PR spin to shame.

The Church has evolved before, with 19th century encyclicals begrudgingly acknowledging the rights of industrial workers, giving way to more robust teachings on social policy as Catholic parties build post-war welfare states.

Likewise, political scientist Samuel Huntington attributed the "Third Wave" of democratisation from the 1970s through to the 1990s as stemming at least partially from changes wrought by the landmark Vatican II council, transforming national Catholic Churches from "defenders of the status quo to opponents of authoritarianism".  

Yet the Catholic Church is governed by a vast and largely unelected hierarchy of deeply conservative individuals, in all senses of the word. Almost exclusively male priests and lay officials (although priests are outnumbered by nuns overall), many of them are unamused by Pope Francis' efforts to shake things up.

Archconservative factions attached to doctrine were cultivated under Pope John Paul II (who allowed the church abuse scandal to fester on his watch) as well as Benedict XVI, and are not taking well to the Pope's efforts to shunt the Church into a more proactive role tacking the world's pressing contemporary issues.

For years now, conservative priests have pined for the days of Benedict XVI's homages to the Latin Mass while cackling at the coming downfall of "the liberals," while conservative Catholic outlets have whipped up rumours of a Vatican "reign of terror" as Pope Francis attempts to clean house.

Chief among charges is the sense that the Pope - once a bouncer in a Buenos Aires nightclub - plays politics inside the Vatican in a daggers-drawn, no-holds-barred way that would have been unseemly for any of his predecessors, but that his supporters among the Church's liberal factions are more than happy to look the other way. 

Into this vipers' nest walked Steve Bannon, whose involvement in Vatican politics has been one of the more bizarre subplots to Trump presidency, however much shrouded in the shadows.

Into this vipers' nest walked Steve Bannon, whose involvement in Vatican politics has been one of the more bizarre subplots to Trump presidency

Back in February, The New York Times reported on Bannon's ties to archconservative elements within the Church hierarchy, such as American cardinal Raymond Burke, playing on their suspicions of Pope Francis to promote a Church that spends less time advancing "socialist" causes and one that spends more time promoting traditional Catholic values of faith and family while fighting against the secularisation or "Islamicisation" of the West.

Catholicism no doubt faces deep challenges, yet a looming threat from some menacing "Islam" conjured up by white nationalist fabulists like Bannon and his ilk is not one of them.

The sexual abuse scandal - where even Pope Francis has seemed to falter - has sapped the moral authority and global power of a Church that has survived a succession of existential threats in previous centuries.

Professional hand-wringers like Ross Douthat are free to fret that Pope Francis' reforms will hollow out the Church and leave us with all the organisational power of the Episcopalians.

As the Pope's detractors are wont to remind us, the Pope is an old man and will soon tire of the strain of politics one way or another.

Pope Francis will work to put as many of his people in place throughout the vast ecclesiastic hierarchy, while halting the rise of conservative firebrands

They have been content to sit back for decades as Catholic social teachings and more liberal perspectives were told to take a back seat to conservative priorities - they can surely wait a few years longer.

In the meantime, Pope Francis will work to put as many of his people in place throughout the vast ecclesiastic hierarchy, while halting the rise of conservative firebrands to the rank of cardinal, where they might one day be poised to take his place.

As for Mr Bannon, the Church has endured far worse than his meddling - such as the seven Popes and several antipopes of the 14th Century Avignon Papacy, when the French Crown sought to control the institution. 

As we await Mr Bannon's full remarks on Sunday's broadcast, bear in mind that the Pope is unlikely to take this lying down, much as his public remarks might say otherwise.

He works in mysterious ways.

Andrew Leber is a PhD student in the department of government at Harvard University, and Nicholas Morley a researcher and graduate of Brown University. Follow Andrew on Twitter: @AndrewMLeber

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.