An “Ultra-Conservative Crusade” Against Pope Francis?

Beware the quick one-shot cuts in television interviews. Buckets of deception are in those quick cuts. It usually means something fishy is going on.

Consider the Palm Sunday hatchet job performed by MSNBC “journalist” Richard Engel on various politically conservative Catholics he says are conspiring to bring down Pope Francis.

Right off you can smell something putrid in reading the headline, “The Ultra-Conservative Crusade Against Pope Francis.” It gets smellier still when Engel says Cardinal Raymond Burke is one of four cardinals to call for Pope Francis to “resign.” This is utterly false. Burke was one of four cardinals asking formal questions of the pope about his encyclical Amoris Laetitia. What Burke did was say it was “licit” to ask for the resignation of ministers, including the pope. But Burke has nowhere called for Francis to resign.

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There is a good chance that Engel, like most reporters covering the Church, does not know or understand even the most elementary aspects of Catholicism and the issues now roiling the Church. Recall The New York Times story about a priest who “saved a statue of Jesus” from the Notre Dame conflagration. What the dim reporter did not understand was that the priest saved the Body of Christ from the Tabernacle. Such idiocy would be expected when watching food writers reporting on foreign policy.

Besides ignorance there seems also to be malignant intent in the Engel story.

Such interviews are done with a single camera which means the camera needs to be moved in order to get closeups of both interviewer and interviewee. There are also “reaction” shots where the interviewer and interviewee are shown nodding their heads. Such interviews take a lot of time, and each of these camera moves allows a dishonest reporter to get what he wants on film and thereby often to lie.

One example of Engel’s dishonesty is in an exchange with Fr. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute. Engel begins by announcing that many of the pope’s critics think he is a socialist. In fact, Engel says “deep down [Sirico] believes the pope is a socialist.” However, in an audio tape of the entire unedited interview provided by the Acton Institute, you can hear Fr. Sirico say explicitly that he does not think the pope is a “Marxist.” But that is not all.

At one point Engel asks Sirico: “Is that the basic issue with Pope Francis that you have, that he does not get wealthy people?” This comes at a point in the nearly hour-long interview where Sirico talks about his own childhood poverty and how his “acquaintance” with wealthy people over the years has impressed him. This was left out of the broadcast, as was his mention of Francòis Michelin, president of Michelin tires, and how Sirico looks forward to him being canonized. It was at this point and in this context that Engel asked Sirico about the pope “not getting wealthy people” and that Sirico responded “I think that is in good part my concern about him.”

Engel wrenched this question and answer out of a nearly hour-long interview for his gotcha moment that mischaracterized what Fr. Sirico meant: even the wealthy can be saintly and eligible for canonization.

The overall narrative of Engel’s piece is profoundly dishonest. He says Steve Bannon is conspiring to bring down the pope even though Bannon says he is “not reforming the papacy” but that he is interested in reforming the administrative apparatus of the Vatican to meet what Bannon sees as an impending bankruptcy and eventual liquidation of Church assets. This is hardly a radical view given that billions have already been doled out to those claiming abuse by priests.

But the conspiracy narrative is very convenient for the left. Engel interviews the slippery Jesuit, Fr. James Martin—he of the pursed lips, haughty manner, and shaky theology.

Martin repeatedly says, “As a Jesuit and a priest, I always only want to be charitable and loving…” See how this statement squares with what he said to Richard Engel about those he disagrees with. “There are crazy people, and then there are religious crazy people. Religious crazy people are worse than the crazy people because they think they have God on their side.”

Martin goes on: “If you are against migrants and refugees and you don’t think they have any rights in the world [and] then [you are] someone who is reaching out to them, then that’s going to upset you.  More specifically they don’t like LGBT people, they don’t like people of color, they don’t seem to like the poor very much, and they really don’t like Pope Francis.”

Engel asks Martin, “What is the connection between the alt-right, the Breitbarts, the Steve Bannons, and this movement?”

The loving and charitable priest says, “It’s the same tactics if not the same people, and so the tactics are personal vilification, the demonization of individuals and groups, lies, and these kinds of relentless campaigns against people that just don’t let up.”

At this point, there is no way that Martin does not know that alt-right means white supremacist, racist, even Nazi. This is what the loving and charitable priest says about his fellow Catholics.

And then there is Martin’s not inconsiderable ego: “People think they can’t attack Pope Francis, [so] they attack me instead.”

Engel also brings on lefty former Church bureaucrat John Carr who was for many years a largely negative but substantial influence at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and now has a cozy sinecure at Georgetown University. Carr says Francis critics are “weaponizing the sexual abuse crisis to try and undermine his authority, his leadership, and the affection people have for him as pope.”

In accompanying media coverage of the Engel hit piece, Carr said critics of the pope’s handling of the sex abuse crisis are motivated not just by “ideological” but also “economic ends.” Somehow, they want to make money off the conspiracy to bring down Francis. In the same piece, Carr came after me, saying I am “allied with those who would try to undermine Pope Francis” and that I was “one of those people who has taken the pro-life cause and connected [it] to a much larger agenda of conservative politics and power.” I asked Carr to show where I have ever criticized Francis let alone undermined him. Nothing.  And I asked what he meant by taking the pro-life cause and connecting it to conservative politics and power. I don’t even know what that means. Apparently, neither does Carr.

The second overarching theme of the Engel hit piece was Bannon’s connection to the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, a charity founded in Brussels many years ago by my friend Benjamin Harnwell to bring the Christian view of the human person into the European Parliament. Harnwell is what Fr. James Martin is not: loving and charitable. He yearned for years to be a Franciscan. Harnwell’s group took possession of a closed monastery outside of Rome and in 2017 brought Steve Bannon into his effort to train a new generation of activists and scholars to try and save the Judeo-Christian West.

To the left, this means, of course, fascism. Haaretz, a lefty site out of Israel, shrieked: “Steve Bannon’s fascist far-right Christian army is marching on liberal Europe.”

It does not help that Bannon takes such delight in trolling the left. In the Engel interview, he says, “Let’s have an academy that brings the best thinkers together and can actually train what we call ‘modern gladiators’…” Engel responds, “That sounds terrifying.” Bannon tries to explain, “It shouldn’t and here’s why…” But Engel and his editor were not interested in Bannon’s answer. Hard cut.

Is Steve Bannon leading an ultra-conservative crusade against Pope Francis? Only in the fever dreams of Richard Engel, Fr. James Martin, and John Carr.

Author’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, I am a trustee of the Dignitatis Humanae Foundation.

Correction (May 3, 2019): This column has been corrected based on the audio tape of the entire unedited, hour-long MSNBC interview of Fr. Sirico provided to the author by the Acton Institute.


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