By Mark Hosenball
(Reuters) - Former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon is helping to craft the curriculum for a leadership course at a right-wing Roman Catholic institute in Italy, stepping up his efforts to influence conservative thinking in the church.
Benjamin Harnwell, director of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute based in a mountaintop monastery not far from Rome, told Reuters Bannon had been helping to build up the institute for about half of its eight-year life.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, a leading Vatican conservative who is president of the Institute's board of advisers, said Bannon would be playing a leading role there.
Burke told Reuters he looked forward to working with Harnwell and Bannon "to promote a number of projects that should make a decisive contribution to the defence of what used to be called Christendom".
Bannon's increased engagement with the Institute demonstrates how his involvement in Europe extends beyond electoral politics to an effort to build a populist faction inside the Catholic Church.
Bannon told Reuters this week that after Nov. 6 Congressional elections in the United States, he will spend "80-90 percent" of his time in Europe building up his Brussels-based populist "Movement".
Bannon, who has visited the Institute's home at the 800-year-old Monastery of Trisulti and addressed the organisation by video link, is helping to draw up the coursework for a training programme for conservative Catholic political activists and leaders, Harnwell said.
Bannon is also raising funds for the institute in both Europe and the United States, he added. The institute has set "very high academic standards", Harnwell said.
Harnwell, a former European Parliament staffer, also is advising Bannon on his campaign to build a populist Movement across Europe that will support far-right parties in next year's European Parliament elections, he and Bannon said.
Bannon and the Vatican did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this story.
Harnwell said he founded the institute while working as an aide to a British Conservative European Parliament member. At the time, one of the legislature's committees was trying to block Rocco Buttiglione, a confidant of Pope John Paul II, from becoming European Commissioner for justice and security.
During a confirmation hearing, Buttiglione, who was nominated to the European Commission by then-Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, described homosexuality as a sin and said the principal role of women was to have children. Amid political uproar, Buttiglione withdrew from consideration for the Commission.
Harnwell said Buttiglione was a "founding patron" of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, whose mission he described as "defending the Judeo-Christian tradition" and promoting "human dignity based on the image of God". Harnwell added: "If you don't have a culture of religious principle, we no longer have a credible basis for life."
Buttiglione, who described himself as a convinced pro-European, said there were some differences between him and Harnwell. "I am interested in a cultural dialogue with the so-called Populists but I am not one of them and, first and foremost, I am a Catholic and I stand by the pope," he said in statement to Reuters.
Harnwell said the Institute was setting up two training programmes: a leadership course that Bannon is helping to design, which Harnwell described a an "academy for the Judeo-Christian West", and the Cardinal Martino Academy, named after a former papal ambassador to the United Nations, which will promote pro-life Catholic social teachings.
Bannon, a rabble-rousing conservative media entrepreneur and activist popular with Trump's base, was fired from the White House a year ago, but the former adviser remained a Trump ally.
Bannon returned to the right-wing Breitbart News website, which he had headed before running Trump's presidential campaign. In January, Bannon quit as Breitbart's executive chairman after angering Trump by harshly criticizing his eldest son.
Leaving Breitbart threatened Bannon's dream of leading a new political movement that supports his "America First" agenda of tougher trade deals and immigration laws.
Harnwell said the Institute expects to present its first courses next year. The monastery is large enough to accommodate 250-300 students at a time.
Burke, the former Archbishop of St. Louis, has been a leading light at the Institute since 2013 and is an outspoken critic of some policies of Pope Francis.
Since Francis' election in 2013, Burke has led the charge by conservatives who have sharply criticised the pope, saying he has left many faithful confused by pronouncements that the church should be more welcoming to homosexuals and divorced Catholics and not be obsessed by "culture war" issues such as abortion.
Burke is president of the Institute's "advisory board", Harnwell said. The cardinal has condemned Islam as a threat to the West, a position that strongly parallels one of the principal political campaign themes of both Bannon and Trump.
In 2014, Pope Francis removed Burke as chief of the Vatican's Supreme Court, the Apostolic Signatura, and demoted him to become patron of the Order of Malta, a charitable organisation.
Bannon is in "communication" regularly with Burke, although Harnwell acknowledges that the three-times divorced Bannon "doesn't pretend to be a model Catholic". Harnwell said the institute itself "takes no view on the pope" or his policies.
Burke has met several times with Matteo Salvini, Italy's far-right deputy prime minister, Harnwell said. Earlier this summer, Salvini ordered Italian ports to stop allowing landings of ships carrying refugees fleeing Middle East strife.
After meeting Bannon in Rome last weekend, Salvini announced that he was joining the populist Movement Bannon was setting up aimed at disrupting the European Union.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Additional reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Giles Elgood)