ROME—Let’s be clear: Steve Bannon is no fan of the Catholic Church he currently belongs to. For years, the Breitbart chief and now former special advisor to President Donald Trump has been shooting poisoned arrows at the Catholic leaders in America and, lately, at Pope Francis directly.
Now he is taking the battle one step further by accusing the Catholic Church in the United States of using irregular immigration as a way to make money. In an interview set to air on CBS “60 Minutes” on Sunday, Charlie Rose needles Bannon with a pointed question. “Can I remind you, a good Catholic, that Cardinal [Timothy] Dolan is opposed to what's happened with DACA?” asks Rose, referring to the Obama administration program that gave some 800,000 children of undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as minors the chance to work and study legally.
Bannon immediately took the bait. “The Catholic Church has been terrible about this,” he said. “The bishops have been terrible about this. By the way, you know why? You know why? Because unable to really—to—to—to come to grips with the problems in the church, they need illegal aliens, they need illegal aliens to fill the churches. That's—it's obvious on the face of it. That's what – the entire Catholic bishops condemn him... They have—they have an economic interest. They have an economic interest in unlimited immigration, unlimited illegal immigration.”
CBS doesn’t reveal exactly where the conversation goes from there except to quote Bannon saying the immigration issue is not a matter of Catholic doctrine, but rather the church is “just another guy with an opinion” on this issue.
Dolan responded to the The Catholic Channel on a Sirius XM radio interview calling Bannon’s claims “preposterous” and “insulting” and not worthy of comment. The cardinal then seems to agree with Bannon that the church’s view on immigration is, indeed, not doctrine. But he does say it is just as important as a matter of faith, quoting the Bible and making the point that the church is built on accepting the “weak” and the “poor.”
Francis, who is in Colombia on a peace mission, has not commented publicly on the scuffle, but has been very outspoken on this issue, telling the U.S. Congress in 2015 that “we are all immigrants” and more recently telling followers to put human rights over concerns for national security when it comes to accepting refugees.
His surrogates may also hold the key to just why Bannon lashed out. In July, one of the pope’s closest allies, Antonio Spadaro, wrote a damning article attacking Bannon in the Vatican-endorsed publication La Civilta Cattolica in which he accuses Bannon by name as a sort of anti-Christ and the “supporter of an apocalyptic geopolitics.”
Vatican insiders say that Spadaro’s comments came from an ongoing battle that started back in 2014, when Bannon came to Rome to cover John Paul II’s canonization for Breitbart, and, according to an exposé by the New York Times, used the opportunity to buddy up to American Cardinal Raymond Burke who represents a powerful faction of ultra-conservative cardinals who could well be considered the Catholic alt-right.
Burke, especially, has spearheaded a relentless drive to discredit Francis by calling for a public clarification of some of his more liberal-seeming views on divorced Catholics and gays, and generally questioning his leadership, as he did when he called the church under Francis, “a ship without a rudder” not long after Francis was crowned.
Burke is widely thought to be behind a poster campaign in Rome last year that featured a dour-faced Francis with accusations of a number of misdeeds and “lack of mercy.” Francis doesn’t seem to be a huge fan of Burke, either, sidelining him not long after he was elected by removing him as head of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the Holy See’s prestigious judiciary arm.
For now, Francis has responded to the criticism with silence, essentially not entertaining requests for an audience with Burke and largely treating him like a pesky mosquito in his ear. He may make a comment on his flight back to Rome after the weekend, likely after the full CBS interview has aired.
Where things go next is anyone’s guess, but if the microcosm that is the Vatican press corps holds any clue, it won’t end here.
Breitbart’s correspondent in Rome, Thomas D. Williams, a former priest who left the clergy after he fathered a child with the daughter of an American ambassador to the Holy See, has been in a long running public battle with some of the more liberal Vatican experts.
In a public forum-style Twitter debate with Austin Ivereigh, the author of The Great Reformer: Francis and The Making of a Radical Pope, the two regularly spar and block each other, although they recently made peace long enough to consider what Bannon’s comments mean.
“Do you regard Bannon's remarks as a slur on Catholicism that deserve strong repudiation, as the U.S. bishops have done?” Ivereigh asked Williams after unblocking him from a previous argument.
After thanking Ivereigh for the unblock, Williams responded in direct contradiction to his boss. “Despite the large sums involved, I do not believe that the Bishops' support for immigration is principally economic in nature,” he wrote, perhaps identifying more as a former priest than as a Breitbart reporter. “It was moreover not a criticism of ‘the Church’ but of motivations behind a specific political position. I disagree with this criticism.”
The Jesuit magazine America makes an entirely different point in its criticism of Bannon’s charges, stating in an article over the weekend that the Catholic Church doesn’t differentiate between Catholic immigrants and those of other religions in its charity.
“While much of Latin America remains overwhelmingly Catholic, Latinos who live in the United States present a much more complicated picture of the faith. A 2014 report from the Pew Research Center found that just 55 percent of Latinos living in the United States identify as Catholic,” the author writes. “The church’s support for migration is also more complex than Mr. Bannon suggested. Pope Francis, for example, has repeatedly spoken about the need for the church to welcome refugees from predominantly Muslim countries, going so far as to bringing Muslim families to Italy with him on the papal plane.”