Because, of course, truth menaces politics, the Catholic Church menaces politics. At its best, it always has, as with the other humane institutions of civilization.
And smart enough, Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, knows this. And it explains the bilge he uttered about the bishops of the Catholic Church on “60 Minutes” Sunday, his tired and, as Cardinal Timothy Dolan called it, “ridiculous” rhetoric. It explains his lack of argument.
The reason the bishops oppose repealing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, according to Bannon, is that “unable to really . . . come to grips with the problems in the church, they need illegal aliens.” The bishops, he said, have “an economic interest in unlimited immigration, unlimited illegal immigration.” Further, he said the bishops are speaking beyond their remit, that they are “just another guy with an opinion,” particularly because immigration isn’t a matter of “doctrine” but of the “sovereignty of a nation.”
Nonsense, all of it, shallow rhetoric and not an argument. When he mentions “problems in the church,” we’re to recall things like sexual abuse, outdated teachings, parish closures, and whatever else we may think wrong about the church. When he talks about “economic interest,” we’re to think about the greed of the church, cabals of fat pampered bishops, and priceless Baroque statues. The mythology is so ubiquitous, faint allusion alone suffices.
And then, of course, there’s his talk about “doctrine,” the church’s proper area of expertise, which Bannon thinks utterly apolitical. Here another sort of dogmatism is at work: secularism, particularly of the French sort. Employed by partisans both right and left, it’s used to deflect the reasoned arguments of people of faith on just about everything from abortion to education.
Such is the pathos and prejudice Bannon put forward Sunday, again in place of any real argument. Ignorant of the fiscal realities of the Catholic Church, and overestimating its organizational acumen, he obviously knows little about the church. He’s just another guy with an opinion, and not a good one.
But again, smart enough, Bannon, I suspect, knows this. He knows he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and he knows many others don’t know. It’s why he did what shallow demagogues do, and that is, instigate ignorance, manipulate mythology and prod prejudice. Politically, his performance was quite smart, knowing very well how to play the fake news game he helped create. He knows very well the utility of absurdity, which for him is much more useful than reason. Because he knows he can’t make the argument, much less win it.
To be clear, the Catholic Church’s moral arguments are not so calculated, not so economic, rather, they’re simply human. Agree or disagree with the church, the point is that whatever position it takes on any issue, the underlying principle is always human dignity, solidarity, and the good of the family. Which is why Pope Francis spoke of protecting the family as the “cradle of life” when he criticized a repeal of DACA. And that’s because these are the threads of the fabric of society. They are what hold us together.
That’s why the church supports DACA. Because it protects people from deportation, people who know only America. And because it keeps families together, which contributes to the common good. Because it’s humane, fair and built on premises of human value and hope. Because it makes for a better America, a great America, again.
But that’s the argument Bannon doesn’t want, which he knows he can’t win. Which is why, recognizing the church for the political menace it is, he plays a political game, not one of reason and goodness, but of something less, something darker, something more like fear. Which is his motive, perhaps. But not ours.
The Rev. Joshua J. Whitfield is the pastoral administrator at St. Rita Catholic Church in Dallas.