With malicious stupidity, Donald Trump has said that his foreign tour as president will be used to “combat extremism, terrorism and violence.” According to his National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, he’ll go so far as two outline his own “peaceful vision of Islam.”
It would be easier to take this program at face value if the trip weren’t beginning in Saudia Arabia, which his currently using U.S. bombs to inflict violence on much of Yemen, or continuing with a stop in Israel, a country that, besides conducting a ruthless campaign of state terrorism in Gaza and the West Bank, has previously supported the terror of organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood so long as it targeted rivals like former Egyptian president Gamal Nasser.
Neither country has done much to advance the cause of peace. Yet Trump’s most contentious meeting is expected to take place on May 24th, when he arrives at the Vatican to meet Pope Francis, who has already devoted much of his papacy to fostering the sort of genuine interfaith dialogue that the president claims to seek.
Why the tension? The two have never met, but during the 2016 campaign a minor controversy erupted when Pope Francis told Reuters that “a person who only thinks about building walls, wherever they may be, and does not focus on building bridges, is not a Christian.” Francis was circumspect — “I’ll give [Trump] the benefit of the doubt,” he said — but Trump was not. The future GOP nominee responded with an apocalyptic Facebook post that imagined the sort of doomsday that might follow a Clinton victory: “If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been President.”
Such phrasing could only come from Trump. But the apocalyptic scenario echoes words his current chief strategist Steve Bannon spoke to a Vatican crowd in summer of 2014 — a speech that may set the stage for Trump’s May 24th meeting. Interviewed over Skype, Bannon was heavy on combat and low on peace: He encouraged his audience to form a reactionary “church militant” to “fight for our [Catholic] beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”
This puts Bannon directly opposed to the ecumenicalism of Pope Francis — far to the right of even the more conservative Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. But even before Trump, much of Washington saw the world in terms similar to Bannon. The Atlantic provides a useful index: In 1990, the magazine printed a Bannon-esque Bernard Lewis essay, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” that proposed a metaphysical “Clash of Civilizations” as a rubric for understanding global politics. When Carter-Clinton advisor Samuel Huntington expanded the concept into book six years later, The Atlantic hailed him as a post-Cold War prophet.
The upside to Bannon and Trump’s escalation? Even The Atlantic has been forced to tread slowly backwards: In June, the magazine went about-face, specifically citing Bannon’s “Clash of Civilizations” worldview as proof that he’s a dangerous radical.
They almost get it right. Bannon is a dangerous not simply for subscribing to this odious theory, but because he seems willing, even eager, to bring about its apocalyptic conclusion. The church plays a key role in this eschatology. Francis has compared the church to medical tent, accepting the wounded in the aftermath of a battle: “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm hearts of the faithful,” he wrote in his book Meeting Jesus in the Sacraments. Bannon, meanwhile, wants the church to jump in the trenches. “We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict,” he told his Vatican audience — if there is to be a clash, he and Trump are going to treat it as such.
Bannon was speaking at a conference hosted by the conservative Dignitatis Humanae Institute, sort of a upstart Vatican Heritage Foundation. If there is a resistance to Pope Francis, they are on the front line, a node in the loose network right-wing Catholics that includes the American cardinal Raymond Burke, notorious for his recalcitrant stances against abortion and gay rights, and the staff of ChurchMilitant.com, a small website that does its Biblical duty by posting anti-Muslim clickbait in Jesus’s name.
Burke, formerly the archbishop of St. Louis, now sits on the Dignitatis Humanae advisory board, and in 2014 he and Bannon shared a brief “meeting of hearts” organized by Dignitatis founder Benjamin Harnwell. According to Harnwell, paraphrased by the New York Times, the pair agreed on two points: first, that Islam is “threatening to overrun a prostrate West weakened by the erosion of traditional Christian values,” and second, that they themselves have been “unjustly ostracized by out-of-touch political elites.”
They’ve made progress on one front. Bannon is in the White House, and Burke should have an ally in Trump’s new Vatican ambassador, Calista Gingrich. They’ve likely already met: Burke and Calista’s husband Newt were both speakers at the 2012 Legatus Summit, where the founder of Domino’s Pizza invited top conservative Catholics to strategize at the Ritz Carlton of Naples.
But they all remain far from the papacy. In embracing, sometimes even tentatively, refuges, atheists, queer people and Muslims, and by showing a willingness to rewrite some parts church doctrine, Pope Francis has butt heads as much with Burke as anyone in the Vatican. Earlier this year, the power struggle reached a head when Francis coolly appointed a papal delegate to perform many of the American cardinal’s duties as patron of the Knights of Malta — essentially firing Burke from his last major job.
According to a high-ranking Knight, sourced in the Times, Trump’s implicit support is one of the few things slowing Burke’s downward slide. That doesn’t make their alliance any less odd. Trump, Bannon, Burke — all three are, we’re told, conservatives, but each is a conservative in different way. Burke, for instance, is obsessed with piety, pedantically concerned with upholding church law. Trump, it’s fair to say, couldn’t give a shit. So why does his pseudo-fascism form such an easy union with Burke’s rigid orthodoxy?
The answer, I think, lies in the way we understand — or misunderstand — the concept of orthodoxy. Because orthodoxy, in this context, is not politically neutral. Nor is it the final point in a gradual slope, the conclusion you reach when you max out your faith.
Contrary to many Catholic histories, the path to orthodoxy was neither inevitable nor natural. Orthodoxy itself became essential only when Christianity was adopted as the religion of Rome in the early 300s. It was then that Constantine established church doctrine by organizing and presiding over the Council of Nicaea, and thereafter, enemies of empire became heretics, enemies of the church.
Some of these outlawed — “heretical” — practices remain radical. Many Gnostic communities, for instance, refused the distinction between lay-people and clergy. These ecclesia were leaderless and the role of priest rotated among the members, a notion totally antithetical to Constantinian — even pre-Constantanian — church hierarchy.
In the 1980s, some 1660 years after Nicaea, liberation priests in Latin America developed anti-imperial theologies and practices of their own — only to be repressed, once again, in the same of orthodoxy, this time by the future Pope Benedict, then acting as head of the Roman Inquisition.
Today, we must understand Catholic orthodoxy the way so many heretics have: as a product of empire, as a system of thought often imposed by those who seek to establish or maintain it.
As pope, Francis has expressed guarded admiration for liberation theology and sympathy for its cause. His relaxed approach to orthodoxy is a crucial part of his attempt to roll back some trappings of the imperial church. For a Left up against Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and Raymond Burke, this makes the pope a useful if unlikely ally. For a secular Left, this is particularly true on issues like immigration: In 2015, Francis requested that every Catholic parish in Europe house a family of refugees. Here, this could facilitate the work of organizations like New Sanctuary Movement, which asks churches to provide a safe space for undocumented immigrants, taking advantage of the fact that current federal policy prohibits ICE raids anywhere on their grounds.
Yet we must also look past this potentially fruitful alliance and note the historical circumstances that make Francis and Bannon — Francis and Trump — unlikely bedmates. Both parties sit at the head of world-historical empires. Both empires — the United States and the Catholic church — are in drawn out processes of collapse. The politics of their leaders must be understood in this context: as programs, good or bad, designed to manage decline.
For this reason, regardless of what comes from their May 24th meeting, our gaze must remained fixed on a point that’s past both Francis and Trump. For the left, the task can’t be limited to the management of empire. In both cases, the goal of the heretics remains: how to bring about the end of empire itself.