The ultraconservative "Dignitatis Humanae Institute" is seeing its most prominent Catholic advocate go off the shelf. The battle over the cadre of populists is increasingly becoming a personal drama for its leader.
Now Cardinal Burke is also gone. For the second time in just a few months, the association supporting Steve Bannon's populist academy in the former Italian monastery Trisulti has lost its honorary chairman. To be sure, Leo Raymond Burke no longer plays a role in the Vatican since his outspoken criticism of Pope Francis maneuvered him into obscurity. But the 80-year-old U.S. American is still seen as a figurehead of those who are uncomfortable with the reform ideas of the incumbent pope – that is, also for the "Dignitatis Humanae Institute" (DHI) and its Academy for the Defense of the Christian West.
What broke the camel's back for Burke was that he found himself close to a project that former Trump adviser Bannon and French author Frederic Martel were discussing in Paris in May. The ie there was Bannon's possible acquisition of film rights to "Sodoma"; a book in which Martel portrays homosexuality and double lives in the Vatican as the rule rather than the exception.
The latest in a series of bad tidings
The head of the DHI, the Briton Benjamin Harnwell, explained that he had privately arranged the meeting. Also, he said, views of Bannon were incorrectly presented in an online post that has since been deleted. Cardinal Burke, however, is generally unhappy that the institute, which set out to support conservative Catholic politicians, is becoming "more and more identified with Bannon's political program".
For Harnwell, Burke's departure is the latest in a series of bad news: an unexpected property tax of 82.000 euros; a forged bank appraisal; investigations by the Roman prosecutor's office and the Lazio region. Italy's Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli (Five Star) wants to revoke the DHI's 2018 concession for the Trisulti state cultural monument. He flatly calls Harnwell a "fraud".
Benjamin Harnwell a silent man
Before the "gladiator school for culture warriors" announced by Bannon has even opened, it is struggling to survive. Yet Benjamin Harnwell is a quiet man. The 46-year-old chemist speaks softly, deliberately; sometimes even a single consonant forms a small hurdle. He found Catholicism late, at the age of 30. He describes his motto of faith with the words of the apostle Paul: "Strive with fear and trembling for your salvation".
Harnwell could have become a monk – if he possessed "the grace to obey instructions in a hierarchy". That he does not have it, he learned – "painfully," as he says – since 1996, first as a staff member of a British MP, then in Brussels. The over-regulation of the EU, the bureaucratism of Italy make him "boil". About the modern state, he expresses "100 percent disappointment" – nothing but a system that secures power, privilege and wealth for elites.
Main donor and media protagonist
From this system Harnwell fled in 2010. A stay of several months in a Cistercian monastery in Rome, then building the DHI. Making contacts, creating networks – what he had learned in er politics; only now with his own agenda. In 2014, Bannon came along. He became the main donor and protagonist in the media.
Since April, the Roman headquarters of the DHI has been dissolved. Moving boxes still stand unpacked in Trisulti. Little progress is being made on rehabilitation of 800-year-old abbey. Future course participants must be prepared for metal cots and coarse woolen blankets. Meanwhile, Harnwell's mother handles secretarial duties. The 64-year-old left her husband in Leicester, central England, to help support her son. It came because of him, Harnwell says, not because of the DHI.
Harnwell is convinced he is taking part in "the most important political battle of our time". He admits that his personal spiritual life is currently suffering more than ever before in the Brussels treadmill. But it is about the "Judeo-Christian West," about moral values, about the freedom of the individual against restrictions, whether they come from the state or from the pope. Ultimately, it is about Benjamin Harnwell. If he had more time, he says, he would simply study the New Testament.