President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Stephen Bannon, a Catholic, has long been a leading figure in fueling a nativist and xenophobic political movement that catapulted from fringe status to the heights of political power in November. The self-regarded populist who wants to “bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment,” as he described it during a 2014 Vatican conference, is now blasting U.S. Catholic bishops for strongly condemning Trump’s decision earlier this week to end protected status for nearly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.
"Unable to really to come to grips with the problems in the Church, they need illegal aliens, they need illegal aliens to fill the churches,” Bannon said in an interview with Charlie Rose that will air on 60 Minutes on CBS on Sunday. “It's obvious on the face of it. They have an economic interest. They have an economic interest in unlimited immigration, unlimited illegal immigration.”
Bannon didn’t stop there. He went on to play amateur theologian. “As much as I respect Cardinal [Timothy] Dolan and the bishops on doctrine, this is not doctrine,” Bannon said. “This is not doctrine at all. I totally respect the pope and I totally respect the Catholic bishops and cardinals on doctrine. This is not about doctrine. This is about the sovereignty of a nation. And in that regard, they’re just another guy with an opinion.”
Bannon’s comments should be deconstructed from the perspective of Catholic moral theology, the growing Latino makeup of the church, and his raw political calculus. Catholic social teaching on immigration isn’t a liberal Democratic talking point. It’s rooted in the ancient Biblical command to welcome the stranger, the prophets’ insistence that nations will be judged by how the powerful treat the weak, and Jesus’ ministry on the margins. Bannon shows equal levels of arrogance and ignorance when he lectures Catholic bishops on what constitutes “doctrine.” Church leaders who roundly rebuked Trump’s decision applied a foundational Judeo-Christian command to treat all immigrants with dignity to a specific public policy question that has undeniable practical and moral consequences. The church’s positions on immigration, of course, are not the same as dogmatic belief in the Incarnation or Resurrection. This does not change the fact that the command to protect and love the immigrant is a foundational, doctrinal truth inseparable from and essential to the church’s millennium of moral teaching.