Steve Bannon's Thoughts On Catholic Bishops Reveal His Arrogant Ignorance

The former White House advisor and self-identified Catholic veered close to technical heresy in a recent interview.

Steve Bannon, modern-day yellow “journalist” and latter-day White House advisor, responded to the US Bishop’s conference’s defense of DACA by saying, “This is not doctrine at all. I totally respect the pope and I totally respect the Catholic bishops and cardinals on doctrine.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Bishops’ statement is exactly doctrine; doctrine means teaching. The role of the bishops and of all teachers, including people like me, is to apply the broad Good News of Jesus’ work, suffering, death, and resurrection to actual, specific human situations. The press notes that Mr. Bannon is a Catholic. Might I suggest he, like many other adult Catholics, requires some adult faith formation? Since he identifies as Catholic, he ought to know what that signifier means. Catholic identity is not essentially a cultural identity or a lifestyle enclave. While Christianity in this particular Catholic “key” does emphasize and embrace culture and its marvelous expressions, Catholicism answers first and always to Jesus’ mission for the sake of the Living God’s love and commitment to the human community. This “good news,” this Gospel is always more than the cultural forms by which it is carried. This same “good news” also requires application to each and every aspect of the life. Answering to Jesus’ Gospel requires us to bring that Gospel to everything we do, everyone we encounter.

Mr. Bannon’s remarks about doctrine indicate that he thinks Christianity can be sequestered in a set of ideas. And modern notions of human development, let alone critical theological reflection do not inform many of ideas that Mr. Bannon expresses. And he makes a category mistake. He seems not to know what doctrine actually is. I surmise that Bannon thinks that if the bishops’ statements are not about God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, they do not amount to Catholic teaching. Bannon veers quite close to technical heresy in his description of the teaching about immigration as “just another guy with an opinion.” Catholic bishops are educators. Their job is to explain, invigorate, and make us more alert to how the Judeo-Christian Tradition thinks about God. There is no situation that is out of bounds. Christianity makes truth-claims about all of reality; every corner of reality cries out for better teaching.

His remarks display ignorance of just how doctrine functions in the Catholic Church. He should know better. While all forms of Christianity “teach,” the Catholic Church has had a corner on the teaching market for centuries. The Church got into the business of teaching because it is a necessary consequence of the Judeo-Christian understanding of the human person. Anytime we learn anything, we are in the presence of God. So the Church has as much to do with learning as it does with prayer and ritual.

I spend my time with young adults in my university classes and with parents, faculty and staff at a Catholic school in Silicon Valley. The neuralgic challenge is to help both populations understand the relationship between Catholic cultural forms and the demands of Jesus’ Gospel. They are not the same thing. The forms, such as the profoundly effective sacraments and symbols and icons and music and artwork serve to convey the central truth-claims that Christianity makes.

Those truth-claims are straightforward and clear: the Creator of the cosmos loves all human persons. That same Creator, the Living God, the Father of Jesus, invested all people with relational capacities that make us more than animals. We are able to love, to grow in knowledge, to strive for excellence, to create beauty and to hope when it seems unreasonable to do so. Our humanity lies in these activities. It is not located in tribalism, nationality, ethnicity, or any of the other arbitrary features described in Warren Buffet’s incisive expression, “the ovarian lottery.”

We are creatures of mystery and one of those areas we can never fully explain is why some of us were born in this wonderful country and others in places where their dignity and worth is not acknowledged let alone protected. One of the reasons that Jesus’ spent so much time describing the “good news” of God’s intention for the human community is that tribalism is such a strong, enduring force. Over and over, Jesus condemns and contradicts tribal behavior. In Jesus’ universe there are no tribes, just one holy, beloved people. In Jesus’ universe there are no aliens, only neighbors.

So back to doctrine. Any teacher worth the name will tell you that effective teaching is not about the transfer of data or the memorization of lists. Of course, knowledge involves lists and data and formulas and principles. But the goal of teaching is practice. The goal of Catholic teaching is to form practitioners of Jesus’ Gospel. If the ideas are never translated into actual behaviors they cease to be ideas and shrink into sets of words that people might be able to recite but not explain.

Two great saints describe the practice of teaching in lapidary ways. Ignatius of Loyola’s is famous. His encounter with one of the most basic teachings of Christianity, that in Jesus, the human and the divine are fully united, generated his insight that we must “find God in all things.” Madeleine Sophie Barat makes a similar move when she describes Catholic education as the creation of an atmosphere. “A Catholic atmosphere is an atmosphere of assurance and confidence and joy and reliance on a power and love that are unseen but not unfelt.”

Christian doctrine, that is teaching, is rooted in the insight that the world is drenched with the presence of the personal God who is involved and committed to the human community in every individual life and in the deep workings of human history. Our experience is so soaked with ways to discover God’s presence, it makes profound sense that we would need wise teachers, like bishops, to help us maneuver. Might I suggest that Mr. Bannon is the one who is just another guy with an opinion? He certainly is not competent to school the bishops on what doctrine is or how it functions.