Steve Bannon Undermining Pope Francis? What A Silly Notion

Steve Bannon seems utterly ignorant of how institutional forms function.

Like many uninformed people, Steve Bannon mistakenly identifies Catholicism with one minor historical feature of an even more narrow slice of Catholicism: the institutional Church. It is an historical fact that institutional Catholicism flourished for a time on the Western European cultural foundation. That same culture led to the greatest corruption and abuses of power that nearly destroyed the Catholic Church.

And here we are, reading reports that Steve Bannon thinks the Catholic Church should be a proving-ground for reinstatement of Western European culture’s domination of all other global cultures. How fascinating. Did any of the cultural forms of Western European Catholicism prevent the rape of children? Did not the secrecy and patriarchy provide a cover for the worst crisis since the Reformation?

I suppose that is an incendiary question so let me ask another. How many young adults would get out of bed on a Sunday morning to go to Church to hear Steve Bannon’s clerical alter-ego Cardinal Burke preside and preach? Can we name one parish that is better off because of leaders like Cardinal Burke? In my experience, Catholics who do attend regular Mass do so in spite of their local bishop not because of him. Of course there are exceptions, as we know, that just proves the rule. I know whereof I speak. I am the mother of 3 young adults and I spend most of everyday with 70+ in my classroom. I also work with the parents, mostly mothers, of young adult Catholics.

During the Christmas season I had a compelling conversation with two bright, talented, disaffected Catholic young women. Their mother has attended my weekly study in the Catholic Tradition for parents at the Sacred Heart Schools here in Silicon Valley for over ten years now. Skilled in graciousness, Vicky said to me, “So tell me about Pope Francis? Love him!” And we were off and running, listening and speaking to each other about our experiences as American Catholic women. Vicky, and her sister Alex, at the cusp of their professional lives and me 40+ years into mine. So much more theologically astute than Steve Bannon and his ilk, these women know that the parish life and Christian service of people like their mother is the actual center of gravity for Catholicism. Popes and bishops and pastors come and go; the pilgrim people, serving Jesus’ Gospel and gathering around his table endures.

Their mother is representative of the women who have been pondering the great Catholic tradition as a service of their children’s Catholic school. There was a time when the bishops would have made sure such a program happened in the parish. In the absence of parish leadership, Catholic schools, especially those run by religious orders, have stepped into the breach to support parents in the faith formation of their children. At Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, California, we started with McBrien’s classic Catholicism and have moved through rich, sophisticated texts in a kind of Catholic-Book Club. The regulars now know theology better than many who have Master’s level training. The academic pedigrees in the room are impressive. They have degrees from the University of Michigan, Stanford, Harvard and Cal Berkeley. I am happy to say that both Santa Clara and my beloved alma mater, the University of Notre Dame are also represented. They have run companies and boards; most are very involved in philanthropy. All do some form of very concrete service.

Unlike Steve Bannon whose Catholic identity seems to reside only in a rigid conceptualism, these women are Catholic in their bones. What does it mean to be Catholic in your bones? It means that the way you live expresses what you believe. It means that the institutional forms serve Jesus’ Gospel. It means that Catholic ideas do not stay at the level of the intellect, they animate behavior; they enable critical thinking about actual human questions, such as how you spend your money, manage your hurt feelings, direct your desires, how you vote.

Steve Bannon seems utterly ignorant of how institutional forms function. They act as the little “codes” or packages of meaning; they both express and nourish our self-understanding as Catholics who strive to love God and serve the people whom God loves. The word “Catholic” refers to a rich matrix. It is a way of life, an historical organization, a subset of the Christian community, an ancient, global institution as well as a cluster of religious practices and forms. Prayers are Catholic and so are summer camps. And so is the pope. Pope Francis serves a ministry in the Catholic tradition; he is not the Catholic version of an Emperor. We know where Bannon might have arrived at that notion; there have been popes who tried to function as imperial rulers just as their have been local pastors who have done so.

Vicky is correct; Pope Francis is indeed appealing. Warm and delightful as he surely appears to be, personality alone does not a great leader make. Just recall Pope Benedict’s pontificate: an introverted, contemplative man, his affect impeded some of his richest teachings. And Pope John Paul II, his robust personality and deep personal spirituality masked authoritarian features that the Catholic Church is still wrangling with, not the least of which is his appointment of apparatchiks as bishops rather than strong, creative leaders. Pope Francis’ warmth is refreshing but my confidence in him is generated by his explicit behaviors toward the implementation of Catholicism’s vision. That vision was codified in the Documents of Vatican II. The bottom line for Vatican II was shedding the Western-European foundation for Catholic identity in order to re-engineer a truly global Church. No longer carried by a Western culture, the Catholic Church still grows from the seed Jesus’ Gospel but that seed will bear Asian, African, and Latin American fruit, not an imported Church but a native one.

Just like a jihadist of ISIS is ignorant of Islam’s actual understanding of the relationship between the human community and the Living God, Steve Bannon too, is theologically illiterate. He may be able to conjure some “codes” but codes disconnected from an essential vision are meaningless. One such code was making the sign of the cross or reciting a “Hail Mary” when you heard an ambulance’s siren. If we do that but do not vote for health care access for all Americans, we vacate any meaning that little package of care seeks to codify and display.

These codes often come in the form of doctrines. Many Catholics are quite ignorant of just what Catholic “doctrine” actually is. The term comes from the Latin and means teaching. Anyone who has ever taught anything, from teaching a child to read, to tie her shoes, to play baseball, knows that there are many levels of teaching. The purpose is to provide tools for behavior. Whether you use the bunny ears method or the two loops method to describe the key to well-tied shoes varies with the teacher. What does not vary is whether or not the shoes stay tied. When Pope Francis “teaches” he seems to be actually paying attention to the people looking for wisdom about their life with God. At least, that is what I hear; that is certainly what Vicky and Alex think.

Vicky and Alex are drawn to Pope Francis because he seems kind; he seems to be comfortable around women and to even have worked well with women. What is more important, that young women like Vicky and Alex feel valued by the Church or that they can recite 19th-century Western prayer forms? As they come to their own experiences of love and intimacy, does the Church offer them life-giving ways to think about marriage and family life or does it constantly tell them that sexual longing is just a necessary trick their bodies play on them so that they will become mothers? That the deep intimacy that sexual expression nourishes is merely secondary, and far less important?

Even more important than his inviting presence, Pope Francis is distinctive because he is aggressively implementing the reforms of Vatican II. These visionary texts are the best-kept secrets of the Catholic tradition. Vatican II marked the end of the Western-European identity for the Catholic Church. We still live with its ghost but that is all that it is: a vapor, fading fast while the living Church is walking the streets, filling the schools, and in some places, re-animating the liturgy as well as Catholic social institutions. The Church is also found in the savannahs of Africa as well as cities and towns all over Latin America and Asia. Ideologies may animate small factions; only a vision animates a whole people. Vatican II re-imagined the essential vision of Jesus’ Gospel in the actual global, modern world. Along with that renewed vision came new doctrines, new ways to teach. Jesus’ expansive understanding of table-fellowship did not change, but the doctrines, the ways we express the vision and communicate it, did indeed. The Church’s self-understanding as servant to the entire human community did not change; its expression of just how to fulfill that service did indeed.

Doctrines always serve a broader vision. Of course we need institutional forms so that we can learn the wisdom of the tradition that has proclaimed and served Jesus’ vision for centuries. (I could have used someone who knew the bunny ears image for shoe-tying!) But the institutional forms have to stay in their lane, so to speak. One of the greatest tragedies in Catholic history is when the pope’s ministry of unity was transformed into the office of a monarchical, imperial ruler. We are still trying to shed the vestiges of the empire in the institutional Catholic Church. Since the first moments of his pontificate, Pope Francis has been dismantling the carapace of that feudal, hierarchical form. All over the Church, we have been shedding the husks of cultural forms that worked in a previous era but suffocate us today. Vatican II’s documents laid out the plan long since. I am not worried about Pope Francis. His vision is clear and he has the great Catholic Tradition like a strong wind at his back.