By SourceMaterial with Stefano Vergine and Claudia Torrisi
In April 2016, at a campaign rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, a grinning Matteo Salvini photobombed another rising star of the populist right, Donald Trump.
It was a meeting that wasn’t—one that Trump, who barely knew who Salvini was, later denied happened at all. For Salvini, whose anti-immigrant rhetoric has transformed his League party from a narrow separatist movement in Italy’s richer north to a surging national electoral force, it was a brilliant piece of publicity. It also had fateful consequences.
Looking on that day was a political operator with a shrewder eye for european demagogues than Trump. Within 48 hours, Salvini and his entourage found themselves in Washington DC as guests of Steve Bannon, soon to become the head of Trump’s campaign.
Bannon, the former head of the attack-dog Breitbart news network, had a tempestuous year ahead as Trump’s electioneer and then as White House chief strategist. But when with a certain inevitability his relationship with the president imploded, Bannon—whose political vision centres on the defence of “Judeo-Christian values” in the West—set his sights on Europe.
Late this March, as parties gear up for European Parliament elections beginning on 23 May, Bannon was in Rome. The following week, Salvini unveiled plans for a new bloc of far-right leaders to sweep the legislature and jolt it forcefully to the right. While some have been reluctant to endorse the American for fear of appearing beholden to foreign influence, it seems that with Salvini at the helm the Bannon plan is bearing fruit.
The seeds were planted back in April 2016. On a grey day as the city cooled after an early heatwave, months before either Bannon or Salvini had tasted triumph at the polls, the pair convened behind closed doors in Washington.
Much of their conversation remains a mystery. But a senior League insider with knowledge of events that day, who spoke to SourceMaterial on condition of anonymity, said that Salvini emerged from the discussion with a key piece of advice:
Attack the Pope.
A bridgehead in Rome
From the first day of his papacy, Francis was different. Eschewing the jewels and silks of his predecessors, he wore a simple cross of wood or metal a and a plain white vestment in a display of humility that won praise from supporters and jeers from detractors.
More than his dress, it was his views that set Francis on a collision course with hardliners still reeling from the shock resignation in 2013 of his predecessor, Benedict XVI. Francis said mass for drowned migrants on the island of Lampedusa and, asked about his views on homosexuality, replied with his now famous dictum, “who am I to judge?”. Then came Laudato Si (Latin for “praise be to you”), a call for "swift and unified global action" on climate change.
To Bannon, a nationalist and Catholic traditionalist who almost single-handedly engineered the Trump administration's exit from the Paris agreement on global warming, Francis’s outspoken views made him the near-perfect foil.
“Steve Bannon apparently doesn’t choose small targets,” says John Carr, a former policy chief at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “He helped make Trump President and now he wants to undermine the leadership for Pope Francis.”
Returning to Italy from Washington, Salvini did not take long putting Bannon’s advice into action.
That summer, he was photographed holding up a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Benedict is my pope”, a slogan that plays on a Vatican version of the “birther” campaign waged by Salvini’s idol, Trump, against President Barack Obama. It claims irregularities in the conclave that elected Francis make his papacy illegitimate—and that Benedict, still resident in Rome, remains the true pontiff.
Meanwhile, Bannon was building his own anti-Francis bridgehead in Rome. In 2017 he became a patron of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, whose goal is “to protect and promote human dignity based on the anthropological truth that man is born in the image and likeness of God”. Perched high in the hills in a 13th monastery an hour or so from Rome, it is home to some of Francis’s most implacable foes.
Chief among them is Dignitatis Humanae’s honorary president, Cardinal Raymond Burke, an ultra-conservative whose relationship with the Pope has been characterised as “open warfare” and who believes “organised networks” of homosexuals are spreading a “gay agenda” in the Vatican.
The Institute’s chairman is Luca Volonte, an Italian politician and anti-abortion campaigner currently on trial in Milan for corruption. Accounts from Volonte’s charitable trust seen by SourceMaterial show the influx of more than a million euros from an opaque company identified as part of a “laundromat” that pumped cash for propaganda campaigns into Europe from Azerbaijan and Russia.
Dignitatis Humanae’s founder, Benjamin Harnwell, was among the recipients of Volonte’s largesse, the accounts show. After Volonte had paid himself generous wages, he passed much of the remainder to anti-abortion organisations across Europe with virulently anti-LGBT agendas, some linked to the political extreme right. Volonte is also deeply involved with ProVita Onlus, a campaign group linked to Forza Nuova, a neo-fascist party accused of violent attacks against immigrants and minorities across Italy.
Also among the Institute’s trustees is Austin Ruse, a former Breitbart contributor and fervent Francis critic who first introduced Bannon to Harnwell. Ruse runs C-FAM, anti-abortion campaign termed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre, a U.S. non-profit organisation. Like Volonte, Ruse is an official of the World Congress of Families, a regular gathering of far-right, anti-gay Christian groups backed by Konstantin Malofeev, a sanctioned Russian oligarch close to President Vladimir Putin.
“Austin is one of these people who has taken the pro-life cause and connected to a much larger agenda of conservative politics and power,” said Carr. “He’s an ally to those who would try and undermine Pope Francis.”
An Institute patron alongside Bannon is Matthew Festing, a Burke loyalist ejected in 2018 from his position as Grand Master of the Knights of Malta after a conflict with Francis that also saw the cardinal effectively suspended from the papal Order. While leading the Knights, Festing hosted Henry Sire, who lived at their headquarters while writing The Dictator Pope, a naked attack on Francis that saw Sire too expelled from the Order.
Others on the Institute’s roster include a “priest to the stars” who frequents Stringfellow’s strip club; a Conservative MEP whose lobbying stirred controversy in Brussels; a chairman of the hard-right Bow Group whose flight to a Moscow anti-gay conference was funded by a Putin-linked oligarch; and a Conservative ex-candidate once accused of attempting to influence the foreign secretary on behalf a former mercenary hunting oil in Libya.
While Bannon’s immediate focus is his Salvini-led initiative to unite Europe’s populists, the Trisulti monastery, 825 metres above sea level in the foothills of the Apennines, is part of a longer-term plan to mould a new generation of Salvinis, Viktor Orbans and Marianne Le Pens.
“Let’s have an academy that brings the best thinkers together and it can actually train what we call, what we call modern gladiators,” Bannon said in an interview with NBC’s Richard Engel in collaboration with SourceMaterial. “The people who come out of here, they’ll be entering these organisations at either a junior level or mid-level and it’ll be five or 10 or 15 years until you start to see the impact.”
Not everything is going smoothly, however. Bannon’s presence has stirred up opposition from locals, who have held demonstrations. Meanwhile, documents reviewed by SourceMaterial suggest discrepancies in the tender process that assigned the ancient monastery to the Institute.
Although tender rules required applicants to have official status in Italy, Dignitatis Humanae did not register as a legal entity until June 2017, five months after the tender had closed.
Contacted by SourceMaterial, Harnwell acknowledged the late registration, arguing that it was within the rules. But materials he submitted for the tender give a different version, claiming Dignitatis Humanae acquired legal status much earlier, in December 2016.
“Inconsistencies in the assignation of the Abbey to Dignitatis Humanae have emerged,” said Daniela Bianchi, who is organising the demonstrations.“We are protesting because the Trisulti abbey is a public asset and it could have a totally different role.”
The tender also required applicants to have the aim of protecting of cultural sites written in their statutes, whereas the Institute altered its statutes months after the tender had closed, the documents show.
Another condition for the lease was experience of running at least one site of cultural significance in the preceding five years. Dignitatis Humanae cited its management of the "Piccolo museo monastico di Civita", a one-room exhibition at a Benedictine convent run by Eugenio Romagnuolo, an abbot who is also a trustee of Dignitatis Humanae.
Whether the museum even exists is unclear.
"It’s quite run-down—the building it is in was partly used as a warehouse for a neighboring farm,” said Riccardo Copiz, president of Sylvatica, a local cultural association. “They brought in items from Trisulti and from the Abbey of Casamari, making it appear that it was a museum, but no one has ever had the opportunity to access it.”
An internet page gives opening times and ticket prices but a museum representative contacted by a SourceMaterial journalist enquiring as a tourist was not aware of its existence. The museum is in the process of moving to a new site at the Trisulti monastery, she said, adding that any tours currently advertised are for guided walks of the area.
But what concerns protestors most is the impression Dignitatis Humanae falsely presented itself as a religious project to disguise Bannon’s more earthly gladiator school plans, says Bianchi.
“What they wrote in the proposal to the ministry does not coincide with what they said later—that they wanted to set up a ‘populist academy.’”
Dignitatis Humanae lobbied repeatedly to obtain the lease. In June 2015, shortly before the tender was announced, its honorary president at the time, Cardinal Martino, even wrote to the Pope with a request to expedite the concession.
“All the initiatives of the Institute seek to promote the Kingdom of justice and peace of Our Lord through this awareness,” Martino wrote. “The Institute promotes the Gospel in the political sphere through the Universal Declaration of Human Dignity.”
There was no mention of Bannon, populism or gladiators. In March 2019 Martino stepped down, urging Dignitatis Humanae in his resignation letter not to “distort” its aims, or waver in its loyalty to Francis, “from whose teaching we must never turn away”.
For any Catholic, even a less-than-devout one like Bannon (Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, a friend of Pope Benedict and patron of populist Christian causes, says she is withholding funds until he regularly attends mass), attacking the Pope is not done lightly. The pontiff, after all, is by Catholic tradition infallible, at least on matters of doctrine.
“He’s the vicar of Christ on earth,” Bannon told SourceMaterial and NBC in an interview in Rome. “As far as the Pope goes, I don’t really have an issue.”
But that is not the whole story. Francis has infuriated populists the world over with their three biggest bugbears: immigration, LGBT rights and manmade global warming. And Bannon is careful to differentiate between Francis the spiritual leader and Francis the politician, a distinction not all Catholics share. The Pope is “beneath contempt”, he said in November 2018—clearly with the “political” Francis in mind.
The past few months have seen the Vatican buffeted by a succession of scandals. In February, Theodore McCarrick, an American bishop, was defrocked amid allegations of serial abuse of minors. In March, George Pell, one of the Church’s most senior cardinals, was sentenced to six years in prison for sexual abuse.
Sex abuse in the Church has been a topic of public debate for decades. In 2003 an investigation by the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team uncovered crimes by US clergymen on a hitherto unknown scale. While the abuse scandals stretch back long before Francis’s papacy, even sympathetic observers say he took too long to act. Now conservative opponents horrified by his reforms have chosen the scandals as their battleground.
“People are weaponizing the sexual abuse crisis for their own ideological and economic ends,” says Carr, the former Conference of Catholic Bishops policy chief.
Last year, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, a former papal ambassador to the U.S., launched a coordinated assault on Francis in the media, publicly accusing him of hushing up abuses by McCarrick. Francis’s allies have sought to debunk the claims, which have split the Church and offered ammunition to his opponents.
Vigano’s open letter was published through the National Catholic Register newspaper, part of a media network linked to Timothy Busch, a U.S. Catholic billionaire. The story was broken by Register Vatican correspondent and former Dignitatis Humanae communications adviser, Edward Pentin.
For hardliners like Vigano, the Church abuse crisis has a single root cause: homosexuality.
Strange as it can seem to outsiders, a contingent within conservative Catholicism believes the Church has been taken over by a homosexual cabal known among proponents of the theory as the “lavender mafia”.
“There are homosexual or homosexual-friendly cardinals and archbishops who have a lot of say,” says Michael Voris, who runs the anti-Francis website Church Militant and has openly called on the Pope to step down. “They’re being very successful.”
“Their argument is that over the past few decades the church’s moral teachings have become weakened”, says Pentin, the Register journalist close to Francis’s conservative critics. “This has led to the toleration of gay cultures in the Church and seminaries that not enough action has been taken to stop.”
Francis’s allies dismiss this reasoning as nonsensical. Recently the Pope spoke out about widespread abuses of nuns. In late March, the all-women board of a Vatican magazine resigned in protest, citing pressure from male Vatican officials to suppress the scandal.
“The idea that there is a gay mafia that’s taking over the church doesn’t make any sense,” says James Martin, a Jesuit priest and adviser to the Vatican in the U.S. “They’re using these people as whipping boys. It’s blaming the LGBT person of the gay priest again for all the ills in the church.”
But despite these reservations, the theory catching on among conservatives who have propelled Francis on to the front line of the alt-right’s culture wars. Late last year, Milo Yiannopoulos, a former Bannon protege at Breitbart, published a book about the lavender mafia under the Trump-esque rallying cry “make the Vatican straight again”.
Yiannopoulos is not the only Francis critic to echo Trump. Voris, who has no formal ties to Bannon but said in an interview that they are “plants growing out of the same earth”, says Francis needs to “drain the swamp”.
“Some of the things that happened in the last presidential campaign showed people that hate sells and demonization of people sells,” said Martin.
Analysis for SourceMaterial by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, which works to counter right-wing extremism, shows several suspected pro-Trump twitter “bots” have in the past year switched their attack to Francis.
Proponents of the lavender mafia theory include Dignitatis Humanae Institute trustee Austin Ruse, and perhaps most prominently, its honorary president, Cardinal Burke.
Burke, an arch-conservative with a taste for finery that includes, on ceremonial occasions, a 20-foot train of crimson watered silk, has feuded with Francis since the outset. Shortly after his election, the Pope demoted him from a body that oversees the appointment of bishops. By the following year, Burke was publicly questioning the pontiff: “There is a strong sense that the church is like a ship without a rudder."
When Francis published Amoris laetitia (“the joy of love”), suggesting remarried divorcees could in some cases receive communion—anathema to ultra-conservatives—the rumbling spilled into open conflict. In 2016, Burke, Brandmueller and two other cardinals presented the Pope with dubia (“doubts”), formally questioning his judgement in what amounted to an earthquake in the Vatican.
Burke’s clash with Francis came to a showdown when the cardinal moved to oust the liberal chancellor of a papal order, the Knights of Malta, on charges he knowingly allowed the Knights’ charities to distribute condoms in defiance of Catholic teaching.
If, as liberals suspect, Burke manufactured a crisis to seize the Order as a base to carry the fight to Francis, the gambit failed. The Pope’s Secretary of State reinstated the chancellor, Burke was “de facto suspended” from the Order and his ally and Dignitatis Humanae colleague, Grand Master Matthew Festing, pushed to resign.
As his bridges to Francis burn, Burke has been elevated to the honorary presidency of Dignitatis Humanae. Meanwhile, his war against Francis’s “gay” Vatican continues. At an April 2018 conference dedicated to his recently-deceased fellow dubia cardinal, Carlo Caffarra, he went as far as to suggest that Francis may be guilty of heresy.
“The gay mafia thing,” says Bannon, is “something that’s got to be addressed and that’s not about reaching out to the LGBT community”, though he adds that he has “many gay people in my family who are devout Catholics”.
Left unchecked, the abuse scandals could bankrupt the Church when compensation is paid, he said.
“Pope Francis is not on top of this,” Bannon said. “We have an existential crisis in the Catholic church today.”
But amid the talk of a crisis over abuse, there is a sense it is Francis’s views on immigration that the former Trump adviser finds hardest to forgive.
As Trump campaigned in 2016 on a promise to build a border wall, Francis said “a person who thinks only about building walls... and not of building bridges, is not Christian". A spokesman later denied it was a personal attack on Trump but Bannon remains aggrieved about what he views as interference.
“In the heart of the campaign he went to Mexico and then went up to the border and had a mass for 3 million people where the homily was kind of a throw-down on Trump,” he told NBC and SourceMaterial.
And it was specifically Francis’s stance on migration that Bannon—who did not respond to follow-up questions about his meeting with Salvini—urged the League leader to attack at their 2016 meeting in Washington, the League insider told SourceMaterial.
Unlike Bannon and Salvini, U.S. right-wing Catholics like Timothy Busch or the free-market-focused Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan are less concerned about immigration. But they are equally suspicious of Francis.
Their ire is focused on Francis’s mistrust of the free market—“an economy that kills,” according to a 2016 speech—and his outspokenness on climate change, putting him at the centre of a pincer movement from both sides of the Atlantic.
In late 2018, a new U.S. organisation, Better Church Governance, unveiled plans to employ former FBI investigators to compile The Red Hat Report—a set of dossiers on cardinals containing information on their sexuality, doctrinal positions and any past misdemeanours.
At the top of Better Church Governance’s list of targets are liberal clerics seen as close to Francis, leading to accusations of an attempt to influence the next conclave in favour of an arch-conservative who could undo his reforms.
“What if we would have had someone else in 2013 who would have been more proactive in protecting the innocent and the young?” Jacob Imam, who has since left the project after disagreements over strategy, said at its launch. “Had we had the Red Hat Report, we may not have had Pope Francis,” a presentation at the event stated.
“We really just want to give accurate information,” said Tim Nielsen, the Red Hat Report’s editor, said in an interview with SourceMaterial, denying that the project is directed at Francis,.
One Better Church Governance founding member was Jay Richards, a professor at the Catholic American University’s Busch School of Business, set up by Timothy Busch with generous donations from the fundamentalist free-market philanthropist Charles Koch.
“These are faithful Catholic laymen who love the Church,” Richards tweeted in response to reporting on the Red Hat Report, which later removed his name from its website. “Their ‘agenda’ is to serve the Church by improving transparency, not to lobby a conclave.”
When Francis delivered his climate change encyclical in 2015, it was Richards, then a fellow at the Acton institute—whose donors include the family of Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, her brother and founder of the private military contractor Blackwater, Erik Prince; and Koch—who led the attack.
“My worry is that Pope Francis has listened to advisers who have told him a lot of things about the science that are really just speculative predictions that aren’t even based on the best evidence,” said Richards in a video posted online by Acton.
Richards is executive editor of The Stream, a hardline anti-Francis publication where Dignitatis Humanae trustee Austin Ruse is a columnist.
While Acton and Bannon may differ on immigration, they have found common cause in Rome.
Tender documents for Dignitatis Humanae’s monastery lease show Acton submitted material in support of its bid, detailing joint activities over a five-year period.
“The Acton Institute is a group of people who believe that catholic social teaching as its traditionally understood is a threat to capitalism and so they want to redefine it, reorient it as a support for capitalism as we know it in this country,” says Carr. “Pope Francis represents an obstacle for their control of the dialogue and the economy and politics, and so in a quite audacious way they decided they’re going to try to undermine, maybe even bring down a pope.”
Acton Institute founder Robert Sirico said his organisation has participated in the monastery bid without his knowledge through its Rome office, which he had since instructed to distance itself from Dignitatis Humanae and Bannon.
“I would never identify myself as being against Pope Francis,” Acton founder Robert Sirico said in an interview. “But the Pope doesn’t speak with the same moral authority on matters of economy or science or geography or the weather for that matter as he does on faith and morals.”
In Italy, as in Grand Rapids, the cloak of spirituality can offer cover for more worldly motivations.
Despite its nickname, “Carroccio”—a mobile altar wheeled by the Lombard League into the battle of Legnano in 1176—the modern-day League party had always been avowedly secular. Umberto Bossi, who founded it in 1991 as a campaign for an independent Padania, an Italian territory north of Florence, identified the Fiat industrialist “Agnelli, the Pope and the mafia” as the “vested interests” ranged against his voters. Historically, the League has even been a supporter of civil partnerships for same-sex couples.
Around 2015, that began to change, as Salvini courted conservatives by emphasising “traditional” marriage. After his 2016 meeting with Bannon, he stepped up the assault on the Pope as Francis offered the ideal target for his anti-immigrant message—even as other top League officials urged him to moderate his tone, according to the senior League insider who spoke to SourceMaterial.
In February 2017, shortly after Bannon’s image began appearing on Dignitatis Humanae’s homepage, Salvini held the first of several meetings with Bannon’s closest ally in the Church, Cardinal Burke. By early 2018, the head of the once-secular League was appearing in public clutching a rosary and calling for crucifixes to be displayed in public places.
This March, as Salvini addressed the World Congress of Families in Verona, it became clear just how cosy the Bannon-backed populist right has become with Francis-haters, lavender mafia conspiracists, “gay conversion therapy” advocates and outright fascists, many of them backed by Russia.
Two of the Congress’s leading lights are Luca Volonte, the Dignitatis Humanae chairman under investigation for corruption, and Alexey Komov, a Russian campaigner who champions homophobia, large families and home-schooling.
Komov, the son of a diplomat expelled from Britain as a KGB spy in 1985, is also the key point of contact between Salvini’s League and Russia. His mentor is Konstantin Malofeev, known as the “Orthodox Oligarch”, a sponsor of right-wing religious causes who is under U.S. and European sanctions for allegedly propping up the pro-Russian breakaway republic in eastern Ukraine.
Both Volonte and Komov are trustees of the body behind the World Congress of Families. Both are also directors of CitizenGo, an ultra-conservative campaign group that played a large part in mobilising the religious right around the world in the case of Charlie Gard, a terminally ill British baby whose life support was controversially withdrawn after a court ruling.
Volonte was until 2013 the leader of the European People’s Party, a conservative grouping in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. He received €2.4 million in “consulting fees” from Azerbaijani clients—he says legitimately—while defending the country’s human rights record.
The entities that paid the fees to Volonte’s foundation have been identified as parts of a vast corruption network, nicknamed the laundromat, that laundered Azerbaijani and Russian cash.
As the money arrived from the east, Volonte showered it on ultra-conservative causes in Europe. Bank statements for his Novae Terrae foundation from 2014 to 2017 show that among the first beneficiaries was Benjamin Harnwell. The Dignitatis Humanae founder, who plays fixer to Bannon during the American’s frequent visits to Rome, received €12,000 in 2014.
Another recipient was Edward Pentin, the National Catholic Register’s Rome correspondent who has been assiduous in covering criticism of Francis, who received €1,000 the same year. Pentin told SourceMaterial that the payment was for help arranging a Dignitatis Humanae conference in 2014.
In 2015 the tide turned for Volonte: he came under investigation by Italian authorities for money laundering, the regular €105,000 payments ceased and other donors took up some of the slack. One was Antonio Brandi, the leader of ProVitaOnlus who chaired the World Congress of Families in Verona.
Brandi is an example of how extreme-right movements are reaching out to new supporters under the banner of religious conservatism. His ProVita is intimately linked with Forza Nuova, a violent neo-fascist organisation accused of dozens of violent attacks on immigrants and minorities, that marched outside the conference venue to demand a national referendum on abortion.
In November 2017, Brandi was stopped by police after towing a giant billboard around the Vatican with the message “thank you, Cardinal Caffarra”, a tribute to the Burke-allied dubia cardinal who had died that month.
With Bannon, Burke, Salvini, Brandi, Volonte, the Acton Institute and their many sympathisers ranged against him, the Pope’s days in power are numbered, says Roberto de Mattei, a leading figure on the Italian Catholic pro-life right.
“His pontificate is finished. Not from a chronological point of view—I don’t know if it will be tomorrow or one year—but from a logical point of view,” de Mattei said in an interview in Rome. “This year could be decisive."
Francis has made errors and has been too slow in responding to the sex abuse crisis, says Carr.
“What they’re after is undermining his credibility, his authority, his capacity to lead, and they’re having some impact,” he said.
But the chances of his becoming the second Pope in succession to resign are overstated.
“Pope Francis is not going to resign. He can’t be removed.”